Hornbill Unleashed @ 3:44 AM
“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter,” said Winston Churchill the writer, war-time leader and unreconstructed elitist.
I have subjected many rural voters to my rambling conversations in the past. Most of these discussions would be parochial, involving concerns about local issues. You can imagine it would be difficult to hold a conversation about world current affairs, if you had little access to newspapers, and none to the internet.
One such memorable discussion was with a group of friends, members of a village development and security committee in one of the poorest parts of Sarawak. They had lodged police reports against their ketua kaum or village chief, accusing him of corruption.
This was not a rash decision. As you might guess, life in small villages, with the daily routine of meeting the same faces that you meet, demands tolerance, and some conservatism.
The village chief, my friends told me, was an inept gambler, and had embezzled money from the village development fund, and even the office at the small airstrip. As a result, a construction project for the cmmunity had run out of cash, leaving the half-raised walls of the building as a transparent monument to poor leadership.
Unfortunately for the village, the ketua kaum was closely related to a senior civil servant. The police reports gathered dust. Written complaints made to the old Anti-Corruption Agency were followed by documents sent to the new Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. The clichéd bureaucratic phrase “no further action” cannot be applied to their inertia: there was no movement whatsoever from the very beginning, to warrant any “further” action.
Logging blockades and live ammunition
The logging blockades, set up all over Sarawak by Dayak and Orang Ulu over the past three decades, also demonstrate the rural communities’ commitment to natural justice and solidarity. They may not know much about the mind-bending leakages from the Port Klang Free Zone or 1Malaysia Development Berhad, but they understand the concepts of corruption and theft.
A few dozen villagers at each blockade take turns to stand behind branches and small trunks laid across logging access roads, to defend their native customary rights (NCR) land. Some natives have laid down their lives to protect their land and forests for future generations.
Young Penan men have related to me the surreal and terrifying experience of the Police Field Force using live ammunition, firing over the heads of the unarmed men, women and children standing behind these flimsy barricades. They remember the crack of small arms fire and the bullets whizzing above them. Acts of violence by the security forces and the logging companies have been well documented, for example in the Not Development But Theft report.
It is ironic that our small minority of indigenous people – the Penan, Orang Asli, and other rural communities – possess far greater collective knowledge and wisdom in the life-giving art of nurturing our environment, than all the university graduates in Malaysia put together.
Political parties, with their cosseted leaders surrounded by sycophants, come and go. These rural people have continued to safeguard their environment – which also happens to be our environment – despite and relentless beatings, arrests and punishment from sleazy politicians and companies. They have experienced many defeats, and rapid deforestation, but also notable victories through NCR court cases.
Ignorant, selfish online attacks
Sarawak PKR chairperson Baru Bian has spoken out against the ignorant, selfish online attacks on Sarawakian and Sabahan voters following the GE13 contest, calling these voters naïve or stupid cowards.
Urban voters and MPs, the power base of Pakatan Rakyat, must take interest in rural communities. MPs and political parties must engage rural voters in discussions over the pressing issues of our time, instead of top-down, paternalistic instructions on “development”.
Gerrymandering and malapportionment, economic liberalisation and the TPPA negotiations, religious and racial hate-mongering, corruption and policy capture, incompetent and divisive education policies, global warming and environmental degradation, and health care finance reform affect all Malaysians, not just those twitterati who are internet-savvy and familiar with the jargon.
It is only too easy, and too common, for well-educated politicians and professionals, from all ethnic groups and political parties, to dismiss these rural folk.
People with limited formal education can understand these issues, with careful explanation and visual representations. We cannot build a national future together with social media and idiotic slogans such as “Vision 2020” or “Endless Possibilities”, that are irrelevant to more than ten million rural Malaysians.
Most of our rural population are simple, but not simpletons. They are not xenophobic and violent, unlike the stereotype of the American redneck. They are not the brutal savages described by Steven Pinker or Jared Diamond, in their controversial books The World Until Yesterday and The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Our rural communties have rich cultures, well-respected traditional customs or adat, and intricate oral histories. They are hospitable and peace-loving communities, and ready to engage with other communities.
Are we ready to engage with them? The urban-rural divide is the greatest, and most shameful, schism in our society.
We should remember that many of those rural people at the blockades have exemplified the courage of the civil rights movement, of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They are not the “average voter” that Churchill had such contempt for.
They deserve the full picture, and all the facts. Our national politics and economy would benefit greatly from engaging them whole-heartedly.
~ Hornbill Unleashed