Leon Donald: “I feel at home with DAP.”

The buzz about Sarawak’s impending state elections has set tongues wagging in the coffee shops and boardrooms on its potential outcomes. So The Rocket caught up with Sri Aman Branch Chairman and state DAP Assistant Political Education Secretary Leon Jimat Donald to find out his take on how the elections would affect the state he loves.

Full name: Leon Jimat Donald
Education: Diploma in Management Studies, Universiti Malaya and Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) in Business Administration, University of Bolton (UK)
Age : 36
State DAP Post : Sri Aman Branch Chairman and State Assistant Political Education Secretary
Other Activities: Agricultural consulting, reading, hiking

Can you give us a brief background of yourself and your position in Sarawak DAP?
I come from a politically inclined family. My father was the former Member of Parliament (MP) for Sri Aman in 1995. That was how my interest in politics was cultivated.

I became actively involved in politics beginning in 1997. I became a youth member of Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) from 1997 till it was deregistered in 2003. Subsequently I joined Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PBDS) from 1997 till it was deregistered in 2003. I rose to the position of  its Youth Chief.

After my father was dropped from contesting in the last general election (2008), he left for PKR. I stayed back in PRS and observed the post-2008 political scenario unfolding before us. In 2008, I quit Barisan Nasional (BN) when I was sacked by the PRS President for disagreeing on party matters which were contrary to my principles.

In DAP we have many vocal and courageous leaders. The DAP elected representatives are also young and articulate in highlighting the issues concerning the rakyat. I feel more at home. I found that my political views was more in tune and in sync with DAP’s stance and policies. I am comfortable with DAP.

As I was very much under my father’s political guidance, I asked my father’s permission to join DAP and suggested that we both take different political paths. He didn’t object and encouraged me to do so. So now I am totally on my own, politically speaking.

I joined the Sri Aman branch and rejuvenated it. It was inactive since the 1980s. It has now increased in membership, with the members totalling several hundred. It is still increasing. I have an additional 200 membership forms waiting to be submitted to the DAP headquarters. Despite us not intentionally recruiting members, we are still seeing many new members coming in. This is a good sign for us.

The state DAP leadership saw the results and decided to appoint me as a state committee member this year. As I am one of the few bumiputeras on the committee, I have been vocal in highlighting some native issues in state committee meetings. I think I am able to articulate these issues quite well due to my familiarity with Dayak and rural area issues. I know what the rural people need and feel as I myself lived amongst them in the long houses. The state committee often accepts my views on the rural area issues and politics.

As the state election is looming near, what is the general feeling as to when the state elections will be held? What are the likely reasons for those dates?

Our supporters can’t wait to have the elections now and show what they think about the current government (laughs). With so much news about it being covered in the media, the people know it is coming soon, but they are just not sure of when it will be. However, the term of this Sarawak State Assembly is due to end in May 2011 so it can only be a matter of few months more.

Some of the dates that have been speculated and bandied about, such as October 2010, is a strategy by BN to confuse the opposition parties and exhaust their resources to campaign before BN does. As the election nears, the opposition will need to campaign more in the rural areas. Campaigning in the longhouses is logistically challenging and requires huge monetary resources. This will be crucial for the opposition as resources are limited for us. BN knows this and is broadcasting these dates to confuse us. They are hoping to catch us with our guard down.

I think the elections will be held early next year, not at the end of this year. We can get an indication of this based on BN’s level of preparation. Being in BN before, I know how they think and prepare for elections. They would normally take eight to ten months for preparation and campaigning before they call for elections.

The government machinery has been put on standby mode and they have begun to campaign almost everyday. They have only just started disbursing the Minor Rural Project (MRP) funds to the longhouses. They are also making more promises to the people. I believe the money for these promises will only be disbursed to the BN state assemblymen (ADUN) in February or March next year. As they distribute these funds, they will justify that they have kept their promises to the people. Then they will call for elections.

The money for this year’s allocation for the ADUNs has already been used up. They will have wait for the funds to arrive first. If they were to call the elections now, they will be seen as making empty promises.

The funds are usually provided by the state government. However now, even the federal government has begun to contribute as well. They are promising to match the state government’s funding, ringgit for ringgit, to each BN ADUN. Since March 2008, the state government has provided RM400,000. That means the BN ADUNs are getting RM800,000 annually for their area funding.

