Cowboy town’s peculiar politics

LAWAS earned the nickname of “cowboy town of North Sarawak” for a number of reasons. Like the modern cowboys in USA’s Midwest, locals rely on 4-wheel drives to travel around the constituency due to the lack of tar sealed roads outside the town and the hilly terrain.

Walk into any local karaoke bar or lounge and chances are, someone will be soulfully belting out an American country song. Many men also favour the local equivalent of a Stetson cowboy hat as protection from harsh sunrays.

And then there are the buffaloes which can be found contentedly grazing on many a village common green and wandering across rural roads posing potential road hazards.

This general election (GE) will see incumbent Henry Sum Agong (BN) face-off in a three-cornered fight against challenger Dr Bob Baru Langub (DAP) and Ali Rahman Kamseh (Star) for this rural constituency. However, the main fight is expected to be between BN and DAP.

In this small community, everyone seems to know or be related in some way to everyone else.

This has created somewhat interesting dynamics during this campaigning period that would seem peculiar to many outsiders.

First is the noticeable lack of animosity towards supporters of various political parties. In a number of villages surrounding the town, more houses seem to display both BN and DAP posters and flags side by side than houses that only display colours from one party.

The reason for this, at least according to one local, is a reflection of the good interpersonal relationships shared by everyone.

“We all know each other, so we help each other out, even if we support different candidates. Supporters from one political party will even help supporters from other political parties erect their campaigning material. I suppose you could say that it’s a failure on our part,” he said laughing, when met recently at a popular coffeeshop in Lawas.

He pointed out that just because someone is carrying a flag for a certain party doesn’t mean he or she will actually vote for the party as it could just mean that they are showing morale support to their relative or friend who is the candidate.

This ambiguity towards party loyalty highlights the importance of personal relations and networks in local campaigning strategies.
It also makes it difficult to predict how much support a candidate has based on the number of people who turn up wearing the party’s colours at public events.

Henry Sum is widely expected to win, given his comfortable win with a majority of 7,792 votes over PKR’s Japar Suyut in the 2008 GE. He is a local boy and is well known in the constituency.

However, recent opposition ceramahs managed to draw large crowds. Having said that, almost any event out of the ordinary, is bound to draw a large crowd in Lawas town.

Voter sentiment in the town appears to continue to favour BN but conditions on the ground have changed since the 2008 GE.

The owner of a small sundry shop in the middle of Lawas told The Borneo Post that the Chinese community here is largely indifferent towards the outcome of the elections.

“I think the Chinese are split 50-50 as we don’t benefit much, no matter who wins, being an ethnic minority here,” she said.

“Personally, I think Henry is ok but many people I’ve spoken to don’t like his party. Dr Bob is also a local and people here know him. I heard he offers free services at his dental clinic in Miri to people who cannot afford it.”

She lamented the lack of opportunities for higher education for the youth and expressed her hope that whoever won would look into this as well
as other concerns of the people.

“Kita boleh buat tapi Tuhan atur semua (We can do but God has the final say),” she reflected.

Meanwhile, a BN supporter predicted that it would take “a miracle” for DAP to win in Lawas.

“Overall, I think the balance of votes lies 40-60 in BN’s favour. The Orang Ulu vote is split 50-50, because of Ba’kelalan and the influence of its assemblyman YB Baru Bian who also has some support from the Malay community. But Malay voters still largely hold the winning card and the influence of Awang Tengah is powerful,” said the middle-aged Lun Bawang transport provider.

“I think BN will win mainly because of the Malay’s support. Those who have benefited from
the subsidies such as the fishermen will continue to vote BN because they are afraid of losing the benefits.”

Nevertheless, he admitted that he and many others were concerned over allegations of corruption involving BN leaders, as well as unsatisfied at the glacial pace of development in Lawas which has not kept up with what has been promised over the years.

“I heard that certain leaders are also telling their supporters that if they don’t need to vote for BN is they are not happy with the government, but they shouldn’t vote for the opposition also. That way, the supporters can still voice their dissatisfaction without going against the government. This is one reason why BN should still win,” he said.

However, a young Lun Bawang farmer from a village just outside town begged to differ.

“There is a lot of dissatisfaction and anger among the younger generation over native customary land rights.

“How can it be that the land which we have lived on for many generations with our paddy fields and gardens are suddenly declared as state land?” he said, alleging that the logging and plantation companies have also received preferential biased treatment in disputes with locals.

Another villager said that he frequently tuned in to Radio Free Sarawak (RFS) on one of hundreds of radios that were distributed by opposition supporters to various villages last year.

“I don’t know if other people who received the radios listen to RFS, but I do,” he said.

“The older people in our village are staunch BN supporters but the village youth have decided to go our own way.”

“We don’t know if it will make a big enough difference, but God willing, we will have a clean and just government.”

The opposition has made some inroads into rural areas in Lawas since the last GE, even in the most unlikely of places.

At a canteen frequented by workers from nearby logging camps, hangs a community notice board covered with dozens of newspaper clippings dating back many years. The most recent are all about the protection of native land rights. Stapled on one corner of the noticeboard is the frequency to tune in to RFS.

However, no matter which party the residents of Lawas support, one thing is for sure – they will not let politics get in the way of being good neighbours.

This is a lesson that the rest of Malaysia could do well to emulate.

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