Gift or bribe? Drawing a clear line on corruption

by Gan Pei Ling / 27 Dec 2014 © Focus Malaysia

Can my company still send hampers to customers during festive seasons? What about treating a potential client to a free dinner or spa to secure a business deal? What sort of gifts could be consid­ered a bribe to solicit or retain business?

These are just some of the questions an upcoming amendment to the Malay­sian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Act 2009 will soon throw up, especially for companies without an explicit anti-corruption policy.

On Dec 9, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Paul Low had announced that the Corporate Lia­bility Provision is expected to be tabled in Parliament in March. The provision allows the MACC and Attorney-General’s Chambers to investigate and prosecute not just staff accused of giving or accept­ing a bribe but also the company’s top executives for their failure to implement measures to prevent bribery.

The Performance and Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) says the draft amendment is not publicly available yet as the government is still finalising it.

However, Pemandu senior manager Lokman Affandy Yahya tells FocusM the Corporate Liability Provision is modelled after the UK’s Bribery Act. As such, companies’ management can safeguard themselves against legal liability as long as they have put in place adequate anti-corruption measures.

In other words, Malaysian companies would have to put in place corporate integrity system, which would include a clear gift policy, whistleblowing pro­cedure and staff training, among others.

The Selangor State Development Cor­poration (PKNS) is one of the companies that began implementing a corporate integrity system in 2012.

The Selangor investment arm esti­mates it has saved more than RM400 mil over four years since it began practising an open tender system and prohibits direct negotiation.

PKNS integrity manager S Normalis Abdul Samad says the savings were calculated based on the Public Works Department estimation of project cost minus the price quotations of contractors that won the tenders.

“We need to get the best prices, the best value for money without compro­mising on quality. We’re very stringent now,” Normalis tells FocusM in a phone interview.

She adds that the state-owned com­pany practises a no-gift policy.

“If a contractor sends a hamper to us, we will write a thank you letter but politely ask it to not do so anymore in future. We want to send out a clear signal that if you want to do business with PKNS, there is no need to give tips or hampers,” Normalis explains.

Transparency International Malay­sia’s (TIM) consultancy TI BIP Malaysia Sdn Bhd director Mark Lovatt, who worked with PKNS to set up a corporate integrity system, says other govern­ment-linked companies such as Telekom Malaysia and Tenaga Nasional Bhd have also begun implementing such a system on their own.

“Telekom Malaysia, for example, no longer allows its staff to accept ham­pers. The first year it did not decline but directed the hampers to be collected on a stage at its lobby and sent to charity homes,” he says.

The next year, few contractors sent hampers to Telekom’s headquarters as they found out that the hampers would not reach their intended recipients.

Apart from state-linked companies, some private businesses have also started implementing clear integrity policies and procedures to deter corruption.

Home-grown printer Thumbprints United Sdn Bhd chairperson Tam Wah Fiong tells FocusM that 16 years ago, his company spent over RM100,000 in entertainment cost annually to secure business deals.

Now Tam, an executive committee member of TIM, strictly prohibits his staff from bribing authorities. In addition, his company spends only about RM5,000 in entertainment cost per year, yet his business has grown four-fold since then, recording a revenue of RM36 mil last year.

When asked if he lost businesses when his company cut down its enter­tainment cost, Tam admits he did lose some clients but gained new ones.

“We gained access to the export market, the US and Europe. Reducing entertainment cost means our company competes strictly on price and the quality of our product and service. It forces us to be more competitive internationally,” says Tam.

He adds that bribery among busi­nesses creates an unhealthy culture where companies splurge on lavish dinners, karaoke sessions or spas to “entertain” potential clients to secure business deals.

“[Bribery] inflates the cost of doing business, and allows uncompetitive businesses to get away with providing sub-quality services or products,” Tam notes.

Tam adds that employers need to consider the implications of condoning bribery on their businesses: “If I can bribe my customers, won’t my vendors and suppliers try to do the same with my staff too?”

KPMG Malaysia Fraud, Bribery and Corruption Survey 2013 reported that 71% of respondents believed bribery and corruption was an inevitable cost of doing business.

However, if Malaysia wants to become a technologically-advanced and global­ly-competitive economy like Germany and the US, Tam believes local compa­nies need to think long term and focus on improving their product or service quality, rather than relying on bribes to stay in business.

