Two likeable Melanau men are vying to be the next Yang Berhormat of Balingian, a remote state seat which is representative of Sarawak’s reputation as the rainbow state.
JOURNALISTS flocking to cover the by-election in Balingian were told that the handful of decent hotels in the town area known as Mukah were fully booked for the whole of last weekend.
Filling Taib’s shoes: Yussibnosh (left), seen here with his wife Elizabeth (behind him),
is Barisan’s choice; he will face PKR’s Jalil (right) who is seen here greeting bystanders at a ceramah in Mukah town.
Apparently, the biggest number of millionaires that locals had ever seen had taken up the hotel rooms in this small coastal town last weekend. The Foochow Association of Sarawak had converged in Mukah for their annual gathering and, as everyone knows, the Foochows dominate the private sector economy of Sarawak.
The community boasts an incredible number of millionaires, and even billionaires, among them. They control almost everything where there is money to be made – timber, trading, transportation, construction, hotels and even newspaper publications.
In fact, the two most decent hotels in this small town are owned by a Foochow millionaire who is as famous for his family’s business empire as he is for his “Elvis sideburns”.
For two days last week, this place was a gold-digger’s dream come true – millionaires everywhere one turned. But the Foochow millionaires can be quite provincial and without airs. A local journalist once saw the above wealthy hotel-owner squatting by the roadside, smoking a cigarette while checking out one of his hotel projects.
Anyway, all the millionaires have gone home. In their place are politicians and journalists who have arrived for the Balingian by-election which will be a straight fight between Barisan Nasional’s Yussibnosh Balo and PKR’s Abdul Jalil Bujang.
Both men are Melanau, a community who make up 67% of voters in the constituency. The rest are Iban (19%), Chinese (13%) and other groups (1%).
The Melanau comprise Christians and Muslims but the feedback was that locals did not mind the religious background of the candidate as long as the person speaks thelingua franca, Melanau.
Unlike Kajang, which had started as a by-election to pick the next Selangor Mentri Besar, Balingian is about picking someone to replace the former Chief Minister of Sarawak.
Also unlike Kajang, there is no haze or water rationing in Balingian. The skies here are wonderfully blue, it drizzles in the evenings and the air smells so sweet. Most of all, the people here are genuine and down-to-earth.
And while PKR is expected to win in Kajang, Barisan is expected to be the hands-down winner in Balingian.
From afar, Balingian comes across as one of those in-the-middle-of-nowhere type of places and it was like that for a long time. But things changed after then Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud became the assemblyman in 2001.
Everything that is new in Balingian began with Taib, from the beautiful mosque with the terendak-style (a traditional Melanau headgear) dome to the highest building in town that is named after the big man.
He had been the most powerful man in Sarawak and he transformed the constituency.
At one end of the constituency is the more developed and populated Mukah town where the administrative buildings and shops are located. The town even has a wide, tree-lined boulevard marked by seven fountains, but none of them are in working order.
The other end is still quite isolated and houses a number of heavy industries. There are decent roads and bridges linking villages where the rural way of life still prevails.
The village folk are not rich but they are not miserably poor either. Many Melanau have gone from poverty to join the ranks of the middle class within a generation, thanks to education and state scholarships to college and university.
One of these success stories is university don Dr Jeniri Amir who grew up in Kampung Tellian. His parents were so poor that he used to earn RM1.50 a day rolling sago trunks to deliver to families in the villages. The starchy sago and creamy-flavoured sago worms are still staples in the rural diets here, eaten as regularly as the way urban folk eat instant noodles.
“Life got better after my generation went to university, worked and sent money home. Almost every house now has a graduate. It’s the politics of basic needs. A government that delivers those needs will get the votes,” said Dr Jeniri.
Dr Jeniri is known as a bold critic of the former Chief Minister but admitted that Taib has “transformed Mukah 100%”.
The Melanau are culturally very gentle people, soft-spoken and courteous. These are attributes which make them easy to work with and help them move up in life.
In that sense, both the candidates in the by-election are typical Melanau. They are pleasant, likeable and natural smilers which are assets in politics because nobody likes looking at a sulky face.
