The Star Online|Malaysia 13th General Election

GE13: Stories from around the country

When the general election comes, the tukang cerita gets away from the intrigues of the nation’s elite and sets out to explore, engage and experience other worlds.

THE 1995 general election was the first that I covered properly, shuttling across the country from state to state during the campaign period. However, I opted out of the 1999 contest as I was busy with my law firm, an endeavour that I subsequently sold as I started living and working in Indonesia.

Nonetheless, I’ve always made a point of being somewhere a little different and unusual on nomination day itself – as far away as possible from Kuala Lumpur with its obsessive focus on the back-biting and intrigues of the nation’s elite and Barisan Nasional’s navy blue flags, if only to get a better perspective of events.

In 1995, I was with PBS’ Joseph Pairin Kitingan in Keningau, Sabah when he was very much public enemy No 1. In the mid-90s, Keningau was going through one of its periodic booms as timber prices soared and concessions in the interior were being opened up.

The town seethed with life and thousands of foreign workers from Indonesia added colour and vibrancy to a predominantly Murut community.

In 2004, I was in Rusila, Terengganu under the hot scorching sun with Tok Guru Hadi Awang, listening to countless cries of “takbir!” Now, I’ve never felt at ease with PAS. Their world has always seemed exclusive and impenetrable.

However, despite my discomfort, I remember thinking how attuned the leaders appeared to be with their followers: the gap between those on stage and those in the crowd was minimal as they discussed simple government savings and handouts. Little was I to realise that this populist strain of politics was to become dominant after the 2008 polls.

Four years later, I returned to Sabah and to Tawau in the far east, immersing myself in what had become the second-largest Bugis community after Makassar. On the morning of nomination day itself, I followed a colourful DAP candidate called “Tiger” Jimmy Wong whose determination to pursue his cause seemed totally at odds with the town’s lacklustre mood.

He was eventually elected state assemblyman for Sri Tanjong.

This year, I’m hoping to be in Limbang, Sarawak to observe the PKR lawyer, Baru Bian take on the full might of Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s PBB government: a veritable David and Goliath encounter.

My journey – reaching Limbang (via Miri) will take over six hours from the capital city – is an integral part of the process of covering the elections. They remind me, very much a “KL boy” of the scale of our country and the extent to which so many communities remain isolated.

At the same time – and this is something I’ve learnt from shooting my Astro Awani TV series, Ceritalah Malaysia – the move away from the centre helps redress the inherent biasness of our country’s media.

In this respect, I’m not talking so much about the opposition’s limited access to television and newspapers: that’s a given in our skewered, illiberal democracy.

For me, it’s the way stories and narratives from the fringes of our country – from the edge – are pushed aside and forgotten amidst a dash to fawn in front of the grand, the wealthy, the aristocratic and the Malay.

We tend not to care about what’s happening beyond the self-referential bubble that is the Klang Valley, as we revel in the intrigues that sweep across Ampang, Damansara, Bangsar and the wealthy hills to the west of KL – home of much of our country’s establishment.

I may live here, amidst the elite, but over the years I’ve become increasingly weary of their (or is it our?) preoccupations – who’s getting which contract and how much?

I guess you could say that as I approach my 50s, the bubble has burst as people who I once respected are revealed for the nasty, self-interested, corrupt slime that they truly are: albeit driving Bentleys, Porsche Cayennes and toting Hermes bags.

Instead, having spent weeks travelling around Malaysia, listening to ordinary, everyday people tell their stories; I feel honoured that I have been entrusted with so much intimacy and insight from people whose lives are tough and relentless from day one: fishermen in Kuala Kedah, stallholders in Temerloh, restaurant workers in Bau and technicians in Kota Belud.

So with the 13th general election about to begin, I’m more than happy to set off away from Kuala Lumpur to explore, to engage and to experience other worlds because without this injection of reality, it would be hard to justify my existence as a tukangcerita, a storyteller.