Monday, October 2

When will we ever learn, when will we ever … ?


A whole community is devastated.

IT’S about time we heard or read about the rarity and not the frequency of longhouse fires in Sarawak.

According to the Fire and Rescue Department, six longhouses were destroyed by fire within a space of two months this year. The latest such fire occurred in Ensulai, Sarikei; one precious human life from Rumah Saba was lost in that fire.

A fire of this nature has no mercy; one whole community loses everything and it takes the victims many years to forget about the incident, if ever.

That is why I liken this situation to the game of Snakes and Ladders. Whatever assets one has acquired over many years of hard work are gone in a matter of minutes. Not fair, is it?

No one can prevent a fire altogether, especially one that is brought about by nature, but fire brought about by a human agency can be prevented in most cases.

For instance, while single houses do get burnt down from time to time, these are rare occurrences in comparison with longhouse fires.

Don’t ask me why many people, especially the Iban in Sarawak, continue to build longhouses as if there were no alternative housing.

I have been trying to figure out why. Is it some cultural norm which we cannot do without?

Though I have visited many longhouses in Sarawak in the course of government duty, I have never lived in a longhouse and so have a certain biased perspective.

Still, I would like to see many young people from longhouse community talk about this danger posed by a fire. They should discuss and suggest practicable solutions to the problem that seems to defy a solution.

I know that many of these young people are working in the towns and cities and living in terraced houses, apartments and single homes.

I have been following their chitchats on the Internet. Seldom do I read about debates over longhouse fires. I wish that they would include in their exchanges, some discussion on the issue with the view of solving it once and for all.

My suggestion to those who have money for a house, use it for a new single house.

Is it that difficult to look at an alternative to the longhouse?

Find out what is it that makes people, mainly the Ibans of Sarawak, continue living in longhouses? And building new ones?

I have my own idea: stop building the longhouses. As expected, this rather bold proposal of mine has drawn some fire from longhouse advocates. They say that this will be the end of the culture. I say the culture exists mainly in the mind of the individual. Do not be enslaved by any cultural norm that impedes human progress.

Customs die hard. If we don’t change nobody else can change us.

In Sarawak, we have a peculiar trait: keeping up with the Joneses. As there’s such a thing as the housing loan scheme, everybody wants a piece of it. The longhouse advocates too want a loan for their new longhouses.

And the state government continues to provide soft loans for the purchase of materials for new longhouses or for repairs of existing ones. This is considered fair in the sense that everyone who wishes to own a home can do so by way of government’s assistance.

All governments want to be fair or seen to be fair to all people; so those who need roofs over their heads are provided with government-funded housing schemes. A housing commission or agency is created in order to build houses in the cities and towns. In the rural areas, where many people are used to living in the longhouses, financial loans are also provided for them to buy materials.

A responsible government responds positively to the need for decent housing for the needy.

That the government continues to give loans for the construction or repairs of the longhouses does not help matters really. How does one expect to pay back when the bilik has been destroyed in a fire? When the whole community is in financial ruin?

The government’s housing policy has its own rationale: political or moral. The question is how does one repay the loan if one has lost means of earning an income after a fire?

I often wonder how many of the loans dished out over the years have been repaid. Any guess?

I have heard about a huge figure … some RM23 million in outstanding loans (longhouse scheme). Prove me wrong. If true, this amount would have been better used for the individual loans for the construction of separate homes? With each house costing RM1 million, that amount of money could have used by the state to build 23 million homes!

Stopping the building of new longhouses doesn’t mean that all the existing houses must be pulled down – who am I to suggest such a thing? Not by any stretch of the imagination am I suggesting that all the existing longhouses must be pulled down now. Repeat.

I know I’m trespassing on a subject which is taboo for many people in Sarawak. It’s not politically correct for me to suggest doing away with the housing policy but I have nothing to gain by not saying my piece in all sincerity.

Build separate houses in a kampung style with ample space as firebreaks. The local councils must introduce by laws to regulate site plans and other facilities – fresh and clean, power connection, jetties, etc.

How I wish I do not need to write about longhouse fires from now on. Distressful, yet a necessary job to attract practicable ideas from my readers. I wish they will suggest an alternative to my proposal to do away with the longhouses.

Let’s discuss this problem until we are blue in the face. One day in the distant future we will learn that a single house is better than a long one.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected].