By John Riwang
Immediately after last year’s March 8 parliamentary election results came out, my good friend from Ipoh called and yelled at me on the phone “What the hell is wrong with you guys?!” Five states in Semenanjung Malaysia – including my friend’s home state of Perak – decided to opt for change by installing the new Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government. For the first time in almost 40 years, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) lost a 2/3rd majority in the election. Imagine, all those below 40 years old only know about BN this and BN that.
Sarawakians as spoilers?
My friend was referring to the ‘political tsunami’ that never hit Sarawak’s shores on that fateful March 8. BN retained 30 of the 31 parliamentary seats in Sarawak and thus, saved the national BN from further humiliation.
I remained silent after my friend’s outburst, thinking of all kinds of excuses to say to him. But nothing came out. Quietly, I asked myself “What the hell is wrong with us?” It’s as if Malaysia’s political fairy tale was single-handedly spoiled by us, Sarawakians. If indeed our nation’s history is a fairy tale that should end with a “living-happily-ever-after” page, then it really is a poorly written fairy tale. Or more like a badly written suspense novel.
This is my simple take on the March 8 ‘political tsunami’. I do not think there is something wrong with us Sarawakians, which resulted in BN retaining the 30 out of 31 seats. Rather I think there is something wrong with the assumption that our political and economic needs as Sarawakians are similar to our siblings in Semenanjung Malaysia.
There is an urgent need for PR political parties on both sides of the South China Sea to regularly meet to close this divide of understanding.
For instance, while PR highlights the issue of social injustice among Malaysians, the very notion of social injustice may differ between the urban middle class of Selangor and the rural poor in Sarawak. It is this ideological gap that needs to be closed.
Kampung, Malaysia and the Global
Recently, as I flipped through my notes that I’ve collected over the years talking with everyday people, especially among people in the rural areas, I realized that there are more ‘histories’ in there that establish this idea of a nation. To some extent, some of these stories read like fiction to an urban stranger like me.
For example, I came across several conversations on genealogy that – as I map it on paper – goes back to ancestors that are mythical beings. And these individuals who narrated the stories could pinpoint their descendants today. Fiction to our eyes but in their histories, our so-called ‘reality’ runs parallel with their ‘other’ world in everyday life.
There are also other instances where our idea of global economic slump may not mean much to the rural communities. Once, while having dinner in one of the Bidayuh kampung outside Kuching with my friends from there, I was asked by this friend, a farmer in his late 40s: “Apa maksud itu ‘masalah global ekonomi’? Apa itu ‘global’?”
When I explained to him how the international market works, dynamics of price fluctuations, etc. he and a few of his fellow kampong mates gave me a blank expression.
It is not that they do not know about all these or that they are “simple-minded”. But when they ask such questions, they are implying how it is a “global” problem when what they experience in the kampung may not be the same with their urban cousins?
In other words, a “global solution” to a presumed “global problem” may not even exist beyond urban political rhetoric.
Parties out of touch
Reflecting on these, sometimes I find it amusing that most of our minds and energy are focused too narrowly into politics, especially party politics that do not touch the lives of everyday people in this part of Malaysia.
At times, I can’t help but think only the middle class Malaysians have the luxury to discuss politics and polemics, and somehow actually believe this is THE way to get things right in this Bolehland, while many rural communities in Sarawak can’t afford talking about these politics because they are struggling to negotiate their sense of self in the context of making a living out of depleted environment, robbed lands, deceiving rhetoric, etc. which are actually happening to them.
Politicians may promise to install a new Dayak chief minister if PR wins the predominantly Dayak seats but what is the use of this chief minister if he runs the state like his tyrannical predecessor?
Politicians may promise to return a large percentage of oil royalties to Sarawakians if PR wins the election but what is the use of this if such returns primarily serve the elite groups?
To the villagers, there is this sense of detachment from what is said by political heroes from whatever party and what is actually happening to them on the ground. Inserting their votes into ballot boxes every five years or during by-elections between these everyday people and urban middle class societies may not have the same meaning.
So, to answer my Ipoh friend’s question, the crucial problem may lie in this gap in understanding our political and socio-economic needs in Sarawak.