Agi idup, agi ngelaban? Will the River burst the Dam?

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anwar longhouse

Barely a week after assuming the top posts in Umno and just days after becoming PM, Najib Razak and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin will face a referendum of sorts – a triple by-election showdown. Yi Ge Qiu surveys the Batang Ai state seat ahead of polling day on 7 April 2009. A defeat for the BN could spell long term trouble for the Taib Mahmud-led ruling coalition in the state. Win or lose, PKR will have to do some soul-searching over the choice of its candidate.

Batang Ai – the River. By consensus, this was the source area from which the Iban spread all over Sarawak.

Batang Ai – the Dam. This was the River, dammed at the Irup rapids in the mid-1980s, to become Malaysia’s largest operating hydro-electric dam.

Between the River and the Dam is a tale of pain and hardship for 21 longhouse communities of about 520 families or 3,600 people.

The ghost of resettlement

Between 1982 and 1984, they were torn from a homeland and catapulted into a resettlement. They were wrenched from a way of life, many left without rice lands in the resettlement when rice cultivation still lay at the heart of Iban culture and its annual cycle of life and ritual.

They were promised development and modernity which turned out to be principally out-migration in search of employment and income. From 1991 – when Vision 2020 was proclaimed – to 2000 – when the new millennium by the western calendar was celebrated – the sub-district of Lubok Antu, the Pool of Ghosts, lived up to its name as people left it in droves.

Scars of their experience may be seen from Lubok Antu’s demographic pattern. Its population growth rate of 0.6 per cent per year was one of Sarawak’s lowest. Its proportion of people over 65 was one of the highest; at 6.5 per cent, it far exceeded an average of 4.3 per cent for Sarawak and 3.9 perc ent for Malaysia. And Lubok Antu had one of the lowest sex ratios: 97.4 males for every 100 females.

The impact of the Dam can be seen in raw electoral numbers, too. Lubok Antu has 8,000 voters out of a population that is slightly lower than 11,000. In contrast, Malaysia in 2008 had 11 million voters in a total citizen population of about 25 million.


Escaping impoverishment

In Sarawak, one clue to the economic fortune of a rural area is the level of its Chinese population. The Chinese population in Lubok Antu declined between 1991 and 2000.

When the Asian Development Bank, which partly funded the Batang Ai Dam, reviewed the impact of the project in 1999, it found, among other things, that:

Resettlers’ average income from their plantations was substantially lower (about RM230 a month) compared with the income (RM523 a month) that was envisaged from plantations after 10 years. This also compared unfavourably with the average monthly family income of RM675 of those who continued to live in native customary rights lands in upstream Batang Ai (without the Project) …  

At the time of the [ADB’s] Mission, their incomes were restored or exceeded expectations due to employment in Kuching and other towns and at industrial locations.

In other words, the promised development turned out to be impoverishment which the resettled could only escape by out-migrating with unstated consequences to their communities, culture and way of life.

As though this wasn’t enough, land issues have plagued the resettlement since Day One. This was conceded by Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) President and Minister for Land Development, James Masing, on 25 March, when he promised to address such issues in response to a demand by Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Nicholas Bawin.

 

Problems from long ago

Today, 25 years later, the roads in the resettlement are yet to be tar-sealed as is evident from the sudden promise of RM12 million announced by the Barisan Nasional’s Director of Operations for the Batang Ai by-election.

How amazing it is that a little organised opposition and a fear of possible defeat have the wonderful effect of concentrating attention on matters neglected for over 25 years! How interesting it’d be to track whether the promises are kept should BN lose the election – that is, whether the promises constitute electoral bribery or express genuine concern and respect for what is, rightfully, the people’s due.

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This is especially pertinent since the problems of resettlement are hardly a revelation to BN. James Masing and Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu knew but did little to resolve the problems. Masing was a SESCo officer in the early 1980s when Jabu headed the resettlement committee. But, to Jabu, all such problems are, of course, simply the result of the people’s bad attitudes, his government being Perfection itself.

In those 25 years, the Dam’s beneficiary, the Sarawak Electricity Supply Corporation (SESCo), now Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), raked in billions of ringgit in revenue.

Yet, approaching the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the resettlement has no access to telephone services, fixed line or cellular. Today, telephone services are a necessity, not a luxury, especially not when families are separated by out-migration for employment.

