Sadly, Sarawak still struggling to be free


“Once you hear the details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from a defeat.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre

“Sarawak is once again reduced to a chess piece in this never ending game of political domination,” an old hand tells me late one night.

Having just thrown in the towel after decades of service to the people(s) of Sarawak, this former establishment employee turned social worker, accidental political agitator turned opposition supporter and now resigned cynic, just wants to watch his grandchildren play.

He has rebuffed overtures from the opposition to campaign for them. “It would make very little difference in the end. I’m a nobody to politicians, and although some ordinary people remember that I did my best to help them, they have bigger problems to worry about,” he smiles when prodded.

He quotes an earlier article of mine from a battered notebook, “Taib (Mahmud) by far the shrewdest player in the race game in Malaysia has managed to keep Umno’s grubby little hands from his sandbox all the while feathering his nest with the exploitation of the lands and natural resources at the expense of its people.

“These have made him far more than a proxy, and the way how post-tsunami 2008 he has cocked the big Umno guns from the Peninsular and benefitted from the Pakatan squabbles is a reminder of the complicated politics of East Malaysia.”

Some things never change. To Umno – no point in calling it Barisan National any more – Sarawak and Sabah are the vote banks. To the opposition, they are game changers for federal power. The whole point of this game is to maintain or break Umno federal power in the peninsula.

Nobody, certainly not Umno, cares about the people that inhabit the land. The opposition meanwhile, fractured, power hungry and immune from criticism by virtue of Umno persecution, has managed only to shake up the urban vote that unfortunately plays along racial lines.

This is not to say that the opposition has not been trying. Grassroots-level political activism although woefully inadequate has been slowly gaining ground in Sarawak. The problem has always been that people expect results and this normally translates to “voting Umno out”. This is not the case.

“Have you seen what people say about us?” the old hand asks. And by “people” I know he means Malaysians from the peninsula. “They talk about us, as if we were ignorant. As if we didn’t understand that Umno was playing us out. As though we could be bought with rice or whatever else Umno throws our way.”

“Have they ever stopped to think what it means to be bought so cheaply? The kind of desperate circumstances some people live in. Will voting for the opposition change this? You ask those people who didn’t see change in the peninsula… always Umno is to blame. Wait till we get federal power, they say…”

Between a rock and a hard place

I can understand his frustration. Actually no, I cannot. I have not spent a good part of my life working the ground, seeing promises made and broken, seeing people stomped – sometimes literally – by the Umno machine. I have not seen the smug satisfaction of Sarawak urbanites voting “opposition” as if they did the right thing and look down on their fellow Sarawakians for doing the wrong thing.

I have not had to write emails to “concerned” parties as to what went wrong, when the required grassroots work and money was taken as a sign of possible political recalibration. I have not attempted to explain to people why the goings on in the peninsula are important to them when the reality of their lives requires urgent attention.

I have not had to console rape survivors, survivors of police brutality, people who have had their land stolen, their identities stolen by religious conversions all the while strategising with political operatives from the peninsula whose main goal is deny Umno federal power by destabilising Umno power in Sarawak.

Add to these migrant workers, infiltrators from God knows where and rich mandarins who dole out money which could be used to “elevate” poverty but at the same time is the tool of repression.

“And although we see the results, it is not the results that makes headlines,” the old hand continues. “These are the results which matter to people on the ground but are not exactly the results that matter to politicians or voters in the Peninsular.

“Rooney Rebit,” he sighs. “The situation is much worse. How can we trust any Islamic party?

“Why must (caretaker chief minister) Adenan Satem get assurances from (Prime Minister) Najib (Razak) that the NRD (National Registration Department) appeal will be withdrawn? We have our own court that overrides the so-called Muslim court. We have freedom of religion here.

“Some people say the opposition should not bring up religious issues, but I say this is extremely important. You know what I tell people – identity theft is worse than land theft in Sarawak.

“They take who you are or who you want to be and tell you, that from now on you are Muslim bound to their rules.” The old hand goes on a long rant, which I am sure would give editorial headaches to the editors of Malaysiakini.

“Adenan Satem is playing the same game but then again so is the opposition. Sometimes I think that it would be better if we left Malaysia. Let us deal with our tyrants in our own way.” The old hand is worried that his “seditious” talk will get me into trouble but I’m more interested in hearing more of what ails Sarawak.

“We are caught between a rock and a hard place. I know people want change but it is difficult. People vote along ethnic lines hoping that this would give them some sort advantage. I tell you honestly, if we had a chief minister who actually valued our autonomy, I would support him or her.

“Even if the chief minister was an ally of Umno but who had the guts to tell Umno to take a hike, this would be something I would support. I certainly do not support a chief minister who has to seek assurances from Najib,” he says while lighting up a clove cigarette.

In the end, Sarawak is neither vote bank nor game changer, but in the words of one of its native sons, a country still struggling for independence. – Malaysiakini

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

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