by Sheridan Mahavera
The Malaysian Insider
31 October 2015
In the villages of Peninsular Malaysia, the DAP still gets a bad rap, but in an increasing number of out-of-the-way places in Sarawak, the opposition party has been received with open arms.
On September 27, it completed a water supply project for Kampung Long Luping in Lawas, a little Orang Ulu hamlet close to the Indonesian border in central Kalimantan.
This comes just months before the Sarawak state elections, which have to be held on or before September 20, 2016.
Aside from a candidate in the 13th general election, the DAP has no local representative or office in Lawas, which at three hours by rutted dirt road, is the closest town to Long Luping.
That the DAP is now well regarded among the Orang Ulu tribes speaks of how the party has successfully penetrated into the remotest parts of Sarawak, a volunteer with the party’s initiative called Impian Sarawak said. “Ulu”, coincidentally, is a Malay term for “remote”.
But this milestone also has consequences. Federal opposition ally PKR, who has also done a lot of work among rural communities, bristles at the thought of the DAP contesting rural seats.
The Sarawak Barisan Nasional (BN) government has also intensified a propaganda campaign to vilify the DAP among rural Sarawakians just like it has done in the peninsula.
Word of mouth
The DAP’s bigger footprint among the rural folk of Sarawak is due to the Impian Sarawak initiative, where it helps poor communities with small scale infrastructure projects.
In many of its projects, activists or members would recommend a deprived village to the Impian Sarawak team for help.
In the case of the Orang Ulu areas, the schemes came by word of mouth and it was villagers themselves who asked for one, said Dr Baru Langub “or Dr Bob”, an Orang Ulu DAP leader based in Miri, Sarawak.
A community leader in Kampung Long Luping heard about how Impian Sarawak had helped install a gravity-fed water system in nearby Kampung Long Sukang and asked for the Impian Sarawak contact number.
The earlier water system in Kampung Long Sukang was also installed after a leader in that village heard about the Impian Sarawak programme from a friend in Limbang. That friend in Limbang lived in a longhouse where Impian Sarawak had installed a similar water system.
In many past Impian projects, volunteers had to deal with fears among villagers that the Sarawak BN government punished residents who worked with opposition parties.
“In Long Luping and Long Sukang, the villagers were open to working with us,” said Dr Bob.
“We had asked the BN for 10 years to help us with the water supply to our village. They always said ‘wait, wait’. It never arrived,” said Balang Lawai, a community leader from Long Luping.
The two villages had similar problems. Each village has one water system that was shared between its respective primary school and its homes.
Between 6pm and 6am there would be no water supply to the homes in both villages as it would be routed to the respective schools, both of which have hostels.
From 6am to 6pm all water would be channelled to the village and the schools would get none. During dry seasons, teachers had to take the students to bathe in a nearby river because there was not enough water, a parent named Leban Sakai said.
With the new systems both villages and their respective schools now have 24-hour running water.
Long Sukang community leader Yaris Semayong claimed that the DAP has garnered a lot of goodwill from these two water projects and that villagers have finally woken up to the possibility of choosing someone other than the BN to govern.
“For the Orang Ulu, we do not choose based on race or religion, just on who is best at serving the people,” the 54-year-old farmer said.
Backlash and consequences
Despite the best efforts and the benefit it brings, there has been some backlash from Sarawak authorities as well as the state government attacking Impian Sarawak in the local media.
Long Sukang’s Yaris claimed he was pressured from the Lawas district office to cancel the village’s project. He resisted, and the villagers and the Impian Sarawak team were able to complete it.
The better rapport with villagers through Impian Sarawak is driving the DAP to consider contesting in rural Sarawak and this sets up potential clashes with the PKR.
Sarawak DAP chief Chong Chieng Jien confirmed that the party is aiming to contest in 30 seats in the state elections next year, up from the 11 it currently occupies.
The DAP has won almost all of the urban seats in Sarawak’s big coastal cities of Kuching, Sibu, Miri and Bintulu.
“So the logical assumption is that the DAP is now looking to expand into some of Sarawak’s smaller towns in the interior, otherwise where are they going to find an additional 19 seats?” said a Sarawak PKR leader who requested anonymity.
The possibility of a clash between the two opposition parties is high because unlike in the peninsula, the state DAP is not in a formal coalition with PKR.
“The PKR has put a lot of effort into building the party’s base in rural areas ever since the last state elections (in 2011). They have a lot of members now among Sarawak’s tribes,” said a DAP leader from southern Sarawak who requested anonymity.
“If we do not settle our seat conflicts and go up against them and the BN, it can be very bad.”
But the bigger obstacle is still Sarawak BN. Dr Bob claimed that Sarawak BN ministers would accuse Impian Sarawak projects of being defective. There was even a report in a Sarawak newspaper alleging that villagers had to pay an upfront fee of RM250 per person for each project.
In reality, the cost of materials and operations for Impian Sarawak projects are borne by the DAP through public donations. Villagers only have to help install the project with the DAP volunteers who come to implement it.
“The BN says they want to do everything to take back opposition seats,” said Dr Bob, adding that this increased concern is not a bad thing.
“I tell the villagers, if BN wants to do that then good. Demand everything from them, roads, water, electricity and make sure they deliver them before you cast your vote. After all, those things are from the rakyat’s money, not from the BN’s own pocket.” – October 31, 2015.