ON house-to-house visits at a village in Bingkor, Keningau, an assistant councillor told me: “The drains in Sabah are like the drains in the peninsula in the 1990s”.I had been working in Kg Tunku rep Lim Yi Wei’s office for slightly more than a month when she had first mentioned our office flying over to help campaign for one of the Warisan seats for the Sabah elections.Fast forward a week and a half later, we were carrying 25kg of campaign t-shirts each and hurriedly checking in to our 6.40am flight.Once we were in Bingkor, following the agenda that day, we were en route to the Bunga Raya subdistrict when one of the campaigners, Joyce, asked “Have you seen this yet? I think you might want to take a photo of this”, while stopping her car at a junction.Written across a white banner in striking black paint: “ADA ASPAL, ADA UNDI”. Aspal, or asphalt, refers to resurfaced roads. The banner was a form of protest to political parties, that the locals would only vote provided they were given basic infrastructure. In this case, roads. In Peninsular Malaysia, it costs approximately RM70,000 to resurface the distance of 2,500 sq m of road excluding additional costs such as safety and preliminaries. In east Malaysia, where the majority of paths to villages are soil and gravel, the government plays a very important role. This is because they hold the power to improve transportation, ultimately influencing the efficiency in children going to schools, farmers selling their livestock or agriculture, and access to other facilities such as hospitals – impacting the value of literacy rates and the state’s economy.Unlike the peninsula, many of the roads in Sabah are resurfaced in patches; approximately two sq m of tar, followed by two sq m more of gravel, and repeated. This pattern continued for what felt like kilometres, trailing into the Bunga Raya subdistrict and a few other villages we had visited throughout the week.When we asked the locals about this “pattern”, their responses were simple. Because certain kampung had previously voted Barisan Nasional into power, and so only those who did would receive proper roads. These roads, paid using the constituency’s allocation, are completed by a contractor according to the height and distance of asphalt to be laid onto the land. Why am I telling you about asphalt? Because I’m certain, no contractor in the world would conduct their work in patches, so where did the money for the untarred gravel roads go?Up until my internship with Yi Wei, I had never been to any political talks or been active in politics before. So, you can imagine the treat I was in for Tony Pua spoke briefly about his experience on the 1MDB exposé and how it had come to justice, when Warisan members had told stories about them leaving their previous parties due to first hand corruption, and my personal favourite, when Lim Guan Eng spoke about the prime minister’s threat to these local communities of taking away their water or electricity if they did not vote for him. Being an environmental sciences student, I felt a very personal connection to Guan Eng’s talk. Through my university lectures, research and class discussions on an average person’s basic needs such as the management of water and electricity distribution on grids, the more I listened, the bigger the stump in my chest became.“Kenapa boleh ugut orang Sabah? (How can they threaten the Sabahan people?)” Guan Eng asked the crowd. To think the country’s leader, the prime minister, had threatened to deprive the many rural villages in one whole state by taking away their basic needs for survival with the limited resources they had, was essentially in my eyes, killing them completely. This is the culture of bribery in Sabah because dirty politicians and crony capitalism who have abused its value for decades, are willing to pay virtually any amount of money or resource to ensure they are constantly kept in a position of power.Imagine depriving the basic necessities of a farmer with a daily wage of RM66.60, then presenting almost 10 times that value to him all at once, for him to place a marker written “X” next to “Perikatan Nasional”. These are real people, with families and livelihoods at stake, whom our government is toying with. In these kampung, electricity is provided only to houses adjacent to the main road while those that are not, are required to pay to retrieve energy supply. The lack of electricity is also reflected in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, where the population continuously face water and electricity cuts throughout the day. In August of this year, the New Straits Times reported the federal government’s commitment to returning Sabah’s national utility company, Sabah Electricity Sdn Bhd (SESB), which generates, transmits and distributes electricity to the entire state.These efforts ground to a halt when the PN coalition put a hold on the plan. SESB’s ownership is divided between two parties: the Sabah government (20%) and Tenaga Nasional Berhad (80%), a peninsula-based electricity utility company, and according to their website, “the largest publicly-listed power company in Southeast Asia”.The irony is that a company worth RM99.03 billion in assets and is a monopoly within its own industry, is unable to provide electricity to a single state – something I’m certain would not be let off easily in the peninsula.