Putting a Stop to the Rot – Wong Ho Leng

2010’s first new addition to the Malaysian Parliment has proven to be one of its hardest working MPs as Sarawak DAP Chairman Wong Ho Leng utilises the August house to complement his work as Bukit Assek assemplyman. Ahead of the looming state elections, he updated the Rocket on the growing income disparity facing Sarawakians.

The state is so resource-rich yet the people are still suffering in Sarawak. What are the main issues causing this incongruity?

The key lies in financial mismanagement and a lack of accountability. The bulk of the finances and allocations of the state come under the control of the Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud as he is also the Finance Minister and state Planning and Resource Management Minister. About 75 percent of the state’s finances are covered by these posts which he holds.

In fact, we are very rich in terms of resources; this state is very blessed with natural wealth. It is the people who are poor, not the state. With the people, those in urban areas are slightly better off than those in rural areas which are more remote and then there are the nomadic groups such as the Penan who are truly poverty-stricken.

This is the reality of Sarawak politics and makes it easy for the government to control them.  The state government seems happy to keep the people poor because it is then easier to manipulate them; come election time, money politics makes everything much easier for them.

We have seen the politicians from Barisan Nasional become part of the political elite with huge amounts of wealth. They only go down to the ground during election periods to distribute money. Thus, there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor who cannot even make ends meet.

Our environment is also affected. Recently, there was a 50-kilometre log jam in the Rejang river which has greatly impacted the lives of all those who live along the river. The fish are dwindling and the people who live there depend on it for their food and for income. Moreover, our timber reserves are in their twilight years now.

Thus, 40,000 Iban have left their longhouses to work in Johor. But the income disparity is even more apparent when our natives go to the Peninsula or to Singapore in search of better opportunities because they will not get the amount of money that they had anticipated. Even worse is that the elderly and the children remain at the longhouses in need of money to be sent back to them. Similar situations occur in the Malay and Melanau villages as well.

What is the current government doing about the issues?

Unfortunately, I am unable to give a positive answer as to what they have done. They often paint a glossy picture of their many policies such as Sustainable Forest Management and land surveys for Native Customary Rights (NCR) land and so on, but I cannot see what they are actually doing. It appears to be pure rhetoric.

For instance, if the forest management policy was truly sustainable, we would not have 300,000 tons of timber logs and debris flowing from the upper Rejang. Nothing has been done about this enormous log jam and the media are not even allowed to report about it. Illegal logging is also continuing unabated; they even log the young trees which are yet to mature.

What are the solutions that Pakatan can offer at present, in light of not aiming for a majority of seats as yet?

As much as we are trying to capture the state government, realistically it is not that easy to accomplish during the next elections. However, be that as it may, we should produce a policy framework for the people to have faith in us if Pakatan were to one day form the government.

We just need to adopt the CAT system (competency, accountability and transparency) from the Penang government. Sarawak does not even have competent ministers; for example in the Rejang log jam matter, a competent minister would do what it takes to ensure the logs do not flow downstream. But they have done nothing and so the logs have reached all the way to Sibu town.

It is as if they suffer from an “ostrich mentality” whereby they are just hoping that the logs will disappear from their sight straight into the South China Sea. Our Environment and Public Health Minister Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh says we cannot do anything and that it is best to just let the logs flow into the sea.

Sibu is known as a log exporter, particularly of sawn timber and plywood to countries such as Japan and the United States. But now we are notorious for producing debris which is exported to the international waters! If our ministers were truly accountable, such incidents would not be allowed to occur.

In 2010, there was about RM1.4billion foreign direct investment (FDI) into Sarawak. So we have money, but where is it going? There is no transparency and when the Opposition asks questions during the state assembly sessions, often we are not given any answers. We have to chase them to get answers to our questions and even move motions to get the answers for each question.

What is the focus of Pakatan Rakyat’s aims for the impending Sarawak state elections? Is it urban-centric, rural or mixed?

We are contesting 71 seats and out of this, less than a quarter are urban seats. While DAP may take on more urban and suburban seats, it is not exclusively so as there are many rural seats which will be taken on by us as well as by PKR, SNAP and PAS. Thus, our focus now is as a whole unit, no longer just as an individual party. This is the beauty of a coalition; it means we are no longer just thinking about each party, but working towards a common aim.

What are the key challenges, whether internal or external, facing PR ahead of the elections?

Seat allocation is definitely the paramount issue within Sarawak Pakatan Rakyat itself. We cannot deny that it is a factor at the moment especially as we have yet to be fully tested as a coalition, except for the Sibu by-election in May where it seemed Pakatan could work together well enough. But to repeat this cooperation in a state election that involves 71 constituencies is another matter.

Externally, it has long been known that opposition news, particularly from DAP, is scanned and prevented from publication in the mainstream media. Despite us doing well in the state assembly and raising important issues in the Parliament, none of this is reported in the major newspapers so it is quite a bizarre scenario. When we take the Chief Minister to task on a variety of issues, all that is reported is that he admonished us!

But of course, now we have the alternative media, which is more open via the internet. This is to our advantage as many of them are more prepared to carry our views. Parliament also offers the opportunity to speak more clearly; for instance, we probed whether the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has started investigations into the multiple allegations of corruption levelled at Taib Mahmud and his family pertaining to the properties and businesses they own in the US, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

What makes Sarawak and East Malaysia so different from West Malaysia? Are these differences being addressed currently?

