A deliberation on the fate of Sibu – a town that has been on the decline since the 80s – after the buzz and attention from the by-election “courtship” is over.
Every morning for the past few weeks, the usual bird songs that accompany the breaking of dawn in sleepy Sibu have been drowned by the sounds of blades chopping through the air as helicopters tear across the skies. The hitherto unseen phenomenon of traffic jams have become a daily occurrence as police outriders bulldoze cars to the side using their wailing sirens to make way for the slew of Ministers and VIPs who have descended on the town. Government motorcades zip through the town’s small streets in every which direction passing each other as officials madly rush to campaign and canvass all the villages and longhouses.
Political billboards, flags, buntings and banners are erected, strung up, plastered and nailed on every street lamp-post, roundabout, around tree trunks, on car bonnets and even on the small vessels that ply the Igan and Rejang Rivers. “Undilah Calon BN Robert Lau Hui Yew!” “Vote for Wong Ho Leng!”
There is a festival-like atmosphere. This town is alive again.
Sibu is a town that has seen better times. Gone are the heady days of the timber boom when the town was a hive of activity, flourishing with trade and enterprise; its streets filled with cars and people late into the night.
That was back in the 1980s.
From the late 1990s onwards, Sibu has been on a steady decline, with both the economy and population shrinking. Streets in the town’s centre become quiet by early evening. Visitors to Sibu who see the residential neighbourhoods almost always comment about the stark contrast between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Palatial mansions on one side of the road and terrace houses and squatter huts on the other side. As they say here – the rich are very rich, and the poor are very poor. The middle-class is almost non-existent in Sibu.
Job opportunities are scarce. Most returning graduates are forced to look for work elsewhere in other states or countries. Even unskilled workers are not spared and form part of this diaspora. There are for example, about 40,000 Dayak workers living and working in Johore. Attempts to revive the town by hosting annual cultural events, trade expos and promoting its shipbuilding industry have not really brought about the intended results and certainly do not provide a sustainable solution to the problems.
Promises and plans to reverse the situation have not translated into real results. Talks about achieving City status in the early 2000s were delayed by a year, then two years, and now no one even talks about it anymore. Once, this town was second to the State capital, Kuching. Now it has been surpassed by Miri city. It will not be long before Bintulu does the same.
The passing of the Member of Parliament for Bandar Sibu, Datuk Robert Lau Hoi Chew on 9 April 2010 triggered a by-election and with it, the attention of the whole nation on Sibu. Suddenly the town is once again abuzz with activity. Police personnel, staff of the various ministries, campaign workers and members of the press have all swarmed into Sibu. Businesses, especially hotels, eateries, and supermarkets are thriving again. “This thing, this by-election, we should have it once every year,” a regular at one of the cafes remarked as the Prime Minister’s motorcade whizzed past.
Every night, the suburbs come alive with political ceramahs, and night after night after night, people flock to the opposition rallies. In Rajang Park, an opposition stronghold, lines of cars crawl on the roads as drivers rubberneck to see who is speaking. People crowd and push to get closer to the make-shift podiums to hear Pakatan Rakyat luminaries such as Khalid Ibrahim, Zaid Ibrahim, Nurul Izzah, Hatta Ramli, Zulkifley Ahmad, Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang’s fiery speeches. Their voices boom out of loudspeakers and resonate throughout the pedestrian mall and neighbouring terrace houses.
Even when it rains, the people stand and listen. Some sit on the dirty pavement huddling under umbrellas. The crowds cheer and applause when Lim Guan Eng ascends the podium. “Can you believe it? He is the Chief Minister of Penang. A Chief Minister!” is the usual remark heard from amongst them. Tatooed gangsters past their prime sit in adjacent kopitiams, stone-faced and sipping their lukewarm Tsingtao beer but nodding in agreement to every word the Chief Minister utters.
The speakers shout out their party’s election battle-cry in Mandarin “Vote for the Rocket!” and the people shout it back but louder! There is a strong feeling of unity and common purpose to bring about change. While issues such as corruption, government accountability, and transparency are standard fare at most Pakatan Rakyat rallies – for Sibu they have zoomed in on more localised issues such roads, drainage and flooding, native customary rights, and the high premiums connected to the renewal of expired land leases. Already, the State Government has given in to the pressure and announced a 50% discount on the premiums.
These local issues sell because they are glaringly visible and they affect the populace here on a daily basis. For example, the roads are full of pot-holes, uneven and in many instances, plainly unsafe. This is also something that doesn’t escape visitors to the town. The stretch of road outside the airport has been “under construction” for 4 years owing to a multitude of reasons only known to the Public Works Department. This is the first thing people see upon landing in Sibu.
Flood prone areas now all share a similar strange landscape. Most roads are on a level higher than the houses and driveways. The authorities’ flood mitigation plan ensures that roads are not submerged under water during floods. As for the houses and their dwellers, well…
At a town hall meeting with voters in Sibu last Thursday, the Prime Minister attempted to answer a range of questions thrown at him from the slow speed of the internet to appeals to renegotiate the 5% oil royalty due to Sarawak. In between these, the voters asked the Prime Minister for an explanation of what 1Malaysia is, a review of the National Automotive Policy, what the government plans to do about brain-drain and deteriorating health care standards.
But two things that came up over and over again were the issue of jobs and unfair treatment by government departments when it came to applications. People want jobs and wanted to know what the Government can do to create more jobs. People want to know that 1Malaysia is not a mere slogan but a real effort to change the mindset of not just the people. To some present at the meeting, they felt it was more important that 1Malaysia be aimed at those inside the government rather than outside.
Many times also, the moderator had to remind those who attended to ask only questions related to the Federal Government. Issues about high land premiums, difficulties in getting licences to mine sand, the problem of the thousands of swiftlets and sea-birds (and their droppings) that perch on trees and buildings in the town centre every night are undeniably State issues and to some, may even appear trivial. But to the average voter with no understanding about the federal-state dichotomy, these are just more unresolved issues in a long list of gripes already put forward to the Government – be it State or Federal.
So when the Prime Minister told the voters of Sibu, “You give me what I want. I give you what you want. And you know what I want.” Did he bother to ask us what exactly it is that we want? Is the Government listening?
Another thing that the Government needs to be aware of also is that unhappiness over State administrations will boil over to the detriment of the Federal Government, and vice versa. The tendency of officials to “compartmentalise” issues as exclusive from each other or to deny involvement in the activities of certain non-governmental groups that are closely linked to the Government just don’t cut it anymore. Attempts to spin a different story only end up damaging the Government’s credibility even more. In this day and age with the internet and independent news reporting, people know better.
Any government that can’t be trusted, is a government with its days numbered.