While enacting the Corporate Liability Provision is unlikely to completely wipe out corruption, it would perhaps send out the right signal that Malaysian top executives are increasingly intolerant of bribery and anti-competitive behaviour in business.

Green drive fizzles out for some developers

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 December 2014 © Focus Malaysia

It’s increasingly common for developers to market their commercial or residential properties as “green” by stating their green building certification rating on advertisements.

But what do these ratings mean to potential buyers? And what happens when developers fail to deliver on property with “green” elements as advertised?

A check by FocusM with Green Building Index (GBI) Sdn Bhd reveals developers are free to advertise their GBI rating as soon as their projects have secured provisional certification.

However, the catch is there is no guarantee a property will be able to maintain its provisional rating after having gone through a completion and verification assessment (CVA) to receive the full award valid for three years.

Indeed, GBI general manager Herman Teo confirms there are cases in which “developers have dropped the rating [after the] CVA” though he declined to specify the number of such incidences.

For the full story, subscribe to Focus Malaysia.

The contest for Selangor

by Gan Pei Ling / 28 April 2013 © The Nut Graph

SELANGOR is one of the hot states to watch in this general election. Both the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Barisan Nasional (BN) hope to regain the country’s richest and most populous state.

Unlike Penang, Selangor has traditionally been a BN stronghold. In 2004, the BN won all of Selangor’s 22 parliamentary constituencies and 54 of the 56 state seats. But in a dramatic turn in 2008, PKR, DAP and PAS jointly secured 36 of the state seats.

Five years on, should the PR be given a second term to administer the state? How do the two coalitions’ manifestos and candidates compare with each other? And what are the likely election outcomes?

The PR’s record

Over the past five years, the first-term PR state administration in Selangor instituted open tenders, enforced the Freedom of Information Enactment, and carried out several legislative reforms to restore its state assembly’s independence.

In 2008, the young coalition appointed four women into its state executive council and made Haniza Talha the first female deputy speaker in Selangor. The state went on to create history and appointed women to lead the Kuala Selangor District Council in 2011 and Petaling Jaya City Council in 2012.

Under the PR, the state government has also tabled balanced budgets except for 2009 due to the global financial crisis. Past Auditor-General Reports have praised the state’s financial management record, which saw Selangor’s reserves hitting a historic high of RM2.6 billion in January 2013.

Under former Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, the administration also carried out several welfare initiatives. Aside from the better-known 20 cubic-metre free water programme, it was the first to moot and implement the idea of affordable housing for the state’s lower middle class.

It is hard to miss the striking similarities between the existing welfare programmes under Khalid’s administration and the promises made in the Selangor BN manifesto. Free water, affordable housing, cash incentives for newborns, free WiFi and free tuition for students are being promised to voters if they help the BN win back the state.

Khalid Ibrahim

The BN also says it would lower assessment taxes – and that’s about where the similarity ends. It remains silent on local government elections, which PR state governments have struggled to reinstate due to restrictons in the federal Local Government Act. Penang has since brought the federal government to court, while Selangor experimented with village chief elections in 2011.

It is also uncertain if the BN will carry on the practice of open tenders and legislative reforms kick-started by the PR. In contrast, the PR in Selangor have pledged to continue improving the state’s governance, including setting up an autonomous legislative service commission that will restore the state assembly’s financial independence.

Candidates

The BN unveiled its list of candidates on 16 April 2013. It dropped tainted leaders such as former Menteri Besar Dr Mohd Khir Toyo and Datuk Mohd Satim Diman, but five of its candidates have since been accused of possessing bogus degrees.

And while the PR’s candidate for menteri besar is quite likely Khalid again if he wins, things on the BN side aren’t so clear. Glomac Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Fateh Iskandar, a high-profile Umno politician who was initially speculated to be the menteri besar-in-waiting, is not competing in the elections. So who will become Selangor’s menteri besar if the BN is voted in? Selangor BN coordinator Datuk Seri Mohd Zin Mohamed told The Star that four candidates had been shortlisted but remained tight-lipped about their identities.

Political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat believes the BN’s lack of a clear menteri besar candidate will hamper its campaign in Selangor.

“Selangor is one the most urbanised states and voters’ expectations are higher. People will ask. The BN needs somebody who can clearly compete with Khalid,” he told The Nut Graph in an interview on 21 April 2013.

