Bringing development

  • Nation
  • Tuesday, 09 May 2006

SAGO trunks, cut into manageable lengths and tied together in the form of a raft, float in the 9.5-kilometre man-made canal of Kut that connects Oya and Egan, two of the numerous rivers in the coastal homeland of the Melanaus in the Mukah division. 

The trunks, which will eventually be tugged by a boat to sago- processing factories, bob on the brackish water as the express boat from the town of Dalat speeds towards Sibu.  

The journey of the 30-odd passengers squeezed into the narrow boat starts from Oya River, passing the waterways of Kut, Igan and Rejang to reach Sibu in two hours.  

In the past, it took one night. Dalat assemblyman Datin Fatimah Abdullah remembers her trips back in the 1960s. 

“Going to Sibu was a long, long journey in a big boat. We had to pack food – hard-boiled eggs and rice – as we had to sleep in the boat,” says the 49-year-old Melanau Chinese, who is from Kampung Teh in Dalat, which is part of the Mukah division.  

Fatimah comes from a generation of Melanaus who has lived through a time when – to use the words of Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, who is from the community – “Mukah was so long isolated from the world.” 

Now Mukah is accessible by road, air (Twin Otter aircraft) and water. And since the 2001 state elections, when Taib returned to his hometown to contest in Balingian, which is part of the Mukah parliamentary seat together with Dalat, the division has seen tremendous growth.  

“Mukah was elevated to the 10th division in Sarawak (on March 1, 2002). The physical changes have been tremendous. You name it, we have whatever a big town has,” says Fatimah.  

The Mukah division, which is in central Sarawak, is the centre of the state’s growing sago industry. And 50% of the acreage of sago planted in the division is in Dalat.  

In the 2001 elections, Fatimah created history when she won the Dalat seat to become the first female Melanau assemblyman. 

Tak banyak issue untuk orang kampung (There are not many issues for the villagers). Now we have electricity, road and water,” says Yunus Elias, an 82-year-old Melanau penghulu (headman) from Kampung Brunei in Dalat.  

The same goes for Gerald Mowe, a 49-year-old Melanau who owns a tiger prawn farm. “No issue here. We will follow the dacing (the Barisan symbol),” he declares.  

And which does Mowe loves more – Barisan or Parti Persaka Bumiputra Bersatu (PBB), which Taibis president of? “In my heart it is PBB,” he says. “PBB has controlled Sarawak for a long time.” 

Melanaus identify with PBB, explains Fatimah.  

“We live and we die with PBB. Since we were young, the word PBB has been part of us,” she says. “It is a tribute to PBB leaders that they instil great loyalty.” 

She adds: “PBB is the backbone of Barisan in Sarawak. It provides stability and security in Barisan. That is why PBB is very close to the heart of the people.” 

In the 1987 Sarawak elections, the Melanaus community was divided when former chief minister Tun Abdul Rahman Yaakob, a Melanau and Taib’s uncle, quit PBB to form Parti Rakyat Malaysia Sarawak (Permas).  

“That time, husbands and wives were fighting with each other. One would support PBB and the other Permas,” recalls Mowe.  

But that is in the past. PBB has prevailed while Permas is now a footnote in the history books.  

Asked how a small group – there are 120,000 Melanaus and just 10 Melanau-majority constituencies out of 71 – has come to dominate the state's politics, Fatimah says: “That is a tough question.” 

“That is through positions they are holding now. The contributing factor is when you are in a decision-making position,” she explains. 

Is that one person or many people? Quickly, as if she was afraid of singling out Taib, Fatimah says: “In general.” 

The general mood in Dalat when The Star visited the constituency during the mid-April Pesta Kaul, a traditional festival celebrated by Melanaus, is that they are worried about Taib’s health.  

“The talk in my village is that he is unwell. In the church, we prayed for his health,” says Mowe, who is a Christian in the Melanau community, of which half are Muslims. 

”They realise that we come and go. And the Chief Minister is trying to allay that fear by grooming younger leaders,” says Fatimah. 

Who? “I don’t know. Only he knows,” she says, adding: “It will be a group of leaders.” 

The race of the next chief minister does not matter to the Melanaus, says Fatimah,  

“What we are concerned about is that the right person will continue what Taib has done.”  

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