BINTULU: Across the Kemena River from the RC Commercial Wharf here is the traditional village of Kampung Jepak, thriving and brimming with life in the heart of Bintulu town.
At eye level, the old fishing village and Bintulu town hugs the riverbanks that separate them.
Inexpensive wooden boats carry people and motorbikes regularly across the river at several points along the wharf.
The Borneo Post Adventure Team (BAT) 7 ventured out yesterday to discover the traditional way of life in the fishing village that is also a centre for processing and supplying the authentic and renowned Bintulu ‘belacan’ (shrimp paste) and ‘cencaluk’ (fermented shrimp and krill).
Traditional village houses huddling together ornament the riverbank which broadened out as the boat approached the bank.
Kampung Jepak is about 23km from Bintulu town by road with the majority of the residents here Melanaus and Malays. Local ‘belacan’ and ‘cencaluk’ maker Mahni Jera’ee, 55, has been in the business for 30 years.
“There are many makers of ‘belacan’ and ‘cencaluk’ opposite the river and trading at the Bintulu wet market, but I can assure that mine are the authentic ones,” she said.
During the shrimp and krill season at the end of February to March, Mahni, with the help of her husband and children, would be able to produce plenty of ‘belacan’ and ‘cencaluk’ but at this time of the year when the main raw material is not in season, only a small batch can be produced.
“Since my ‘belacan’ and ‘cencaluk’ are authentic, I have been supplying them throughout the state as well as to West Malaysia. People just love them and demand for more but my supply is limited to meet the needs,” she added.
Mahni revealed that her income from the sale of the products has been substantial enough to support her family as her husband is a lowly-paid government servant with the Public Works Department (JKR).
“Through my extra income, we have been able to send four of our five children for higher education and all of them now have good jobs. Now, we still have to support the youngest one who is 17-years-old,” she shared.
Mahni sells her ‘belacan’ at RM10 for 170 grammes, RM30 for 500 grammes and RM60 for one kilogramme while the cencaluk is priced at RM10 per container of 500 grammes.
Her brother Rosli Jera’ee was delighted to discover that BAT 7 was visiting the community to highlight the locals’ views on their livelihood.
“The community here is happy and contented with life except for a small number of alcoholic youths. Apart from that, I don’t think our youths are involved in glue-sniffing or drug abuse,” said the 62-year-old who is a JKR pensioner.
His only hope was that the village will be connected by bridge to Bintulu town to ease mobility in the near future as now motorcyclists and residents rely on the boats to cross the river to reach the town.
From the point of view of Bintulu MP Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing, there was a need to revive the slow economy, even though Bintulu is the oil and gas (O&G) hub of Sarawak, to provide more opportunities for locals to thrive and prosper.
“We are facing different challenges every day. One is the economic downturn which has impacted the livelihood of the locals here. There’s a lack of permanent jobs and that’s why the people are not happy,” he told BAT 7 when met at the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) Service Centre.
“Now we are trying hard to do more so that people can benefit from and get involved in the development implemented by the government including the Pan Borneo Highway projects,” he said of the socio-economic development of this town.
Tiong criticised the Pan Borneo Highway project for bypassing Bintulu as it has not benefited the locals directly, with the small players lending their licences to the big players for a small token.
“It is depressing to see a mega project passing by Bintulu and not benefiting the locals. We can see a beautiful cake, but are not able to touch and eat it.
“The government needs to pay attention to this issue. We don’t want to see the big boys bully the small boys,” he said, while reassuring that he will raise this issue in the next Parliament sitting.
Additionally, Tiong also encouraged the local youths to venture into agriculture and aquaculture as there are good potential in these sectors that can help locals generate more income instead of letting land lie idle.
“The young generation is not keen or interested in farming because they are not aware of the potential. So recently, we brought a group of youths to Taiwan where they discovered and gained knowledge on rearing geese and tilapia,” he shared.
“It was an eye-opening trip that changed their minds and motivated them to want to learn more on how to develop these industries where they can build a sustainable business and local economy here,” he said.
With a strong economic base which does not solely rely on O&G to grow, Tiong emphasised that businesses or industries can better tap into the digital economy, which Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg has his eye on, and use digital platforms to maximise their reach and exploit opportunities for economic gains.
As for views on the ground on elevating Bintulu town to a city, Tiong revealed that the idea put people in a dilemma as they were concerned that the transformation will push the cost of living up which in turn will create more socio-economic pressure.
On the overall development of Bintulu, Tiong, who is overseeing four areas namely Tanjung Batu, Samalaju, Jepak and Kemena, said that at least two-thirds of these constituencies are now enjoying basic amenities such as roads, electricity and water supply.
“But I want to recommend to the federal government to construct a double carriageway from here to Miri to promote the Samalaju Industrial Park. Besides that, we also need a hospital and a new township to cater for a large number of workers there,” he said.
The outspoken MP is also a People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) member with an official uniform hanging in his office ready to be used at any time whenever there is a need. That includes searching for the ‘missing’ husbands of his constituents, Tiong said in jest when speaking on social issues such as the high rate of sexually transmitted diseases.
Tiong was all praise for the women and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Bintulu.
“The women here are very firm and persistent in protecting their families from being affected by women performing services beyond their job scopes, especially in massage parlours and karaoke centres.”
He said that had helped to curb the mushrooming of illegal parlours and karaoke joints with the help of authorities to enforce stringent control in the licensing of such centres.
Tiong revealed Bintulu has deported and is still deporting women engaging in illegal and immoral activities.
Indeed, as Tiong summarised how Bintulu has grown over the years, he expressed his hope that one day this O&G town will soon become a city that will be able to provide better opportunities and high income for people seeking employment and a vibrant and quality standard of living.