Najib’s influence

BN national chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak has appointed himself to lead the campaign in Selangor. But Universiti Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections (UMCEDEL) director Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Redzuan Othman thinks Najib’s influence could be limited.

Mohd Redzuan

According to the centre’s latest survey among 1,407 voters in peninsular Malaysia from 3 to 20 April 2013, Najib is only slightly more popular than PR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The BN chief’s overall rating, at 54%, is only eight percentage points higher than Anwar’s 46%.

The study, which Mohd Redzuan presented to the press on 25 April 2013, also found the electorate’s general acceptance of the PR’s manifesto to be higher than BN’s manifesto.

Overall, the difference in support for both coalitions is only between three and five percentage points. Mohd Redzuan declined to reveal the exact figures but said both scored less than 50%. “It could swing both ways (on polling day),” he said.

The UMCEDEL survey did not focus separately on Selangor, but Mohd Redzuan told The Nut Graph that the state differed from other peninsular states with its high internet penetration rate. From previous surveys, the level of support for the PR has tended to be higher among voters who have access to the online media.

In 2008, most seats that fell to the PR were urban or semi-urban, while Umno retained most rural seats.

Forecast

Wong predicts that the PR has a strong chance of retaining Selangor barring “massive” electoral fraud.

Assuming state-wide Malay Malaysian voters’ support at 35%, Chinese support at 80%, Indian and other ethnicities’ support at 40%, and a similar voter turnout rate as in 2008, Wong calculated that the PR should still be able to win 34 seats.

“That’s a very conservative estimate, taking into account the effect of Najib’s goodies including BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia),” he said. People in Selangor have benefited from Selangor PR’s welfare programmes as well, he added.

A more optimistic picture could see Malay support for the PR at 40%, and combined support from other ethnicities at 50%, thus enabling the PR to win more than 40 seats and secure a two-third majority in Selangor.

Still, some 25 state seats in Selangor are seeing three- to six-cornered fights with a flurry of independents and small parties in the fray. How will that affect the election outcome? Where former party members are contesting as independents, such as former Selangor DAP publicity secretary Jenice Lee and Sepang Umno Youth chief Datuk Suhaimi Mohd Ghazali, Wong said it would hinge on how far the political parties can pacify the disgruntled supporters.

“They may split vote for both sides,” he said. “It depends on the seats contested, but, in the bigger picture, I think they are not a threat (to the BN or PR).”

Better deal for Malaysians?

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 April 2013 © Selangor Times

MALAYSIANS are finally going to the polls on May 5 after intense speculation for more than a year.

BN chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak pledged more cash handouts and development projects in a manifesto themed “Aku Janji” unveiled last Saturday.The ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is going all out to regain the two-thirds majority in Parliament and five states it lost -in 2008.

Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which aims to unseat the half-a-century-old regime, promises lower petrol, water and electricity prices, to reform public institutions and wipe out corruption in its manifesto titled “Pakatan Harapan Rakyat” released earlier in February.

BN & PR manifestos' cover

The manifestos provide a gauge for our 13.27 million voters the direction BN and PR plan to take our country, particularly for some three million people who will be voting for the first time.

So how do the two coalitions size up against each other? Selangor Times speaks to independent analysts and academics to get their immediate thoughts.

Business-as-usual for BN

Merdeka Centrer for Opinion Research programme director Ibrahim Suffian thinks BN’s manifesto is an extension and report card of Najib’s attempted reforms.

“It has a lot of explanations about what the (incumbent) government has done and the future projects that they want to put in place,” he said in a phone interview.

Najib took over the premiership from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi exactly four years ago.

Notable reforms implemented during his administration include the abolition of the Internal Security Act, emergency laws and annual licence for newspapers.

He also set up the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (Pemandu) which introduced the “Government Transformation Programme (GTP)” and “Economic Transformation Programme (ETP)” in a bid to overhaul the bloated civil service and national economy.

Yet, Najib’s tenure has also been plagued by corruption scandals involving the National Feedlot Corporation, submarine deals and most recently, native customary land grab in Sarawak.

Ibrahim pointed out that as the incumbent government, BN has found it difficult to tackle corruption, cut wastage in the public sector and address other systemic problems in the economy.