There is still an “anti-Peninsula” mentality among some Sarawakians who question why West Malaysia has to “colonise” them instead of allowing them to be autonomous. But I think the fault lies in BN itself because they have painted anything that is from West Malaysia as a foreign attempt to colonialise Sarawak.

This was seen in August 1978 when DAP first branched into Sarawak, it was branded as a foreign element that was coming in to disturb the peace. Even today, in any elections, Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP) will tell the people to reject the “Peninsula party” (referring to DAP). That is how BN component parties impacted the public so that they perceive us as totally different and are then less prepared to cooperate with us.

The same treatment has been doled out to PKR as well, although SUPP never labelled UMNO-BN as foreign even though they, too, are not native to Sarawak. But are we really that different from other parties? We only appear that way because BN want us to be seen that way, and they do this even as the Prime Minister says we are all “1Malaysia”!

When people in the Peninsular look at Sarawak, they also perceive us differently because of the political tsunami of 2008 which did not manage to impact Sabah and Sarawak. There was not even a ripple felt in East Malaysia at first and that led Pakatan to put in exceptional effort to win the Sibu by-election this year. We came together to show the people here that East and West are not as different as they might believe.

So it is more a question of mindset; and the fault does not lie with the people but with the BN leadership. We must remember that many areas of Sarawak are under-developed, with very little or no access to balanced information. We are very rich in terms of resources but our money has been sucked from our backyards to build the Twin Towers, Putrajaya and so on. Yet the Sarawak BN leaders are still not putting a stop to such incidences.

Money does not come into Sarawak from Putrajaya unless BN needs to use the state as a fixed deposit. Out of the 31 Parliamentary seats in Sarawak, the Opposition has two so the state is really a crucial “deposit” for BN. Come election time, the goodies will trickle in and it is enough to keep BN leaders in East Malaysia so happy that they will kneel down to their UMNO leaders. It is very sad but true.

Post-March 2008, there was greater emphasis on East Malaysia by BN. How is this being received by Sarawakians?

The urban voters such as my constituents in Sibu are not falling for these tactics. They are not being bought over because they know the insincerity of BN. In fact, even when a segment of people in Rejang Park were offered RM5 million by the Prime Minister during the by-election, they still turned it down.

This was a deliberate and subtle message from the people, that no matter what kind of carrot is dangled in front of them, they are no longer interested in playing those games. But this tactic still works in the more rural areas, which make up 75 percent of the state’s voters. They do believe the promises and lip service from BN because they desperately need the scraps offered by BN.

What is it like being an MP especially as there are so few Sarawakian opposition MPs in the Dewan Rakyat?

Life in Parliament has been challenging; I had to quickly improve my comprehension of Malay as I was not educated in Malay during my school days. But nothing is more pleasurable than standing up and saying to the Speaker, “Tan Sri, this represents the voice of the people of Sibu or Sarawak.” The knowledge that I am speaking for the people after they have had 24 years of silence (in Sibu) is truly satisfying.

I am also privileged to have so many experienced leaders around me to guide me in my Parliamentary work. We make sure that we use up every one of the 15 questions which we are entitled to and it is tough work but I feel it is a blessing to be able to serve the people in this manner.

Sarawak issues used to be brought up mostly by Bandar Kuching MP Chong Chieng Jien although national leaders such as Lim Kit Siang and Teresa Kok also champion these issues. Now, Chong and I meet often to discuss before Parliament sessions on which issues need to be raised. We are elected by the people of Kuching and Sibu respectively to be their voices but we also speak for all the other areas which do not have an MP who is willing to speak for them. The minority groups such as the Penan and Kelabit or even the Kadazan from Sabah come to see us, even though we are not their MPs but they have no one else who will listen to them.

How has becoming an MP affected your work as a state assemblyman and state chairman?

Time management is the paramount consideration. God gives the same amount of time to every one of us. My three posts could not be any heavier to bear than that of say, Lim Guan Eng who is Penang Chief Minister, DAP Secretary General, Bagan MP and Air Putih assemblyman yet he copes with his workload.

So it is just a matter of juggling well. But it is more of a positive thing because being both an assemblyman and an MP gives us an edge as whatever matters which we cannot raise in the state assembly sitting can be raised in Parliament. Moreover, knowledge learned in Parliament can be utilised in the assembly so it is the best of both worlds.

What is your personal vision of reform and some changes you would like to see?

My main interest is to see corruption reduced to the lowest possible level. It cannot be completely eradicated as it exists even in countries like Sweden and Singapore but it should never be condoned by those at the top. When those at the top are corrupt, you can be certain that it will also trickle down to the bottom.

I also want to see reforms in administration because the system is not working. Those who are high up in the system seem to be blinded by power while the people suffer below. As with corruption, while poverty cannot be totally removed, it can be significantly reduced so that the income disparity is closed.

Many Iban longhouses today still do not have electricity. In Batang Ai, there is a hydroelectric dam with high-tension cables 200 feet above the longhouses, yet these people are not given electricity supply.  This is like the book Animal Farm whereby “all are equal but some are more equal than others”. It is very sad but that is the reality of Sarawak which needs to be addressed immediately.

It is quite common to see longhouses that face each other across the river, separated by 200 metres, but one has electricity from Sesco (Sarawak Electricity Supply Corporation) while the other does not, and has to rely on costly diesel-powered generators. The Prime Minister saw this during the by-election campaign and was shocked. He asked for this to be addressed and within days, electricity was supplied. Do we need the Prime Minister to visit every longhouse in Sibu and Sarawak before they are given basic amenities? Is that how 1Malaysia works?