“Mantap Pertanian Mantap Bingkor” (Strong Agriculture, Strong Bingkor) – the slogan our N.40 Bingkor candidate campaigned with. Peter Saili, born in Keningau, was raised in a family of farmers. It is this background that has allowed him to inherit the practice into a career.In 2016, Saili joined politics in an aim to defend the rights of the rakyat of Keningau. Although this was his second time contending, our team was confident his efforts for Bingkor would be successful due to the initiatives he intended to launch:Champion agriculture by distributing 10,000 tree saplings to locals and to improve their farming techniques, with his personal experience, in order to ensure higher efficiency for larger yields.Infrastructure of roads to farms. Peter intended to start a Road Aid Fund to cover the cost of machinery and additional materials to better the journey of farmers to tamu.Women empowerment programmes, influenced by his seven sisters, to encourage local women to join economy development-based projects.The handing out of private land grants to farmers to improve soil cultivation and farming practices. This information was plastered across all Saili’s campaign flyers because it was important to communicate to locals why the person who had their best interests was the best fit candidate for N.40 Bingkor. Towards the end of the campaign trail, I was given the opportunity to follow Saili around and take photos for the visits he was making around Bingkor. At every house we went to at nearly 60 villages, he greeted every local with a big smile on his face and the warmest “Kopisanangan!” (Hello!). This included locals who supported opposition parties and those who sat in his opponents’ “markas” – a common method of campaigning in East Malaysia.A “markas” refers to the headquarters of a respective political party who essentially sets up camp in a village to win favour of locals living there. To run even a single “markas” is expensive because the party is required to pay for the scarce electricity supply in the area, cater for three meals a day, provide drinks such as alcohol, and blank forms of entertainment (for instance, karaoke) everyday to ensure locals are constantly on their side during campaign season.Using this strategy, it is also a way to hear about local gossip that could be brewing within your opponent’s party. At almost all 60 villages we visited, PN had set up at least one “markas” in the area. Coming to his late 60s, Saili’s stamina throughout the campaign trail was something I admired – mainly because even in my early 20s, I was exhausted myself. His usual days started at 6am at one of the tamu in Bingkor, followed by house-to-house visits at a minimum of two to four villages - larger ones took longer hours due to the number of houses they contained, more events or ceramahs at 7pm, office meetings at 11pm and officially ending at 12am.In car rides, Saili would stay quieter closer to polling day, both fatigue and the rakyat’s choice coming to surface. His opponent’s team was doing visits only on the day before elections. It was rumoured that locals were getting “handouts” to ensure they would vote for the “correct” party.Approximately a month after polling day, Malaysiakini published an article, “Bingkor rep denies vote-buying on Sabah polling day”. The article stated that Bersih’s election observers had documented a long queue of voters outside PN Robert Tawik’s office.On September 27, as we came back to the office from our respective polling stations, we watched the votes rise and fall on the screen in the centre of the room. On the live broadcast, former prime minister Najib Razak celebrated with Barisan Nasional members, in what looked like a fancy banquet room.Saili had lost the seat. I don’t think I will ever forget the expression on his face that evening because although he was sporting his usual warm smile, you could see the defeat in his eyes. In a room of thirty teary-eyed people, Saili made his speech for his team when no one had the words to speak. Because that’s what he was – a leader who persistently showed guidance even in the most fragile of times.In Keningau today, almost three months after the elections, headlines read “Aid for Keningau Hospital”, and “Keningau MP says received Health Ministry’s early release from mandatory quarantine”. A good government is one that reacts well under pressure, and Covid-19 being the defining factor, Sabah’s government has the exam right in front of them.With only 12% of Malaysia’s population in the state, Sabah’s 19,898 active Covid-19 cases make up approximately 38% of the country’s overall cases. Sabah remains a priority to the federal government because poor roads to healthcare, accessibility to government services and unreliable electricity services make it all the more difficult to combat the pandemic – factors controlled by the individuals in power such as the state’s MPs.From my personal experience in Sabah, the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that although ballots cannot be physically bought, money still talks. Money bought the majority of 17,828 voters of N.40 Bingkor’s rakyat, because their struggle to get through each day is never guaranteed.Even though it has potentially led them to the same candidate who failed to improve the quality of their lives over the last two years he has served, it is the rough conditions and limited resources they have that forced that choice from them. Unfortunately for Bingkor’s rakyat, this desperate feature was used to PN’s advantage for power.Saili may have lost the hearts of 60 villages of Bingkor, but to the DAP team who campaigned with him through the long hours, he’ll always be our champion. – January 6, 2021.* Hayley Lee reads The Malaysian Insight. * This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.
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