Tireless torchbearer for Iban rights
In Sarawak where much is taken for granted, Ibi Uding is fighting for her people to one day enjoy clean water, electricity and land ownership.
To outsiders, Ibi is known as PKR Sarawak’s Wanita chief.
But among her own she is saluted as the Iban torchbearer in her relentless fight for their rights.
And that fight has been a formidable one.
The development that has flowed into Sarawak over the decades has not just bypassed natives living deep in the interior but also encroached into their fundamental rights.
Protests over disparity and injustices are easily muffled by those in power and would have remained silent if not for Ibi.
Seven years ago, an oil plantation company helped itself to Ibi’s land by planting its trees there.
An outraged Ibi was arrested and badly bruised in her attempt to take back what was rightfully hers.
“I lodged a report with Bukit Aman and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and I never heard a single word from them,” she said.
“That’s when I knew I had to continue fighting but on a different platform. So I became a politician.”
Faith and loyalty
Ibi, 49, joined the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) and self-financed her campaign for the Balai Ringin seat in the 2006 state election.
After the seat fell to Barisan Nasional’s (BN) Snowdon Lawan, SNAP slowly sank below the political radar screen and went into hibernation.
Ibi was dismayed but decided to wait for a second chance.
That chance came in the 2008 general election. By March 2009, she was among the first Dayaks to join PKR.
In this year’s April 16 Sarawak state election, she was the first Iban woman candidate to be fielded by PKR for the Balai Ringin constituency seat.
Balai Ringin is a two-hour drive from Kuching and is among the nine new state seats created by the Election Commission after the re-delineation of electoral boundaries in 2005.
Ibans form 89.09% of the voters there and as soon as they heard of her candidacy, they came in droves to offer their assistance.
Their deep-seated faith and loyalty formed a shield against BN’s intimidation tactics and spurred them to go further out on a limb for her.
Snowdon eventually went on to retain his seat but Ibi will never forget the fiercely defiant show of support for her from her community.
Power for pigs
One such person to stick her neck out was Ranty anak Gimang. She didn’t think twice about offering her home as Ibi’s operation centre despite the fury levelled at her by her brother who enjoys a plump allowance from the BN government.
“He is the head of another village, has a very nice house and pockets RM600 every month,” she said.
“We don’t speak anymore because I showed support for the other side.
“But how can I back a party that provides electricity and air-conditioning for a pig farm and not a village?”
Ranty lives in Kampung Limau, one of the many villages dotting the narrow road through Balai Ringin.
Her modest cement house is one of the better ones in a tiny village that has long existed in quiet isolation. It is also one of the few houses that has electricity.
The pig farm, meanwhile, was among Snowdon’s grand plans in 2006.
But all it has done is generate anger among the Ibans.
“Can you imagine how we feel knowing that pigs are living a more comfortable life than us?” Ranty demanded.
“The lights and air-conditioning at that farm are turned on 24 hours a day. And here we are hoping that one day we will get electricity and clean water.”
Rain and river water
Snowdon also planned to turn Balai Ringin into an eco-tourism destination and said that he had put forth a proposal to connect electricity to most longhouses in Bukit Begunan and Balai Ringin under the Ninth Malaysia Plan.
The 10th Malaysia Plan is already in full swing but life for the Ibans in Balai Ringin has barely budged from where it was six years ago.
To this day, they are still bathing, brushing their teeth and collecting drinking water from the drains running alongside the main road.
Portions of the drain have been blocked off to create a small pool and crude structures fashioned out of rotting wood and zinc have been built around each one.
The still water inside is dark, dank and speckled with moss.
Other houses placed buckets below their gutter to collect rain water or used a makeshift pipe.
But no matter how the water is obtained, it is never crystal clear.
“We have always been left behind,” Ranty said. “I don’t know what to say anymore.”
But Ibi does.
And she will continue saying it until the Ibans enjoy the most basic of human rights – clean running water, electricity and protected ownership of their land.
“I’m standing here not for myself or my family…
“I’m here for the Ibans and their rights. And if I can one day become their state representative, then they will have a louder voice and their lives will be better.”