Jun 24, 2014
COMMENT For those who knew Bukit Assek assemblyperson Wong Ho Leng, the words ‘brave fighter’ come to mind. When he entered politics over 30 years ago, he joined at a time when being part of the opposition was unpopular.
It was the economic boom years in Sibu, derived primarily from timber, and he chose to stand up to power and urge greater transparency and fairer governance.
Although he contested from 1986 onwards, he first won office in 1996, beating the Sarawak United People’s Party’s (SUPP) then-deputy chief minister Wong Soon Kai in Bukit Assek.
His razor-thin majority of 226 votes in his first victory symbolised a political career where he would not only redefine politics in Sarawak but would leave a national legacy.
A hard-working voice
Wong Ho Leng came from humble origins, a farming family from Sungai Bidut. He went on to study law as a result of a dedication to his studies, talent and hard-work. He never forgot his family roots when he entered politics and remained committed to speaking out for those who were often ignored. Justice and fairness framed many of his speeches as he drew attention to the need to widen opportunities.
Wong set the tone in his public service by relying on hard work, research and evidence in his contributions, carefully reviewing documents, legal provisions and state accounts. He represented an era where speeches and political statements were based on facts and integrity and evidence and truth were prioritised.
In voicing out concerns, he was often forthright in his comments, provoking strong reactions and one suspension from the state assembly in May 2009. His attacks on SUPP were often particularly biting, but the focus remained primarily on solving problems and addressing governance deficits. He along with his colleagues Chiew Chin Sing of Bintulu and Chong Chieng Jen of Kuching became strong minority voices for ordinary Sarawakians in the state assembly.
He was personally reluctant to enter national politics, as he was deeply loyal to his family and worried about the sacrifices involved. He also was strongly tied to Sarawak. Like many in East Malaysia, he viewed his greatest effectiveness in politics to be at the state level.
Nevertheless, he regularly contested for national office and in the May 2010 by-election he beat the odds and won the seat of Sibu. This victory was known for spurring on the ‘Ubah’ or Change movement, which not only provided momentum to the opposition, it also brought Sarawak more squarely onto the national stage. In parliament, after hours of practicing his speeches in Malay, Wong worked to forge understanding and greater representation for Sarawak.
Battles for inclusion
Wong led the DAP in Sarawak for nearly 15 years and during this time he battled to widen support and engagement with others in the opposition. The opposition’s position strengthened considerably, in part due to openness and outreach. This drive for greater inclusiveness involved breaking down barriers and challenging assumptions.
Wong – a man with four daughters – slated more women candidates and opened the way for greater female participation in politics in Sarawak. He brought in young people. He also set in place conditions to work to engage across different ethnic communities in his state. He led this engagement, as he broadened the ties with the Dayak communities and personally increased his outreach to the Malay community.
This involved moving out of the arena where he was socialised, as unlike in peninsula Malaysia there remains considerable segregation of the different ethnic communities in Sarawak. Wong’s own struggle for inter-ethnic diversity in Sarawak mirrored the ongoing transformation of the DAP to include different minorities.
Wong was the first Pakatan MP when he was elected in 2010. This was ironic in many ways as he was one of the main proponents for leaving Barisan Alternatif in 2001. As chairperson of Sarawak DAP, considerable rethinking went into the ties with peninsula Malaysia and connections to other opposition parties.
Wong became an advocate for Pakatan Rakyat, even as he recognised the challenges of making it an effective coalition. One concern was a high priority, assuring Sarawak’s representation and interests. There remain tensions over what roles the different parties should play and how they should work together particularly vis-à-vis Sarawak.
What distinguished Wong’s leadership was a willingness to work towards inclusion and understanding, as he looked to the future and reflected on the lessons of the past. He will be remembered as playing an important role to include not only different Sarawakians in politics, but for forging ties and dialogue with Malaysians outside of the state.
Wong was a man who strived to make a contribution. He did so with determination and a commitment to making Sarawak and Malaysia stronger. He was sincere in his efforts and this sincerity was recognised even by his political opponents.
It is telling that Chief Minister Adenan Satem put aside political differences in contributing RM1 million of state funds to his medical fees. This statesmanship reflects well on all concerned.
When Wong was diagnosed with a brain tumour 18 months ago, he chose to withdraw from politics. This was a hard decision, but one he made with confidence. He left a team of younger politicians many of whom he mentored in his stead. He had worked to build a team, full of potential, hope and energy.
He began a valiant personal battle with his wife Irene at his side. Every day he fought the brain tumour was a testimony to his strength, dignity and bravery. He was given as little as six months to live and beat the odds for much longer. Wong fought a good fight and was a brave fighter.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She can be reached at [email protected]