THAT’S what one should say to oneself when confronted with a problem so difficult to handle but which must be solved somehow or other, sooner or later.
That problem won’t go away. Some measure may have to be taken to find a way out – alone or together with help from someone else.
In this context, I’m thinking about the problems faced by the longhouse and village chiefs (tuai rumah/tuai kampung) of the Iban community in Sarawak.
I’m not very familiar with the circumstances surrounding the ketua kaum from other communities in Sarawak. Someone familiar with their situation may like to help me out in this regard.
My source of information for this piece today is a couple of tuai rumah (TR), who are personally known to me.
First, the problems: monthly payment of honoraria to the chiefs; alleged manipulation by local politicians; party politics as the main cause of longhouse splits; ‘licensed’ and ‘unlicensed’ tuai rumah in certain districts; longhouse fires – to name just the major problems.
I cannot remember exactly when the federal government started paying honoraria to the village heads in Peninsular Malaysia. Sometime in 2006, I heard about every certificated tuai rumah in the Balai Ringin area receiving a monthly honorarium of RM800 per month from the federal government, as well as an additional grant from the Sarawak government.
Apparently, such allowances had been routinely paid out to the eligible chiefs until one fine morning in May 2018, when everybody woke up to the sound of a great political tsunami. In its wake, came news that the gaji tuai rumah would be paid to the ‘democratically’ elected leaders only.
That technicality has caused a problem! In some areas, longhouse chiefs are ‘democratically elected’ in the sense that they are selected by popular consensus, not strictly elected through the ballot box.
In many other cases, however, longhouse chiefs have been picked by the local politicians in power. Such a politician at the grassroots level relies on continued support of these chiefs. In return, the chiefs get the government-provided honoraria.
A lot of manipulation and duress is employed during ‘elections’ of tuai rumah. Popularity or personal capability of the individual is not necessarily taken into consideration; political support is paramount. The elected local politicians have a big say in the choice or replacement of a TR.
The licensed and unlicensed
I’m told that there are many TR who are performing the duties without a ‘licence’, as the popular jargon goes. These are popularly selected heads of longhouses; they are not picked or supported by the local bigwig. This leaves a vacuum in the line of communication between the district office and the longhouse. In the old days, during the Brooke Raj and colonial times, this relationship was highly valued by the rulers.
A non-certificated chief does not receive any honorarium from the government – federal or Sarawak. Technically, he or she doesn’t exist in terms of perks or privileges under the service scheme of ketua kaum and ketua masyarakat.
Partition of longhouse
Party politics has broken up many a longhouse in Sarawak. I remember two longhouses in particular – one in Sibu and the other in Lubok Antu. In each case, the building was literally partitioned by a wall right in the middle! Many inhabitants there, even close relatives, did not talk to each other for a long time. During election time, they are bitter enemies.
In the Lubok Antu case, I happened to have friends in both camps, former members of the Salcra scheme staff. Imagine my sadness when I had to see them in separate rooms, instead of at the normal place, the ruai.
I have written ad nauseam about this subject for the past nine years, suggesting a number of possible solutions to avoid or to reduce the massive losses by longhouse fires. One of them is a bold and ‘reckless’ proposal – high time for the Iban community to opt for building and living in single houses. For proposing this, I have been up against the wall of indifference, even of ostracism, from the fanatical advocates for longhouse living, most of whom live in a comfortable bungalow in town.
I am in favour of a dètente or rapport between the Sarawak government and the federal government over the problem of payment of the honoraria; the terms and conditions of appointment of longhouse and village heads.
Both the Sarawak and federal governments should draw up a code of conduct and abide by it, including the following:
• To restrain their officials, politicians and agents from interfering or manipulating in the selection of tuai rumah/tuai kampung in Sarawak;
• To recognise the voice of the inhabitants of the longhouse or village, without question or without power of veto in the selection of its chief;
• In case of a vacancy, allow some time for preliminary consultations among the inhabitants of a longhouse or village as to the choice of their respective community, without undue influence from government officials, political, or religious leaders.
By a show of hands at a public meeting of the inhabitants – no ‘others’ have a vote. Not even the relatives, who normally live in town but turn up at the meeting to bulk the numbers of this or that party!
Endorsement by the District Officer (DO) acting on behalf of the State Secretary followed by the issuance of the certificate of such recognition as a formality.
In addition, a pledge by the tuai rumah to refrain from taking part in the activities of any political party while he/she is in office. This will set him/her free to welcome visitors to the longhouse even during an election campaign. It used to be that way in the distant past: everybody was welcomed to the longhouse. His main job is to administer the Adat Iban 1993.
I would suggest to the unlicensed TR to go back to the Iban custom at its best and to use the Adat Iban 1993 as their guidance in their work.
They must avoid politics, which tends to divide, rather than unite, the people!
For his/her service in assisting the administration, a community chief (TR) should be adequately compensated for his or her service rendered to the community.
It is important that the TR must not be paid by either government out of the Annual Budget allocation (for Administration); instead, all the TR should have their honoraria paid out of a separate fund, managed by non-political citizens of integrity.
Both the federal and Sarawak governments should provide the initial funding and, from time to time, contribute to the fund, if additional money is necessary. The Sarawak government should alienate a piece of valuable land to the fund for investment purposes, the profits of which go directly and exclusively into the fund.
Members of the public are allowed to donate towards the fund; income taxpayers should enjoy a tax exemption for their donations.
How’s that for a novel idea of ‘taking the bull by the horns’ to help the federal and Sarawak governments to solve the problem with regards to the payment of honoraria to the tuai rumah/tuai kampung? Both governments have a lot of other problems to solve; this one problem would not involve taking the bull by its horns if there exists political will to work together for the people as they claim to do. The TRs are an asset to the governing authorities, if they are justly treated. Learn from the Brookes.
Any comment? What say the association of longhouse heads?
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