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Sunday June 15, 2008

The party and tuak can wait

During his recent visits to Sabah and Sarawak, the Prime Minister gave enough plums to appease the grumblings – but not enough for the locals to bring out the tuak.

AS the Kadazandusun closed their month-long kaamatan festival, the Dayak of Sarawak launched their gawai, also to celebrate their annual harvest. And a bountiful harvest it turned out to be with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi handing out sackfuls of goodies to the two states.

The question is, were the promises enticing enough to ensure loyalty from the two states? In the March 8 general election, Sabah and Sarawak had together delivered 54 seats, enabling Abdullah to form a government.

Travel woes: Sabah needs to upgrade 5,000km of JKR roads, with each kilometre conservatively costing more than RM1mil. — Filepic

The federal government has focused much attention on the two states since the Sabah MPs, in particular, had threatened to jump the Barisan Nasional ship during last May’s parliamentary meeting. In thinly veiled references, the MPs played about with two options: either a crossover to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat or to break free and set up on their own, under the aegis of one of the existing Sabah parties.

That party could well be Datuk Yong Teck Lee’s Sabah Progressive Party, and Yong, as president, had eloquently spoken up for Sabahans choosing their own chief minister based on state elections, as did Perlis and Terengganu, instead of being appointed by the federal leadership, specifically the Prime Minister. He then gave the federal government an August deadline.

Urgent needs

Which party almost does not matter, as Sabah has several small parties to choose. The vital point was whether talk of quitting the Barisan has been silenced.

For some, Abdullah’s concessions were a matter of principle and dignity. At long last, after 45 years together as a nation, Sabah and Sarawak politicians felt they were being taken seriously.

“Why do we have to ask each time?” said United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) secretary-general Datuk Wilfred Madius Tangau.

“It’s as if you don’t trust us. There is this feeling that there is a question mark about our capabilities.”

For others, it was a matter of money; it was hard to argue against an additional RM1mil allocation per MP – over and above the current RM1mil each MP nationwide currently receives – for small, rural development projects in each constituency.

But not all of the attention is of the desired kind. After a closed-door meeting on Thursday, for instance, Rural and Regional Development Minister Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib announced that his idea of development was to bring roads, water and electricity to areas within a 30km radius of urban settlements and towns.

He may have meant well but it revealed yet again the lack of comprehension on the part of peninsular ministers of the magnitude and depth of rural poverty in the two states.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles are a necessity in both states. It takes 10 hours to cross from Kota Kinabalu on the west to Tawau on the east coast.

Sarawak’s land mass stretches like the length of the peninsula from north to south, with only three urban centres: Kuching, Sibu and Miri. Rivers remain the lifeline between inland riverine settlements, and certainly between coastal villages.

“The important point is that roads have to be done,” said Tangau. “They are critical for linking village to village but most of our roads are in very bad condition.”

Sabah requires the upgrading of 5,000km of JKR roads, with each kilometre conservatively costing more than RM1mil.

So beneath the glossy surface, was Abdullah pressing the right buttons?

The Sabahans are mistrustful that the assurances of resolving the illegal immigrant problem will just be another lip-service promise.

Sabahans had seen high-powered Cabinet committees before (in 2000 and 2006), under the Deputy Prime Minister and “there was no follow through,” noted state Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun. So this one too might just end “in a status quo”.

“This is the issue that has been haunting the state government,” said Masidi. “What steps are the federal government taking towards resolving the problem?”

“If you keep building detention centres each time (we complain), you are addressing the symptoms – the real problem is not being tackled,” said Tangau, alluding to the so-called Project IC. “It’s a reverse takeover; we are being run over.”

The Prime Minister’s Department had disclosed to Parliament that between 2002 and 2008, Sabah’s population had jumped by 12% or 333,500, from 2.73 million to 3.06 million people.

As for oil royalties, the Sabahans are convinced that 20% is the rightful due of each oil-producing state, including Sarawak and Terengganu. In central rural Sarawak, diesel has shot up to RM5 per litre, double the government-sanctioned price of RM2.58 per litre.

East Malaysian leaders have trouble explaining to ordinary people the reasons for a fuel price hike when Malaysia is an oil-exporting country.

The Sabah MPs also resent the deferential silence of their Sarawak counterparts, noting that the two would be that much stronger if they spoke up with one voice. Each is waiting for the other to make the first move.

Moreover, Sarawak leaders, with a bloc of 30 parliamentary seats, are very much aware of their critical role in holding the Barisan Nasional together.

The once-disgruntled Bidayuh who greeted Abdullah on his stopover in Tebedu seemed friendly and showed respect, as was the wont of that polite community.

“But in this day of spiralling prices, it was difficult to assess the people’s mood,” noted Datuk Peter Minos, past president of the Bidayuh National Association (1988-1998).

“When Tiki (former Deputy Minister of Rural and Regional Development Datuk Dr Tiki Lafe) was dropped, the Bidayuh had hoped that someone else from the community would be appointed to replace him,” said Minos.

“The Iban had been made deputy minister, and so had the Orang Ulu. So they feel, why not a Bidayuh?”

Hard hit

Other perks which Minos thought were best left unmentioned included the RM15,000 allocation for helicopter travel for rural MPs.

The Opposition could use this as an issue by saying: Why should the YBs help you (the ordinary people) now, when they are already whizzing about in helicopters?

The ambition to slash the poverty rate from 23% in Sabah and 7.5% in Sarawak to 2.8% by 2010 too was “better left silent”, said Minos, given that 2010 was just two years away.

“People are getting poorer. Even today, any adult earning RM1,000 or family of four with RM2,000 is struggling,” he said.

“A 10% rise in petrol prices precipitates a 30% hike in prices of other goods. How do you tighten your belt any further when your belt is already tight?”

Meanwhile, in the wings, Pakatan Rakyat de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has not let up on his unobtrusive campaign. He seems confident that he has the numbers – 30 to be precise – to push him to a simple majority.

He and his aides have been tireless in alluding to a Sept 16 deadline for him to form the government, in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of Malaysia’s formation.

Anwar is counting on the momentum of a political snowball – with many more jumping once the first few cross over. He is confident of gaining a good number from Sabah, a few more in Sarawak and, surprisingly, hopes to entice the rest from the ranks of the disgruntled on the peninsula.

But how much of his game plan is based on fact, and how much just psy-war bravado?

“Even if we left the Barisan Nasional and joined Pakatan Rakyat, it is still just another political party,” said Kimanis MP Datuk Anifah Aman, who, after having been identified as a ringleader in the event of a crossover, subsequently pledged his loyalty to Abdullah and the Barisan Nasional.

“What guarantee do we have that it (Pakatan Rakyat) will be any better?”

Since the March election, Abdullah has been a leader under siege. He has been so busy fighting bushfires that he may have lost sight of the burning forest.

Finally, on Friday, bowing to pressure from within Umno that he step down, he announced that the time-frame for handing over the reins to his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, had been decided – without actually specifying a date.

But Sabah leaders did not immediately find cause to celebrate. Some in Kota Kinabalu see the late Tun Abdul Razak in his son, Najib.

They recall that it was Razak who had played out Sabah’s late and legendary Tun Datu Mustapha Datu Harun when the former tacitly backed the Berjaya government in ousting Mustapha’s United Sabah National Organisation in the 1976 election.

How serious then were Sabah MPs in threatening to cross over?

“You know how Sabahans talk,” said Masidi. “They are vocal, straightforward.”

Perhaps the federal leaders misconstrued it for more than it was.

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