Two ‘kampung boys’ vie for the big shoes left behind by former Sarawak chief minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.
WHEN PKR deputy president Azmin Ali introduced his party’s candidate for the Balingian by-election, the first question from reporters was whether Abdul Jalil Bujang is a Melanau.
Azmin confirmed the candidate is a Melanau, which is a minority community in Sarawak but the dominant group of voters in Balingian.
The second question was quite odd. Is Jalil a Christian? No, he is a Muslim. Sarawak is not like peninsular Malaysia and religion is not a prickly issue over here.
Muhyiddin (right) greeting BN candidate Yussibnosh Balo during nomination day for the Balingian by-election.
- ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE / THE STAR
As such, the question was asked as a matter of curiosity because Barisan Nasional Yussibnosh Balo is Melanau and a Roman Catholic.
Yussibnosh’s unique name has been a subject of much discussion and the fact that the Barisan leadership in Sarawak is putting a Christian as their man in Balingian has also been a top talking point, especially among journalists from the peninsula covering the March 29 by-election.
It was a bold move to have a Christian contesting a seat that has been held for 14 years by Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, a Muslim Melanau.
The political leadership in Sarawak is sending a clear signal to all that it does not subscribe to the politics of race and religion.
Their stand in Balingian is their way of saying that religion does not colour their politics.
One could say that they are thumbing their noses at the way religion has been politicised in the semenanjung, as they refer to peninsular Malaysia.
They do not understand why Muslims object to Christians using the term “Allah” or why Christians have to be so confrontational as to take a religious matter to court.
Apparently, the feedback from the Balingian folk is that they prefer someone who speaks the Melanau dialect and who is familiar with their needs and concerns. It does not matter whether the person is Christian or Muslim.
Balingian and Dalat form the two state seats situated in the parliamentary constituency known as Mukah.
Local politicians said the choice of Yussibnosh is the result of a “gentleman’s agreement” that goes back to 1963, by which there should be at least one Christian among the three wakil rakyat (people’s representative).
For many years, Mukah MP Datuk Seri Leo Michael Toyad was the Christian face in this unique tableau. But several years ago, Leo married a Muslim Bidayuh and became Muhammad Leo Michael Toyad.
Dalat assemblyman Datuk Fatimah Abdullah was born Ting Sai Ming. Her father was a Foochow Chinese who took her Melanau mother as his second wife, or what Fatimah calls the “second cawangan (branch)”.
Fatimah was brought up as a Muslim by her maternal grandmother and later married a Muslim Melanau. She was a headmistress before she went into politics, where her mixed parentage has been an asset.
Yussibnosh, if he wins, will be the new Christian face and an apt addition to the Sarawak melting pot, where it is difficult to define people by race or religion.
On Saturday, Yussibnosh met with journalists at the homestay of local personality Diana Rose, a former journalist with The Star.
He had everyone laughing when he said his father had actually wanted to name him after Italian saint Eusebius.
However, the name was too complicated to spell for the bureaucrat at the national registration department and that was how he ended up with one of the most unique names in Sarawak.
Even Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had been twisting his tongue over the name.
His friends call him Yussi and his kampung mates call him Bu’ih.
PKR’s Abdul Jalil also has roots in Balingian, which is his mother’s hometown. But his career in the oil and gas industry took him to other parts of Sarawak, including Bintulu, where he serves as the party secretary.
That is his chief disadvantage compared to Yussibnosh, who was not only born and bred in Balingian, but knows the ground inside out because of his work as a senior administrative officer in the district.
Yussibnosh also speaks fluent Iban, which will lend him an extra edge because Ibans make up about 30% of the voters. His challenge will be filling the big shoes left behind by Taib.
It is quite hard to associate the sophisticated Taib with the rustic charms of Balingian but the former Sarawak chief minister was its assemblyman for 14 years.
Taib used the clout of his office in that time to transform Balingian from a sleepy fishing village into a new township surrounded by a sprawling countryside with a beautiful coastline along the South China Sea.
The headquarters of Sarawak’s new development corridor project SCORE is located in a grand building along the main road.
Taib will continue to cast a long shadow over Sarawak’s politics but his successor Tan Sri Adenan Satem has taken the right step in honouring Mukah’s “gentleman’s agreement” in his first by-election as Chief Minister.
As issues of race and religion heated up in the peninsula, many Sarawakians acknowledged that although Taib had faults and shortcomings, he was an open-minded leader who respected the rainbow state that Sarawak is.
Many were actually worried that his successor would not have the moral courage to continue the spirit of tolerance.
But it seems like Adenan wants the Balingian polls to be a showcase of Sarawak’s spirit of give-and-take on race and religion.
JOCELINE TAN The STAR Opinion Columnist 18/03/2014