Thinking outside the box

A whole community is destroyed.

FIREWORKS in urban centres such as Kuching, Sibu or Miri during festivals are great fun to many, great annoyance to others, but longhouse fires are no fun at all.

As I was sorting out the columns that I have written for the past six years, I came across one entitled ‘In no mood to celebrate’ – thesundaypost, May 27, 2012. The time coincided with Gawai Dayak of that year.

Among the several matters that made me feel sad was the news that the longhouse that I once visited in Song had burnt down!

Prior to this particular fire, I had been writing about longhouse fires in general – how frequently fires had occurred for several years past, and why opting for single houses merited some serious consideration in terms of a change for the better.

During the Gawai, I visited a few friends who live in single houses in Kuching. My column was one of the topics of conversation. Some people were being polite; they said I was suggesting something sensible but not easy to implement because of the obstinacy of some traditional leaders for change. Also, they said, it was politically incorrect.

A couple of others in the crowd could not hold their fire at my column: I would kill their culture which had been handed down from generation to generation and therefore was good for all time. My argument that culture existed in the mind could not get into their heads.

Perhaps, I was too brash or brusque – the opposite of being diplomatic, but I meant well.

From then on, I decided to slow down my personal campaign for alternative accommodation where culture can still thrive and flourish. Quietly, I’m still convinced that one day, people will change to single houses to prevent fires on a large scale.

At home, I reasoned with myself that perhaps my message had been lacking credibility because I had no experience living in a longhouse. I had no standing in the community to speak about longhouse living. True. But I can well imagine what it’s like to lose everything in a fire!

It’s a bit like the game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’. Once these victims were pretty well off, but suddenly became paupers at the toss of an invisible dice.

A friend has kindly sent pictures taken of near mishaps – of blackened longhouse walls. Many are due to faulty electrical wiring obviously done by Messrs Kelengkong & Kelengkong Contractors; electricians who don’t have a valid licence, or by overconfident house owners themselves. The other ‘option’ is to plug in a dozen appliances at once; multiple adaptor plugs are (unfortunately) available at every 10-sen shop.

I’m sure that Bomba has statistics on faulty wiring as a cause of longhouse fires. It would be interesting to know if the appropriate authorities have taken steps or measures to reduce such illegal wiring in the longhouses.


Breaking own promise

When news broke out about fires destroying three longhouses in Bintulu, Tinjar and Limbang this year alone, I had to break my own promise not to write about longhouse fires. The temptation had been so great that I fell into it, justifying that if nobody else wished to put their head on the block, I would try mine, again. Hopefully, this time around, I might get some solid support for my ideas.


My proposals

I’m more specific with my proposals than ever before. I propose that the people who insist on building new longhouses should pause to think of alternative accommodation – by opting for living in a single house, the sooner the better.

They should be building single houses instead on land properly demarcated, surveyed and issued with a certificate of title (Mixed Zone) by the Land Survey Department.

Government, state or federal, should provide a housing loan to the homeowner or guarantee the loan obtained from a bank.

Local authorities should be authorised to plan the layout of a village for the houses.

The government should plan and construct the basic infrastructure – water supply, power for each village. Other facilities like schools, clinics, community halls should be provided where there is a sizeable community of people or settlers living in separate houses.

Government should allocate enough land for recreational and religious purposes, shophouses in each village.

In other words, this is a community development very much like the concept of a growth centre that the state government has been talking about all this while.

I am not, repeat not, suggesting that all the existing longhouses be pulled down. Let them stay and look after them well while they last. Take all measures that can prevent fires.

Fires can happen to any building – short, long or oblong – but when there’s fire in a longhouse, a whole community is destroyed.

The whole family is destroyed economically – the father’s gun, the mum’s treasured ceramics and beads, the motorcycles and cars under the house, all go up in flames in a matter of minutes.

The victims are often accommodated in a school or community hall if there is one in the vicinity. Otherwise, they will have to endure the hardship under some shelter.

Allow me to release the cat among the pigeons, hoping that someone would be prepared to engage in a debate over the subject of longhouse fires.

I must admit that my ideas are not perfect but my attempt to help find an answer to a solution so that fires on a massive scale on longhouses in Sarawak can be prevented is not fake. It is honest.


Discussions on fire

prevention in the longhouses in Sarawak are not new. All sorts of ideas have been tried out to make longhouses safe from fires – their design incorporating safety features; lectures and talks have been held from time to time by the Bomba on fire prevention. Yet, no way has been discovered to prevent such fires over the past number of years.

The government makes loans for longhouse construction/repairs available – frankly, unless these loans are only given for longhouses of a fire-proof design (if such there is!) the whole issue should be reconsidered. For example, use such a loan facility for single and separate house construction instead.


It’s getting warm

Sooner rather than later, a solution must somehow be found to make longhouses safe from fires. As the hot and dry season will come within the next few months, should we not be concerned with the real possibility of more fires?

Isn’t it time for those people who think that their culture cannot survive without a longhouse to think again, out of the box? In the case of a beautiful old wooden attap-roofed longhouse, tinder-box?

Be critical of my ideas, and please improve on them. Don’t just dismiss them outright.

The fact that you are taking the trouble to read this at all is good enough for a start. Let’s have a good discussion on the topic!

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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