Kampong Ruai Panjai in Lubok Antu is at least three kilometres off the main road, accessible via a dirt track whose undulations make a journey there a seat-jarring experience even for visitors borne in a comfortable SUV.
Although the turn in off the main road is only about a kilometre from the town of Lubok Antu, the longhouse appears located back of the beyond – such is the feeling one gets when bouncing along the track, with thick undergrowth and tall lallang on either side screening you from trees visible beyond. The unkempt belt of green on either side is impenetrable.
The 20-door longhouse at the end of the journey is indistinguishable from most other Iban habitations of its kind, except that on this night the row of four-wheel drives parked on either side of the final 50 metres of the dirt track indicates that a function is in progress in the verandah.
It was at Ruai Panjai, a supposedly BN stronghold, that PKR candidate for the Batang Ai by-election, Jawah Gerang, chose to kick off his nightly ceramah round.
For Jawah it was not that curious a place to start, given that he was the five-term MP for Lubok Antu - from 1987 to 2008 - first for Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak when it was in the opposition, and then for BN when PBDS joined the ruling coalition.
Residents of this longhouse were solidly for him and BN in the recent past. Would they switch their allegiance to PKR as Jawah and many former PBDS-cum-Parti Rakyat Sarawak (Batang Ai is a PRS-allocated seat within the ruling BN coalition) members have done.
Ruai Panjai’s residents remember Jawah from his previous campaigns but it was debatable whether they had adjusted quickly enough to his change of allegiance, for the place was festooned in BN flags and the only posters visible were that of Malcolm Mussen Lamoh, his mild-mannered BN opponent.
Neither Jawah’s fiery tone when he spoke nor the content of his speech - a denunciation of the errors of commission and omission of the government of Chief Minister Taib Mahmud – comported well with the facts of political history such as Ruai Panjai’s fealty to BN and Jawah’s only recent shedding of the BN platform.
However, the applause that punctuated Jawah’s more fervent rhetorical flights could not be said to have been merely polite and only the audible jabbering of a middle-aged man at the far end indicated that an otherwise attentive and appreciative audience was not unanimous in reception to their former parliamentarian.
Follow Selangor’s example, vote Pakatan
“He has chosen to start his campaign where it’s probably hardest for him to get votes,” whispered Maxwell Roggis, a former aide of Jawah’s who was involved in several of his past campaigns.
“That’s just like Jawah - to take the fight deep into the opposition before going to the places where he can be more confident of support,” added Roggis, who felt that Jawah’s combativeness was a plus point.
“People are in a restive mood, over Native Customary Rights land, unpaid compensation for the resettled in the Batang Ai dam project and other issues,” explained Roggis.
Jawah also brought along to the ceramah Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim who followed up Jawah’s fire with the bricks and mortar of welfare-oriented government, to wit, the PKR-led Pakatan Rakyat government in Selangor where water is partly free, the elderly are entitled to medical benefits, the newly bereaved receive financial assistance, promising poor students have better access to scholarships, and women receive extended maternity leave.
“We have done all this in one year,” piped Khalid, listing the achievements of his administration in Selangor.
Glancing about the grim conditions in the longhouse, Khalid asked: “What have you all got in 45 years in Malaysia with all the land, oil and other resources Sarawak has?”
“Vote like how your fellow citizens did on the Peninsula last year. Vote for change and for the people’s right to ownership of the country’s land and its resources,” said Khalid to thumping applause.
Aspects of the evening’s ceramah programme and its reception by the audience suggested that Jawah Gerang had chosen well the political company he currently keeps.- MalaysiaKini