 

Poverty line economy

Lubok Antu’s timber has long dwindled although there has recently been some new and renewed logging. Besides subsistence-oriented agriculture, pepper gardens and some rubber, its economy now centres on the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority’s (SALCRA) oil palm plantations that blanket the area.

However, the plantations are unattractive to local people, not because the people are ‘choosy’ but because they can’t live on the pittances offered as wages. A field employee, working at slashing and spraying, recounted that he made the grand sum of RM300 a month that was reduced to a net cash receipt of RM50 after deductions for provisions supplied on credit by the retail store!

At those wages, even two workers would not take a household to the poverty line income. That would require three workers. For a notional household of 4.7 persons, Sarawak’s official poverty line income in 2007 was RM830 a month while the food (or hard core) poverty line income was RM520. Given the great inflation of 2008, that poverty line income is now well over RM900 a month.


Rich and miserly

Every year, Alfred Jabu, also the self-appointed Iban hero, proudly announces the millions in dividends paid out by SALCRA. Jabu may have no intention of misleading the people but his mathematics is perhaps poor.

A quick calculation shows that even in a bumper year such as 2008, when the average oil palm fresh fruit bunch (FFB) price was RM638 per tonne, SALCRA’s doubled dividends amounted to an average of RM3,000 per participant. Very likely, more than half the participants received less than that amount.

Thus far in 2009, the average FFB price has been less than half that of 2008. Assuming the same pay-out rate, the average participant will be lucky to get RM1,500 for 2009.

The Batang Ai resettlers who have just over a hectare per family under SALCRA oil palm would have received about RM1,200 for 2008, payable in two tranches. That they survive at all is testimony to their own ingenuity, endurance and initiative.

Worse, despite its mission as a socially-oriented, rather than profit-maximising, agency, SALCRA’s ‘profit-sharing’ is most miserly. At 2008’s average FFB price, the net returns should have been about RM6,000 per hectare (even for an indifferently managed operation yielding 15 tonnes a hectare). Yet SALCRA only paid RM1,000 per hectare. At Sarawak’s average yield of 20 tonnes per hectare, the net returns per hectare would have been around RM8,000.


Persistent loyalties

These circumstances have persisted all these years. It is hardly surprising, then, that Lubok Antu, comprising the two state constituencies of Batang Ai and Engkili, should have been one of the centres of the Iban ‘revolt’ of 1985-1995, which, in those balmy days, took the shape of Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS).

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Of the two constituencies, Batang Ai was unafraid to vote against the ruling party. This partly explains the current concern of BN and, in particular, PRS, given the considerable rumble across Sarawak among the bumiputera collectively labelled Dayak.

In the wake of ‘March 8’, it was as if a light was turned on and people began to countenance the possibility of a change of government. Even government employees were talking openly about such a prospect.

However, there is considerable party loyalty in Batang Ai. Its people were originally supporters of the Iban-based Sarawak National Action Party (SNAP). Then they switched to the breakaway PBDS, stood by it in opposition, and continued to support it when the PBDS returned to the BN fold. When PBDS was declared illegal, they turned to the successor PRS headed by James Masing.

That it is party and not just personal loyalty can be seen in last year’s parliamentary elections. The PRS did not re-nominate its five-term incumbent, Jawah Gerang, who had sided with the businessman-fixer, Sng Chee Hua, against James Masing in the factionalism that broke out after PRS had claimed the mantle from PBDS.

Jawah is a well-known local son. Still, his absence hardly made a dent to the vote for his PRS successor, Nyalau Badau although Nyalau was put up as a spoiler in the 2004 contest won by Jawah.

 

A perintah of cards?

However, it would be foolish to think that this is only loyalty to the Dayak party and that BN affiliation has no role. In Batang Ai, as elsewhere in Sarawak, despite all the broken promises and worse, there is widespread fear that standing up to the ruling party without any prospect that it will be deposed may mean that the people will be deprived of even the little that they have. The fear is not unfounded: other communities have felt the government’s wrath when they failed, in the local parlance, to undi perintah (‘vote government’).

