Wednesday, March 20

Rural development master plan

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PLANS of all descriptions have been piling up recently; among the latest, of immediate interest to the majority of Malaysians in Sarawak, is the rural development master plan, announced by the PM, 10 days ago. Although details of that plan have yet to be made available for public scrutiny, it is assumed that, among others, it deals with matters relating to development of land, water supply, forestry, electricity, roads and other means of communication. For us here, these are basic facilities that we must have before the country is declared a high-income economy by 2020.

It is not as widely publicised as other plans by the media, nonetheless, it is equally important. No doubt it will be the subject for the election campaign soon; perhaps, it may be part of the manifestos of the ruling parties and the opposition.

Old deal revisited?

Any blueprint for the improvement of the standards of living of the rural people is good. Better, if it is successfully implemented at ground level. How fairly and how fast it is to be distributed among those who need them, urgently, matters. We are in a hurry.

Rural development was the new deal that largely influenced rural people to accept Malaysia 47 years ago. The development plans drawn up by the colonial government before Malaysia gave the rural people some hope for the future and, with the prospects of a better life in Malaysia, the 51 Iban penghulus in Kapit and leaders in other districts willingly endorsed the formation of the federation.

The colonial government built the Batu Lintang Teachers’ Training College (now Batu Lintang Teachers Training Institute) to produce educators for rural schools. For the development of agriculture, a department was created to teach modern farming to farmers, including techniques in inland fisheries. One section of the department was tasked with research on new crops and problems connected with those crops.

Farmers were trained at the various institutes. The department also provided extension services carried out by the home demonstrators. These extension services have a lasting legacy: the promotion of a balanced diet for rural folk and improved standards of food preparation.

The Soil Survey Department advised the department on the types of soils suitable for various crops: pepper, rubber and rice, the doyen crops those days.

All these key departments, Education Department included, were created to mobilise resources available then to improve the standards of education and of living of the people, especially those in the rural areas.

And after Malaysia, the rural sector continued to be the focus of development — agricultural and infrastructural.

In West Malaysia, Tun Razak introduced the concept of Buku Merah (Red Book) when he was in charge of rural development in the 1970s.

At the district level, the Buku Merah was a plan of action, containing a checklist of projects being implemented and proposed. Any problems encountered were closely monitored and weaknesses rectified immediately. Tun Razak was most intolerant of any delay in project implementation; nothing was to be swept under the carpet.

No day would be so dreadful for the district officer than the day when the minister visited his district. Tun Razak would go for the Red Book and scrutinise it with the eye of an auditor. A version of a story I heard in Kuantan in 1974 when I was a member of a delegation from Sarawak is this: an officer detailed to brief the minister had spent such an unusually long time in the water closet that the VIP had to leave for some other district only to return within an hour, while the officer had changed into a new pair of trousers.

A friend jokingly referred to the red book as ‘Razak’s Thoughts’ at a time when the little red book containing Mao’s thoughts was banned by the Home Affairs Ministry.

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