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Am I interested in Sarawak?

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If the BN loses Sarawak, they are likely to lose all of Malaysia and risk exposure of their misdeeds, says Rama Ramanathan – another reason why the state polls are so significant.

Image credit: Taib Mahmud (Wikipedia), Sarawak map (blass.com.au)

I consider my home to be Kuala Lumpur in West Malaysia. Today, someone asked me whether I am interested in Sarawak, a state in East Malaysia. I thought it a strange question. Malaysia has thirteen states and three federal territories; I was born in one of them, have lived in three of them and now live in a federal territory. Why ask me about one of the thirteen states? Why should I have any special interest in Sarawak?

Well, her reasons were many. Not least amongst them is that in under three weeks, there will be a state election in Sarawak, and there are signs the natives are restless.

The natives appear restless for many reasons, not least of which are:

  • the alleged rapes of native women and girls by employees of timber companies,
  • allegations of immense wealth accumulated by the Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud, over a reign of 30 years,
  • numerous reports of destruction of the jungles of Sarawak which are amongst the last remaining equatorial forests in the world,
  • construction and proposed construction of large numbers of dams and hydro electric power stations,
  • denial of land rights to the native people,
  • allegations of police siding the rich against the poor, and
  • widespread knowledge that if the Barisan Nasional loses Sarawak, they are likely to lose all of Malaysia and risk exposure of their misdeeds.

Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, is about a two-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, across the South China Sea. The two East Malaysian states, Sabah and Sarawak, are very different from the states in West Malaysia, also known as the peninsula (Semenanjung).

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On the peninsula, race and religion are big factors in the formation of political parties, and in electioneering. Political arithmetic in the peninsula includes terms for four racial ‘groups’ and three ‘religions’.

On the peninsula, the four racial groups are Malays, Chinese, Indians and ‘others’. The three religions are Islam, Christianity, and ‘others’. Muslims are represented by two political parties: BN and Pas. Christians are represented by the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) and the ‘others’ (including the Christians) are represented by The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST).

The land area of East Malaysia, at 198847 square kilometres, is 50 per cent more than the land area of the peninsula (132090 square kilometres). The coastline of East Malaysia (2607 kilometres) is 26 per cent longer than the coastline of the peninsula (2068 kilometres).

The land area of Sarawak alone is just 5 per cent less than the land area of the eleven states in the peninsula. Sarawak, with 2.5m people, is the thirteenth most populous state/territory in Malaysia. (The smallest is Putrajaya with 65000 people; the largest is Selangor, with 5m people.) Sarawak alone is the size of West Malaysia!

Forests logged, native land lost

Eighty per cent of the natural forests of Sarawak have been destroyed – the timber has been harvested. Most of the cleared land is used for hydroelectric schemes and oil palm plantations; the remainder is being replanted with non-native tree plantations to be pulped into paper. Sarawak also has/had huge petroleum reserves, which have been tapped. Sarawak gets a 5 per cent royalty on the petroleum which is used to fund infrastructure development projects in the state but which suffer leakages, siphoned by corrupt politicians.

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I heard a strange story of dams and power generation in Sarawak. There is hardly any industry in Sarawak; yet the state government wants to keep on building dams – purportedly to export to other countries, though to-date no customers have been located. According to current plans, Sarawak will have twelve enormous dams by 2020! Sites have even been identified to build more dams, to bring the eventual total to 52 dams.

Natives are being denied ownership of their native customary rights (NCR) land. Some estimate that over 300 land-grab cases are pending in the courts. Apparently the government claims 1.5m square kilometres of land is native customary land, but is unable to provide a rational explanation as to why only 12 per cent of the overall land area is considered native land. Rich timber and oil plantation tycoons obviously have a vested interest in the answer.

Altogether, 27 ethnic groups are represented in Sarawak. There are probably an equal number of cultures, lifestyles, religions, economic structures and governance models – for much of the native population live in longhouses with headmen. Some generalise and say the population comprises Iban (34 per cent), Chinese (26 per cent), Melayu/Melanau (27 per cent), Bidayuh (10 per cent), Orang Ulu (6 per cent).

Access difficult

Many of the voters in Sarawak are difficult to reach, because of limited means of communication and transportation. The road network is very limited. Travel between cities and longhouses is generally in four-wheel drive vehicles on lumber tracks. Arduous 10-hour journeys are not uncommon. Mobile phones do not work in many rural parts of Sarawak. Access to the internet is limited; in any case, most poorer, rural voters are not internet-savvy. Disseminating information is thus difficult and must be achieved through means which are very different from the norm in the peninsula.

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Fuel for vehicles is not only more expensive, but also more inaccessible, as it has to be transported upstream, often on boats – and the consumers pay the price.

‘Fair competition’ in elections is thus difficult to achieve when there is an entrenched ruling party which has handed out favours and can withdraw support at any time. (Favours typically include land grants, timber grants, concessions, and loans.)

There have been reports in the past alleging that, during campaigning, entrenched politicians have told owners of remote petrol stations not to sell petrol or diesel to opposition politicians. Also, the ruling coalition can buy up the seats on flights. Such actions severely limit the ability of opposition politicians to meet their constituents. Add to this the access to helicopters, which are available mainly to politicians who are in office!

The Chief Minister of Sarawak has been in office for thirty years. He is enormously and ostentatiously wealthy – lately there have been numerous news reports about this. (Please see www.sarawakreport.org.) While he and his family shop in New York, Hong Kong, London and Melbourne for the latest luxuries; much of the rural population cannot even buy a 5kg bag of rice at one go. Academics have estimated the unofficial poverty rate in Sarawak to be about 30 per cent.

Some have estimated that Taib and his family allegedly own over 150 companies in Malaysia alone (foreign companies not yet included); and has wealth allegedly amounting to over a billion ringgit.

Am I interested in Sarawak? I am now. Are you?

Rama Ramanathan is a Kuala Lumpur-based political observer

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