“They promised to carry out open tenders but this has not been done,” he noted.

As such, the BN manifesto focuses on giving more cash back for the public and infrastructure development such as building more roads, highways and schools.

In comparison, the independent pollster said PR offers more groundbreaking proposals to promote good governance.

The three-party alliance has vowed to restructure the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, restore its integrity by focusing on big corruption cases as well as reviewing anti-graft laws.

PR leaders have also agreed to abolish the Official Secrets Act and enact a Freedom of Information Act after earning brickbats from critics for failing to include it in their manifesto.

Populist policies

However, Ibrahim and political economist Prof Dr Edmund Terence Gomez think that both manifestos are populist in nature.

While BN pledged to give more cash to low-income earners and increase subsidies, PR said it would lower fuel and utility tariffs, abolish the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) and provide free tertiary education.

In addition, both coalitions have promised to raise government servants’ salary.

“They didn’t deal with the issue of how the government is going to pay for it,” said Gomez, an academic from Universiti Malaya Faculty of Economics and Administration.

He said the country relies on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to drive economic growth but inadequate attention has been paid to economic reforms needed to spur the growth of SMEs.

To be fair, PR did mention it would set up a RM500 million innovation fund and divert government assistance from large industries to SMEs if it comes into federal power.

And BN has mentioned in its manifesto that it would implement a plan for the “transformation” of SMEs and set up a National Trading Company to promote SMEs’ products in overseas markets.

But Gomez hit out at Najib’s administration for failing to implement significant reforms under the much-touted New Economic Model, ETP and GTP.

“They have identified the problems in our government, economy, education and came out with recommendations.

“But they have had problems instituting the reforms over the past four years. Why should we assume that they will be able to keep their promises (in the manifesto)?” he said.

Responsible promises

Gomez acknowledged that increasing the Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia for singles up to RM600 and households to RM1,200 is a highly effective way for BN to garner electorate support among t  e poor.

The cash handout will provide temporary relief to low-income groups.

“But is it sustainable? Will it solve the issue of poverty?” questioned the public intellectual.

He noted that Sabah, Sarawak and other states in Peninsular Malaysia such as Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis remain the poorest states in the country.

And BN has failed to address the widening regional development gap despite being in government for 55 years.

Although a manifesto is a set of election promises to woo voters, it should still be based on sound policies that are feasible and sustainable.

BN & PR key promises

Gomez highlighted that both coalitions have pledged to build more affordable homes without dealing with the core problem of escalating construction cost and property speculation.

Meanwhile, PR also seems to be contradicting itself by vowing to improve public transportation, reduce traffic congestion yet slashing car and fuel prices at the same time.

With cheaper cars and travelling costs, the public will have little incentive to adopt public transport.

“It will likely congest our streets even more (and increase carbon emission). At an age where everyone is concerned about climate change, is it a wise move?” Gomez remarked.

A better Malaysia

Finally, providing quality public education is central to eradicating poverty and nurturing the human resources needed to steer Malaysia towards achieving developed status. But the declining standard of our education system has become a common complaint among parents, teachers and students.

Educationist Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon said the BN’s approach to education has been a failure.

“They talk about creating a world-class education system but I don’t see how they can achieve it,” Toh said in a phone interview.

The retired academic believes under PR, at least there is hope that greater emphasis will be placed on meritocracy in the recruitment and promotion of teachers.

“There’s also hope that there will be greater decentralisation, providing state education departments and district offices more flexibility in the implementation of education policies,” said the soft-spoken Toh.

He said decentralisation in decision-making in the government has helped to raise education standards in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.

The former Gerakan politician added that PR is more forthcoming in its pledges to provide equal resources to schools from various language streams.

On top of that, the young coalition vowed to loosen the government’s stranglehold on our tertiary institutions and restore academic freedom by abolishing the Universities and University Colleges Act.

Overall, PR seems to offer a bolder manifesto to reform our government, economy and education.

But aside from the manifestos, the quality of candidates put forth by political parties will influence voters’ decision in the polls too.

Come May 5, whichever coalition makes it to Putrajaya, it is up to citizens to hold the political parties accountable to their election promises and ensure the new government implements responsible policies to develop the country.


 

Sidebar: What’s in it for the women and indigenous people?

WOMEN make up half the population in the country but local political parties have been slow to adopt policies to promote gender equality.

