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Friday March 7, 2008

Standing up for his folk


Politicians in Sarawak must be able to hold down their tuak (rice wine), sing Iban verses and dance.

By SUHAINI AZNAM
newsdesk@thestar.com.my

NO stranger to the longhouse, Hulu Rajang MP Billy Abit Joo, 58, gamely observed the rural imperatives.

A visit to the Rumah Bansa, Sepulau, on the Baleh River on the night of Feb 19 was part of his pre-nomination campaign rounds.

A senior resident of the Iban longhouse at Rumah Bansa in Sepulau, Sarawak, welcoming Hulu Rajang MP Billy Abit Joo on a pre-campaign visit.

Pushing off from Kapit, a market town of character on the Rejang River, our full contingent of 28, including the boatman, squeezed into a speedboat meant for, say, 10.

The drinks started early. Someone pulled out a bottle of dark, bitter tuak he had bought at a store, and so began the rounds of swigging from the bottle to prove one’s mettle. The women, who were not spared, took smaller gulps.

Hulu Rajang is Malaysia’s largest constituency – at 31,817sqkm – about the size of Pahang.

Its four-term incumbent has to traverse countless tributaries to meet his own 7,000 Orang Ulu voters as well as the 10,000 Iban. The 2% Malay/Melanau and 1% Chinese complete the 17,696-strong electorate.

Standing on a Parti Rakyat Sarawak ticket today, Billy Abit ventured into politics as an environmentalist, contesting in 1990 on an independent ticket. He is being challenged by George Lagong, an independent candidate.

Back at the longhouse landing, Billy Abit was presented with a bowl of fresh eggs and condiments, which he as a matter of course tipped into the river to appease the gods.

Tuai Rumah (longhouse chief) Bansa anak Langga, after whom the longhouse is named, then escorted Billy Abit on a walk down the entire length of the longhouse of 37 pintu (literally doors, but denoting individual family units) to meet its residents.

Sitting cross-legged at the centre of the longhouse, Billy Abit then performed the miring, an Iban ritual to ward off bad luck. The opening formalities ended with the Iban pantun (verse), chanted by two talented longhouse women, who praised the candidate.

Visitors were treated to tea – a mix of Iban delicacies and cheap, store-bought biscuits – in one house, dinner in another. The after-dinner speeches began with the tuai rumah of half a dozen neighbouring longhouses briefly telling Billy Abit of their needs, nothing extravagant.

One asked for their land to be surveyed so that they would be paid the correct compensation for their Native Customary Rights land.

Calm, almost stern in repose, the greying, soft-spoken incumbent took notes.

The campaign speeches were pared down to the bare essentials: If you want progress, choose the Barisan Nasional.

As we spoke, an old man came up with names of children who would soon turn five. He wanted a kindergarten built nearby.

When the speeches were over, the merry- making began.

At one end of the house, the younger people set up a small band and a lively pocho-pocho was underway to some loud karaoke.

Billy Abit was press-ganged to join in. It was 3.30am. “It’s better than drinking,” murmured the good-natured father of four working adults, with just a tinge of fatigue. Along the way, he was waylaid for more tuak.

This incumbent seems certain to get the young people’s vote. He sang one number and sportingly performed some very credible moves on the pocho-pocho floor.

The next morning, Billy Abit and his entourage packed their bags and left in the drizzle without fanfare.

It had rained all night long and the river was swollen. Our speedboat back to Kapit was again overloaded and had to slow down several times to avoid logs and floating debris.

Although most longhouses are built of concrete now, the people are still gentle, friendly, ever courteous and curious of strangers. Able to empathise, the best candidates themselves come from the longhouses.

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