Land is very important to us, Francis Teron

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Many chiefs but too few leaders

Tuesday September 21, 2010
Source: The Star

Land is important to Sarawak’s many native communities. And with oil palm plantations edging closer to villages, the issues surrounding customary land have to be addressed.

FRANCIS Teron is a 38-year-old Bidayuh lawyer. He is a man of strong opinions. Married to Jacqueline, who’s part Bidayuh and part Iban, the couple have three boys, all under the age of 10.

The Bidayuh are one of Sarawak’s many native, non-Muslim communities.

Located predominantly in and around southern Sarawak, they share many cultural similarities with the Iban, but their language is different and they aren’t longhouse dwellers.

Francis possesses all the hallmarks of success.

He is a partner in a legal firm and has three cars.

“My hometown is called Bau, about 40km from Kuching,” he rambled.

“My father was a primary school teacher and my mother farmed and sold vegetables in the market. In fact she’s still selling vegetables even though she doesn’t need to — it has become a hobby!

“I was a mediocre student and a rebellious boy until Form Three. Luckily for me, (though I didn’t realise it at the time) my father sent me to live with my eldest brother who was a health inspector in the timber town of Kapit.

“Kapit is four or five hours up-river from Sibu. And Sibu is an hour’s flight from Kuching. I was very lonely. The local boys were involved in glue-sniffing and other things. I guess I had little choice but to study.

“I had an inspirational teacher in Douglas Telajan. He taught me how to memorise. After that I got top results in Kapit for the Form Five exams.

“The Bidayuh believe in education, and many of us join the civil service. We’re not really commercially-minded. I don’t think we’re as adventurous or aggressive as the Iban.

“I had another good teacher in Form Six, Cikgu Nik Nasaruddin. We were only the third batch of Form Six students in Kapit, and all the others had failed!

“In fact, Cikgu Nik promised us RM50 if any of us got A’s. I scored three A’s so I won my RM50. He also persuaded me to apply for law (and not political science) at Universiti Malaya.

“After Kapit, Kuala Lumpur and UM was a shock. It was crowded and the buildings were towering. People bumped into you on the street and didn’t say anything.

“Studying was very tough. I used to get a headache trying to read all the legal textbooks in English. Maybe as a result I became hooked on video-arcade games. Still, I wasn’t as badly off as the Malay boys from Kelantan and Kedah.

“I had obligations to my parents and I knew I had to qualify. Even though I had a scholarship, my parents had spent a lot of their savings on me.”

Francis found the attitude of Malay-Muslims in the peninsula a little puzzling: “They weren’t as open and friendly as Sarawakian Malays. They used to pass comments, but I learnt to remain cool.”

Given his seriousness, I can well imagine his forbearance.

Nonetheless, Francis has a direct gaze and a determined attitude — the kind of confidence you’d expect of a barrister.

While Francis has certainly prospered, he is very sceptical of the state government.

His disdain is palpable — shaking his head as I asked about the resplendent and newly-built Dewan Undangan Negri across the river from the old town.

“In the towns, we have access to information. We can see what’s going on. We can make up our own minds.

“It’s different out in the rural areas. They’re dependent on the government to provide water, electricity and schooling. Out there, they can’t take chances voting for the opposition.

“The Bidayuh are very loyal but we also see how we’ve been left behind although Sarawak is now the backbone of the Barisan Nasio­nal.

“Land is very important to us. Barisan is waking up to this; they’re starting to conduct surveys of Native Customary Right (NCR) land to register our property claims. This is a very powerful incentive for the Ibans and the Bidayuh to vote Barisan.

Of course, we have no idea whether they’re really conducting the surveys or not. But the oil palm companies are moving closer to the longhouses and kampung, so land rights have to be resolved.

“At the end of the day, we’re like second-class bumiputras. We read what (Perkasa head) Ibrahim Ali is saying. We may remain silent but in our hearts we’re saying: ‘This isn’t supposed to happen!’ This kind of thing damages the foundations of our society.

Pakatan isn’t strong enough to challenge Barisan and many of its candidates aren’t credible, though I do respect the lawyer Baru Bian (he’s done a lot for NCR rights) and Datuk Daniel Tajem. These two men have integrity.

“At the moment, we have chiefs but no leaders.”

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