Should we expect more from the Sarawak Foundation?

FOUNDED by the late Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub in 1971, the Sarawak Foundation (Yayasan Sarawak) will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2021, just three years down the road.

According to its Wikipedia page (a scanty and disappointing two-page write up with very little information) the foundation aims “to become a world-class organisation in providing assistance and support for the development of quality human capital and a better community”.

Six objectives were stated, of which the first three concentrated on granting scholarships and financial assistance to “any person born in Sarawak”; and the second three are to give assistance and provide relief towards national emergencies, calamities, and other deserving factors including for scientific, medical, educational, welfare, social, and charitable purposes.

To the general public, the majority are aware of the first three objectives but not many know of the second group of objectives, of which either the foundation has not been active of late, or has shied away from publicising.

In a news item dated May 8, 2014, Assistant Minister Datu Len Talif Salleh stated that up till then, the foundation had given out some RM35 million in higher education loans and scholarships. Between the period of 2009 and 2014, it helped 16,660 Sarawakians in their education pursuits either at home or abroad.

Statistics given by the director Azmi Bujang in a news item dated July 14 said since 1971, over a period of 46 years, the foundation has doled out over RM600 million to more than 150,000 students and benefactors. This would work out to RM13 million per year or RM4,000 per student on average.

This is certainly a very low and meagre figure, and would not be enough to even support a student today for even a semester in a higher education facility.

Consider this – in a statement on July 13, 2017, Azmi also said “the percentage of unpaid YS study loans is as low as 0.1 per cent. We are very fortunate that students and parents who obtained study loans from the YS are very understanding and cooperative in repaying back the loans”.

That year alone, the foundation expected to collect RM10 million and had by then achieved 80 per cent of the total by month seven. This has to be a record of any loan repayment anywhere in the world.

According to Azmi, the foundation budgets between RM60 million and RM70 million a year for education, of which 80 per cent goes to providing loans. Their funds are all derived from timber premiums paid by corporations to the Sarawak government.

There are roughly 290,000 students among Sarawak’s population of 2.6 million. Let’s just say that of this, about

10 per cent or 29,000 are in need of some financial assistance to further their studies. Let’s estimate that for a full three-year course of any subject, it would conservatively cost RM40,000 – that’s already a total of RM1.16 billion. In other words, our current budget of RM70 million per annum is barely enough to provide for the needy and the impoverished in pursuing higher education.

And yet we are aiming for a 95 per cent rate of literacy and a push for a digital economy and a high tech world of commerce by 2030?

Perhaps the foundation should be more proactive and aggressive towards dispensing with its funds for more students and other needy recipients to benefit; as after all hasn’t the director himself stated that their collection efforts are at a 99.9 per cent success rate and that they need not fear any defaulters or bad debts?

Of late too there has been much chatter and discussion on social media as well as on WhatsApp chat groups with regards to the management and the general affairs of the foundation. The issue seems to

be that the composition of the board of directors as well as its senior management does not reflect the multiracial facet of Sarawak insofar as that out of the 25 top office bearers, 22 are of one race and three junior members are Dayak, with none representing any other races in Sarawak.

The chatter has also touched on the racial elements of the benefactors of the loans and scholarships, of which it appears that the bulk has also been allocated to one race, although the Dayaks too have benefited. All that I can add is that it’s not too late to do something about it now.

We should also be able to look forward to seeing a Sarawak Foundation that is seen to be more active and aggressive in tackling the full spectrum of all six objectives as outlined in its original statement of mission, rather than just resting on its laurels, handing out study loans and scholarships.

Maybe it’s time that the foundation opens wider its doors for those who are in need of funds and assistance in other fields like scientific, medical, welfare, social, and charitable causes? Maybe it has but has not gone out of its way to announce it to the world and kept it all behind closed doors? I would love to be proven wrong here.

I remember when I was in school, at St Thomas’, between the years 1956 and 1969, that the name Sarawak Foundation was held in very high regard – and it was every student’s aim then to eventually be awarded a Sarawak Foundation Scholarship.

I do not know if the same can still be said today.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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