Tuesday, April 23

Good servant bad master

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High time to shift to another home.

FOR many countries now, displaying fireworks has become a tradition to herald each coming year.

Malaysia is no exception. At the stroke of midnight on Dec 31, 2018, fireworks lit up the night sky over Putrajaya, the seat of federal government. For good measure, artificial lights of many hues and colours were focused on its buildings signifying the vital role of the rule of law and good governance. That’s my perception anyway.

In Kuching, at the same instant, the fireworks display over the Darul Hana Bridge must have reminded the Australians who were in town that night of the annual festival of fireworks over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

All these are festive fires. However, in the rural areas of Sarawak, there are fires of a different kind. They burn down longhouses! Too frequent, and almost predictable during hot weather. Nothing festive about these shows at all.

Within the past 16 months, fire has destroyed 18 longhouses in Sarawak and one precious human life was lost. What was also lost, dozens of homes.

When a single house gets burnt, a family loses almost everything. This is bad enough but when a longhouse is razed to the ground, a whole community becomes homeless. It is an economic disaster for 30 or more families, happening in front of their very eyes in a matter of minutes, not to mention the psychological trauma of the victims long after that fire.

Photos of devastation caused by a powerful tsunami or serious earthquake on your TV screen will give you an idea of the scale of damage uncontrolled forces can do.

Difference between fire and tsunami

A tsunami or earthquake is a natural disaster; people have no way of preventing it. A fire, unless caused by lightning strike, is man-made in the sense that it could have been prevented if sufficient care had been taken by humans.  Sure, we all need fire, but we have to control it. ‘Fire is a good servant, but a bad master’, that old proverb pretty much sums up my ideas about fire.

In a longhouse fire, it’s every man to himself. Most people’s first reaction is to salvage property. If a single house is on fire, there would be many volunteers to help; even then, it is impossible to extinguish a fire that has developed into a conflagration.  But in most cases, let the material property burn but save all the family’s lives.

And call the Bomba … or don’t talk about it. It is non-existent in most rural areas. If a community is only accessible by river or by walking, how would the fire engine get there?  Even if a house is accessible by some sort of road, a fire truck may not be able to use it, or only at very slow speeds. That is the long and the short of a longhouse in this part of Sarawak.

I once visited the site of a former longhouse in Katibas. Among the ruins I spotted what looked like a can of hair spray. It was a fire extinguisher, good enough for extinguishing a car on fire but for a longhouse fire?

Where do we go from here?

It appears ironic that while everybody acknowledges the evil of longhouse fires, the authorities have been approving loan applications for the purchase of materials for the construction or repairs of longhouses. Sometime in mid-December last year, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg announced the government’s intention to amend laws making it compulsory for the installation of fireproof walls between rooms. That may be a help in some house built with fireproof materials, okay for those who can afford such a luxury.

An answer is a single house for each family in a village-like setting, supplied with all the basic facilities, serviced and supervised by a local government, not the jawatankuasa keselamatan dan kemajuan kampung. The JKKK can assist in public relations between the local authority and the longhouse.

It is not the architecture of the building as such which is basically at fault; it is the mode of living in such a building that makes it difficult or almost impossible to prevent fires. So many families living under one roof made of combustible material which during the hot months is tinder dry. This is one of the fire hazards.

The management of the entire longhouse needs a revamp, if people must continue living there. Fire prevention is almost impossible in a communal living space such as the longhouse. Many longhouses are practically empty during the day, especially during the farming season. The few who are at home are the elderly folk, often sick, and grannies who are tasked with looking after the young children. If the children start to play with matches – granny has some in her betel box, for sure! – the old lady may not be quick enough to confiscate the dangerous toys.

The whole object of moving families into single houses, separated a good distance from each other as firebreak, may help to prevent a large fire from burning down a whole village. It has nothing to do with abandoning good traditions and customs. Imagine the loss of all the assets which those families have accumulated over the years – outboard engines, gongs, antique plates, shotguns, important documents, cash (which had been stashed under the pillow) – all gone to ashes in a matter of minutes in front of their own very eyes.

Government behaving like a parent

I know that this is easier said than done. Sometimes, a government may have to behave like a strict parent who seems cruel to a child but actually is kind for its own good. How the government will react to this not too subtle suggestion, I will never know. Let’s have a debate over this subject.

A leaf from Kalimantan  

Meanwhile, take a leaf out of our neighbours’ book. Fifteen years ago, I asked the Bupati of Putussibau, West Kalimantan, Bapak S Jacobus E Lang , about the Indonesian government’s policy on longhouses in that country. He replied that the ban on longhouse construction was imposed because of the fire risk. Nothing more nothing less. A couple of longhouses remain, for the wisata (tourists).

I do not think that the Iban and other Dayaks who no longer live in longhouses in Kalimantan have lost their ethnic identity, culture and other good customs, although they have abandoned living under one roof. Those of us who have been to festivals ‘south of the border’ will testify to the robust cultural life there!

This week, the Sarawak government announced a plan to build 2,500 affordable houses in Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu, and Miri in addition to those houses built under other schemes.

This is a good move, and it would be better if the government could subtly discourage the building of new longhouses; better still, if it introduces a scheme for single houses in the rural areas. A couple of pilot projects may be initiated somewhere in a rural district on land which is otherwise earmarked for a new longhouse. Yes, there will be a need for affordable finance, but, in the long run, it’s still cheaper than rebuilding a burnt-down longhouse every few years!

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