NEW Works Minister Baru Bian is still a little stunned when he considers the events of May 9, when Pakatan Harapan claimed a historic election victory and he himself won in Selangau to become an MP for the first time.
"It's a miracle. Having fought in politics all these years, I never thought this would happen in my lifetime," he says of Pakatan's win.
His subsequent appointment to the Federal Cabinet is another milestone in a long journey that has brought him from Sarawak's remote highlands to a prominent career as a native land rights lawyer, Opposition politician and now the first Lun Bawang to be appointed a minister.
The son of a pastor, Baru grew up in the Ba'Kelalan highlands where his father served in various village churches. Going to school meant a three-day hike in the jungle to reach Lawas town.
"Most of us from the ulu areas in Ba'Kelalan walked to the nearest secondary school. We walked three days and spent each night in one of the villages along the jungle track before we arrived in Lawas," he recalls.
"I was studying in the Limbang secondary school, so I had to take another day's journey and a three-hour express boat ride from Lawas to Limbang. That was how I went to school for five years."
Reflecting on this experience, Baru, 59, says it gave him a passion for the environment and for native land rights.
"On the walk to Lawas, we went over the mountains and through the jungle. You could collect water from the clean, crystal-clear mountain streams.
"And through this I understand the meaning of native customary rights (NCR) over 'pemakai menoa' (territorial domain) and 'pulau galau' (communal forest reserve). I experienced this through my upbringing, going hunting with my father and learning from him how to survive in the jungle. This is why I'm so passionate about land rights, native rights and the environment."
This prompted him to take up law and in 1986 he became the fifth Lun Bawang to be called to the Bar. Five years later he filed his first NCR case on behalf of his extended family, whose ancestral land had been trespassed by logging companies.
"That was the beginning of my journey in fighting for the native rights of Sarawak's indigenous people," he says.
Q: How did your upbringing shape you into who you are today?
A: I was brought up in a Christian family. My parents were trained as pastors in the church. I remember my father's words of advice: "You must be very disciplined and be careful in the way you live because you carry my name. Therefore, if you misbehave, my name will be tarnished. If you live well, people will say this is Bian Labo's son."
That really stuck with me.
The second thing I remember he told us was this: "People will not fear you because you have money or power but if you do what is right."
This is something that I hold on to as my guiding principle in life.
Growing up, I went through difficult times as we were a poor family, but it helps me today to look at others and understand their struggle. When I go to the villages now, I encourage the people to believe in themselves and that poverty cannot be a hindrance to education or to excel in life.
> How did you become involved in politics?
I joined (the now-defunct) Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) in 1987 because they were then advocating for the defence of NCR in Sarawak. In 1991 I stood for the first time in the Lawas state seat (now Bukit Sari) and lost.
When PBDS (which was then the Opposition at state level) negotiated to rejoin the state Barisan Nasional, one main condition was that NCR issues must no longer be raised. I left it at that but decided I was going to pursue my struggle for NCR through the courts and no one could stop me.
In 2004 I resigned from PBDS because I believed I must make a stand. The issue of NCR was not settled and I was in the thick of it after winning the Nor Nyawai landmark case in 2001. What was clear to me was that to pursue this issue and resolve it, we have to change the government because it is related to the government's policy on land.
When I stood in the Ba'Kelalan by-election in 2004, NCR was one of the issues I raised. I lost for a second time.
Come the state election in 2006, I stood again and lost a third time, a narrow loss this time. After that I decided to retire from politics because I'd stood three times already and lost.
Suddenly something new happened – the political tsunami of 2008, when five states fell to the Opposition. That year I was asked to join PKR and it appeared to me that there was a new political system in place, a dual coalition system where the people could make a choice. To me then, there was a glimpse of hope for Malaysia, so I decided to go back into politics because I wanted to strengthen this system and help the next generation to have a better choice.
In 2009 I was appointed state PKR chief and as they say, the rest is history. I stood for a fourth time in the 2011 state election and won.
Looking back at all these milestones in my political journey, I don't think I can say the times I lost were to be taken as a loss in that sense. They were part of the journey in preparing me for today.
> Did you ever think that you would become a Federal minister?
This is something beyond my expectations. Coming from a minority group from Sarawak, I never dreamed of being a part of the Cabinet in Putrajaya. I feel very honoured, of course, and I count it as a privilege that I've been brought in.
> What will you focus on first as you embark on your new role?
I think the portfolio is very relevant for the needs in Sarawak and Sabah and in the other states where infrastructure, particularly roads, has not been constructed to meet the need. This is what I feel I must look into as a priority. We need good roads, extended tar-sealed roads that connect the hinterland.
The second thing of great necessity is clean water to villages. I understand the coastal parts of Sarawak, for instance, are in dire need for clean water supply. In some places the villagers have to dig wells or depend on rainwater.
Third is power supply. My personal view is we should emphasise renewable energy instead of something that destroys the environment. I am looking at solar energy and mini-hydro systems that will not destroy land and forest like the dams that the state is doing.
With these three things I think our people in rural areas can develop and live comfortably. They can develop their land for agriculture and the road is there to transport their harvest to the market. I see good infrastructure as being a catalyst for economic activities and also tourism.
> Besides Sarawak and Sabah, how will you address the needs of the rest of the nation?
I'm conscious of the fact that the portfolio is a Federal one that covers the whole nation. Of course I will look into the needs of other areas as well under the jurisdiction of public works.
In the context of our nation which is now very challenging, the Prime Minister is talking about cutting costs, so it is for us to review many projects that were proposed by the previous administration to see whether these are really necessary.
I believe projects must be implemented based on needs. Once we decide it's necessary, we look at the cost of the project and ensure that it is assessed properly. The previous administration's culture of inflating prices needs to be re-examined.
Then the people who implement the projects must have the ability and professionalism in ensuring that the projects are properly completed.
> Will the projects to be reviewed include the Pan Borneo Highway? There are concerns among Sarawakians that it might be discontinued.
I'm aware of the concerns of Sarawakians on this mega project. Where necessary, I will do my best to ensure that it is completed and done in a proper manner.
> You're going from a lawyer to Works Minister. How will your legal background help you in your new responsibility?
As lawyers we engage with people and communicate with those on the ground. We look at various aspects of cases and the issues involved in the light of the law. This will help in managing the ministry, as there are a lot of things we need to look into. We need to connect with people and we have to assess the pros and cons of projects.
My legal training will really come in handy with regard to legal issues involved in road construction, for example, such as land acquisition and dealing with state laws as the state has jurisdiction over land, not the Federal Government.
> What are your hopes for Malaysia post-GE14?
Six years ago I gave a speech on Sept 16 – Malaysia Day – in which I outlined my dream for the nation.
I said then that I had a vision for a better life and brighter future for our children.
In my vision, the wealth of the land is used for the benefit of all the people, the landowners reap bountiful harvests and have plentiful to eat, the government is led by humble leaders who serve the rakyat with integrity, schools teach a first-rate curriculum and children are given every opportunity to acquire skills and qualifications to properly prepare them to face the challenges of life, the people are free to practice the religion of their choosing without interference from the authorities, and Sarawakians and Malaysians of all races are given equal opportunity to succeed and prosper.
Now this dream is coming to reality and I can play a part to ensure that it comes true.
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