PKR's Ibi Uding is no greenhorn and even less of a stranger to fighting for native rights.
BALAI RINGIN: Ibi Uding’s white blouse was wrinkled and stray hairs framed her flushed face. The 10th Sarawak state election had entered its fifth day of campaigning and the PKR candidate for Balai Ringin appeared exhausted.
Her husband, Krishna Ravi, brought her a plate of food prepared by the Iban women on her team. She had hardly taken two bites when her 18-year-old daughter, Seraphine Shantee, approached to double check the budget figures.
No sooner had Seraphine left, two men appeared wanting Ibi to resolve a logistics dispute. This scenario was replayed over the next three hours and through it all, Ibi smiled and patiently provided explanations.
“This is why I always wear white,” she confessed during a rare quiet moment. “I’m very hot-tempered and white calms me down.”
But it was this same spiritedness that drove her to stand up for her rights seven years ago when an oil palm plantation company helped itself to her family’s land.
“I took my mother and daughter to the land and was so angry to see it filled with small trees,” she recalled. “Suddenly we heard a Range Rover approaching. I gave my phone to Seraphine and told her to hide in the bushes.”
The company personnel had arrived with the police. I told them that this was my land and started pulling out the trees. So they arrested me.”
Ibi, 49, was badly bruised during the arrest. But reports made to Bukit Aman and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) met with deafening silence.
Incensed by the blatant injustice against her and her fellow Ibans, Ibi decided to fight back but this time on an equal platform. Thus began her journey into the realm of politics.
She first joined the recently revived Sarawak National Party (Snap) and self-financed her campaign for the Balai Ringin seat in the 2006 state election.
The seat fell to Barisan Nasional’s Snowdon Lawan and Snap eventually sank below the political radar. Then came the 2008 general election. It was the second chance Ibi had been waiting for.
“I was among the first Dayaks to join PKR in March 2009,” she said. “Then I followed Nicholas Bawin all over Sarawak to learn the ropes. And I attended the Permatang Pauh and Sibu by-elections to gain experience in campaigning.”
Her painstaking preparations earned her a gold star this year. Ibi was one of two women and the first Iban woman candidate to be fielded by PKR in an election.
Her thrilled community hailed this as an honour but Ibi viewed it as due recognition of her longstanding struggle for Iban rights. In fact, she was so confident of being included in PKR’s lineup that she intensified her work on the ground even before the candidate list was announced.
‘I am doing this for the Iban’
Ibi was also unfazed by the five other candidates vying for the Balai Ringin seat.
“Snowdon comes with a lot of baggage,” she said. “And the PCM (Parti Cinta Malaysia), Snap and independent candidates are not that much of a competition.”
Ibans form 89.09% of Balai Ringin’s voters and as soon as they heard of her candidacy they came in droves to offer their assistance. Ibi’s campaign team was a motley crew of family, old friends, former schoolmates and those whom she had fought for in the past.
“I grew up in Balai Ringin so people know me here,” she explained. “My family still lives in the area. How big is my team? It’s small. Only about 100 people to do everything including running my operations and war room.”
At the mention of war room, she recounted an old story where Ibi was accused of being a Snap traitor.
“During the 2006 campaign, I stopped to use a public restroom,” she related. “It was located near a restaurant and the BN war room. The diners approached to talk and shake my hand.”
“The next day word spread that I had visited the BN war room and was bought over for RM400,000. I was so mad! I’m not a cheap woman! And it wasn’t my fault that the restroom was next to a BN war room!”
The villagers, however, refused to believe this rumour. Their loyalty to Ibi had not wavered since and many had gone out on a limb for her in this election.
The house that functioned as Ibi’s operations centre belonged to a relative who had stood up to threats from BN supporters and her own brother. Other villagers had been similarly intimidated but defiantly continue working for her.
Even Ibi’s family was not spared. Villagers warned them not to travel at night as “gangsters” had marked their cars. Ibi herself moves around with bodyguards and her daily schedule was a closely guarded secret.
Ibi had placed full trust in her team’s protective shield and was focused solely on her campaign.
“What I’ve gathered is that there are 10% of hardcore BN supporters here,” she said. “I’m not going to waste my time converting them. I’ll just channel my energy on the other 90%.
“But my campaign has not been particularly difficult because I’ve just intensified the work that I’ve already been doing.”
Ibi’s campaign this year was a far cry from that of 2006. Back then she only held talks at night as she had no idea how to organise walkabouts. This time, the detailed planning and her well-oiled machinery had enabled her to reach out further and better.
“I’m very proud of her,” Krishna smiled. “I have zero experience in campaigning so I handle the finances. And I keep a low-profile because she has earned all the limelight.”
Seraphine, who enrolled in a law program after being inspired by her mother’s work, was the campaign’s second finance manager and was enjoying it to the hilt.
“The voters’ response has been good!” she said. “And the team is great. They’re united and always watching each other’s back so we’re not worried too much about mummy’s safety.”
More volunteers began streaming into the centre and Ibi readied herself for another round of brainstorming. But before that she had one more thing to reiterate just in case she was not clear the first time.
“I’m standing here not for myself or my family,” she stated. “I’m here for the Ibans and their rights. If I can become their state representative then they will have a louder voice in the state.”