Sim Kwang Yang | Jan 10, 09 1:00pm
While PKR chief Anwar Ibrahim has made grand declaration of intent on taking power in the next Sarawak elections, very few Sarawakians themselves would be convinced that it would be an easy venture.
I myself would be happy if the opposition coalition can win 24 or more state seats, thus denying BN a two-thirds majority in the Sarawak state assembly. Twenty-four indeed would be well within striking distance, since I expect the DAP and their partners to do well in the urban constituencies.
But in Sarawak, as in other parts of the country, opposition politics can only survive in the urban Chinese areas for a certain time. In native majority areas in Sarawak, opposition parties that have no ambition to rule the state will not attract bright political talent as well as the support of the voters. So what Anwar has announced is not just grandstanding, but the right thing to do.
Again, those of us who are familiar with politics in Sarawak know that the challenge of toppling the BN state government is harder than the ten Herculean Tasks put together. Massive vote-buying is rampant in rural constituencies, and has come to be expected by voters themselves. It has become a way of life in Sarawak.
Equally significant is the unique social structure of the rural communities in Sarawak.
The native communities are very closely-knit communities. They have to be because they live in far-flung isolated terrains and mutual dependence and close social cohesion is the way to be for their collective survival. Blood ties through generations of close marriages between neighbouring villages also mean that members of a local community are often related.
(In an election, the success and failure of a candidate sometimes depends on how many relatives a candidate has within the constituency!)
Within any one village, the most authoritative figure would be the village head, the ‘Tua Kampung’ or the ‘Tuai Rumah’ (in the case of the Ibans)
The village chief used to be an expert in native customary laws so that he could settle disputes between different households on various civil and criminal cases. In that sense, he was also a judge of sort. Nowadays, as the head of the JKKK, the village security and development committee, he has undisputed power over his charges under him. To the outside world, he is also the sole representative and spokesman for the whole village.
Not all chiefs that compliant
These village chiefs used to be freely elected by their villagers. Sometimes, the position was a hereditary one, passed down from father to son.
After the emergence of political parties in Sarawak following independence in 1963, it was increasingly clear that the Tua Kampong and the Tuai Rumah played a critical role in the fight for grassroots political support.
In fact, the Sarawak BN government has been quite successful over the past few decades through all kinds of administrative fiat in bringing these otherwise independent village chiefs under their direct control.
Today, even if a village headman is still elected by his villagers, his status must first be confirmed by the BN-controlled state government. He is answerable to low-grade state civil servants like district officers and the residents above them. Today, a village chief is akin to somebody at the lowest rung of the state civil service.
Joseph Tawi, in a Jan 6 posting on his blog has this to say:
‘Today, the criteria for Tuai Rumah have changed; he must be educated at least up to Form Three, be pro-Barisan Nasional (BN) and not necessarily having a deep knowledge of Iban Adat (this he can learn from the Tusun Tunggu, a book containing all the customs, traditions, taboos, fines, etc.).
‘After being elected, his appointment must be endorsed by the government so that an allowance of RM450 per month can be given to him. His duties include being the ‘eyes and ears’ of the BN government, a judge, a law-enforcer, tax-collector, consultant, and chairman of the JKKK (Village Security and Development Committee) through which government funds are being channelled.’
Be that as it may, not all village chiefs are all that compliant. I have personally met village chiefs who could stand up against powerful logging and plantation interests on behalf of their people. For their bravery and their service, they had been removed from their posts by the state government who then appointed others to replace them.
In the case of one such Tuai Rumah somewhere upstream from Bintulu along the Kemena River, he had merely led his villagers to fight against a logging company that had infringed upon their NCR land. For that, he was accused by the Pengulu Court of the crime of bulak(lying) under the adat istiadat, the Iban customary laws.
He felt great shame for being charged with this minor crime. On the day of the court hearing, I brought along a heavyweight lawyer from Kuching to defend him. The ‘Pengulu’ and the ‘Pemanca’ who were supposed to try him evaporated into thin air.
We also attended a gawai in his longhouse and made fiery speeches to exonerate this wonderful Tuai Rumah from his alleged sin. I was still a ‘YB’ then and my words carried quite some weight with the village folks.
But general elections are a different business altogether in the rural communities.
Naturally, it is common for village voters to defer to the opinion of the Tuai Kampong or the
Tuai Rumah even on the matter of voting for a candidate. But I have been to some longhouses where the village was split into two over their choice of candidate. After the election was over, the losing side would just move out and build another longhouse for themselves. Only my Iban readers can appreciate the financial difficulty and the emotional pain of such a drastic move.
Now, Joseph Tawi has something new to report on the same blog posting quoted above. The paragraphs below are taken from his soon-to-be-published book The Broken Shield Volume Two – The Dayak Dilemma.
No seat is easy to win
‘In this 2006 election, the BN devised an entirely different campaign strategy, which caught the opposition with their pants down. Previously, the money was passed directly to the voters on the eve of polling. This time the distribution was done through their Tuai Rumah.
‘Three days before polling, all the headmen were summoned for a meeting where they were coached to say something to their own people. And on their return to their respective longhouses, they were given some money that was to be shared with the voters of their own longhouses. In addition to this, there were also minor rural development projects that were promised to be implemented.
‘The Tuai Rumah then called for a meeting of the longhouse folks and ordered them to vote for the BN candidates. Anyone who failed to follow his order or directive would not be given any share of the goodies or any project that the government had promised them. And he was also likely to be expelled from the longhouse.
‘The Tuai Rumah must ensure that his followers must vote for the BN candidate, otherwise the BN candidate would report him to the district officer, the resident or the state secretary. As a Tuai Rumah is like a civil servant, action including the termination of his Tuai Rumahship could be taken against him. He might lose his monthly allowance of RM450 per month. And the promised minor rural development projects might be withdrawn.
‘In Daniel Tajem’s constituency of Bukit Begunan, he was defeated by a man, Mong Dagang, whom he had picked to replace him in the 1996 state election. Tajem practically lost in all the longhouses in the five polling districts. Before the money came, many longhouse chiefs and their followers had pledged their support to him who had represented them in six previous elections.
After the distribution of money and the threats issued, everything changed; longhouse headmen, their followers and even Tajem’s own relatives voted against him. And a similar tale of vote- buying had also been reported in other Dayak constituencies.’
Daniel Tajem – a long-time personal friend of mine – may be unknown outside Sarawak,
but he is still a household name in the Land of the Hornbills. He had held that constituency -Bukit Bangunan – near the town of Sri Aman six times, including the period when he was in the opposition. When an established brand name like that can fall to the hands of vote-buying and puppet-like Tuai Rumah, no seat is easy to win for any opposition party – including PKR.
I suppose that, once the Kuala Terengganu by-election is over, Anwar Ibrahim and his team of advisers would be sitting down over the impending Sarawak battle ahead. They would be thinking of what pledges to make to the people of Sarawak, if and when they take over the Sarawak government with the help of the other opposition parties.
Surely one of those pledges must be the restoring of the autonomy of the democratically-elected village chiefs throughout the state. The state government must recognise whoever is elected by the villagers as their headman, and pay them well nevertheless. Empowering the rakyat at the grassroots level would be the most meaningful reform in rural Sarawak indeed.