Both Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Barisan Nasional (BN) have pledged to increase women’s participation in decision-making roles in their manifestos.

But are they serious in removing obstacles that hinder female participation in politics and the economy?

In the 12rh General Election, only 23 women were elected to Parliament, making up slightly over a tenth of the 222 seats.

The statistics are even lower in state legislatures, where there were only 27 BN female lawmakers and 21 from PR out of the 576 state seats.

Women’s rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah thinks both coalitions should put forth more women candidates in the upcoming polls if they were committed to their pledge.

“We definitely need more women in Parliament and State Assemblies,” said the executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower) in an email interview.

She pointed out that both coalitions are more interested in giving out cash to married women in their manifestos.

Policies that empower young or single women are notably missing.

“Both are weak in substantive empowerment due to the welfare approach. There’s nothing wrong in giving money but it’s a short-term measure,” said Maria.

The saving grace for BN, she said, is that the coalition claimed it would implement schemes to support women working from home.

“But what about men who choose to work from home? Why are they not encouraged?” questioned the activist.

She said the policy is based on a false, stereotypical assumption that only women work from home.

Furthermore, Maria took the BN regime to task for failing to implement significant gender reforms after 55 years in government.

“Women’s groups have been fighting for the recognition of other forms of rape in our laws such as marital rape and gang rape, the review of Syariah laws that discriminate against Muslim women, the implementation of sex education to reduce sexual violence against women,” she cited as examples.

She added that there has been little effort by the BN regime to address the increase of women affected by HIV and AIDS, human trafficking and review the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.

Maria gave PR credit for addressing some of these issues in its Agenda for Women, which was launched separately last year.

It also promised to adopt gender budgeting, which is about breaking down government data to ensure public resources are allocated equally to both sexes.

“It will shift the burden of women’s welfare from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to the Health, Education, Transport and other ministries that also deal with women’s problems,” she explained.

Meanwhile, both BN and PR have promised to uphold the indigenous people’s native customary land rights (NCR).

However, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns director Dr Colin Nicholas said if BN was sincere, its federal and state governments should have withdrawn from court battles over land disputes with the indigenous people.

“Why make free promises now?” questioned the academic-turned-activist.

He highlighted that PR has vowed to gazette 141,000 hectares of Orang Asli land but he said that is less than 20% of their customary land.

“It’s not enough and it’s what the BN government recognises as well,” said Nicholas in a phone interview.

While the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government has tried to gazette Orang Asli reserve over the past five years, the Kelantan government has been embroiled in land disputes with the Orang Asli there.

“It’s very difficult to ask the Orang Asli there to vote for PAS,” he said.

Nicholas said both BN and PR should come forth and support the UN Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, implement laws to comply with the it if the coalitions are truly for indigenous people.

Rumblings from Baram

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 March 2013 © Selangor Times

DURING a recent trip to Miri in January, my flight arrived at the same time as the Sarawak Chief Minister’s.

I watched from my economy seat as Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud stepped down from his jet plane, accompanied by his young Lebanese wife Puan Sri Raghad Kurdi Taib, on a red carpet.

Abdul Taib has ruled Sarawak for more than three decades as the president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).

He took over the reins of power from his uncle, the third Chief Minister Tun Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Yaa’kub, in 1981.

Under his rule, Sarawak, together with Johor and Sabah, is known as the fixed deposit for Barisan Nasional (BN).

At present, DAP only holds two out of 31 federal seats in Sarawak while PKR has none.

The political tsunami, which resulted in a change in five state governments in Peninsular Malaysia in 2008, did not reach Sarawak’s shores.

BN comfortably retained its two-third majority in the 2011 state elections, clinching 55 out of 71 seats.

In the upcoming national polls, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) hopes to wrest a third of the parliamentary seats in Sarawak in their quest to oust BN from Putrajaya.

“We’re confident of winning 10 seats (in Sarawak),” said PKR’s Baram parliamentary candidate Roland Engan.

The indigenous lawyer hails from Long Jeeh, one of several Kenyah villages along the main river of Baram.

Apart from urban seats like Kuching, Sibu and Miri, PR is focusing on rural constituencies such as Baram where the indigenous people are increasingly dissatisfied with the ruling government due to land disputes and corruption.

