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Friday, April 4, 2008

Political Passion Runs High

The Star, 7th June 2004.

“I don’t think we can, I don’t think we should, bring all Dayaks under one roof,” said Masing soberly.

Sarawak's serene Sungai Rajang is fed by turbulent tributaries — as passionate as the hearts of the Dayak who at 44% form the majority ethnic group in this peaceful state. But below placid waters, the politics of Sarawak run swift and deep, discovers SUHAINI AZNAM.

ONCE again the Dayaks gave thanks for a plentiful harvest. During the month-long Gawai, longhouse residents welcomed illustrious visitors with the sacrifice of a pig. Later, as guests sit around the common verandah, elders perform the miring, chanting prayers before saucers filled with sacred ingredients, giving up a slaughtered rooster and blessing honoured guests with a white feather dipped in blood. Dancing and drinking of tuak go on well into the wee hours of the morning.

But this time, the Gawai was celebrated with one clear difference. Iban politicians criss-crossed their upcountry strongholds in a bid to rally support for their faction.

In the 41 years since the formation of Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak have always provided turbulent political tableaux. Splinter factions are a way of life.

The 21-year-old Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) is embroiled in a leadership struggle with state Minister of Social Development and Urbanisation Datuk Seri Dr James Jemut Masing heading one faction and party deputy president Datuk Seri Daniel Tajem leading the other.

The two are caught in a deadlock. Although the two sides are supposed to come together at a Triennial Delegates’ Conference (TDC) this October, Masing is sceptical it will even take place.

“There is not enough honour,” said Masing of his opponent. “What we need is a political solution, not a legal one. A TDC will only open us up to legal challenge, where the loser will challenge the outcome in court, leading to the PBDS being deregistered again.

Masing has his encumbrances. Datuk S’ng Chee Hua, Masing's running mate and chief financier, is an ethnic Chinese. By the PBDS constitution, whenever a party president vacates his post, the deputy automatically takes over. And the Dayaks, particularly the Ibans, are not prepared to accept that.

At least that is the line taken by Tajem and recently-retired PBDS president Datuk Amar Leo Moggie Irok.

Sarawak observers feel that Masing has a hold over S’ng through his son Larry, at 21 the youngest state assemblyman, who was endorsed by Masing and backed by his team.

“S’ng is a fighter,” said Masing. “That is why he is a successful businessman.”

“He is also a senior vice-president in the party. He was voted in. We cannot run away from that fact.”

S’ng is playing kingmaker. Having had his influence eroded in the federal capital after being implicated in the case involving former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, S’ng must now recoup some of that lost ground at state level. His business interests depend upon it.

Tajem, already in his 60s, would not have many years in politics, observed a Sarawak leader. “S’ng would want to back a chief minister who has years to go.”

The Dayak lag behind the other major groups in terms of literacy, education, employment and access to basic infrastructure.

For more than two decades, it is the PBDS that has represented them. PBDS currently holds eight of Sarawak’s 62 state seats. Six of these are said to be aligned to Masing.

But the PBDS is not the only party that represents Dayak interests. Each of the other Barisan components also has a smattering of Dayak leaders who together make up the state’s 24 Dayak assemblymen.

Masing is also said to have the backing of Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud – at 68, a smooth, white-haired politician whose 23 years at the helm include resisting the entry of Umno in Sarawak. In return for delivering the state to Barisan Nasional, Kuala Lumpur would allow him to run Sarawak as he saw fit.

Tajem does not enjoy such support. In the 1980s, Moggie and Tajem had challenged Taib in what is now popularly referred to as the “Ming Court affair”, named after the hotel where the duo and their team had pitched camp.

For Taib, the deal has paid off. In the parliamentary elections last March, Barisan Nasional swept all but one seat.

State elections, however, are a tougher affair. While all the parties are theoretically multi-ethnic, each caters to a particular ethnic group. At state level, they are all members of Barisan Nasional.

But there is Barisan and there is Barisan. When individuals are not selected to stand as candidates, some run as independents, backed by a rival component party.

Masing has kept open lines with some federal leaders, although not all share the inner circle of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

After breaking away from the Sarawak National Party (SNAP), PBDS itself had spent 11 years in the opposition. It was Masing who, together with PBDS vice-president Wilfred Nissom, negotiated the party’s re-entry into Barisan Nasional in 1994.

The next state election is not due until 2006, but the consensus among Sarawak leaders is that it will be held as early as next year.

Masing is desperate to be a part of that political process. He has never lost since he contested in 1983.

More to the point, a setback now would make it that much harder to remount his political horse. Masing is no longer young enough to have the luxury of years. He cannot afford to lose political momentum.

Sarawak observers wring their hands over the disunity within the Dayak community and specifically in the PBDS. If only the assorted Iban luminaries in the various parties band up and form a single party, they could command the chief minister’s post again and revive the glory days of the late Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan, they lament.

Sarawak leaders of all communities, disagree. “Dayakism” – that ethno-centric, inward championing of Dayak interests – would only invite retaliation from their Malay-Melanau and Chinese brethren.

“I don’t think we can, I don’t think we should, bring all Dayaks under one roof,” said Masing soberly.

“There is a tendency among the Dayak to get vociferous in expressing their interests. Iban on their own tend to go to the extreme right.

“I would prefer a combination, a bumiputra leader whether Dayak, Malay, Melanau, Bidayuh,” he added diplomatically.

The Dayak form 44% of Sarawak’s 2.1 million population. Of these, the Iban are 30%, the Bidayuh 10%, and the rest are made up of Orang Ulu and other minority groups.

“If you express your wishes too strongly, the others will feel threatened,” explained Masing realistically. “You have to dilute with the other groups. Out of this combination let a leader arise.”

Masing has devoted over 30 years of his life to the Dayak cause and, specifically, to the PBDS. He is embittered that his career path may now be derailed.

He is particularly bitter at his former mentor Moggie, who by his “abrupt resignation” had indirectly paved the way for Tajem’s succession.

But it was abrupt only to Masing. Moggie had in fact indicated his wish to retire some time back.

Masing and Moggie had had two private meetings and were due to hold a third in Kuala Lumpur. On the eve of that meeting, Masing was shocked to see details of that proposed meeting splashed all over the front pages of a Sarawak daily.

Masing had not attended and was labelled something of a spoilt brat.

In addition, Moggie and Tajem’s faction had always arranged that Masing would either be alone or be outnumbered, recalled Masing.

For that reason alone, Masing thinks a political solution would be the only option out of this dilemma.

Whichever faction loses out in the PBDS tug-of-war has three choices, say Sarawak observers. They can remain within the PBDS and accept the new leadership, they can join an existing party, or they break away and form a new one.

For different reasons, all three are hard to imagine. The first would be too bitter a pill to swallow.

In the second scenario, Sarawak Minister of Public Health and Environment Datuk William Mawan Ikom would be most reluctant to accept Masing and his team.

Mawan, president of the newly formed Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party, would be swallowed up by the politically-savvy Masing too fast, too soon.

As to the third, Kuala Lumpur has categorically stated that this is simply not an option.

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