By Annabelle Lee

SARAWAK POLLS | Legend has it that Batu Kawah was named after the rock formations on the Sungai Sarawak riverbank, one of which was shaped like an overturned kawah, the Bahasa Malaysia word for a wok.

Located at the periphery of Kuching city, the suburban Chinese-Malaysian majority constituency of Batu Kawah has a new attraction these days – in the form of the Batu Kawah Riverbank Park.

On weekends, many families go there for a stroll and take the elevator up the imposing eight-storey-high “sky window” to enjoy stunning views of the river.

It was launched just last month, but generational shops along the Batu Kawah old bazaar, known as lau ba sa, a row of quaint Hakka Chinese shops linked to the park, have already seen more footfall.

The riverbank park is the centrepiece of incumbent Batu Kawah assemblyperson Dr Sim Kui Hian’s achievement list, which he is reporting on in his bid for a second term.

The former Sarawak GPS local government and housing minister is also campaigning on the fact that millions in state funding were channelled to the area in the past five years.

For the lau ba sa traders Malaysiakini spoke to, these developments are much appreciated.

Ching, who works at her parents’ corner-lot coffee shop, said she has seen her hometown improve.

Coffee shop worker Ching

“Batu Kawah has indeed been developed in the past few years. Like the riverbank park, that is very good. They have been talking about it for a long time and they eventually built it.

“When you request anything from Dr Sim – whether it is to repair roads or repair street lights – someone will do it,” she said.

While a common request was for more parking spaces so as to retain tourists in the vicinity, traders also regarded Sim as being capable of making it happen.

Wong, a third-generation owner of a sundry shop, similarly cited the riverbank park as an example of a fulfilled promise.

However, he was most impressed by how Sim responded when the community was hit with Covid-19 cases earlier this year.

“When he found out, he arranged for the entire row of shophouses to be given swab tests. This was organised very well. And they gave food to households that had Covid-19 cases,” the 39-year-old father of two said.

Sim’s political vehicles

That afternoon at the lau ba sa, Sim’s presence was deeply felt despite him not being there in person.

Two bright yellow trucks bearing his face, campaign slogans and theme song drove through the area thrice. A giant LED screen mounted on one of the trucks played a video of Sim in action as an assemblyperson.

Yellow is the colour of Sim’s party – the Sarawak United People’s Party (Supp).

The political vehicles are part of his streamlined offline and online campaign designed around the Election Commission (EC)’s pandemic polls rules, which ban most forms of face-to-face campaigning.

Sim, 56, is a cardiologist by profession and the son of former Sarawak deputy chief minister Sim Kheng Hong.

Dashed hopes at DAP

The reason why some Batu Kawah folk are less enthusiastic about Sim’s main contender – fellow doctor Dr Kelvin Yii – is because Yii is from DAP. This is despite having voted for the Pakatan Harapan component party in GE14.

The seat is part of the Stampin federal constituency, currently held by Sarawak DAP chief Chong Chieng Jen.

For Wong, in particular, he said he lost all hope in the party following its brief 22-month tenure in the federal government.

“My heart has grown cold.

“We voted for Lim Guan Eng to get into government. He didn’t do anything for us. He did not get the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) sorted. Promises were not fulfilled,” he lamented.

Many lau ba sa locals echoed this sentiment, as did those from other parts of Batu Kawah.

Retired civil servant Fah, 59, is deeply disappointed at Harapan for failing to stay intact.

“Everyone’s heart has grown cold. There was infighting and they split. It doesn’t matter who we choose, they are all the same,” Fah said.

He added that Sim was a more “realistic” choice, given that he could bring in development funds by virtue of being with the incumbent state government.

Village chief Billy Spencer Alang

For former Harapan supporter Billy Spencer Alang, he recalled how his excitement over the regime change turned into exasperation when projects in his Iban village in Serian got cut.

As the tuai rumah (village chief), villagers blamed him for it until he managed to secure funds from the state government.

“They changed everything overnight. They split my village in two by setting up a second village committee.

“And the Rural Development Ministry cancelled our project to repair our balai raya (community hall),” the Batu Kawah voter told Malaysiakini.

The fresh prince

Yii’s message to voters is that he can hold the state government accountable and push for democratic reforms as an opposition assemblyperson.

He is also advocating for more investment in human development, rather than just “big buildings and landmarks”.

Some 20 years younger than Sim, Yii is both a fresh face and rising star in federal politics, often making headlines for his comments on Covid-19 management.

The first term Bandar Kuching MP currently chairs the parliamentary select committee on health, science, and innovation.

On the ground, however, Yii appears to be struggling to connect with voters in person.

Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen

On one campaign day, Malaysiakini observed as he waved at patrons and food vendors at a half-filled coffee shop. He later walked around a row of shops and a housing area but was unsure if he was allowed to distribute campaign materials.

Yii has been investing heavily in social media, holding online press conferences and live-streamed events almost every day.

EC rules bar him from employing DAP’s signature strategy of holding mega ceramah (talks/rallies) sessions, which he criticised as being politically motivated and nonsensical.

“If the main concern is the spread (of Covid-19) in the longhouses, shouldn’t there be more restrictions in those areas?

“Compared to urban areas where ceramah sessions are in the open air. We know that science shows that you are 18 times less likely to get it (the virus) if you are in an open-air wide space.

“They know that the opposition’s strength is generally in the urban areas, so they put restrictions where the opposition is strong,” Yii claimed.

Yii nevertheless is attempting new strategies. He has ditched the familiar DAP colours, choosing instead to present himself in a black and white get-up, complete with Adidas sneakers.

“It is just something refreshing.

“I think, in general, most people recognise who I am. They know me and which party I represent.

“We are trying to present a fresh new look to the whole campaign,” he explained to Malaysiakini.

With nine days left to campaign, it remains to be seen whether voters will warm up to Yii’s message and monochrome look or stick with Sim’s promise for more development.

Batu Kawah sees a four-cornered fight in this election. Aside from Sim and Yii, the two other contenders are Chai Kueh Khun (Parti Bumi Kenyalang) and Fong Pau Teck (Aspirasi).