Thursday, July 18

The house with a maroon top


POPULAR among Limbang residents is this tagline: “We are so rich that we can afford to go overseas for lunch and come back on the same day. For that matter, the people in Lawas are enjoying such a ‘luxury’ too.”

The locals take great pride in sharing this catchphrase with visitors.

If you have travelled from Miri-Limbang-Miri and Miri-Lawas-Miri, or even Lawas-Limbang-Lawas by road, you would not feel envious of but sympathetic towards the residents of these northernmost towns of Sarawak.

For every trip, travellers have to pass through four immigration checkpoints – two Malaysian and two Bruneian.

The immigration clearance for normal travellers on weekdays is considered smooth and fast – almost a drive-through. The officers at all the four points are super-efficient. However during weekends, there are long queues as I have been told.

The onward trip – after entering Brunei from Miri and heading to Limbang – seems easy. My BAT6 team, during our swing up north, was given a detailed map with every landmark noted – plus the estimated driving time from one landmark to the next.

According to the map, along Brunei road, we should make a right turn into a sub-road when we see a house with a maroon rooftop.

All eyes were naturally on that crimson canopy – it was quite easily spotted. We let out an exhilarating shout: “Maroon rooftop!” and sighed a relief – thanking the house-owner for not repainting the rooftop!

For Lawas and Limbang residents, the lack of air-connectivity – and the inevitable resultant high costs of flying – put them at the mercy of neighbouring Brunei.

What if the Sultanate decides to impose some immigration restrictions, or collect some tolls or royalties for passing through its territory?

One just can’t imagine the effects such bureaucratic liabilities will have on the traveller. While such measures are not likely, nothing is absolute in this world.

To find the house with a maroon rooftop, the leisure traveller would only have to be observant on the road but it would not be as easy if you were running an urgent errand.

If you were sending patients for specialised treatment, missing the maroon-coloured landmark could cost a life. If you were caught in a long queue while on a similar mission on weekends, it could also be life-threatening.

During Ramadan, the Brunei Immigration checkpoint is closed for one hour for ‘buka puasa’ (break-of-fast).

Even Lawas District Officer Hussani Hakim has this to say: “It’s ‘kinda’ funny when we need to attend a meeting with the Limbang Resident, we have to go ‘overseas’ via Brunei.”

We were told to avoid the tedious documentation process of transporting deceased people over the Malaysia-Brunei border some families had resorted to disguising the dead as the living.

“Of course, those who have the money will fly their beloved departed to these towns or follow the bureaucratic procedure of getting clearance at the international border checkpoint. It’s not cheap,” disclosed Chinese Penghulu Liaw Soon Teck.

Hussani himself said he had heard stories about people transporting the remains of their loved ones by road via Brunei; they had to make sure the dead look alive by covering their eyes with sunglasses.

The Limbang airport is impressive. The building may look grand and lofty but it is, undeniably, under-utilised – serving only two daily flights to-and-from Miri and another flight every three days per week.

A good airport elevates the status of a town but it serves little, if any, purpose without incoming and outgoing flights to speak of.

It is reported that Brunei is planning to build a bridge at Temburong. After its completion in three years’ time, Bruneians will no longer have to pass through Malaysian Immigration.

Have we ever considered building roads to connect Limbang and Lawas to other parts of the state so as to avoid an ‘overseas’ detour through Brunei when we want to travel these two northernmost towns?

Obviously, it will take copious political will for such an idea to see the light of day.

Drugs smuggling gateway

Lawas, though isolated, is reportedly a major gateway for drugs smuggling into Sarawak from Sabah according to local residents.

When we entered Sabah from Sarawak, there were no identification check. We passed through without even showing our identity cards – not to mention passports. We have reason to believe that Sabahans entering Sarawak also enjoy the same privilege.

A source said a Lawas man had a son, who was a drug addict and had been bailed out a few times – the latest just two weeks ago. Strangely enough, the son was sprung by someone whom the father did not even know.

The father claimed that drugs-related problems had penetrated secondary schools in the town, with the pushers asking some of the students to sell drugs to their schoolmates.

In a talk over coffee, the father said his narcotics-addicted son told him that syabu – commonly known as ‘ice’ – is sold at RM50 per straw and popular among the students.

If we take him for his word, something is definitely not right with the enforcement.

“I don’t want to point fingers but as a precautionary measure, suffice for me to recommend that police officers with the rank of inspectors and above be stationed here not more than two years. This will ensure that the law is enforced without fear or favour,” he said.

Yes, indeed – for very obvious reasons!

According to him, the Sarawak-Kalimantan border is very porous – vehicles are easily smuggled from Sarawak and Sabah and they usually end up in the Indonesian town of Long Bawang, which is easily reached through Ba Kelalan.

I have to believe him as during my last trip to Ba Kelalan two years ago, I visited Long Bawang and saw many vehicles, especially four-wheel drives (4WDs), bearing the registration plates of Sabah and driven by locals.

Until stringent border controls are in place, I will continue to be guided by the house with a maroon rooftop and hear tales of taking an ‘overseas’ trip for lunch as well as the ‘living dead’ in my next trip up north.

The Chinese have a saying: “When the mountain is high, the Emperor is far,” – meaning if you stay in a faraway land, the long arms of the law can’t reach you; it’s difficult for the authorities to watch over what you are doing, and life can be easy and complacent.

Let the Emperor travel over the mountain then, so that the citizens of the land can cross into their country lawfully, freely, safely and peace and order be restored.