Legendary valley

I had flown to Sarawak at my own expense to cover the indigenous people’s protest against the Baram hydroelectric dam, which will displace about 20,000 natives from their homes and flood 412 sq metres of rainforest.

PKR had initiated the long boat protest, backed by Save Sarawak Rivers Network.

The NGO was set up last year to oppose several mega dams the state government is building. Its chairperson, Peter Kallang, is also a Kenyah born and bred from Long Ikang, Baram.

The Baram valley is home to Malaysia’s second longest river and many legends.

The river runs strong and wide. It serves as the “highway” for the locals here.

The Baram River

Kenyah and Kayan villages can be found along the main river while Penan villages are scattered around its tributaries.

However, the vast Baram basin has been logged intensively since the 1980s.

Once translucent, the river has turned murky over the years due to soil erosion.

An independent candidate, Harrison Ngau Laing, had won the Baram parliamentary seat by capitalising on logging issues in 1990.

The Kayan lawyer has since joined PKR and is now the party’s Baram branch chief.

In the 2011 elections, he competed in Telang Usan, one of two state seats under Baram, and lost narrowly by 845 votes to PBB’s Dennis Ngau.

But in the neighbouring state seat of Marudi, PKR’s candidate was thrashed by BN, which won with a 3,202 majority.

The Baram parliamentary constituency has a total of 29,042 voters according to the Election Commission’s latest statistics in November 2012.

Engan, who helped Harrison campaign in 2011, hopes to ride on the people’s growing opposition against the Baram Dam to garner support in the upcoming polls.

PR has pledged to halt the construction of mega dams.

But would his strategy work? The villagers’ response to the long boat protest organised by PKR could serve as a gauge.

Rural protest

On Jan 16, the organisers met in Long San, a village about six hour drive from Miri, before travelling upstream to the furthest village reachable by boat – Lio Mato, which literally means Hundred Isles in Kenyah.

Twenty-six villages that will be directly affected by the dam were invited to join the long boat convoy travelling downstream from Lio Mato to Long Lama over a period of five days.

Engan, Kallang and local activists visited the villages one-by-one to mobilise the people and collect signatures.

At the first stop on Jan 17 at Long Tungan, some 40 villagers dressed in traditional costume warmly welcomed the convoy with drums. But the same could not be said about subsequent villages like Long Semiang and Long Selaan, where few villagers were around to receive the convoy.

Villagers at Long Tungan received the protest convoy warmly.

Most village chiefs, political appointees who receive RM450 monthly and other perks from the state, are still afraid to be associated with the opposition party and told their villagers to stay away.

Yet, a few village chiefs would openly declare their support for PKR as they pinch their hope on the party to scrap the hydropower project should it come into power.

“We have stayed here all our lives. God gave us this land. We have everything we need here. We don’t want to move,” Long Apu village head Tingang Use told the crowd when met on Jan 18.

Their villagers had lined up along the jetty to greet the protesting convoy.

At villages like Long Anap, Long San and Long Na’ah, the people disregarded their chiefs’ instruction and welcomed the convoy enthusiastically.

Shouts of “Ayen ti dam! Mangna dam! Amai manu dam!”, which means “Stop Baram Dam” in the Kenyah, Kayan and Penan language respectively, rang out as the convoy continued on its journey down the river.

Mobile and Internet coverage were non-existent until we reached Long Na’ah, the village closest to the proposed dam site.

The Kayan villagers had chased the dam surveyors away last year and erected a warning sign at the village’s entrance.

“We told them they are not welcome here and warned them not to come again,” said Enyie Eng, 67, a subsistence farmer who participated in the long boat protest.

At the end of the journey on Jan 20, over 40 long boats converged at Long Lama.

In addition, some 500 people were gathered at the town to listen to speeches by Engan and Alan Ling, the DAP assemblyperson who defeated former SUPP chief Tan Sri Dr George Chan to win the Piasau seat in Miri in 2011.

Ini kali lah?

Following the January protest, Abdul Taib flew to Long Lama last month and announced the establishment of a new township at Telang Usan.

The Chief Minister’s visit aimed to pacify rising opposition against the dam, apart from to shore up support for incumbent Baram MP Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan ahead of elections.

Sagan, who is also the Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industries, has held the seat since 1994.

But the indigenous people in Baram have lost hectares of their customary land to logging companies over the decades.

