Sim Kwang Yang | Jan 17, 09 1:39pm
This concluding part to my series on the Dayak dilemma is actually about a Sarawak dilemma: Money politics during general elections. The problem is not limited to the rural Dayak and Malay constituencies. It is rampant even in the supposedly middle class financially-independent urban constituencies.
I should know. I contested as an opposition candidate in Kuching eight times. I could tell that most of my opponents spent millions on their election campaigns. Even in my last election in 1995, which I lost to a Supp candidate, vote buying was quite widespread.
My personal experience at the receiving end of money politics can be compiled into huge volumes. Corrupt election practices can indeed take ingenious forms.
In one case, my opponent summoned and feted all the gangs in towns before the nomination days, making offers that these hard hats could not refuse. During the actual campaign, these gangs will take over the town, street by street, hanging up the banners, watching their respective turf, intimidating my campaign workers, and serving as runners when there was heavy betting that would favour the BN candidate. These gangs were paid tens of thousands each, with limitless supply of beer thrown in as bonus.
In another election, my opponent summoned all the tut-tut drivers numbering in the hundreds to his house for a grand dinner before nomination day. The tut-tut is usually a van or a small truck driven by the vendors into every street and every housing estate to sell their meat, fish, and vegetables to housewives every day. Having been paid hundreds and thousands by the candidate, these mercenaries can make a big difference in any election.
More money on trees than hornbills
A blogger by the name of Hantu Laut has this to say on his posting on December 27 2008:
“Sarawak and Sabah are the mothers of money politics, progenitors of vote buying, political arm twisting, and the ultimate money-can-buy-anything. If words cannot convince you money can, and more often than not it works, and Sarawak and Sabah have plenty of it during election times.”
“In the Land of the Hornbills, there is more money growing on trees than the legendary birds in the forests. The forests have made millionaires and billionaires.”
If money can work in even the literate, affluent, educated and informed voters in the towns, think of what wonders it can achieve in semi-literate, isolated and impoverished rural constituencies.
It starts on nomination day, when thousands of mercenary supporters have to be transported by bus or boats over great distances to the nomination centres to wave flags and shout slogans during the nomination process. The difference between Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia in this particular mode of campaign is the high costs of transport in my home state.
Immediately after that, the election agents of the BN candidate would issue as many Form Es as possible; eventually there should be a candidate’s agent or two in every village within the entire constituency.
Form E is an authorisation required by our election laws for anyone to canvass for votes on behalf of the candidate. In Sarawak’s jungle, it is a piece of IOU from the candidate to the voter, to be exchanged for cash after the election. The promised amount varies, depending on the size of the candidate’s war chest, and the extent of the competitiveness in the contest. In small constituencies of less than 10,000 voters say, one can buy an election victory by issuing mere thousands of Form Es,
The greatest enemy for the financially challenged opposition candidates is of course the infamously hostile terrain of Sarawak’s vast territory, which makes transport and communication prohibitively expensive.
In many rural constituencies, the only way to gain access to one village of less than 100 voters is by the boat or the four-wheeled drive. The powerful and well endowed BN candidate can just book up all the boats and four-wheeled drives in his entire constituency, leaving his opponent with little or no mode of transportation. Better still, he can book up all the petrol stations, so that the opposition candidates cannot move at all! This tactic is particularly successful in those up-stream constituencies along many of Sarawak’s great rivers!
Very common practice
Then again, I know of more than a few BN YBs who would serve up running feasts for their voters and campaigners, day and night, throughout the entire duration of the campaign period. Animals and birds would be purchased and slaughtered in great numbers, while endless supply of alcoholic drinks would stand ready for the usually very thirsty Dayak voters. They can eat and drink to their stupor; naturally they would feel morally obliged to vote for the generous hosts.
In the old days, the local home brew like langkow would have sufficed. Nowadays, I hear rural voters have higher expectations of their brew. Beer and Guinness Stout are now preferred. The candidates must thank God that the rural Dayaks have yet to discover the beauty of single malt Scotch whisky!
The free dispensation of cash is a common practice in rural constituencies. In one Bidayuh village in the Bengoh constituency near Kuching, I met a voter who had four or five party badges. He laughingly told me that whichever party candidate came to his village during the election campaign, he would be a party member with an outstretched hand with its palm up!
A few days before the voting, I used to see at various airports young men boarding helicopters with the tell tale James Bond bags. This would be the time when information reached me that huge sums of money in small notes had been withdrawn from banks. Eventually, on the eve of polling day, voters in even the remotest village would receive their cut.
It would be all too easy to rant and rave at the stupidity of Sarawak voters for selling out their rights, as Sarawak bloggers and coffee-shop analysts are wont to do these days.
Look at it from the poor villagers’ point of view. Politicians from both the BN and the opposition parties are irrelevant in their daily life in those long years between elections. Politics is talked about only when election fever arrives at their longhouse.
These voters know quite well that the candidates will disappear after the elections, back to the towns where they would get rich with their business ventures for the next few years. They may as well get the maximum benefits for themselves while the election lasts.
Then again, the high costs of an election campaign have put off many aspiring politicians to join the usually cash strapped opposition parties. The big problem of PKR in Sarawak – at this moment of launching a serious bid for power in the next state election – is the dearth of fresh political talents to be recruited from the native middle class residing mostly in the towns.
The high costs of an election victory have also driven the cleanest of BN politicians into corruption. To sustain such expensive campaign election after election, they have no choice but to get rich on government contracts or government plantation land through their own business ventures. In the process, they have been enslaved to the biggest patron in Sarawak, Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. That is why defecting to Pakatan Rakyat cannot be such an attractive option.
Mother of all evils
Some cynical commentators have pointed out to me that there is one good thing that ensues from the culture of money politics in Sarawak. At least the huge dirty timber and other wealth in Sarawak can be redistributed into the pockets of the impoverished villagers during the election period. It is a twisted form of socialism.
To me, this pervasive presence of money politics in my beloved home state is the mother of all evils.
It has made a mockery of the democratic process, corrupted the political will of the people, and sent public morality to the sewers. It belies the cynical assumption that the government might as well keep the people poor, so they can more easily be bought during elections!
Not all villagers can be bought of course. In the course of my travel to many remote corners of Sarawak, I have encountered many community leaders who are wise and courageous. The trouble is the lack of dedicated committed and sincere leadership to organise and guide them to fight against the mighty BN juggernaut.
It would be too late for opposition candidates to start the campaign on the eve of another election. The voters do not know them, and would just lump them together with the BN leaders as yet another cash cow. Even if the opposition candidate has a few millions at his disposal, he will be outspent by his BN opponent.
The odds can only be overcome long before the election begins. The aspiring opposition candidate has to build his party structure throughout his entire constituency since yesterday. He has to visit every village during the non-election years, and help solve the villagers’ problems. He has to fight alongside them whenever they face problems with their NCR land. It demands tremendous personal sacrifice, but there is no short cut for success in a movement for justice and democracy.
It can be done, but are there enough concerned Sarawakians prepared to pay the price?