What are the issues affecting the people of Sarawak?

For urban folks, it is the rising cost of living and land assessment rates while for the rural population, it is the issue of land ownership. I believe the rising cost of living is a national issue as well.

For urban dwellers, the land lease renewal takes centre stage. The state government is being totally insensitive to the people by charging them exorbitant rates for their land lease renewal. That is very unfair for the people as they are already suffering enough from rising inflation rates. This is just another form of taxation for them.

Even if the state government is to impose the fees on a staggered basis, say over ten years, it will still burden the rakyat. For the town folks who inherited agricultural land in the town areas, it is already difficult to make ends meet, how will they be able to pay the land lease renewal fees?

In the rural areas we have longstanding Native Customary Rights (NCR) land issues. The people have the land but they don’t own it; that is to say they don’t have the documentations to prove ownership of it. The state government keeps giving flimsy excuses in saying that all NCR land is government land. The question then arises, where is the people’s land? The recent announcement by Dato Seri Najib Razak that the federal government will provide funds to conduct perimeter surveys of NCR land and that it will help solve the people’s NCR land ownership issue is absolute hogwash. Land matters are the state government’s prerogative.

Now more proposals are forthcoming. The state government is promising to give out titles for longhouse, while keeping mum on the NCR land titles. What is the point of giving the longhouses titles without the titles for the NCR land? The people need the land to grow crops for survival. They are using many ploys to distract the public from the NCR land title issue.

The state government does not have a say over income from the oil and gas revenue; the oil and gas royalty being at a mere five percent. Most of the timber is gone. Where are they to get the income from?

Hence, land-related activities are the only major source of income for the state government. They can sell the NCR land to big corporations and investors to grow oil palm. In addition the NCR land can be parcelled out to the cronies for their projects.
As a result, the people are not allowed to develop their land while the big corporations are given the right to do so. Moreover, they are not getting any benefit from it. This is making the people very unhappy.

In the 1990s, the state government introduced the joint venture (JV) system whereby the people, private investors and the state government jointly participate to develop the land, with the private investors calling the shots. As the minority shareholder, the people don’t have the right to decide on what parts of the land are to be developed.

Often, the corporations encroach on burial and cemetery lands recklessly without concern for the people’s approval and feelings. There are certain lands which according to local customs are held dear but the corporations totally disregard this fact. It is causing a lot of unhappiness amongst the native population.

The anger on the ground is palpable. As the government controls the media and the police, there is no avenue for them to voice out their anger. This is the time for us to go in and spread the message of change and give them political awareness. However, we need more people to help us spread the message.

Do the politicians offer serious solutions, or are they just paying lip service?

If the BN politicians were to voice out disagreement over the NCR land issue, they will either be dropped or victimised. That is why they are afraid to voice out this issue.

They are aware of what is going on, but they can’t do anything without jeopardising their positions. They are not providing any solutions; they refuse to address it altogether.
I feel there is a great need on the ground that is clamouring for changes. The BN politics of development is more like politics of ransom. It is like saying if you don’t support us (BN), you don’t get projects. My longhouse is a good example; until now we still don’t have electricity. That shows the kind of hardship that the rakyat have to face.

For Pakatan Rakyat (PR), we can change things if we are in power. Whenever good policies are implemented in the PR-run states in Peninsula Malaysia, the people here take notice. It makes it easier for us to tell the people about what we can do when we come to power.

How is PR perceived in Sarawak now?

Sarawakians are beginning to see PR as a viable alternative. As the mainstream media have ignored the opposition, the people had no venue to know about what the opposition were saying and doing. After March 2008, with PR’s good performance in Penang, Perak and Selangor, Sarawakians are beginning to see PR as the government-in-waiting. This gives us a sense of hope in terms of creating positive change.

We know that this present government is unable to deliver its promises. Even if they try to adopt our policies, they are hampered as it would conflict with their vested interest. This is clearly seen in the NCR land issue. There is not much land left in Sarawak for them to parcel out. Much of it has been given to the big corporations and cronies.

