BN’s loss of five states – Selangor, Kelantan, Kedah, Perak and Penang – as well as its two-thirds majority in Parliament, stopped the 55-year-old Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) pastor's son dead in the tracks, as he took stock of the new political landscape unravelling before him.
The fact is Baru was on the verge of giving up politics after a string of electoral defeats. Borrowing from baseball’s sporting lingo of “three strikes and you are out”, he said he was about to declare himself “struck out”.PBDS then was part of the opposition in the state. Four years earlier, the party had been the backbone of former chief minister Tun Rahman Yaakub, supporting his attempt to oust his nephew Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud as the chief minister of Sarawak.
In 1991, he stood in his first Sarawak elections on a Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) ticket for the seat of Lawas (now renamed Bukit Sari).
That rebellion against Taib by members, both elected and non-elected, of his own coalition was infamously called the “Ming Court Affair” because Rahman engineered it from a Kuala Lumpur hotel of that name.
Baru joined the party amid the upheaval of the rebellion that eventually failed.
In the snap election Taib called in 1987, BN won by a mere four seats in the then 56-seat state assembly.
PBDS won 15 seats in one of its finest showings on a platform of championing native customary rights.
In 1991, Baru took on a young rising Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) star Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hassan – and lost. PBDS, which had fielded candidates in 34 seats – all of them
Dayak-majority seats – won just seven seats.
Dayak-majority seats – won just seven seats.
The announcement from then PBDS president Tan Sri Leo Moggie of the party's move to rejoin BN threw a spanner in Baru's political dream.
“I joined PBDS because I was attracted to their cause of championing the rights of natives. I was aware that if PBDS rejoined BN, there would be some preconditions.”
There were. One of them, as Baru had expected, was that PBDS drop its stand on native customary rights (NCR).
“So I said okay, I'll follow the flow of the party but fight my cause in court,” said Baru who had carved a name winning several native land law cases in the state.
In 2004, he resigned from PBDS so that he could stand as an independent candidate in the Ba Kelalan by-election.
The seat fell vacant after his relative, Dr Judson Tagal, then an assistant minister in the Chief Minister's Department, was killed in a helicopter crash near Mount Murud.
Baru lost in the by-election and interestingly, PBDS was deregistered by the Registrar of Societies not long after because of a leadership feud that could not be settled.
In the 2006 state election and still without a party, Baru contested on the opposition Sarawak National Party (SNAP) ticket in Ba Kelalan and lost by 475 votes to BN-Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party’s (SPDP) Datuk Nelson Balang Rining.
Disillusioned after three failed attempts, Baru skipped the 2008 general election.
“I was thinking of retiring from politics. I was already thinking of becoming a Bible teacher and become more focused on the church.
“The result of the 2008 general election was one of the main reasons I returned to politics.”
Three months after the election, an offer was made to him to join Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which he accepted.
He was eventually elected in the 2011 state election winning the Ba Kelalan seat – which he narrowly lost seven years earlier – but suffered another setback in his quest to make it to Parliament when he lost the Limbang seat in this year’s general election.
Baru’s prominence as a lawyer defending native landowners and as a campaigner for native customary rights propelled his political dream.
He obtained a Diploma in Law from UiTM in Kuala Lumpur and obtained a law degree from the University of Melbourne in 1985.
His interest in native customary land rights began with his concern for his family's land in the Berunot and Adang areas near his birthplace of Long Luping.
“After my father showed me some of the land we had, I recorded statements from my uncles to ascertain ownership of the land.”
One of those he spoke to was Lasung Labo, father of former national athlete and four-time SEA Games javelin gold winner, Ballang Lasung.
“I asked him where was our NCR land, the boundaries and how we came to claim the NCR land. I recorded all that he said.”
That was in 1981.
After mapping out the land, he got the village chief to verify that this was indeed his family's NCR land in Berunot.
In 1987, when he was still chambering in Kuala Lumpur, he received news that logging firm Samling had trespassed on the family's land.
“Samling had built a logging road through our NCR land to get to its concession areas.”
Baru rushed home and called for a family meeting at Long Luping. At the meeting, he found out that all the headmen from Long Residak to Long Semado had signed an agreement that allowed Samling to trespass their land and for the road to be built.
After the meeting, he rushed in the night to Lawas to catch the Orang Ulu's first lawyer, Michael Labo, to file a court case against Samling and three of its subsidiaries for trespassing on his family's land.
That first NCR case was filed in Miri in 1990.
“I asked for an injunction. I did not get it. I appealed.
“The appeal took so long, so after two years, I became fed up and told my relatives we had to do a blockade.
“We planned for this blockade to beat the law. We worked out nine steps to take in our fight but at the third step, the logging company conceded.
"We eventually agreed to meet in Miri to settle it out of court.”
The parties agreed on the amount of compensation and Samling also agreed to pay the landowners a percentage of the timber tonnage passing through the land.
“My point was made. It's not about the money. I now had evidence to prove that the land that was trespassed was ours.
“And that was the beginning.”
Baru became more involved in non-governmental organisations working on forest conservation and attended seminars and workshops to keep abreast of issues related to the forest.
He was involved in non-governmental organisations like Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), or Friends of the Earth Malaysia, where he later became their legal adviser.
Even while he was in PBDS, which was part of BN, he continued to sue the state government over alleged encroachment on NCR lands.
One of his biggest cases which gave him the most satisfaction was the celebrated Nor Nyawai case in 2001 – a case that set new precedents in the recognition of NCR land.
“That was a landmark case. We achieved a breakthrough.”
Baru was so passionate in his battle against encroachment on NCR lands that he gave his firstborn, Joshua, the second name of “Parir”.
“Parir” is a kind of poison Penans used to tip their darts and arrows.
“I told my wife I was going to name him Parir because I am fighting logging companies and the Government, “ he said about his wife, Yu Ching Sieu, whom he met while studying in Melbourne.
Now, 80% of cases handled by his firm, Baru Bian Advocates and Solicitors in Kuching, are NCR-related cases.
“After winning a few cases, and the publicity that followed, we have so many cases that at times, I feel I can’t take on any more.
“I could just shoo them away but I thought ‘no’, I have championed this issue and we will take any case that comes up.”
Such was his reputation that whenever his peers see him in court, they know that he was there for NCR cases.
Now that Joshua has graduated and started working in the firm, Baru, who has another son studying law in Adelaide, Australia, and a daughter who is in Form Five, said he is free to concentrate on his political career.
It looks like that Bible school will have to wait a few more years.
“It is something that I will eventually get around to doing,” he said. – November 24, 2013.
~ The Malaysian Insider