On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

There’s a lot more to Malaysia

IT’S fair comment to say that most Malaysians have probably never heard of Datuk Nasrun Mansur (pic). After all, he is seldom in the news.

But this Sabahan is the Deputy Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister serving at federal level. He is also MP for Silam, which has the highest number of Umno branches in the country.

With close to 500 in his constituency, he has the respect of Umno leaders. However, many self-proclaimed political experts barely know the existence of this place, which is bigger than some states in the peninsula even.

Commuting between Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Silam, this soft-spoken law graduate of Universiti Malaya has no idle time when he is at his parliamentary constituency.

On a given day, he can be seen meeting at least 15 supporters and workers at a coffeeshop, right opposite the Lahad Datu airport at about 8am.

Nasrun looks set to retain his seat, but Silam is a complicated constituency.

That’s how Sabah’s east coast politics have always been, though. Much is based on a sense of family and ethnicity.

Forget colossal political rallies parading issues like 1MDB, the bane of Semenanjung folks’ existence, it seems.

The key to retaining the seat is ensuring he has the ear of the various ethnic groups like the Bajau, Suluk, Idaan, Cocos, Kadazandusun, Sungai, Iranun, Banjar, Bugis, Chinese, Indians and more.

On paper, Silam looks homogenous, with 80% of the voters Muslim, but there are plenty of differences, and even a hint of tension. To add to the complication, there are also later migrants, like the Filipinos.

The area’s proximity to the Philippines led to the intrusion of 200 Sulu militants into Lahad Datu in 2013, and that tragic blood bath is probably the singular thing that Semenanjung folks, who have never stepped into Sabah, know of this district.

It takes plenty of political skill to deal with the ethnic complexities of Silam. Although it has a little more than 50,000 voters, they are spread over and found in small communities, and some reside in isolated areas, too.

No leader can succeed by banking on the support of one ethnic group, and Umno has somehow managed to stitch together the multi-ethnic dynamic like an indestructible fabric. Perhaps, it helps that Nasrun is three quarters Suluk and one quarter Idaan.

Silam is part of the 10 east coast parliamentary seats, which have traditionally been the bastion of Barisan Nasional.

The so-called fixed deposit seats are Kalabakan (MP Datuk Abdul Ghapur Salleh), Kinabatangan (Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin), Libaran (Datuk Juslie Ajirol) and Beluran (Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee). Even the Tawau and Batu Sapi seats, held respectively by PBS’ Datuk Mary Yap and Datuk Linda Tsen, are safe bets.

But Silam, located next to Parti Warisan Sabah president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal’s Semporna parliamentary constituency, is under Putrajaya’s glare.

For starters, Shafie’s brother, Datuk Mohd Yusof Apdal, is the state assemblyman of Lahad Datu, under the Silam parliamentary seat. Interestingly, Yusof is the Silam Umno division head who defeated Nasrun in the last party polls. The other two state seats are Kunak and Tungku.

Some see Silam as an extension of the Semporna families, while supporters of Nasrun said that Shafie had to bring in “busloads of Semporna voters to Silam to make up the crowd (there)”.

Nasrun won by a scale-tipping 13,387 majority in the 2013 general election, where he competed against three opponents. This time, with the inclusion of Shafie’s Warisan, the opposition will likely be further fragmented, which should play nicely into Barisan’s hands.

Shafie is Sabah-centric and has refused to work with the other peninsula-based opposition parties. However, he has milled quietly on the ground. He has, in fact, disappeared from the national news, and that’s because he understands the workings of rural Sabah campaigning.

If Silam is regarded a political jungle, then Lahad Datu is also the home of the world famous Danum Valley.

It is probably one of the most beautiful places on Earth with its 130-million-year-old jungle, established as older than the Amazon in South America.

Following conversations with politicians, community leaders and voters in Silam, I took a three-hour bumpy road ride into the jungles, where TV, Wi-Fi and the Internet are non-existent.

The Danum Valley Conservation Area is a 438sq km tract of relatively undisturbed lowland forest with an extensive diversity of tropical flora and fauna.

In many ways, this is the work of Sabah’s Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman, who has built a good track record protecting huge forest areas, using the resources of Yayasan Sabah.

I trekked through the jungles of Danum Valley for three days and saw at least five orang utan, gibbons, red leaf monkeys, mousedeer, snakes and colourful insects, such as the Chinese lantern bugs, which I have never seen up-close.

I also had the pleasure of seeing the flying lemur, stick insect, Borneo tarantula, bearded wild boar and giant forest ants, all in their natural habitat.

As night fell, in the complete darkness, I saw sprinkles of fireflies, dancing elegantly in their glow, and as I glanced at the clear skies, I saw stars like I never saw them before, shining brightly.

I cannot remember the last time I saw the sky filled with that many, shining like diamonds. Not in Kuala Lumpur, for sure. These were magical nights for me at Danum Valley.

I woke up at 4am in the morning, took a 45-minute ride in a jeep, to catch sunrise and see the sprawling blanket of mist and low-lying clouds hovering over the rainforest of the valley, aptly described the “skyscraper of trees”. I’ve never felt so peaceful and calm before. It was like experiencing heaven on Earth, I would think.

At the pristine rivers, I slipped my tired feet into the crystal-clear waters as little fishes came nibbling at my feet.

The leeches, mosquitoes, and other minor discomforts might seem discouraging, but I left Danum Valley with a heavy heart. I simply long to go back.

At the airport, while waiting to board the plane for the flight home to KL, I bumped into Nasrun again. Ever the legal man, and armed with a John Grisham book, he told me he was “working hard”.

Silam and Danum Valley have something in common – they are both jungles, and are beautiful and dangerous at the same time.

If you think you know Malaysia, this could be time to reassess that opinion.