Dilemma of rural Sarawakians


I thought that when the state government started intensive logging more than 40 years ago, the state government’s plan was to bring development into rural Sarawak and hence transform the life of the rural folk for the better. Wasn’t the logging industry meant to act as a catalyst to better the life of rural Sarawakians? 

Stephen Then, The Star 

“ATAP masih bocor, minta perintah bikin baru”. (The roofing is still leaking, am asking the government to do repair work).

That was the candid requests by many of the Iban folk I spoke to at Rumah Ngumbang, a settlement of 300 people located deep in ulu Teru sub-district, about 150km inland from Miri, when Baram incumbent MP Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan went to visit them last weekend.

Men and women folk with handwritten letters in their hands, lined up to present Sagan with their needs, each of them appealing for financial help to repair their “bilik” in the 50-door longhouse.

I would have thought that such problems like leaking roofs, rotting verandahs and rickety ladders and walkways, muddy footpaths, leaking toilets, cracked walls and holes in the ceilings would have been overcome long ago.

After all, more than two years ago, the Federal Government had announced allocations of massive financial grants to urgently repair dilapidated longhouses of those living in interior Sarawak and Sabah.

I remember many national and state leaders visiting rural communities and telling them that their longhouses would be repaired with grants from the Rural and Regional Development Ministry.

Each longhouse would be getting up to RM100,000, depending on their needs and population size.

Apparently, there are still many areas where these repair works have not been accomplished.

No wonder in places like the Baram parliamentary constituency, longhouse folk are still deprived of the very basic.

Rumah Ngumbang, like so many other longhouses throughout Sarawak, still does not have treated water supply.

Last Saturday, Sagan and officials from the Rural and Regional Development Ministry launched a waterfiltration project in Rumah Ngumbang.

The folk there, will at least from now on, have access to clean and safe water to drink.

The question that has been bothering me is why is it that development of such very basic amenities have come so late for the rural folk of interior Sarawak.

Every one of the remote settlement that I have visited, from the ones in Baram in northern Sarawak to those in ulu Belaga in central Sarawak and Sri Aman in southern Sarawak, still seems to be plagued by infrastructural and amenity woes of all sorts.

After 50 years of independence through the formation of Malaysia, our rural Sarawakian brothers and sisters are still suffering from hardship caused by the lack of these very basic amenities.

Today, the state government leaders are talking about constructing 12 new dams in the remote areas to spur economic development.

State leaders have been aggressively drumming this message across. Even here in interior Baram, the state government’s latest dam plan is to construct a RM4bil dam in Long Kesseh.

The leaders of the state administration are saying that there is a need to build these new dams so as to open up these interior regions to create jobs, new townships, new roads, schools, clinics, new business opportunities for a new life for the rural poor.

I thought that when the state government started intensive logging more than 40 years ago, the state government’s plan was to bring development into rural Sarawak and hence transform the life of the rural folk for the better.

Wasn’t the logging industry meant to act as a catalyst to better the life of rural Sarawakians?

Why was that objective not achieved? It would seem that the only ones benefiting from the logging industry in Sarawak are the big companies, not the local natives from whose land the timber logs were extracted.

After the logging came the oil palm industry.

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of land that had been logged and cleared of their valuable timber, are now planted with oil palm trees.

During my helicopter ride to ulu Teru from Miri Airport, I looked out from both sides of the windows and saw endless stretches of oil palm estates, both newly cleared and old ones.

These oil palm estates extended as far as the eye can see. Were not these oil palm schemes meant to improve the life of the rural poor?

Why was it then that the rural Sarawakians are still so deprived of the very basic when there are thousands of acres of oil palm estates surrounding their settlements?

Are the oil palm firms the only ones benefiting big-time from the palm oil yields on these interior native land?

There are of course some longhouse folk getting dividends from taking part in jointventures with the oil palm firms but it would seem that these dividends had not come in such great amount that were enough to revolutionise the rural communities.

Has something gone very wrong with all the development plans that the state government had put in place for the rural folk that had resulted in our rural people being still left so far behind in terms of social and economic progress?

During the dialogue organised by Sagan at Rumah Ngumbang, longhouse chiefs and elders from about a dozen settlements came. Almost all of them spoke about the need for the very basic amenities. My heart goes out to these folk.

I believe that what is happening now is that plans devised to develop rural Sarawak have become lost in implementation.

I hope the next government to be formed after the 13th general election will carry out a thorough review of the development masterplan for rural Sarawak.