This is the real Malaysia

A voter in Pulau Banggi casting his vote. - Filepic by RAPAEE KAWI

I HATE discussing politics with strangers, especially if it’s at a wedding dinner.

As much as I accept this as an occupational hazard, I try my best to politely fend off attempts from those seeking my two cents on all things politics.

It gets even more annoying when my sole focus is devouring that piece of abalone on my plate. My thoughts are definitely not of any self-serving, ambitious politicians, believe me.

I am also reluctant to share my views on political issues, particularly since these people have clearly already made up their minds.

The silly season looms ahead of the general election and the growing anticipation is understandable.

However, many Malaysian urbanites, who are traditionally anti-establishment, like in major cities around the world, assume their political sentiments are shared by the entire nation.

In the United States, city folks in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are under the impression that the whole country thinks like them.

Well, those in South Carolina, Nebraska, Alaska and Kansas don’t think like them if the US presidency result is anything to go by.

My colleague, Philip Golingai, a Sabahan, who is now criss-crossing the country to learn how Malaysians view the current political climate, has an appropriate summation – the sentiments of armchair critics come from what they assume, based on the reflections in their echo chamber.

It is a classic case of “living in a bubble”, without really knowing what is happening in the other bubble and assuming the political mood in the other bubble is the same as in their own bubble.

Simply put, this means that we should not expect a voter in Banggi, Sabah, the largest Malaysian island at 440.7 sq km, to have the same demands as voters sipping wine in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

I am certain that many Malaysians reading this now don’t even know of the island’s existence and location, a land mass bigger than Langkawi and Penang.


It is located off the northern coast of Sabah, in the district of Kudat, which makes it the easterly most tip of Malaysia.

The island is home to the Bonggi people, an estimated 2,000 of them.

Pulau Banggi   

Most of these self-sufficient fishermen and farmers are influenced by animistic beliefs and lead a lifestyle that many in the peninsula simply couldn’t fathom.

But they are just as Malaysian as you and me. And Banggi is one of the 222 parliamentary constituencies in our country.

For someone living in Petaling Jaya or Johor Baru, where infrastructure is better developed, buying a loaf of bread, or a bottle of cooking oil, merely entails a drive down the road.

But for the Bonggi, acquiring such simple essentials involves travelling three hours by boat, via a treacherous sea stretch, just to reach Kudat, the nearest town.

By air, from the capital Kota Kinabalu, it means flying through a seemingly endless mass of sea.

Travelling in a helicopter, I remember morbidly wondering what the consequences would be if our copter went down.

Then just 50km outside Lahad Datu, one has to pass through Silabukan, which has a picturesque coastline.

When not blighted by poor visibility, a land mass, part of the Tawi-Tawi islands off the Philippines, is within sight.

Bongao Island, Tawi-Tawi’s capital, is also clearly visible.

Originally a backwater village, Bongao, a Muslim-majority location, is rapidly developing.

Incredibly, it takes only 20 minutes by speedboat for the Filipinos to reach our shores.

That’s how close we are geographically.

But there is also another dimension to our close proximity.

The locals are fond of telling outsiders that it is normal for their Filipino relatives to come to Malaysia for a game of football or volleyball and then return to the Philippines on the same day.

Obviously, there is no immigration clearance involved here.

The Filipino influence on our Malaysian side is so strong that some of the grocery stores are referred to as sari-sari (shops, in Tagalog).

At the Danggan Tungku fishing village, one can scan the horizon and spot Sibutu, which is also part of the Tawi-Tawi islands.

I have been to Kampung Tungku, a coastal village of Lahad Datu, under the parliamentary constituency of Silam, which is home to the Suluk community.

Facing the sea, the locals tell me that during low tide, one can paddle a boat across to the islands in the Philippines.

On a clear day, the opposite coast is quite visible.

The traditional living style of these people, who largely comprise fishermen, blew me away as many of them allowed their chickens into the living rooms of their squalid homes.

I wasn’t sure if these feathered friends were pets or prospective meals.

In Sarawak, I have ventured into the interior, sitting among a company of local men to enjoy their very potent rice wine.

I quickly became hip to the custom – a single cup exchanges hands in that circle of people.

And typically, the cup makes a swift round. To be able to hold your drink is a rite of passage, one which earns their respect and acceptance.

Try telling them that it is unfair to have three parliamentary seats in this rural heartland, which I did, like most naïve orang semenanjung. And what was their response?

They laughed in my face.

It can take us an hour or two to get from Petaling Jaya to Cheras, especially in snarling traffic conditions, but it takes these villagers, and MPs, three days to travel by boat and a jungle trek to reach a village.

This is unimaginable for us because we take our conveniences for granted.

And by the way, there will be 500 people sharing one address, because they all live in a long house – they are not phantom voters.

In the darkness of a village in Kelantan, I have sat among a sea of villagers, listening to a PAS ceramah, where the speaker asked the audience if Prophet Muhammad were alive today, who would he have voted for PAS or Barisan Nasional.

And of course, they roared “PAS.” That’s how PAS politics works.

And non-Muslims who rooted for PAS in the last general election would probably have had second thoughts had they sat through the chilling political talks of PAS information leader, Nasaruddin Hassan Tantawi, at his Temerloh constituency in Pahang.

GE14 will be decided by the Malay-Muslim votes.

Period. That’s the reality.

Out of the 222 seats, only 29 have more than 50% Chinese votes, and they were all won by the DAP in the 2013 polls.

Don’t expect any extra seats.

According to research firm Politweet, 138 out of 184 seats in Peninsular Malaysia had an increase in the percentage of Malay voters between the 2008 and 2013 elections, transforming previously ethnic Chinese-majority seats – Serdang, Rasah, Kluang and Taiping – to mixed seats.

But the votes of the minority, including the Chinese, can decide the outcome of the tight, three-corner fight between Umno, PAS and Pakatan Harapan.

It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that many of us don’t even know the existence of this group of Malaysians who will be voting in the coming general election.

Their priorities in life are different and they will view issues and demands in many different ways, and naturally, according to their circumstances and way of life.

Welcome to Malaysia – it isn’t just Petaling Jaya, Kepong, Cheras, George Town, Ipoh, Lembah Pantai, Kota Baru and Johor Baru.

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