MORE than half of the Orang Ulu votes in the Marudi and Telang Usan state seats which make up the Baram parliamentary constituency went to the opposition in the last state election in 2011.
This statistic does not bode well for incumbent Baram MP Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan who has been nominated by his party Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) to defend the seat.
However, the swing of the Orang Ulu votes to the opposition does not necessarily spell the end of Jacob’s chances because the battle for Baram hinges on the Iban factor.
Although Baram is considered an Orang Ulu seat, the largest single racial bloc in the constituency are the Ibans who number 29,000 or 41 percent of the total population.
This is reflected in the racial breakdown of the Baram voters — 12,000 Ibans followed by Kayans (6,800), Kenyahs (4,700), Penans and Kelabit/Sabans (1,000), Chinese (2,600) and Malays (1,600).
Although the 13,000 voters in the Orang Ulu group, comprising the Kayan, Kenyah Penan, Saban and Kelabit, are slightly more than the Ibans, their swing to the opposition could be negated by Iban solid support or Barisan Nasional (BN).
In the 2008 parliamentary polls, Jacob riding on solid Iban support, won with 7,996 votes against independent challenger Kebing Wan (3,952) although only 49.65 of the 24,425 voters turned up.
Iban votes also played the decisive role in the BN victories Telang Usan and Marudi in the last state election.
In Telang Usan, the Orang Ulu communities were split – 45 per cent voted for a Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu-BN candidate Denis Ngau, while 51 per cent voted for the opposition candidate Harrison Ngau and the rest for another Orang Ulu independent.
It was the 3,000 Iban voters from Puyut and Lubok Nibong polling districts who tilted the contest in favour of newcomer Dennis with slim majority of 845 votes.
Since then, the opposition has hit the ground running trying to make some inroads into Iban areas and consolidate their advantage in the orang Ulu heartland.
The opposition’s main focus is the Baram Dam project, playing on the people’s resentment for the dam and discontent over resettlement issues with the help of several environmental NGOs to drum up support for their candidate, believed to be a Kenyah lawyer Roland Engan of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
Jacob will have his work cut out for him in fending off the opposition’s challenge and presence in this vast constituency.
He is also hampered by his position as Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industries as he has to spend much more of his time in Kualal Lumpur and travelling overseas than going down to the ground to meet grassroots supporters.
This has led to rumblings of discontent that the MP is seldom present in his constituency and the people are unimpressed by with his reasoning that his ministerial responsibilities are preventing him from visiting them more often.
Their grouses are that as their elected representative, Jacob should pay more attention to bread and butter issues in Baram and not devote so much of his time to international matters in far-off Putrajaya.
BN candidates in Baram in previous state or parliamentary election could always count on Iban votes to pull through despite poor support from the Orang Ulu but Jacob might not have the same cushion in the coming election.
The crisis that erupted in his party, Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) in 2011, which led to the sacking
of five elected representatives, including Datuk Sylvester Entri, the Marudi assemblyman who is an Iban, has alienated many Ibans against the party.
Entri’s powerbase is in Marudi and his supporters will not forget in a hurry his dismissal from the party where Jacob is senior vice-president.
With the bad blood between Entri’s supporters and SPDP still simmering, Jacob now has a lot of patching up to do with the Ibans in Baram and he has stepped up visits to the Iban communities in Sungai Arang and Bakong to retain their support.
Another factor that works against him is his length in office, having been the Baram MP since 1994 when he won the seat under the now de-registered Sarawak National party (SNAP).
The people in Baram are getting restless over the lack of development in their area and inevitably, their unhappiness is directed at their elected representatives.
The oft-used argument that Baram is a big rural constituency which is very difficult to develop no longer holds water as the constituents argue that 20 years is ample time to bring progress to their area.
Jacob has been working doubly hard these days, crisscrossing the constituency as the election clocks ticks away and he is getting help from other BN component parties.
Even Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud has chipped in to help the incumbent MP when he flew to Long Lama on Feb 23 for a meet-the-people session to announce the setting up of a new Telang Usan township and assuage the people’s apprehension on the building of the Baram dam.
The battle to win the hearts and minds of the people of Baram is tough as time and people have changed.
As one veteran succinctly put it: “You never see Orang Ulus staging demonstrations in the past, but it is happening now.”
With the simmering spill-over effects of the SPDP crisis on the Ibans, on top of the restiveness of the Orang Ulu, Baram does appear to have all the makings of a ‘black area’ for BN.