BOOK REVIEW Baru Bian’s latest book, ‘The Long Awakening’ has unravelled some of the reasons why Sarawak has always been the vote bank that continues to put Barisan Nasional (BN) in power.
In the last general election, despite winning a popularity vote of 51 percent, Pakatan failed to capture Putrajaya. One of the major reasons was because Sarawak was able to deliver 25 seats to BN.
The votes Pakatan received in the state formed only 37.26 percent, compared to former chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s 58.86 percent. With the current Chief Minister, Adenan Satem, who is a brother-in-law to Taib, the battle could be even tougher.
Even in 2008 when the political tsunami struck peninsula Malaysia, BN in Sarawak only lost four parliamentary seats to Pakatan, mainly in the Chinese majority areas.
Unless there is a paradigm shift to the Dayak mindset, it is unlikely that Sarawak would contribute to a change of both the state and federal governments.
However, Baru is optimistic. In an email an correspondence, he wrote: “What appears to be seemingly impossible, God is able to change the situation for the better. I believe, over the Allah controversy and the raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia, the Dayak community is now anxiously waiting for the moment that they can cast their votes.”
The mindset is one of the hardest to tackle. Revealing it in his book, Baru said that even for him, joining PKR marked a shift in his own thinking. “As a young lawyer starting out in politics through PBDS, I was caught up in the spirit of Dayak power at the time. Politics then for me was about fighting for the important but narrow interests of Sarawak natives.”
Unless there is a change of government at both state and federal levels, Baru admitted that he and other lawyers fighting for the natives customary rights (NCR) in court are fighting a losing battles. “The reason is because the policymakers themselves are reaping billions of Ringgit from logging concessions,” he continued.
When Sarawak helped to form Malaysia in September 1963, it was one of the wealthiest states, rich with oil and other natural resources. Today, its tropical rainforests which were worth billions of Ringgit, have been cleared but the natives are fighting for their rights to exist and the land that once belonged to their forefathers.
The Dayak mindset
Baru’s book will help Malaysian politicians to understand what influences the Dayak mindset, and how Baru himself was able to make inroad in the last state election in 2011 despite the challenges.
As one Malaysiakini reader, David Dass put it, “This is a long overdue book. I will read it as soon as I get my hands on a copy. It is time that the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak were taken seriously and given what is due to them. Malaysia must mean something for them.”
Baru may hold the key to reaching the Dayak mindset. He himself had won the Ba’Kelalan state constituency for the first time on a PKR ticket, beating BN’s candidate, Willie Liau. Previously, he had lost in several elections when he was with another Dayak party, but with persistence, he persevered on to “move” mountains which have long been there.
One of the toughest challenges was to crack the ingrained biblical teaching on “submission to the authorities” from Romans 13, which has often been twisted by certain quarters to mean voting only for the ruling party, which is, after all, the authority of the day.
This was despite the clear instruction set out in the same passage that one has to “do what is right and you will be commended”. If the government of the day fails to earn their respect and honour, instead of reaping what does not belong to them, then the right thing to do is to collectively cast a vote to change the government.
To explain the scripture further, Bian wrote how he had to go to the basics, “An election was for the purpose of choosing a new government because the incumbent government had been dissolved and the wakil rakyat had all stood down.
“As such, the government during an election was one without the people’s mandate and was only a caretaker government. Only when a new government had been elected did the issue of ‘submission to the authorities’ become relevant.”
A devout Christian himself, Baru is also a master in the art of telling parables. He used simple illustrations, which were brilliantly told, and a particular one that I thought was great was his story of the parang which he used to explain about elections.
“Election,” Baru elaborated, “is akin to holding a parang. When you hold a parang, you hold the handle and not the blade, right?
“The problem we have is that our present government leaders are holding the handle while we the people are holding the blade. No one dares to speak against the government because if we do, the government will simply push and pull the parang in our hands and we bleed.”
This has probably caught the imagination of the people who voted for him in the 2006 state election. One of his promises to his fellow natives is, “Once we are the new government, we will be in charge of our NCR land.”
Although this was nearly ten years ago, the mindset of the people has not changed much. “Changing this mindset has taken a long time,” he admitted. “It is still an uphill battle, a slow awakening from a deep slumber.”
In the 2013 general election at the federal level, Baru lost by over 8,000 votes for the Limbang parliamentary seat. Whenever there was an election, the government would make promises that ‘lightning’ projects would be approved, if BN won.
To counter the claims that only the BN could bring development, Baru drew a parallel from the church elections, “whereby the newly elected deacons would carry out all church-related activities using the church fund”.
“This goes on even if all the previous deacons were voted out and replaced by a new lineup of deacons,” he wrote, stressing time and again that it is important to “choose deacons, or in the case of a state election, political leaders who were clean and ethical, because they will be using the people’s money.”
Compared to urban voters in the Klang Valley who study the overall performance of their parliamentary candidates and evaluate them based on their responses to emails, Facebook and Twitter, in Sarawak, it is all about meeting basic needs.
Although an urban voter may argue that this is more like patronage than leadership, Baru said it is sadly “the BN’s style of ‘caring’ for a constituency, especially rural ones, by giving financial assistance or tokens for various community concern,” in return for voter loyalty.
His book is written so that he could recruit more like-minded people to join him in politics. “Hopefully, more Sarawakians working in West Malaysia would return to help change the local Dayak mindset,” he said.
The one stand, which Baru has made clear through his book is: “Having witnessed the turmoil within one Dayak party after another, and seeing that the problems of natives are connected to national politics, I have come round to thinking that the interests of all communities can only be effectively dealt with through a multicultural framework under a clean government.”
Times are exciting
There is no doubt about it that the political awakening in Sawarak has already begun, although it may be a slow one.
“It is time that the Dayak community come together to call upon our God, so that He will tear down every principality and powers that are at work in our state,” he wrote in his email. “This book will be a first step towards greater political awakening in Sarawak.”
With the state election lurking just around the corner, Baru said there is little time to waste. “Sarawak has a unique situation that, at the state level, the Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) may be the opposition, but at the federal level, the party was part of BN,” he said.
“Even if Sarawak continued to be a BN-controlled state, at the federal level, there may be a shake-up on this land they call, the Land of the Hornbills.”