Ever since the first state election was introduced to Sarawak in 1970, Batang Ai, which has strong Dayak sentiments, has always favour the opposition and the question that many political observers are asking now is whether the BN can break the jinx in this by-election.
Sarawak National Party (Snap) which was in the opposition won the seat in 1970. But when it joined the Barisan Nasional, the seat was captured by Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) then in the opposition in the 1983 state election.
In the 1987 election, it went back to Snap, but was retaken by PBDS in a by-election after Snap state assemblyman, Sylvester Langgit was killed in a road accident. PBDS-sponsored independent Mikai Mandau was elected in a by-election. However, Mikai who defected to PBB and stood on a BN ticket was defeated by the late Dublin Unting of PBDS, then the opposition in the 1991 state election. In 1995, PBDS rejoined the state BN.
Following the deregistration of PBDS in October 2004, PRS was formed and inherited the seat. Unting being one of the founders of the party, had been the state assemblyman until his death on Feb 24, 2009 that caused the by-election.
Now that Jawah Gerang, the five-term Barisan MP for Lubok Antu who is known to be a fiery speaker, has joined the opposition PKR, can the BN through a political greenhorn, Malcolm Mussen retain the seat for PRS?
Initially it appears that the BN is having an uphill battle as the opposition has launched an all-out effort attacking the BN left, right and centre, putting it on the defensive.
Wrong political strategy by BN
In its counter attack, BN blamed Jawah for lack of infrastructure development when he was 22 years as the Lubok Antu MP. That however was a wrong political strategy as it directly blamed the late Dublin Unting, the state assemblyman for Batang Ai.
Unting, who was a member of Abdul Taib Mahmud’s cabinet should be more politically powerful and influential than Jawah and should also share the blame for the failure to bring development to Batang Ai.
“I was an ordinary MP and I did not hold any ministerial post. You blame the ministers and don’t blame Jawah,” Jawah said.
Even PRS president and Land Development Minister James Masing agreed with Jawah and admitted that an ordinary MP or state assemblyman had no authority to decide on development plans. The only person who has the authority is the chief minister.
“If he wants that project to be implemented, it will be done almost immediately,” said a cabinet minister who refused to be identified and added: “Look at Mukah, which is in Taib’s constituency, more than RM1 billion has been spent for its development.”
In fact, Jawah in his fiery speeches revealed that his MP funds had been withheld for several months by the state government so that it appeared that he had not done anything to help his constituents. So who is to be blamed? he asked.
As polling day draws nearer, the Barisan Nasional is intensifying its campaign by deploying every available means to ensure that the seat does not go to the opposition. Helicopters carrying ministers start to criss-cross the interior of Batang Ai to make sure no longhouse is unvisited. Federal ministers also show up to help campaign.
'Do not miss out any area'
BN chairman and chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud (pic, left) said: “I have already told them, when they campaign, do not miss out any area. Although the BN camp is optimistic of its chances, there must not be any letting up and every nook and cranny of the constituency must be reached.”
The fact that Taib is giving the order indicates the tough battle the BN candidate is facing against an experienced candidate who has become an icon of Dayakism in the constituency.
Adding to the headache of the Barisan Nasional is that a number of ex-PBDS leaders are assisting Jawah who was a vice president of the party before its deregistration.
Their campaign for their former colleague seem to revive a spirit of esprit-de-corps in this by-election by raising issues connected to Dayak rights.
They remind the voters that the fight for Dayak rights began in Lubok Antu where famous fighters such as Rentap Libau and Banting fought against the White Rajahs.
Many of the Iban fighters had died due to their inferior weapons as compared with what were used by the Rajahs. But their spirit of bravery not only continued to be chanted and ranted in pantuns (traditional songs), but also inspired them, especially their descendants.
Jawah described as a 'hero'
Against this historical background, another battle is on between two descendants of great warriors, the political battle to control the Batang Ai constituency.
Jawah Gerang noted for his oratory has been described as “Bujang Berani” (hero) representing Parti Keadilan Rakyat while his rival is the former civil servant, Malcolm Mussen, of Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), a component of the Barisan Nasional.
Knowing the historical background of Lubok Antu, Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim in one of his campaign trails declared:
“Let Batang Ai initiate the political change with this by-election. And soon it will spread to other parts of Sarawak and Sabah.
“I am confident of it and Jawah Gerang will do it for us,” added Khalid.
But the BN government is equally confident of winning the by-election. Taib Mahmud said: “No amount of opposition persuasion will make the people of Batang Ai abandon the Barisan Nasional which has proven time and again that it is capable of bringing progress to the rural constituency.
“Despite the opposition’s push for headway into longhouses, the local community is well aware of the many benefits they will enjoy once the government plans are implemented,” he said.
As hinted by Taib, money and “instant noodle” projects will be the tools of the Barisan Nasional where more than RM100 million worth of projects have been approved, and they include road projects, telecommunication centres and towers, repair of longhouses, and grants to longhouse development and security committees. Many more are expected in the last day of campaigning.
And with a theme “Change the government”, the opposition on the other hand is highlighting the lack of infrastructural development, basic amenities, clinics, electricity, supply of clean water, broken promises, and lack of farming land, blaming the government for all the people’s miseries.
These miseries were created by the government as a result of the construction of the Batang Ai hydro-electric dam in 1982.
Projects approved 'on-the-spot'
Some 1,200 square km of land and several graveyards were submerged and about 20 longhouses involving more than 400 households had to be moved out and resettled down river in an entirely new environment.
There were also allegations against the government for its failure to keep its promises resulting in their claims unpaid, land titles not given, no electricity and clean water supply and no land to farm, etc. As a result of these broken promises, the people have suffered a great deal.
And to rebut all these allegations, BN sends it most powerful Second Minister of Resource Management and Planning and Minister of Public Utilities, Awang Tengah Ali Hassan, to Batang Ai to approve projects “on-the-spot”.
Now the BN is fully confident of winning the by-election, especially when the newly-appointed Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is also campaigning for the BN candidate.
Thus, Joseph Salang, PRS information chief, believes that his party is going to win the by-election and its victory “will make a perfect gift from the Iban community in Sarawak to new Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak”.
He said the Ibans who make the majority of the voters in the constituency could ill afford to reject the BN government candidate Malcolm Mussen Lamoh and should not shame Najib by voting for the opposition in Batang Ai.
But one of the most important factors is the background of the candidate. For Jawah, he is well known for his outspokenness and has also helped to turn so many longhouses into modern structures, comparable to any house in town. Every weekend, he is always with the people.
For Malcolm Mussen, he has yet to be tested although as a civil servant he was doing very well. But what comes to haunt him is his late father, Penghulu Lamoh’s alleged involvement in selling land belonging to the people.
As one woman cried out loud during the nomination day: “Mussen, remember what your father did to our land; he sold them and we cannot forget that. We do not want any of the children of Penghulu Lamoh to be our leader and sell our land again.”
Nevertheless, the voters have a choice. After listening to both sides, they know what to do. Either they vote for the candidate from BN which promises more development or the candidate from PKR which wants to change the state government. The answer to this will be known on April 7.