‘The DAP night’ in Sibu: An observation

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In their campaign speeches in Sibu, Pakatan’s “national leaders” mentioned too little about issues that had an immediate and obvious effect on the local people, notes Ngu Ik Tien. Corruption in Sarawak and problems like flooding and land titles, which are the current concerns of Sibu voters, were touched on superficially.

I received a free ticket to attend ‘the DAP night’ from a friend of a friend working as a reporter with the local Chinese press. Some Chinese newspapers described the dinner as “a show of strength (造势大会)”.  Another purpose of the dinner was to announce the candidate for the by-election of Sibu. Though Wong Ho Leng had mentioned to the press more than once that he recommended Alice Lau to be the candidate, the Sibu folks seemed to disregard the suggestion.  “Must be him-lah,” they said.

The DAP dinner was held at the Good Happiness Restaurant in a relatively new shopping area of Sibu town, and the restaurant was packed with about 2,000 diners. My friend told me that about 200 tables were sold and occupied. That surprised me as there were 210 tables laid out for PKR’s night which was held a week ago. I thought that the DAP would draw a bigger crowd.

My table was bought at the price of RM500 by a middle-age businessman, Wong, who ran a business that recycled scrap metals and used-machineries in Sibu, Kuching and Bintulu. He didn’t think the DAP would have a chance to win the coming by-election but he came to show his “sympathy”. He said the postal and native votes would all go to the BN. He also remarked that Robert Lau junior, the SUPP candidate, was backed by 财团 (a business conglomerate).

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Comparing the DAP night to the PKR’s, there were some noticeable differences in terms of the attendants and speeches.  There were more non-Chinese, about 30 per cent, at the PKR dinner. Regardless of their ethnicity, the participants were generally senior male citizens and from the lower middle and working classes. The dinner was organised by the youth wing of Sibu PKR, which had obviously failed to attract the local youth. At my table, all the attendants were either in their 50s or 60s. In my casual conversations with a few of them, I discovered that some Chinese businessmen had bought the tickets and then sent out buses to the long houses to bring the Ibans to the dinner. In other words, the attendance of Ibans may not be a sign of support for the PKR. Some remained silent until the end of the dinner and those who talked spoke fluent Foochow.

On the other hand, I would say the DAP received solid support from the middle-class Chinese, and most of those who attended were youthful and middle-aged. The Pakatan leaders’ speeches at both dinners, I felt, all failed to evoke thunderous applause from the diners. One of the speakers at the PKR dinner was the local PKR youth leader. He had to depend on a script when he spoke! He spoke in English and Mandarin and briefly in Iban too, but not in Malay. Lim Kit Siang spoke at both events. A local resident who attended both dinners commented in Foochow that “he didn’t say anything” and he added “they didn’t talk about local or 本地 issues”.  I noticed some people got excited and responded when Lim mentioned “White Hair”.

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Unfortunately, he did not exploit the issue. At both events, some speakers did not even mention “White Hair”. Apparently from peninsular Malaysia, many speakers criticised and condemned Umno; in fact Umno does not operate in Sarawak. And when these same speakers spoke about ‘the people of Malaysia”, they would often also blurt out “we, Malays, Chinese and Indians!” Even the ‘national leaders’ who spoke at the two functions were guilty of this mistake; they were clearly insensitive to the Sarawak context.

In both events, the Pakatan’s “national leaders” spoke only fleetingly about issues that had an immediate and obvious effect on the local people. Umno which has not yet been ‘allowed’ to contest in Sarawak perhaps, in the eyes of local people, poses less of a threat to their everyday lives than the threats posed by “White Hair” and other local strongmen. Corruption in Sarawak and problems like flooding and land titles, which are the current concerns of Sibu voters, were touched on only superficially.

That said, the DAP night demonstrated more local sensitivity. In at least two speeches the Iban language was used, once by a DAP Iban leader and on the second occasion by a SNAP Chinese leader who was an Iban speaker. None of the speeches during the PKR night was given in the Iban language even though the event had more Iban participants. A local folk resident told me that Robert Lau spoke some Iban, and to be a successful politician in Sibu, one must speak some Iban too.    

Ngu Ik Tien is a Ph D candidate registerd in the School of Social Sciences, USM. She is currently conducting research on local politics in Sarawak.

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