Down the memory lane

IT ALL began in an abandoned workshop, at one end of which was a facility to check vehicles for roadworthiness and at the other an office for Mr Donough, the Land Transport officer. The space outside was crowded with people training to be drivers. Many would remember the venerable Dollah Wongso, the strict driving instructor.

BEFORE AND AFTER: The Salcra building in 1976 and today.

This was our wisma where we planned Native land development — over 30 years ago.

There were less than a dozen of us in this outfit: James Entika (planner), former Sarawak Rangers Major Walter Ted Wong and Major Wilfred Busu (public relations officers), Hamsiah Ojet, Tan Kim Hong, Cynthia Nyomboi, Catherine Kason — all clerks of various categories — and Naing Utong  (office boy). When we moved out of the garage, we were reinforced by Agnes Sim (stenographer), Denys Lang (general manager) and Michael George (accountant). Bujang Tembak, the lawyer, came to make sure that the CEO knew how to spot the fine print in the contracts before he signed on the dotted line.

On the field were Edwin Lau, Dennis Chng, James Jinggan and their staff responsible for implementation of plans at the ground level.

The first annual budget was RM100,000, later raised to RM200,000 (1976).

When we moved out of the driving school into the old state secretariat now taken over by Yayasan Sarawak, we occupied the whole of the eighth floor. I chose the biggest room there was; it used to be occupied by two chief ministers. If only the walls could talk I would have learnt a lot of the state secrets.

I deserted my tribe for greener pastures in 1984. I would be in a much higher building across river. The rest of the flock grew in number and they had to move to Electra House, then to the Padawan Municipal Council building and now safely at home in an imposing building.

Wisma Salcra

Last Monday was the day for the official housewarming for the brand new building which cost RM67 million, equipped with the latest state of the art facilities including a room for teleconferencing. Staff of all categories: 800 strong, did I hear?

What a far cry from the days at Padang Pasir in front of Masjid Besar. Our working tools were two manual typewriters (Olivetti), one telephone, a duplicating machine (Zerox) and one enormous calculator.

At the happy event last Monday, there were speeches, music, food and lots of people from 18 estates and the factories.

I whispered to an old friend, Roland Duncan Klabu. “Didn’t the organisers of the occasion realise that they are throwing a grand birthday party for me?”

Even the Chief Minister came. Out of his busy schedule, apparently his secretary had picked Sept 27, 2010 — the only date available for Pehin Seri Taib to officiate at the rite of Mangkong Tiang for Wisma Salcra at the Dato Mohammad Musa Road, Samarahan.

Obviously, the choice of date was a pure coincidence!

It was very thoughtful of them to invite the retired staff and for me it was a double happiness if there is such a thing and an opportunity to meet old board members like Madam Vida Bayang and former MP, Datuk Dagok Randan and others I had not seen for ages. All of us don’t grow any younger, except Datuk Dagok, the evergreen like Mayang Tea project itself. It was Andrew Nyabe and Datuk Dagok who were instrumental in getting the project started in 1981.

Concept of development

Work on the concept and the structure of the organisation had started long before it was officially formed on May 1, 1976.

For several years a few Dayaks in town had been cracking their heads to produce a concept or module to develop native land on a large scale.

Vast areas of idle land impoverished by years of shifting cultivation were lying idle and would not bring meaningful economic benefits to the owners unless developed for crops saleable overseas. Something had to be done to get the owners out of the quagmire of perpetual poverty and the export of products of the land would bring in foreign exchange to the country. Jobs would be available for rural people.

When I was secretary of Sarawak Land Development, I discovered that SLDB had severe limitations in terms of developing native land. Therefore, another statutory body would be needed. I discussed this problem with the new Chief Minister Abdul Rahman Yakub, who without hesitation gave me the green light to proceed with the plan plus the promise of adequate funds.

This was the first hurdle to jump over. However, there was still a lot to do. Fortunately, there were several Dayaks who were interested in native land development.

