Rural-urban migration


THIS cliche has a negative connotation – a massive throng of people moving to towns to share the facilities already enjoyed by the earlier settlers there.

The assumption is that these migrants have no modern skills and therefore cannot survive in a city. So they are better advised to stay put in the longhouse or the village without water, electricity and good roads.

In town, there is no land for them to build houses or plant rice or vegetables; they will invariably end up as squatters on government land or private property. They are not an asset to the city they intend to live in.

This is stereotyping; it is a generalisation.

The other side of the coin

If we just stop at this stage of the train of thought, we will go away with that negative impression for the rest of time. What if we could look back and entertain a second thought with a solution in mind or at least an understanding of the problem, we might see, with the jaundiced eye shut, a different picture altogether and begin to appreciate the new vista. A negative view from one vantage, it seems; it may be positive from another angle. Remember, there are always two sides to the same coin.

Study the problem

Before we condemn rural-urban migration, it may be worth the while for the authorities to carry out research on the issue, so poorly perceived by many people, and find out the truth. If there has been such a study before, then let us see the findings.

Even without the benefit of a professional study of the problem, it would be useful to begin looking at the issue from the perspective of the individual or group of individuals – their reasons and rationale for moving to town.

Those families in Kapit living in various flats and condos, those in Sibu in various housing estates, those in Miri who have come from various parts of Baram to live in that resort city – it’s obvious that they want to lead a better life and for their children and a change of environment in the future. Anyway, anthropologists and sociologists, find out why they have made the change.

Attracted by the bright lights, yes, but there may be other reasons.

But don’t you allow them the freedom to choose where to work and live?

Problems preconceived

Social ills found in the city are often associated with the poor migrants from the rural areas. Is that a fair conclusion, though, without the benefit of a properly conducted study of the sources of those ills?

In the case of Sarawak, the cons are largely a matter of perception; it may not be the reality. Prove this wrong.

It is painfully obvious that one of the problems that a city faces is the presence of squatters and slums – the result of poor facilities like housing, absence of good supplies of water or electricity and poor rubbish disposal. The rural migrants are adding to the mess, it is presumed.

But the squatters, may it be pointed out, are humans who eat. They buy food. Isn’t it good for the those who sell food?

The local councils do not get rates from the squatters. Land in town has already been alienated to housing developers and the owners pay rates.

The water board cannot supply water nor can Sesco sell electricity because they live in a squatter area called by a cruel euphemism the Stink Garden or setinggan.

The council collects their rubbish – extra work for council workers.

But all these are part and parcel of the development of cities the world over. Apart from the bright lights, the city is presumed to have good jobs, seeing how people seem to enjoy good lives, splashing money at the shopping centres.

Human migration

This migration or moving away from one place to another in search of a better life has taken place since time immemorial. Experts on migrations have traced DNA of the Maori and found markers among the native Taiwanese; they have found DNA of Africans in the Americas. There are stories of holy people moving places – Mosses from Egypt to the “Land overflowing with milk and honey”. The Muslims attach great significance to the Hijrah from Mecca to Medina, migration of the Prophet Mohammed as part of his mission to spread his religion for which millions of his adherents are grateful.

The ordinary homo sapiens, modern human beings, have been constantly on the move in search of food and new places to find food and grow it; in search of animals and later learnt the art of rearing them – all for the food.

The reason for people to move to the cities from their present abode in the rural areas is basically the same: in search of food and a yearning for a better life. After all, earthly life is short. Other mundane reasons are incidental: better education for their children, better income, better way of living – better future, in short.

What’s wrong with all this?

And who are we town dwellers to frown upon these individuals, these latest next door neighbours?

Most Kuching residents are the descendants of rural-urban migrants at various times in the past 150 years or so. As we tend to forget that fact, we look down on our new neighbours, wishing they would buy houses elsewhere.

“They are strange.” Of course, they are.

“They think differently from the way we do.” Of course, they do.

“They speak a different language from ours.” That may be so; they think your language is different from theirs, too!

“Their religion is not the same as ours.” So what? Is it not the way of life we are to live with for many years to come in a multiracial, multi-religious, multicultural community?

Migrant mentality

One thing has developed among the migrants. It’s this adaptive attitude in life: never say die. There is something to the old Sarawak Motto ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, latter adopted by the Rangers as ‘Agi Idup Agi Ngelaban’.

The migrant who has acquired this spirit of survival in a different surrounding will survive in harsh conditions. He will find a job; he slowly learns a skill by which he earns some money. He has to buy ferns and other vegetables, he can’t just forage for palm hearts (upa) or fish in the rivers, nor can he hunt – the owners of backyard chicken farms would cackle if he tried! He lives in a monetised world now.

Then he wants shelter above his head; first he rents a room. Then he buys a house in a housing estate. Feeling competent to raise a family, he gets for himself a wife, a distant relative from the same district he originally came from and in no time produces children. Then he wants his children to go to school like his neighbour’s children do.

He wants his children to learn how to handle computers as there is ample electricity in the city. He will somehow find money for the computer for his family, then a mobile phone – a must. All these things that he sees the town people are enjoying – he too wants them for himself and his children.

What’s wrong with craving for them?

There are better facilities in the city – medical and health, educational, transport and entertainment.

Then he keeps up with the Joneses. That’s when – in an unfortunate case – he gets into trouble with the Ah Longs.

Skills to learn

No one is born with skills in plumbing or bricklaying. Such skills are learned and the place to learn them is found in towns. Thousands of workers on the construction sites in the country are from the rural areas in Sarawak. During my recent trip to Singapore, I bumped into a couple of lads from Sarawak. They have been working at the Jurong Shipyard for a few years and earning a bit of money.

To ask them the question why they did not work in their home district would have been asking a silly question. They told me they could not find a decent job at home. In Singapore they are better paid.

There are Sarawakians living and working in Johor; working in Singapore by day and returning to Johor after work– all for better prospects in life.

In Kuching, many coffee shops and other business outlets employ youngsters from the rural areas. When Gawai time comes, most of these places are shut because the boys and girls are away in their longhouses and villages for rest.

Many have picked up a Chinese dialect, even Mandarin, as the nature of their work demands that they must possess a tool of effective communication. And that’s something good – a valuable asset to possess in the city.

This week, I was at the wet market at Kota Santosa, enjoying the music from a man with defective sight. I was thinking: if he had stayed put in his longhouse, he would have earned nothing and indeed been a burden to his relatives. Here he serenades the housewives doing their shopping, and in the process earns a few syiling through his musical talent. That’s honest earning.

If this friend of mine, university graduate from Stass, had not migrated to Miri and started business there, he would not have become a successful businessman. Well established in the resort city, he is building a house in his old village for his vacation only. And that’s progress.

On balance

Rural-urban migrants can become tough, resilient individuals. Exposed to town life with good facilities, their children or grandchildren are better equipped than their cousins at the longhouse or village. Over time these townies may become professionals – many are qualified doctors, accountants, lawyers, architects. Many are politicians, a status much easier to acquire than that of a dentist or urologist, by the way! I have seen and known many families of past rural migrants doing well in life, much better off than their relatives in the remote countryside.

Even without sociological or anthropological research, these are some of the reasons for not condemning rural-urban migration in Sarawak outright. Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages, but the advantages outweigh those disadvantages.

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