Barisan’s Yussibnosh, or Yussi as he is known among locals, has the edge. He was born and bred in Balingian and had worked as a district officer in the neighbouring constituency of Dalat.
“He knows everybody around here and everybody knows him,” said local Fabian Leberi.
Yussibnosh came from a hardcore poor family in Kampung Tellian on the outskirts of town. He and Dr Jeniri used to be neighbours and his humble family home is there. He had choked up as he told reporters about his impoverished childhood and it must have struck him how his life was about to change again now that he is in politics.
PKR’s Jalil was born and grew up in Bintulu where he still lives. But his maternal grandmother hailed from Balingian.
He is obviously not familiar with the issues in the area and does not have the social network of his opponent but he has good people skills and greets all and sundry as though meeting old friends. At one evening ceramah in the middle of town, he went round shaking hands with everybody in the crowd.
Grappling for issues
Taib had been the lightning rod for the opposition and his exit from the political stage has left them grappling for issues to strike at in the by-election.
PAS deputy president Mohamed Sabu has been a ceramah attraction and his humorous oratory is still unrivalled among his Pakatan friends in Sarawak. He said Sarawak should no longer be the safe deposit state or, as he put it, “sekarang musim udang bersalin kulit (season for the shrimp to shed its skin)”.
In Kajang, the tagline has been “Justice for Anwar”. Over here, it is “Justice for Balingian” and giant billboards bearing pictures of PKR leaders have gone up in the town’s main roundabout.
The missing MH370 has also been a hot ceramah topic with opposition politicians taking potshots at the pace of investigations. The Iban speaking among them joke that BN stands for “Bilon Nyah (aeroplane missing)”.
Barisan has got a lot of bad press in the peninsula for its often racial perspective on issues. But Barisan politics in Sarawak is very different. People here do not wear their religion on their sleeves: race and religion are secondary to the fact that they see themselves as Sarawakian first and foremost.
How else would one explain Taib, who is a Muslim Melanau, being succeeded in Balingian by Yussibnosh who is a Roman Catholic?
Balingian and Dalat are state seats in the parliamentary area known as Mukah. The choice of a Christian candidate has to do with a gentleman’s agreement that there must be one Christian among the three wakil rakyat in the locale.
Mukah MP Datuk Seri Leo Michael Toyad was the Christian face but he remarried and became Muhammad Leo Toyad.
The Dalat assemblywoman Datuk Fatimah Abdullah was born to a Chinese father and Melanau mother. She used to be known as Ting Sai Ming until she married a Muslim Melanau.
They are part of the social mosaic that makes Sarawak the rainbow state of Malaysia.
On a sultry afternoon in the far-flung village of Kampung Teh, the local folk came in droves to meet Yussibnosh’s wife, a shy, attractive Iban lady named Elizabeth Nelson who was holding on tightly to Fatimah, the state minister and assemblywoman for Dalat.
“It’s her first day in the spotlight,” said Fatimah.
Fatimah knows Yussibnosh well through their respective duties in Dalat. You can tell because she can pronounce his unusual name without any problem. Fatimah, who is known as one the most hardworking state ministers, has given Yussibnosh her personal stamp of approval and committed to canvassing the women vote for him.
Kampung Teh is a largely Christian and Melanau area and the event that afternoon was taking place in a newly-built community hall next to a well-equipped library that is the pride of the village.
The village clinic stands next to the Chapel of St Thomas. The chapel has been around since the 1980s but has had a facelift. Staff at the clinic said Taib had come for the launch of the new-look chapel.
But all that the clinic’s staff could remember about the event was Taib’s young and beautiful wife for whom they gave the two thumbs-up. That, and the fact that Taib had popped by the clinic to use the toilet.
Taib won with more than 90% of the votes the first time he stood here in 2001 but his popularity has slipped with each election. In the 2011 state election, his cousin stood against him as an Independent and secured about 1,000 votes. But now that he is no longer around, there is some degree of nostalgia about him and there is concern over whether whoever takes over will be able to take Balingian forward at the same pace.
Taib’s exit marked an end of an era in Sarawak. In Balingian it is about the start of something new.
Joceline Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org The views expressed are entirely the writer's own. The STAR Home Opinion Columnist Analysis March 23, 2014