The hydropower project, which will force them out of their ancestral homes entirely, may just prove to be the last straw that will break the camel’s back.

Many villagers I met said they tune in to Radio Free Sarawak daily from 6pm to 8pm to listen to the only traditional media outlet that dares critique the Abdul Taib government openly in Sarawak.

The state had threatened to jam the British-based radio station in January as it is fast making inroads into rural areas.

Nevertheless, Sarawak is huge and with its one million voters scattered in remote villages, the task of stopping the radio station has not yet taken place.

Engan has had to dig into his own savings to campaign in the Baram parliamentary constituency, which is as big as Pahang, the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia.

He said PKR allocates RM3,000 a month to the Baram branch but one trip to the interior could easily cost twice as much.

Despite the wealth of its natural resources, Sarawak’s infrastructure development lags far behind Peninsular Malaysia states.

It is also the third poorest state in Malaysia, after Sabah and Perlis.

A short documentary recently released by international human rights watchdog Global Witness laid bare the systemic corruption in the state and its grave implications.

Titled Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, the 16-minutes film exposed the instruments used by certain parties to evade taxes and profit from land deals at the expense of the natives, who were described as “squatters”.

However, PKR candidates will bring the film to longhouses and broadcast it before their ceramah, as Engan would screen documentaries on Bakun whenever the convoy stops over for the night at villages.

If PKR can bring this message to its targeted constituencies, the coalition may just win enough seats in Sarawak to help them throw BN out of Putrajaya in the upcoming elections.


 

Sidebar: Grand development plan

THE Baram Dam is but one of four mega hydroelectric dams that the Sarawak government plans to build by 2020.

This is on top of the existing Batang Ai Dam, Bakun Dam, the largest outside China, and Murum Dam, expected to be completed this year.

The hydropower projects are part of the state government’s Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy plan, better known as SCORE, to produce cheap electricity to attract energy-intensive industries to the state.

The US$105 billion (RM318.5 billion) plan, which would generate nearly as much power as the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, aims to “transform Sarawak into a developed state by year 2020”.

It is part of a grand development plan to grow the state’s economy by a factor of five, increase jobs and double the population to 4.6 million by 2030.

However, the 2,400-megawatt Bakun Dam, located at the Rejang River, had already forced 10,000 indigenous people to be relocated in the 1990s.

The 944-megawatt Murum Dam, also located at the Rejang River, will displace another 1,500 natives from their homes.

Panai Erang, 55, is a Penan village chief who has been to the Sungai Asap settlement where the Bakun people are relocated.

The community leader from Kampung Ba Abang, Baram was dismayed to find out that the settlers were given substandard houses and infertile farmland.

Some of the Sungai Asap settlers have returned to Bakun and are living on floating houses at the dam site.

“All the Penans in Baram are against the dam. We want to remain in our ancestral land,” he said.

Stateless natives

Erang had travelled with the protesting long boat convoy organised by PKR from Jan 16 to Jan 20 for the entire journey.

From village to village, he would urge the Kenyah and Kayan to protest the dams with their votes.

“Many Penans can’t vote because we don’t have ICs, I hope the Kenyah and Kayan people can vote for PKR so that the dam can be cancelled,” he said.

Erang said more than half of his villagers do not have birth certificates nor MyKad and only five people from his village can vote at present.

The difficulty in securing a MyKad is a long-standing sore point among the indigenous people in Sarawak.

At least 40,000 indigenous people in the state are stateless, the deputy federal regional development minister Datuk Joseph Entulu Belaun estimated in 2010.

A 27-year-old woman of Kenyah-Kayan descent from Long Pillah, Baram, told me she has travelled to Miri to apply for a MyKad last year but was asked to apply again.

“They want the village chief’s and school principal’s support letters and photos of my five siblings. But I have lost contact with them,” said the mother-of-four who declined to reveal her name.

Her siblings are either married to other villagers or working in towns like Bintulu and Kuching.

Without mobile coverage in her village and their addresses, she said she is practically left in a limbo.

Stateless indigenous youths like her are forced to remain in the village to work as caretakers or farmers.

Those who went to work in urban areas risk being arrested by the police.

Life is likely to get tougher for them if the dams are built.

Without a MyKad, it will be difficult for them to look for jobs in towns and cities.