Winning the hearts of the Ibans

  • Nation
  • Tuesday, 09 May 2006

GUIDED by a spotlight, incumbent Pelagus assemblyman Larry Sng Wei Shien disembarked from a speedboat and crossed six wooden longboats to reach the riverbank where Sekolah Kebangsaan Nanga Yong is situated.  

One false step and the 25-year-old politician could fall into the murky waters of Sungai Rejang.  

As the Barisan National assemblyman, since 2001, for the constituency where river transportation is a way of life, Sng has had to cross many moored longboats to reach the riverbank close to the longhouse of his Iban constituents. 

“The first thing on my mind is to carefully cross the longboats to get to land,” said Sng, during a midnight interview at the school that was a 20-minute speedboat ride from Kapit town.  

“I noticed there were many longboats which meant many people would be at the function tonight”. 

That night, nine days before nomination day, the assistant minister in the Chief Minister’s department was guest of honour at a dinner feting parents and schoolchildren from 17 longhouses who had attended a two-day motivation workshop.  

At 8.10pm Sng performed the miring, a traditional Iban ceremony to appease the spirits. Thirty minutes later, he spoke in Iban to the parents, telling them the importance of education.  

Pelagus, with 13,898 voters (75% Iban and 15% Chinese), is accessible only by river transportation. The express boat trip from Sibu to Kapit takes three hours. 

“It is a rural-based seat. It is one of the more difficult areas in the state to develop. The terrain – undulating hills and numerous rivers – is a factor constraining development,” explained Sng, who flew in his father’s helicopter to Kapit in the morning. 

After dinner the organiser collected RM120 from song requests. Sng sang a song in Iban - Nuan Menian Diati Aku (You are Always in My Heart) - making the crowd thrilled their assemblyman could sing and joget. 

The miring ceremony, the Iban language and the joget were all foreign to Sng before 2001. That year, after he was named the Barisan candidate, he flew from London to Kuala Lumpur, to Kuching, to Sibu and then took an express boat to Kapit. 

In that poll, the Opposition launched personal attacks against him. 

“They said I was Chinese, that I was from Taiwan, that I’m a chick that has not hatched,” he said, adding, “in Iban politics, they associate politician with sabung ayam (fighting cock)”.  

Sng was born in Taipei on Sept 14, 1981. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur and in England; he studied at the London School of Economics. Kapit was a place he visited once a year to celebrate Chinese New Year with his father, Datuk Sng Chee Wah, the Pelagus assemblyman.  

How does it feel to be a Chinese face in an Iban place? “The initial barrier is the colour of the skin,” he readily admitted.  

“But why were the people able to accept my grandfather (Sng Chin Joo was appointed Council Negri member in 1963) in the 1960s and later my father? We are still here today because my family has a long track record with the Ibans”. 

Sng has been accused – his own Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) members included – of not being comfortable in the longhouse.  

“That is subjective. What is comfortable? In fact, sometimes I do stay overnight in the longhouse. 

“Of course, one has certain limitations. Language is the limitation that I have. Perhaps, there are certain parts of the culture that I don’t fully understand,” he acknowledged. 

Sng, the PRS deputy secretary general, finds each day in Pelagus a learning process. 

Rumah Semut Sungai Yong tuai rumah (longhouse headman) Semut Ansa, 65, recalls that initially Sng did not drink tuak (rice wine), speak Iban or eat and sleep in the longhouse.  

“Now he speaks Iban, sings in Iban and stays in the longhouse,” said the tuai rumah, adding that times were changing and drinking tuak was no longer important for the Ibans. 

Having a Chinese assemblyman in an Iban seat is not strange for Semut. “My father was his grandfather’s friend. Whoever is good will be chosen,” he said. 

Two nights before the Kapit trip, the senior Sng, who is PRS deputy president, was seen playing pool at the pub in Kuching. 

“My father is gregarious, likes to socialise and joke. I’m more reserved,” said Sng.  

“I don’t think it will be socially acceptable for me, in my position, to be playing pool. Anyway that is not my interest”.  

As an assemblyman, Sng junior and senior also performed differently. “I give (to my constituents) time. My father gives his time and also personal projects and assistance to the people. He is very generous,” he explained. 

Sng is engaged to May Ting and his future father-in-law is Tan Sri Ting Pek Khing, the tycoon who was awarded the Bakun Dam project.  

At 1.30am as the interview drew to an end, Sng mused: “I feel I’m an old soul”. 

Perhaps. Sng's head is already showing strands of grey hair.  

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