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Sarawak polls: Need to address national issues too?

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It is important to highlight state and local issues as well but the opposition should not neglect national issues and the struggle for justice at the national level, observes Ngu Ik Tien writing from Sibu.

200 tables were laid out for the DAP night in Sibu on 3 April 2011 – Photo credit: Tony Pua via twitter

Election month is a time for the local people to talk, eat, listen and socialise. Strategically, all political parties hold party dinners to garner votes. Priced from RM15 to RM30, tickets are made affordable to attract supporters and voters. I missed the PKR Night but managed to attend the DAP dinner on 3 April 2011 at a Chinese restaurant in Sibu.

It has only been a year since the last by-election. This time, the turnout at the Sibu DAP dinner was larger and the people attending the dinner seemed younger! From my observation, it is fair to say that the momentum of the by-election victory has been well maintained. The total number of tables laid out last year was 200. This time it was slightly more. The diners were a good mix of the young and the old; I would say 40 per cent of the attendees were below 40 and in terms of gender, twice as many men as women. (In this regard, the situation was quite different from political events held in semi-urban constituencies, where male senior citizens would predominate at dinners or other electoral events.) As well, I saw more Chinese faces than Iban ones. But mixed marriages are common here; so it would be hard to determine categorically the ethnic background of all present.

When the dinner started at around 7.30pm, the host played the national anthem and invited everyone to stand. At my table, all the men stood up except one. He sat in front of me and grumbled twice to us, “This isn’t our national anthem; this is Malaya’s”. But he seemed quite uncomfortable when everybody was standing. So, he, too, stood up eventually.

He was middle-aged and spoke Foochow. He was the one who helped to buy our dinner tickets. Last year, I met him at a Pakatan ceramah event in a Malay residential area. I asked if he understood Malay as I know many elderly non-Malays who speak very little Malay.

He said he learnt Malay a long time ago. However, when the PKR speakers started talking, he looked disappointed, saying he couldn’t understand “their Malay”.

I encountered a similar situation at a polling centre in Sibu last year. When the locals talked in Malay, I only understood part of it. When I approached one of them, an old lady, she said they were speaking in Melanau-Melayu. An Iban man also complained about the language of those Semenanjung speakers when I visited his longhouse for the Gawai Festival last year. He said they were not sensitive to local culture because the Malay spoken in Sarawak is a bahasa pasar mix of Malay, Iban and even some English.

Language variance is one of the main pillars that constitute Sarawak regionalism. But the language barrier is eroding too, as I observe young Sarawakians communicating in “standard” languages nowadays, including in ‘national Malay’, Mandarin and English.
As for the speeches delivered by the opposition candidates and leaders that night, obviously none of the local candidates delivered Iban, Malay and English speeches! I remember there were two Iban speeches delivered in last year’s DAP dinner: one by the head of the Iban wing of DAP and another by the Snap representative.

DAP secretary general Lim Guan Eng’s speech, on the other hand, was tri-lingual in a mix of Mandarin, English and Malay. All the young candidates spoke in Mandarin. Only the experienced and senior candidates, David Wong and Wong Ho Leng, flavoured their speeches with Foochow phrases and terms.

Compared to the wide range of issues raised in the previous by-election dinner last year, this time the candidates focused on a single subject: severe corruption and exploitation of Sarawak’s natural resources by Taib Mahmud and his cronies. And the Chinese voters were frequently reminded that voting for SUPP equals voting for Taib (again). No ‘national issues’ were raised by the candidates at the DAP dinner. Perhaps they thought the local voters were totally disinterested in ‘bigger problems’.

It appears as though Sibu DAP has not yet incorporated capturing the state government into their electoral agenda. The speakers did not propose any concrete changes or policies that they would initiate should they accidentally end up in power. Significantly, it was Lim, who is also Penang Chief Minister, who reminded the dinner meeting that it is possible for the opposition, which includes the Sarawak DAP, to end up in government.

Lim’s presence opened the imagination of the local DAP. But what has Pakatan done in Penang? What Lim promoted at the dinner was good governance. This is an abstract concept. So Lim talked about surpluses in government current accounts, increased foreign direct investments and annual allocations for schools. The theme of good governance seems to have been condensed or reduced to prosperity and less corrupt government. Good governance brings prosperity, but it should be more than that.

Yet, in the past week that I have been in Sibu, I have heard ordinary people speak about the “two-party system (两线制)”, apart from terms like “the white-haired one” and his “business conglomerates (财团)”. The two-party system theme was not highlighted in the previous by-election.

The formation of Sarawak Pakatan has provided a new hope and a hot topic for urban Sarawakians. Their desire for a two party system could be interpreted as an indication of their concern for bigger issues. So too Lim’s promotion of “good governance”.

It is important to highlight state and local issues as well but the opposition should not neglect national issues and the struggle for justice at the national level.

Ngu Ik Tien is a PhD candidate in a local university researching into Sarawak politics.

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