COMMENT The Sarawak State elections are over. Three weeks in the deep interior of rural Sarawak was nothing short of an eye-opener. I am more fired up and angrier than ever on the amount there is to do; and more eager than ever to do something. I know more now, the extent of the rot that must be treated. And I am now more helpless than ever over a solution for the social, political and national problem that plagues our nation and our people.
What we need now is not just more of what we have been doing, but other tactics and strategies that we have not attempted or even contemplated. And I will be honest in saying that being back at the drawing board is the most immediate place we need to be at.
These elections really tested - in fact absolutely thrashed and battered - my principles, my integrity, my commitment to democracy, my belief that all human are inherently kind and good-natured, and most severely my world views on race and humanity.
Is money politics a cultural ‘norm’?
DAP has always stood firm against money politics, vote-buying, or exchanging political support with financial patronage. Garnering support through instilling fear, or holding people to ransom is also a no-go area. These are all tactics that are synonymous with BN’s campaigns in the rural areas of Sarawak, but for whatever reasons, it has been articulated to ‘outsiders’ as rural Sarawakian cultural norms.
I was constantly reminded - by some local Dayaks themselves - of how my principles are useless and insensitive of local culture. “Here in the interior, money is the only thing that will get you allegiance; anything else is nothing but talk.”
I was even told, “it is not the one who asks for money who should be ashamed, but the one who is asked but does not give who should be ashamed.” this is what I was advised by local Dayaks.
It is difficult to accept that those assertions are indeed representative of all, or even most rural folks. In short, I find it hard to accept that bribery and money politics is Dayak culture.
On the flip side, I am told by other Dayaks that Iban culture dictates that, for young men to qualify in asking for the hand of young women, he must first take the head of another to earn his worth. The Ibans historically are a tribe of pride and earnestness; needless to say this runs opposite to the assertion that money politics is part of Iban culture.
When sticking to principles means losing votes
On several occasions, our campaign team was confronted with decision making dilemmas. Here are three examples:
First scenario, a Tuai rumah came to our campaign headquarters with a list of voters in the Long House, pleading allegiance to our candidate and promising to vote for us at a price.
Second scenario, a local came to us after nomination day, demanding that we pay his travelling expenses and an allowance for his time spent “supporting us” (all he did was put on our campaign T-shirt).
Third scenario, a clearly intoxicated local member of the campaign team aggressively asked if it is the ‘locals’ whom I want, or is it the ‘orang luar’ (outsiders) that I choose; he then proceeded to threaten other team members with acts of vandalism on the campaign headquarters if his demands are not met.
What is the right thing to do in these scenarios?
The choices are:
(a) Temporarily suspend our ‘Malayan views and principles’ and totally immerse ourselves into the rural Sarawak way and gain rapport and garner support; or
(b) Hold firmly and truly to our beliefs and principles and risk being dismissed, sidelined or even threatened.
The team that I led, took option (b). I feel proud about it, but I don’t feel happy about it. I’m proud because we practiced what we’ve always preached, and our principles are intact. I’m not happy because we were indeed dismissed, some of us had our lives threatened.
Finally, we definitely were sidelined in so many ways, including electorally- we lost our deposit.
There is no better way to test a theory than to see whether it produces favourable results in reality. Sticking to principles failed us miserably in winning votes.
There is no better way to test one’s principles and integrity than to subject one to a potential salvation of money politics in the face of an electoral defeat. We were decisively defeated by and large because we didn’t participate in money politics.
Ignorance vs practicality
Some say that rural folk are not as well as informed on the idea of democratic participation in choosing a government. Some even go further in saying they are intellectually ill-equipped to understand the complex intricacies of Sarawakian politics.
I had the privilege of having spent hours talking to random rural folks in long houses and in the remote town of Pakan, in my capacity as a politician as well as in disguise as a mere outsider with no political baggage seeking feedback. I would say that the rural folks are not only well-informed, many are very sophisticated in their understanding and analyses of the politics, especially the local politics.
Some may ask, if that is the case, why would rural folks still be supporting BN and money politics if the were indeed sophisticated in their views. I think it has a lot to do we the rapport and sense of belonging of the voters to the cause championed by the candidates.
It is the onus of the parties and candidates involved to articulate their agenda in a way that strikes a chord with the electorate. The issues brought up could be 100 percent valid and credible, but if it it doesn’t resonate with the electorate, it is as good as useless.
Addressing issues salient among the electoral audience is the only way to build rapport; only when there is rapport established, trust can be built. Only when there is rapport and trust, will the audience have a sense of belonging to the party or candidate.
There is a simple analogy for this. When one is suffering badly from a toothache, the world’s foremost professor on orthodontics who doesn’t speak your language and the local village dental nurse turns up at your doorstep, which one would you go to for help?
In essence, standing up for principles and integrity is no longer enough in the fight against BN’s corruption. We must be able to not only articulate what is right, but also convince the rural folks that what is right is indeed our joint agenda as a people and a nation.
It can no longer be the urban agenda imposed upon rural folks, or the other way round. It must be the Malaysian agenda that everyone can relate to, so to close the gap between urban and rural, Malaya and Borneo. Ultimately, rid any form of ‘them and us’.
Our failure in winning votes, especially in the rural seat showed us that, it is ‘the urgencies of now’ that we failed to prioritise. We are able to offer a vision, an idea or even a sneak preview of a solution to that, but clearly it is insufficient. I acknowledge we don’t have the resources to address it, but let’s call a spade a spade. Save the blame game for a another day. We failed, and no justification will change history.
Inspiration can be euphoric, and the map for the path to the promise land of good governance can be intoxicating, but clearly in this case not as intoxicating as cap ah pek, and it definitely didn’t deliver votes.
HOWARD LEE CHUAN HOW is the Pasir Pinji assemblyperson and director of policy for Perak DAP.