Monday, December 9

We must not forget the villages


Greater accessibility through better roads in Pekan Bario.

Idris Jala (fourth right) at the commissioning of the irrigation system of NKEA Bario Paddy Project with (from sixth left) Ceria Bario director Datuk Affandi Tahir, Rurum Kelabit Sarawak president Datuk Isaac Lugun, Kelabit leader John Terawe and executives from Ceria Bario and Pemandu.


 A case of a village named Bario

VILLAGES all over the world, including in Malaysia undergo similar development cycles. Urbanisation and access to better education has led to many young people leaving the villages for life in towns.

The EPU’s latest data shows that more than 70 per cent of Malaysians live in urban and semi-urban areas whilst farms in villages lay untended because the ageing population left are unable to handle back-breaking work.

A few weeks ago, I visited my village Bario and I want to share my experience.

A collection of about 16 villages make up the Bario Highlands deep in the interiors near the Kalimantan border. Due to such intimidating geographical barriers, the highlands have been isolated from the rest of Malaysia and the world.

There are very good reasons for this. It takes a day to walk from the centre of Bario across mountains and rivers to some of the villages, and weeks to get to the nearest towns of Marudi and Miri.

In the early days, Bario benefited from the initial work of the Christian missionaries and the introduction of education by the government. Later, given its remoteness, the government executed a game changer — a small runway was built and Malaysia Airlines started operating19-seater Twin Otter planes flying in twice daily, carrying mainly cargo.

Three years ago, under the GTP, we started building rural roads and rural electrification projects in Bario. The Prime Minister announced the building of a road linking Bario to Ba Kelalan, which is connected to Lawas.

During this visit, I saw my homeland in a new light. Once isolated, villages are now connected via road networks, enabling trade and connectivity. The main centre, Bario Asal to the nearest village is now only an hour’s Jeep ride away, and to towns, a day’s drive.

To study at night in my school days, I collected discarded batteries and wired up a simple circuit to light a bulb. Under the faint flare, the few of us would gather to finish our homework.

By year-end, Bario will have steady electricity supply for the first time through solar hybrid generators in eight villages. Students can now study any time they wish, this activity no longer dictated by the setting of the sun.

Despite these developments, you cannot stop the young from leaving for cities to forge better futures. With the Agriculture NKEA promoting automation however, the elder farmers living in Bario can now have their fields mechanised, increasing monthly incomes – at mature state – from RM800 to RM3,000 for a three to five acre field.

I may be biased but one of the best premium rice in the world is from Bario. This speciality grain is much sought after among rice aficionados. With greater yield and marketing under the NKEA, Bario rice is now sold in speciality stores throughout Malaysia.

Some may say Bario receives special attention because of my position in government. But Bario is just a microcosm of 24,000 villages throughout Malaysia experiencing infrastructure and social development under the government’s mandate to lift the livelihoods of rural communities. In the past, the work of the government via Felda is one of the best examples in the world of a successful agrarian reforms. The introduction of oil palm and rubber has improved the livelihood of many rural communities.

Rural Malaysia still needs a lot of work. We mustn’t forget the villages. Federal and state governments should allocate more funds for this as after all, inclusiveness is one of the three pillars supporting the New Economic Model. More funding is a key prerequisite but that is not enough to ensure success. I believe there are four priority areas:

1. Leadership from the young

There must be strong leadership from amongst the kampung to get buy-in, and work with agencies tasked to support development in their community. In Bario, young Kelabit professionals provide input via the Kelabit Association (Rurum Kelabit) to the community. As sons and daughters, they have influence on the ‘old guards’ and are able to sway opinion towards constructive development.

2. Basic infrastructure in place

Roads, treated water and electricity form basic requirements to allow villages to grow their business, conduct trade, connect with their neighbours and overall, live a more productive life. In Bario, we saw our first mobile communications tower in 2010 and since then, calls and SMSes have become the norm.

3. An economic-based community Each village has its own areas of strengths – be it agriculture produce or beautiful landscape. It is important to leverage on what will allow for greater local enterprise and business. Aside from rice, our homestays are key attractions. They showcase fishing, trekking and a charmed lifestyle that attracts international tourists wanting a unique experience and willing to pay top dollar for it.

4. Education, education, education I have often repeated this, and will continue to stress that education is the final answer and ultimately, the only sustainable path out of poverty. I was fortunate that my father was also the school teacher. He taught me in class and taught me at home.

Even though my village is poor and isolated, somehow its forefathers understood intrinsically the value of giving their children an education. Today, Kelabits make up one of the highest ratio of graduates per population, across the country.

In this hectic week traipsing the vast span of my highlands, I examined drainage, walked the fields, talked to people, and listened to farmers.

More importantly I tried to understand what works and what can be replicated across other rural communities. If real progress impacting rural lives can be done in Bario, it can be done anywhere in Malaysia.

(Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit, and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at [email protected])