Tuesday, November 28

At the end of that road …


LITERALLY, there is a bazaar at the end of the Biawak Road. It has been doing business there for many years, even before Malaysia was formed in 1963.

When I first visited that village with a reptilian name in 1962, there was no road. I had to trudge on my ‘two-wheeled Walkswagen’ for six hours through the bush land which had been felled by the shifting cultivators before and during the Japanese Occupation (1941 to 1945).

The bazaar then consisted of half a dozen retail shops owned and operated by the Dayak Selako. Behind the pasar, were a short longhouse and several pretty single timber houses with belian roofs, one of which belonged to my host, the late Pemanca Anggu Anak Pengarah Otoh.

There was a government appointee, Achak, who doubled as a paramedic dispensing painkillers and malaria pills.

Normally, you would expect to see Chinese shops in such a trading centre, but this was different. The main customers were the Selako and Lara from Aruk and Sejingan, a few kilometres away on the Dutch (now Indonesian) side of the border.

The nearest commercial centre, Lundu, is some 18 miles away. To sell their products – rubber, rattan, illipe nuts and durians, the villagers had to go by a stream, the Pasir. But this was a roundabout way to town; the Pasir connects the main river, Batang Kayan, which flows by the town. The trip took one whole day of hard paddling, faster with the ebbing tide, more strenuous against it.

Imagine handling a boat laden with goods to replenish the village shops – canned sardines, salted fish, jars of salted cabbage, and bags of salt and sugar.

This was the life in those days. Somehow the traders at Biawak managed and thrived.

Just before the formation of Malaysia, an all-weather road was constructed by the British Army engineers to link the settlement with the Lundu-Sematan road. Passing through several Dayak villages such as Rukam, Sedaing, Pasir Tengah and Pasir Ulu, the construction of the road abruptly ended at the bank of the Pasir Ulu, 3km from the bazaar.


DESERTED: A file photo of the Biawak Bazaar.


Road extension

The road was not extended until after the visit to Lundu of Tun Razak, the Deputy Prime Minister, sometime in 1965.

Anggu and I had been communicating with each other for sometime while I was working for the Federal Minister for Sarawak Affairs, Temenggong Jugah. One day, I received a note from Anggu (he was literate in Jawi, like many of his generation and background); he wished to know why the road did not reach right up to his kampung and wandered if Apai Jugah would do something about it. I showed Anggu’s letter to Alfred Mason, political secretary to the Prime Minister but assigned to the Ministry of Sarawak Affairs. Alfred mentioned this fact to Apai and Apai mentioned it to General Ibrahim who then whispered the message to Tun Razak.

Within days, a team of Malaysian army engineers and heavy machinery were deployed to the area. They built a Bailey bridge across the stream and the road extension reached the village in no time!

Except for that letter written from a community leader, there was no other document, no working paper, showing the internal rate of returns to investment and the financial implications of the project. The extension was approved on the spot! Anggu and his people were truly grateful.

There was need for a good road for strategic reasons, obviously. During the communist insurgency, a number of our soldiers were killed by the terrorists in the area, the details of which I’m not in a position to disclose in this column. Any historian serious enough to write about this period of the early years of Malaysia may find out more about the incident from the Ministry of Defence.

For many years the road, 20km long, served the people well; business at Biawak was brisk indeed. Buses of the Sarawak Transport Company plied the route twice a day. Vehicles carrying cocoa, rubber and pepper used it daily. When durians were plenty, fleets of lorries picked them at Biawak and sold them as far away as Sibu. Then came the logging trucks, and that was the beginning of the end of this useful road. PWD workers from Lundu tried to keep it in some sort of repair, filling up the pot holes from time to time.

After 1966, a border post manned jointly by soldiers of both countries was sited at Biawak bazaar. Malaysian government facilities were established: the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine station, a short distance away. But everybody who had to use the road made comments about its condition – most of them couched in vulgar language!

It is obvious that this part of the country is of immense importance in terms of border trade and security. Hence the need for a good road link to the outside world.

Now, after almost half a century of Merdeka, a lot of water has gone under the Bailey bridge at Pasir Ulu. Public transport has stopped using that road. The bazaar at Biawak is, subject to correction, in a sorry state.

Elections have come and elections have gone, and the road has been an issue each time. Elections over, the sealing of the road was relegated to the back burner, until a few years ago.

It was finally decided to upgrade it to Malaysian rural road standard, tar- sealed all the way and concrete bridges would be built. The Bailey bridge at Pasir Ulu would have to go and Biawak would be easily accessible to picnickers from Kuching. There are waterfalls at the foot of the Pueh range, visible from the road during rainy season – a potential tourist spot.   A lot of people were looking forward to celebrating the completion of the sealing of the road. I had prepared to revisit Biawak in style: parading my grandchildren for my friends there. I had hoped to tell the kids that around 49 years ago, their grandpa had walked on the tracks which later became the route that the road had followed, more or less.

I was going to tell them that I didn’t go back to Lundu on foot; I was given a seat on a helicopter, courtesy of the British pilot instead, only 12 minutes of flying time to the town’s air strip.

Well, it didn’t happen. You wouldn’t take little children (or saloon cars) on that awful road today. We went to Sematan instead. To the kids the beach is probably more interesting than the story of my long walk to Biawak, but how will they learn hands-on history if not from their elders?

My friends at the villages through which the road passes may have to wait for sometime before they can drive on a sealed road. Be patient; the authorities are sorting out the problems with the contractors. If you managed to wait for the past 40-over years, why can’t you wait for another year or two?

I’ll pick you up and together we will proceed to buy durians at Biawak.

Before the next elections? Can?