‘Time has come for total transformation of Belaga’

Kapitan Teo (left) and Tey show some of the antique and handicraft items for sale.

An express boat arrives and ready to dock at Belaga Wharf.

BELAGA: The people of Belaga have waited long enough to have their basic needs fulfilled so as to lead a more vibrant life.

Located deep in the Orang Ulu heartland about a four-hour drive from Bintulu, Belaga is a sleepy little town waiting for a ‘thunderous awakening’.

The local community leaders voiced out such pressing needs to the BAT 7 team, which arrived here yesterday.

Kapitan Teo Hee Tong, 82, said that local folk were just living the days and looking at life as it passed them by.

“Si bei si, uak bei uak. Hidup tidak, mati pun tidak (Not alive, yet not dead – the first sentence is in Hokkien and the second, in Malay),” he described the mundane scene here.

“We need the most basic of development especially better roads, lighting and electricity (supply) to spur better livelihood through social and economic activities,” he pointed out.

Teo said although this rural town had seen quite a bit of development over the past few decades including the considerably-usable roads and a hospital, he mentioned about some promises made by the state government that had yet to bear fruits.

“For instance, the mention of funds under the state’s tourism ministry that were supposed to be available for the construction of a waterfront, and a sports stadium ‘janji’ (promise) made in 1996 under the ministry of social development.

“Better roads for safer accessibility as well as lights and electricity to brighten up the area and to power up the many longhouses along the road, would attract more people to come here including residents of Sungai Asap who now prefer to travel to Bintulu for their needs at present,” he pointed out.

For Kenyah community leader Pemanca Tony Kuleh, he made a strong call on the government to establish an Orang Ulu division so that rapid transformation could take place.

“This is a fair request since the government has set up many divisions for various ethnic groups across the state such as Serian, Kapit, Mukah and Betong,” he said, believing that the location for the new administrative centre should be somewhere in Belaga District –strategic enough to serve all members of the Orang Ulu community in Sarawak.

Tony also recommended for a ‘Temenggong’ to be appointed from the Kenyah community in Belaga District, which is under Kapit Division.

Adding on, Kayan community leader Pemanca Umek Jeno fully supported Tony’s recommendation for the creation of a division for the Orang Ulus but at the same time, he would want the government to come up with an overall development master plan for Belaga.

“As a district that produces more than 3,000MW of electricity – namely from Bakun and Murum HEPs (hydro-electricity power) dams – it (Belaga) surely deserves something special that would commensurate with its contribution to the overall economic spinoff from the power that we generate for the state,” he said.

According to Umek, the power generated from Belaga has been able to attract billions of ringgit in foreign investments into Samalaju and areas under Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), but the returns  in terms of development projects to the district has been ‘very minimal’.

He believed that this district could be turned into a major eco-tourism destination as it has beautiful lakes and islands in the two HEP dams.

“With the development of these two lakes, everyone in the community could benefit as there would be many spinoffs from such (tourism) industry, including the famous Orang Ulu handicrafts,” said Umek.

He also hoped that Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg would come and visit the Orang Ulu community here so that he could see for himself what needed to be done to improve the quality of life and welfare of the people here.

Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) Belaga Division secretary Henry Tey Ching Hock emphasised the need to implement a public alert system or siren in town to provide immediate response to the communities living below or downstream Bakun HEP dam, in the event of emergencies.

“Sarawak Hidro made a promise to the people before but now that Sarawak Energy has taken over the dam, it should also take over the responsibility of providing the system as it is now a state’s entity,” he said, adding that there are some 20,000 people living in the area.

The local party leaders also urged PRS president Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr James Masing to help transform Belaga, especially in providing good roads and electricity supply in that his wife, Puan Sri Corinne Masing is from Rumah Kahei which is located along the Mejawar-Belaga Road.

When contacted, Assistant Minister of Water Supply Liwan Lagang, who is Belaga assemblyman, said he had – on many occasions –voiced out to the state government including during the State Legislative Assembly (DUN) sittings and cabinet meetings, with regard to the needs of the Belaga folk.

“I have done my part. Now it all depends on the government to come up with the solutions on how best to transform Belaga and uplift the livelihood of the Orang Ulu community,” he said.

The Mejawah Junction that leads to Belaga town.

The roadtrip to Belaga was indeed a rollercoaster – overcoming steep gradients, blind sharp bends, road dips and arches that would make anyone’s stomach drop.

Any counterpain remedy or analgesic balm of your choice is a must during such trip and most importantly, one must remain seated with seatbelt fastened.

From the Mejawah Junction, the sign indicated that the distance to Belaga town is 34 km, which practically means a possible half-hour slow and steady drive within a consistent speed — in actuality, the journey took over three hours!

This experience reminded the BAT 7 of an amusing backstory of the local expression ‘about one stick of cigarette’ – an archaic definition of distance between two points based on the time it would take for one to finish smoking a roll of cigarette.

As far as it went, the saying ‘it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters’ aptly described this road trip as BAT 7 took time to think about the development of this beautiful and massive state of Sarawak.

After meeting and listening to the voices of concern from the people, we come to ask if this state had achieved everything that she had hoped for; finished everything that she wanted to complete.

The truth is, no matter how much she has accomplished, achieved and acquired, there will always be something more to be attained merely because of the size and the seemingly insufficient funding from the federal government being channelled to the state, which has been pumping billions of ringgit into the national coffers annually through oil and gas.

Time will pass, things will change and Sarawak needs to keep up; the trouble is, people usually think that they have the time, but they do not.

The road passes a plateau en route to Belaga town.

Belaga — a sleepy little town that is waiting for a ‘thunderous awakening’.

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