The political rivalries, splits andemergence of new parties since2001 tells the tale of Dayak,and specifically Iban, unity --and disunity. As Sarawak girdsfor its ninth election, this fractiousway of life is just playinginto opposition hands, writesSUHAINI AZNAM.
THE buzz over the date of the Sarawak elections has hushed. Politicians who had previously argued for a post-Gawai polls, after the June harvest festival, have readjusted their crystal ball: the state assembly will be dissolved in a matter of weeks.
The outcome is even more certain – a convincing two-thirds majority or an incredible landslide victory for Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud. In the 2001 state elections, the opposition DAP had managed only one seat.
The 9th Malaysia Plan has granted some of the items on Sarawak voters’ wish list – rural development and education. But for the rural people, actual cash in the pocket is what counts. Most Dayaks are rural-based.
They feel the pinch of the recent petrol price hike. The dissatisfaction on the ground is translated in terms of ringgit per litre, multiplied by litres per hour, and by travel hours per trip upriver, with adjustments depending on load. Boats are privately owned and run on petrol. There are few rural roads to begin with, so there cannot be improvements to non-existent public ground transportation. An effective rural air network remains imperative. And the price per tank of LNG will hurt housewives.
Other grouses would include birth certificates and identity cards, native customary land and fragmentation of Dayak society.
These are the issues that a consortium of opposition parties, some from the peninsula but most Sarawak-based, will be playing up in their attempt to shake the state Barisan Nasional’s grip on Sarawak.
The Iban are the single largest bumiputra group among the Dayaks, the latter comprising 42% of Sarawak’s population. Dayaks are represented in 30 state seats shared between the four multi-racial Barisan component parties. Of these, 21 are Iban-majority seats, reflecting Iban dominance within the Dayak community.
Some years ago, Dayak leaders were still wishfully talking about being the natural heirs to the chief ministership – if only they could be united. This unity has proven elusive.
Today, Dayak leaders no longer aspire to the chief minister’s seat.
Deputy Foreign Minister Datuk Joseph Salang is pragmatic. Even if the current two Dayak-based rivals merge, they would only have 17 out of 71 state seats and only 10 out of 31 parliamentary seats. “The Dayak will never be chief minister based on these numbers.
“A Dayak chief minister will only be one who merits it, when every community wants him to be (one). He will be chosen by the Malays, Chinese and Dayak communities.”
When speaking of Dayak unity, “we do not mean it as a strength against anybody,” said Salang. “We are just passengers in the nation. We don’t carry our own weight, others are paddling for us. Not that we want them to but we don’t have the (economic) strength.”
His rival, political veteran Datuk Dr James Jemut Masing, now president of the breakaway Parti Rakyat Sarawak, is equally in despair over Dayak unity.
Having led the war cry of one faction in the Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS), Masing had taken a political gamble that had ended in the PBDS’ dissolution in October 2004. The Parti Rakyat, as successor to the PBDS, was registered within six hours. It will be contesting nine state seats this election.
Its rival Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), led by Datuk William Mawan, will contest eight more. The SPDP succeeded the now opposition Sarawak National Party (SNAP), which having contested within the Barisan in 2001, also suffered a leadership crisis and is now awaiting word on its legal status.
The two have agreed to the “merger of two rural-based parties” as Masing put it but timing is a bone of contention. Masing wants to merge after the elections, Mawan before.
“If you fight and punch each other before the elections, how can you merge after that? It will never happen,” Mawan was reported to have said in February.
Masing argued that he did not want the two parties to be distracted by side issues, inevitable in any campaign. The elections would be “a good testing ground” of goodwill.
Salang, now stranded as a partyless MP, agrees with Mawan, reasoning that an earlier merger would diffuse the question of who would get to contest the two contentious seats of Ngemah and Belaga.
The incumbents in those two seats had thrown in their lot with the SPDP and now expect to be re-nominated. Masing vociferously countered that a Barisan supreme council meeting had already allocated the two seats to the Parti Rakyat.
Calling them “problematic seats,” Masing noted that Ngemah and Belaga had been won with the slimmest margins for the PBDS in 2001 “whereas the other candidates had all increased” their margins.
Masing is a survivor. He wants to field his own men in the two seats. His unspoken rationale is that should the SPDP-Parti Rakyat merger not materialise, or should the coalition some day fall apart, then he would still hold two cards in hand. Recent experience has taught him that every ally counts.
Mawan, who had previously pushed for a merger, has now adjusted to the pragmatics of pre-election fever.
“The parties are like runners chasing the same unity train,” said Mawan. “We don’t want to force it on others.”
As to whether the merged entity would be comparable to SNAP, the Dayak forefather to which the PBDS, SPDP and Parti Rakyat all traced their roots, Mawan does not want “to set a standard and create expectations” that it might not be able to meet. “The train will gather passengers along the way and offer something more lasting,” said Mawan optimistically.
Making the waters murkier is the Malaysian Dayak Congress (MDC), which is chaffing at the delay in being registered. Both the SPDP and Parti Rakyat hope the Registrar of Societies will not register the MDC.
“We have too many suitors for the Dayak community,” said Masing. “Please don’t introduce another.”
“You have (to weigh) freedom of association against the reality of politics.”
The MDC is harping on the issue of the lack of Dayak representation, offering itself as the real alternative. Even unregistered, its hopefuls may just ally themselves with an existing group and wrest away precious votes.
Has there ever been a Dayak leader who stood head and shoulders above his peers?
In his time “Tun Linggi Jugah was well revered as an Iban leader,” said Masing.
“It is desirable to have a leader that the Ibans can look up to,” he acknowledged. But Masing strongly feels that a community leader “must not go into politics.”
“Unfortunately, Ibans look at political leadership as paramount.”