GAMBLING during festive seasons and times of mourning is common for some communities.
It might not be necessary to arrest senior citizens playing mahjong during, say, Chinese New Year because that could cause more social upheaval than curb the vice.
It was with this mindset that I approached an interview with two ketua kampung or village chiefs, in Mukah.
I was in the Melanau heartland between Merdeka celebrations and Malaysia Day on an assignment to write about religious coexistence between Muslims and Christians there. That story was published in printed form as well as an online photo essay.
The Star’s local contact in Mukah is a freelancer reporter who also helps out in his family restaurant there.
Over dinner one night, he proposed to me a story about illegal gambling. “Just how illegal is it?” I asked and his reply surprised me a little. He claimed “outsiders” had infiltrated villages around the town and would set up gambling dens whenever there is a death in the area.
These outsiders would supply all that was necessary, he said, and would go to the extent of paying off grieving families.
The gambling would normally go on for 30 days – a “standard” period allowed by villager elders – and during this time, people from far and away would also come.
“I’m not sure I want to stir up the hornet’s nest,” I told him. “There are sensitivities I prefer not to touch upon.”
“Well,” he replied, “I’ve made an appointment for you to meet a ketua kampung at 9pm. I think you should listen.”
Over the course of more than an hour that night, I spoke with two ketua kampung. Both were legitimate village chiefs under the Sarawak government’s payroll. Upon first impression, they impressed me with their command of English (they were old school types) and seemed genuinely upset at the extent of the gambling.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity. The first introduced himself as “KK” and he had brought a similarly concerned friend, who was the more animated of the two.
KK told me things that sounded almost unbelievable. He said it was an open secret there were husbands taking money from their wives’ micro credit loans (provided by the Government) to gamble. The choice of game is fast and quick. It is a dice game better known to most as “Holo Chim”. The way it is played is simple but additional rules can make it confusing, KK explained to me.
There can be several “Chongs” (the term they used for people controlling the pot, like bankers) during a single game. One round only takes a few seconds. But before wins and losses can be settled from one game, another “Chong” is allowed to move the pieces around, and it becomes like a “I Owe You” system.
“This is what leads to a lot of arguments because it can be so confusing,” KK told me. On top of that, there are also “Focus” rounds where the winnings and losses per hand can be multiplied.
KK’s friend was agitated when I asked him if gambling was a custom, and why people like him had not made police reports since gambling upsets him so much.
First of all, he said, it was not a Melanau custom, adding there was not even a word for gambling in the language per se. The local word translates more accurately as “game”. Secondly, they have not got the police involved because they prefer to settle problems at the village level.
They told me a meeting had been held recently with over 40 people including religious leaders, the local penghulu, government officials and gamblers. One of the resolutions passed was to reduce the gambling period from 30 days to seven.
KK’s friend was none too pleased. He lamented that things said during the meeting made him feel ashamed. He wanted blanket enforcement on all gambling activities but his view was not shared by everyone.
This village chief said even if some games can be allowed, he wanted all “outsiders” to stay out. KK nodded in agreement, blaming outsiders for corrupting the minds of local youths.
Our interview ended past 10pm. KK gave me a piece of cake (it was his birthday) and tried to arrange for me to meet a gambler who could speak in greater detail. Alas the second interview did not materialise.
The next day, I spoke to Balingian assemblyman Yussibnosh Balo. Yes, gambling is a problem, he said, alleging even foreign workers from plantations and industries nearby came to gamble.
But Yussibnosh was also quick to point out the situation was different from village to village. Asked if the police should carry out total enforcement, he was unsure what to say but added the grassroots had to be part of any decision made and action taken.
The impression he gave was the authorities would have to walk on eggshells when dealing with the situation.
As for me, well, I do not know how a problem as complex as this can be addressed (especially since, gambling, like drug addiction can never be fully wiped out) but perhaps enforcing the law on the “outsiders” would be a good start.