Our Lab

We never heard of NKRA; our lab was Leo Moggie’s office at Electra House. Leo was the GM of the Borneo Development Corporation. Once Linggi Jugah, always full of bright ideas, and I dropped in to kacau Leo in his office; a few more brainstorming sessions among us and others including Nelson Kundai Ngareng, Minister of Youth and Sports, we hammered out some vague concept of development of the native land. As a scribe I faithfully jotted down their thoughts.

The main constraint was the legal one: that provision of the Land Code 1958 prohibiting dealings between natives and non-natives including financial institutions. To deal with a non-native, the other guy must be deemed to be a native too in order to circumvent the legal constraints. This must be solved via legislation.

Secondly, while labour and land, two of the important means of production, would be available, there remained one more crucial ingredient: capital. And in modern times another factor is also necessary: political will. This fortunately we had got from the honourable Chief Minister.

Concept of NCR land development

Broadly, development of land in-situ would reverse the traditional biases: industries must be near a road, ready supply of power, water and manpower. We thought it would be feasible also that a land-based industry be brought to the rural areas if the standard of living of the people there were to improve at all. There would be jobs, thus reducing mass exodus to the cities.

This is a community development concept whereby the resources of the landowners, their land and their labour, would be reinforced by external help such as finance and modern management and marketing outlets. In the process, the customary rights over land remain intact. After a perimeter survey to determine the boundaries between longhouses or villages, each owner is issued with an indefeasible title under Section 18 of the Land Code (lease in perpetuity and free of premium). That guarantee of preservation of rights, we thought, would make the owners tick and Salcra would be the protector of such rights.

But that concept would have to be encapsulated into words in legislation armed with teeth.

My next job was to consult DJ Morris of the Land and Survey Department for advice in drafting the legislation for the establishment of a native body to enable legal dealings in native land with another body deemed to be a native.

We dug out old lecture notes and several Maori land legislation including the Maori Reserved Land Act 1955, and Fijian land law. Finally, we attempted a rough draft of the legislation for the establishment of a statutory organisation. We called it the Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority Bill, passed the draft to the Attorney General’s office, knowing that Jemuri Serjan, a meticulous lawyer and former varsity mate, would shred it to pieces. Alas, except for some minor repairs the draft was all right and would be presented to the Council Negri for it to become law.

Hurdle removed

Before the Bill was presented to the Council it met with opposition from SUPP. Assurances were made that the authority, when established, would also develop any land but as a matter of policy, development of native land in the rural areas would be given a priority.

The bill was passed, thanks to support from SNAP. Daniel Tajem spoke for the Bill.

Daniel must have noticed some familiar words from some Maori land law somewhere; Morris and I in the gallery crossing our fingers that Daniel would not delete the plagiarism. He couldn’t have because he was in league; we had earlier consulted him and as he promised he would support the Bill.

The permanent secretary to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, Michael Hardin, was all for the development of native land and had made arrangements for me to be seconded there. I began to make plans to go on study tours of Felda and Felcra schemes, as well as those in Tawau to study how to plant oil palm. At least, I could make sense of the planters’ terminology.

I made trips to BAL estate in Tawau, learned about the future of palm oil as an edible oil and was told in the near future there would be great demand from China and India. I was also on a headhunting side trip, trying to lure two experienced Sarawak boys, Sabri Ali, or Katon as I called him during Lundu days, and Hollis Herrick Awell. Hollis’ father, Awell, was from my village. Because they were important assets to the Commonwealth Development Corporation, I came empty back empty handed.

This, in a nutshell, was how Salcra came into being — from an abandoned garage to the multi-million ringgit edifice, but Salcra is not all about buildings. The economic welfare, the rights to land and what comes out of it in the form of dividends and other benefits for the landowners and their place under the Malaysian Sun, are more important than beautiful structures and the sophisticated gadgets they contain.

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