When deputy chief minister Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr James Jemut Masing passed away on Sunday, he left behind a legacy of a Dayak leader of distinction.
His story is nothing less than legendary, having started at the bottom of the political ladder and rising to the pinnacle.
A rookie when he returned from Canberra, he was lured into politics in the early 1980s during a protracted power struggle between two veteran Dayak leaders from Sarawak National Party (SNAP) — federal energy minister Tan Sri Leo Moggie and Datuk Seri Daniel Tajem Miri.
On a hunt for new blood, they persuaded the 31-year-old Australian-trained anthropologist to join them in a noble quest to groom a native to become Sarawak’s future chief minister.
In November 1986, Tajem told the Sarawak Tribune that the time had come to turn their soldiers into generals.
He was optimistic that Masing was one of the potential leaders.
However, to achieve this, they had to remove influential SNAP acting president Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min.
But during SNAP’s 1983 AGM, Moggie and Tajem were defeated by James Wong’s faction, forcing them to register a new native-based party called Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS).
During my coverage of the so-called Dayak awakening, racial sentiments were high then.
On March 10, 1987, a year before the 1988 state election, four Sarawak cabinet ministers led Tajem and three assistant ministers resigned and joined the opposition bloc.
Apparently, the rebels were planning to pass a no-confidence motion against Taib’s leadership.
But Taib was faster on the draw and called for a snap election the following day.
I wrote in my book ‘A political Saga’: “Taib called on the Head of State at 11.45pm on Tuesday (the day after his cabinet resigned) bringing along with him a document for the declaration of the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly.”
For Masing, it was one of his greatest challenges when he was selected to contest in the massive Baleh constituency in Kapit which borders Indonesian Kalimantan.
On top of that, Masing realised that he would have to face the Sarawak BN which was ‘dominated’ by aristocratic families.
Among them were the Koh, Sibat, Jugah and Jinggut clans.
And ever since Temenggong Koh became Kapit’s first paramount chief in 1924, the post of chieftain was held by these families.
But it was a challenge he could not refuse even though it was an uphill task.
PBDS also realised that both Taib and his uncle Tun Abdul Rahman had held the reins of government for decades.
In Masing’s first contest in 1983, he beat SNAP incumbent Peter Gani Kiai with a 1,071 majority in a three-cornered fight.
Masing would have lost had it not been for Joseph Jinggut, one of the sons of Temenggong Jinggut Attan, who contested as an independent and secured 1,300 votes.
In that fight, Ganie secured only 1,646 votes — a big drop from the 3,723 votes he secured in 1979.
Apparently, the 1,300 votes that Joseph secured weakened the position of Ganie, allowing Masing to beat him.
After the election, PBDS leaders continued to challenge the chief minister.
A month after the election, Masing told the media: “He (Taib) has ceased to command the majority support … if he truly cared for the people of Sarawak, he must resign.”
However, soon after the election, at least half of PBDS assemblymen returned to BN while Moggie, Tajem and Masing continued with their struggle.
In 1991, Masing who had risen to become PBDS’ senior vice president, officially announced a project to topple Taib called ‘KMS 1992’ or ‘Chief Minister of Sarawak 1992’.
Again, the election went BN’s way with the master politician’s coalition capturing 49 seats to PBDS’ seven. In 2002, factional difference led to SNAP’s break-up and dissolution.
A year later, PBDS followed suit as only a handful of members managed the cash-strapped party’s headquarters.
The straw the broke the camel’s back was when Masing contested the top PBDS post and lost to Tajem leading to irreparable injury.
Ultimately, PBDS was also deregistered in 2003.
With that, Masing formed Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), a Dayak-based party.
Under Masing, PRS grew from strength to strength and Masing was promoted to deputy chief minister.
Despite his short stint as the second most powerful man in the cabinet, Masing had served Sarawak well.
With the state election just around the corner, all eyes will be on Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg; who will he choose to fill the vacuum left by Masing.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.