Three days in two big states may not give one the full picture of what is going on there but it does give one the opportunity to observe and listen to the people.
YOU wake up before your alarm clock. You groan: it’s the eve of Nomination Day and you’ve got to “position” yourself for the big event.
You’re determined to cover the general election in a Malaysia-wide manner (peninsular-wide isn’t all of Malaysia), which means you’ve got to cross the South China Sea.
You’ve got an ambitious schedule: Miri, Limbang, Sibu and Kota Kinabalu, all within three days – a whistle-stop tour through Sabah and Sarawak in an attempt to gauge the mood before returning home to Kuala Lumpur.
Everything’s hazy but you manage to get to KLIA. Settling into the MAS flight, you think to yourself: “I’d better get used to this because for the next 15 days it’ll be MAS all the way.”
Arriving at Miri, you watch as the mid-morning flight for Limbang takes off. No, you weren’t meant to be on that plane but you rue the inefficient connection.
Still, there’s work to be done and you cruise around Miri (a supposed hot seat) trying to get a sense of the place – a town you haven’t visited in nearly 20 years. You head to Permy on the way to Brunei and visit the large covered Emart with its cheap and cheerful display of goods: a lot of vegetables – jungle ferns, carrots and cucumbers sold in RM1 portions.
You stop and interview a young Kenyah mother of two. She talks wistfully of her years as a single woman living in Johor Baru: Miri, she says, is boring in comparison but at least here she can bring up her kids.
Dashing back to the airport, you board your cute ATR turbo-prop plane for Limbang. It’s a short hop over a landscape that’s currently being cleared for palm oil. The ridiculously straight lines of the plantations are laid out below like a geometry lesson.
You remember the Global Witness video and think of all the people that must have been cleared off the land, “squatters” – that’s what they were called.
Back on terra firma, you head for the Purnama Hotel, a strange Shinjuku-like structure in the middle of a sleepy former timber town. There’s a club in the hotel and young ladies with short shorts and long legs seem to parade through the lobby at regular intervals. No one seems to mind.
You throw open your balcony door. The view is entrancing: the river, a mosque and the town. A thunderstorm adds to the drama of the sunset.
You meet and interview the two candidates and since you have a cameraman, the questions are recorded.
The first is a lawyer from PKR. His name is Baru Bian. He is intense and direct. His small team appears to be predominantly Iban and Orang Ulu. However, as he runs through the various communities: Bisayas, Kedayan, Malay, Penan, Lun Bawang, you start getting really confused.
Later, you meet the incumbent. His name is Haji Hasbi Habibollah. He is forgettable.
The next morning, you attend the Nomination Day proceedings and then dash off to the airport for your flight, drinking lots of teeth-jarringly sweet three-in-one coffee bought from the sundry shop.
Back in Miri, you tour the Luak Bay neighbourhood, where the houses are so lavish they make Taman Duta and Damansara Heights look understated. One mansion appears to have an elevated highway as its approach road.
Sibu’s next. You like Sibu. You like the Rejang. This trip, sadly, you have no time for reflection and within an hour of landing, you’re in Lanang constituency listening to the young, attractive DAP candidate Alice Lau. Thousands are standing and listening, really concentrating. But Lau is also a good-looking lady. You wonder why Umno doesn’t select more ladies: they really pull the crowds!
Lau is too busy to talk so you wander around. Everyone’s very friendly. You find some fellow journalists from Sin Chew. Despite being very harassed, they help translate for you. No one’s too sure how things will shape up. Sibu is another hot seat.
By now your schedule’s beginning to get to you and you retire to the hotel.
The next morning, everything is repeated and before you know it, you’re landing in Kota Kinabalu ready and raring to go. However, first things first – you head off for your favourite seafood noodles.
Once you’ve eaten, you drop by a friend’s house and catch up with the gossip. A lot of friends appear to be standing under one flag or another.
That evening after what seems like the mother of all downpours, you make your way to Penampang, the heartland of the Kadazan people and now a large, sprawling suburb of Kota Kinabalu.
Taking a wrong turning, you end up driving along a road that’s momentarily turned into a river. With the water lapping at the car door you pray the engine doesn’t stall.
Finally you make it to the first ceramah. It is Barisan Nasional’s Tan Sri Bernard Dompok in what appears to be a farmyard. There are a lot of mosquitoes and the acrid smell of chicken faeces. You like the Tan Sri and you hop in the car for a chat. He’s a bit startled when you whip out your BlackBerry and take an impromptu photo.
Later at a ceramah for his main competitor, Darrel Leiking, a 42-year-old lawyer from PKR, you realise that you like both guys. They are articulate and thoughtful but the second fellow is younger. Maybe it’s time for a generational shift?
By now, you’re having trouble keeping your eyes open. You’re also aware of all the unfinished deadlines but as your head hits the pillow well after midnight, you are lost to everything. Your brain is blank.
And then, the next morning, you’re up and ready to go. Do you have a better idea of what’s going on in Sabah and Sarawak? Errr... maybe not but at least you’ve been there, you’ve observed and listened to people. In politics, it’s all about actually hitting the road.