Even so, this makes Sarawak a house of cards. The moment there is a whiff of a realistic chance that the party that has ruled these 45 years will fall, people will be falling over themselves to vote for the prospective new perintah. Indeed, individual politicians and parties in BN are likely then to queue up to support Parti Keadilan Rakyat for a new direction.

Hence, Batang Ai is critical to both BN and PKR/Pakatan Rakyat. A loss for BN could swell the River into a torrent that sweeps BN away. But a loss for PKR may turn the River into a rivulet and, in Sarawak at least, leave PKR with the same fate as befell past challengers.

Yet a loss could also be a test of PKR’s mettle and its ability to organise and persuade the population, especially its Dayak component, that it is time to take a risk. For people utterly weary of the one and only regime they have ever known, it would be time to rise to the Iban political battle-cry that once swept the place: Agi Idup, Agi Ngelaban – ‘To live is to struggle’.

A muddled pool

But PKR’s choice of candidate for the 7 April by-election has muddied the waters somewhat.

In its first outing in Sarawak, PKR could have sent a clear message of Change to the Dayaks, and the Iban in particular – a message of true regard for their rights and place in Malaysian society, signalling a departure from 30 years of disempowering politics.

Nicholas Bawin, the front runner to be PKR’s candidate is not an impressive personality or orator but he represented that message. He is a native son of Batang Ai, from one of the longhouses that remained in the dam catchment. He has travelled a long and winding road. The losing BN candidate against then opposition PBDS in 1987, Bawin provided critical expert testimony in the native customary rights case of Nor Nyawai. For that, he was punished by the BN government, stripped of all the perks it had given him for his role in 1987.

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Subsequently, Bawin, together with the well-known native rights lawyer, Baru Bian, and others, attempted to register the Malaysian Dayak Congress. Their attempt was predictably turned down by the Registrar of Societies, apparently on the state BN’s veto.

Against Jabu’s opposition, Bawin became President of the Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU) but he stepped down in 2007, hoping to spare SDNU the obstacles and barriers it would have faced under his leadership. In 2006, he contested the Batang Ai seat as an Independent. In 2008 he fought the Lubok Antu parliamentary seat. Both times he obtained 43 percent of the valid votes cast.


A missed message?

Bawin, seen to be incorruptible, has become a much respected face in the fight for native rights. In both his recent outings, he campaigned on issues. He didn’t resort to money politics; nor had he the means to do so. For the 7 April by-election, activists across Sarawak had mobilised to support his candidacy. Indeed, quite a few in the BN ranks would not have been upset at a Bawin victory.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Anwar Ibrahim saw fit to select Jawah Gerang, instead – a decision which reminds people of the days of the ‘old Anwar’.

Jawah was famous for his fieriness in the heyday of PBDS. Since then, he has become a quiet MP. His alliance with Sng Chee Hua in PRS’s factional in-fighting led to much talk that Jawah owes his candidacy to Sng.

Activists and Dayaks who aren’t seduced by his wealth regard Sng with suspicion because of his role in the PBDS break-up. First, Sng sided with the Tajem faction against the Masing faction. Shortly after, Sng turned around to side with the Masing faction against the Tajem faction, and went on to split PRS after it had supplanted the de-registered PBDS.

A crucial vote

All this has cast a cloud over PKR’s campaign.

Win or lose in Batang Ai, PKR must do some soul-searching – if it is to be the party of the future, if it is to fulfil hopes of a reformist perintah that severs the nexus of politics and business in Sarawak and advances the rights, interests and well-being of its people.

To their immense credit, Bawin’s supporters and Bawin himself have kept a stoic silence. For them, it seems more crucial than ever to maintain a public front of unity to accomplish their most important task: Defeat BN!

The people have been through much. Agi Idup, Agi Ngelaban! They deserve better.


Basic facts about Batang Ai

Size of constituency
1,340 sq km (about twice the size of Penang state), including the 240-sq km Batang Ai National Park in the catchment of the Batang Ai Dam. Total dam catchment is 1,200 sq km.

Population
In 2000, 10,200 (for Lubok Antu, the sub-district corresponding to the constituency); projected to be 10,800 in 2009, based on 1991-2000 growth rate

Ethnic composition
95 per cent Iban

Principal cultivated land use
Oil palm under Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority

Electorate in 2009
8,006 voters

 

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