In Sarawak a village of hidden desolation by Karim Raslam
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 27 ― Imagine a community of over 1,500 people ― all Bumiputera ― living within 40-50km of a major city.
Now imagine that this settlement ― it consists of seven long-houses sprawling over several hundred acres ― has neither electricity nor running water.
Its principal access road is also unpaved, turning into a veritable river of mud in the rainy season and a perilously rocky thoroughfare at other times of the year.
As I barely know Sarawak, it’s impossible for me to vouch for conditions elsewhere. But frankly, who knows how people live in the depths of Belaga, Kapit and Dalat?
Still, I’ve not heard of Perkasa or any other Bumiputera rights groups launching protests over Kampung Pasai Siong’s infrastructural failings. Of course, these Bumiputeras aren’t Muslim. In fact they’re Iban and proudly so ― even if they’re unable to make much of a living in their home village despite being located so close to the busy and prosperous city of Sibu.
I first visited the community back in late-2010, tagging along with one of its longhouse head’s, a dynamic and highly unusual forty-year old lady, Sijah anak Ejut, also a mother of three.
At the time, I was dismayed at the kampung’s poor infrastructure. Leaving Sibu eighteen months ago, I remembered hoping that there’d be some improvements and soon.
Sijah, ever the optimist, was certain that changes were just around the corner. Indeed back in 2010, she had shown me the recently-built transmission poles only a few miles away.
So when I returned recently to profile her for my “Ceritalah Malaysia” episode on Sibu, I was looking forward to seeing how 24-hour electricity had altered life in Kampung Pasai Siong. I wanted to be upbeat and positive.
However, round-the-clock electricity (instead of a spluttering and expensive diesel-glugging generator) remains a distant dream for Sijah’s longhouse. In Kampung Pasai Siong sunset is really the end of the day unless of course you turn on your generator. Of course, most of the homes are stacked with televisions, fans and other appliances, in anticipation of the moment when the Bakun Dam’s potential becomes a reality for ordinary Sarawakians.
In the interim, these appliances are run off small five-horsepower generators costing over RM2,500. Moreover you’ve got to buy and then transport (over the rutted road) your RM38 barrel of oil, which will last you and your family about two weeks if used frugally every evening after sunset.
For Klang Valley residents used to on-demand TV, Internet banking and such like, the absence of electricity is almost impossible to comprehend. How do you manage without lights at night? How do the children do their homework? What about checking your email or Facebook status? The more you think about it, the more complicated and untenable life becomes.
The lack of running water makes life even more daunting, if not oppressive (as residents in parts of Selangor know all too well). Imagine the logistical hurdles: Do you have enough water for bathing, the toilet, washing clothes and preparing meals? Maybe you can bathe in the river? But can you face stepping into liquid that’s the colour of teh tarik: a rich, creamy brown?
What happens in the dry season when even the rivers shrink and shrivel?
Unfortunately, the poor access road means that Kampung Pasai Siong can’t act as a commuter settlement for Sibu despite its proximity. It’s difficult for farmers to send produce regularly to the markets in town.
Moreover, cars and motorbikes plying the road inevitably suffer damage to their tyres so much so that many young people from the village have been forced to relocate to Sibu rather than live at home.
However, once they’ve decided to move out then they might as well head for Miri, Bintulu or the peninsular where the pay is higher. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone in their twenties in the longhouse.
As night falls in Kampung Pasai Siong there’s no escaping the sense that life has changed very little for these Bumiputeras. What has Malaysia really offered them?
I hope that when I return next time they’ll have the infrastructure they richly deserve.