What we promise Sarawakians is to be a better and more transparent government. With the Peninsular Malaysia PR state governments’ improving performance, we are seen as capable of doing so.

Sarawakians do believe PR can do a good job in running the government. Sarawakians are not very expressive; we are quite timid by nature. So you don’t see us coming out to express our views through demonstrations or marches. However, the news is spreading through our sympathisers’ word-of-mouth campaigns. The undercurrent is strong right now; hopefully this would translate to support for PR.

On my part, I try to provide alternative news to the people by giving them The Rocket. This would provide balanced information for them to make better judgement on what is good and bad governance. This is important as Sarawak has low Internet coverage rate, which means limited access for the people to get alternative news.

What are the chances of PR denying BN’s two-third majority in this coming state elections? What about forming the next state government?

I am confident we can deny BN the two-third majority. DAP is vying for 20 to 25 state seats in the next state elections and I think we are able to win our targeted seats.

As of now, forming the next state government is quite difficult. PR needs to win 36 seats to form the state government. The bulk of the seats are in the rural areas; that is where the real power lies. If we secure the urban area seats and win a sizable number of rural area seats, we can takeover Petrajaya.

All this however, also depends on our seat negotiation with other PR parties. Most of our seats are overlapping with PKR. We need the other PR parties to win their seats as well.

As for the general sentiments, with feedback from my area (Sri Aman), people are saying we need to do more campaigning in the rural areas. For the Chinese, they have already made up their minds. They have lost hope in their representative party in Sarawak.

What are the challenges facing PR’s preparation for this election? Are the PR parties cooperating well enough?

I think the Sibu by-election campaign shows that we can cooperate well. PKR helped us much, and we are thankful for that. In Sibu, DAP demonstrated good leadership and organisation skills. The planning and coordination was much better when compared with the Batang Ai by-election campaign. The ceramahs were better organised and received. During the Batang Ai by election, there was no proper coordination and organisation. We were grasping at the straws.

I think our PR partners need to buck up in the organisation and coordination. For DAP, I think we are quite organised but I do have concerns for PKR. They need to resolve their in-fighting. I thank God that DAP is not afflicted by this issue and that our leadership is strong.

Frankly, PR also suffers from the same problem that afflicts BN, which is seat lobbying. Some individuals have indicated their interest to contest in my area as the PR candidate. They have indicated to the PR leaders that they are strong candidates but they have yet to campaign.

I myself have been going around my area and the people know me. I have visited more than 80 percent of the longhouses in my area. The people are supporting us.  However, due to the intense seat lobbying, I worry it may divide us. If we field the wrong candidate, we may lose the seat. This is the problem besetting PR now.

PR must close ranks and unite to face the common foe, BN. We need to get the seat negotiations done soon. Once it is settled, we can go down and start preparing for the elections. When that is done, only then can we begin to dream of forming the next state government.

I must say the same is also plaguing BN now. There are two component parties busy fighting each other, it is just not reported in the media yet. On a positive note, the delay of the state elections is Godsend for us. If it is early next year, hopefully we will have enough time to settle our differences and get our house in order.

How is DAP’s preparation for the elections? Are we ready to face it?

The Sibu by-election opened the eyes of the rural folks as to what BN has been doing all these years. They see BN as getting desperate. BN is frantically throwing money at longhouses in order to secure their votes and hold on to power, while the people are suffering from increasing economic hardship.

As they have seen BN in power for so long, they know what BN stands for. It makes it easier for us to tell them of the need to change the government and to improve their livelihood. They are now seeing the truth in what we have been saying.

Previously it was very hard to campaign in the longhouses as they would not receive us. They are now more open and inquisitive of the issues. They are asking us to elaborate on it.

With all this receptiveness, it has eased our preparation somewhat. For my own team’s preparation, I have been campaigning since last year. I have covered more than 80 percent of the area assigned to me. I think my team is technically ready, with the level of preparedness nearing 70 to 80 percent.

As for the others, some of them have begun to visit the longhouses. Touching on that, I urge my fellow DAP colleagues to visit the longhouses more often as every vote from them will count. I also urge the DAP national leadership to provide more logistical and information dissemination assistance to Sarawak DAP as this would certainly help us in our preparation. -The Rocket