Sunday, September 22

Whole community in flames

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Think of alternative housing to minimise fire hazards.

FIRE, the old proverb says, is a good servant but a bad master. Ask anybody whose house has burnt down and he’ll know what you’re talking about! And if you ask the inhabitants of a longhouse, it isn’t just one house that’s burnt – it’s a whole village!

Some people would say, well, it’s all a matter of luck. Like the snakes-and-ladders game; sometimes you go up the ladder, and then you slip down the snake. But if it’s fires you’re talking about, it is no mere game. The fortune of a whole community goes up in smoke in minutes in front of their very eyes.

Those longhouses often made of timber and getting old are particularly vulnerable to fire risk, especially during dry season. The roofing material is tinder dry.

At this time of the year when there is a long spell of dry weather, my thoughts and prayers are with those in the longhouses in Sarawak and with those victims of the recent conflagrations. Hundreds of them have been impoverished by loss of property that has gone to ashes overnight. A new life is not easy for people who have lost almost everything in life. To live on the charity of others for a few days is okay but how long can one live on charity?

Thinking outside the box 

Although I have never lived in a longhouse and am therefore ignorant of the culture of the dwellers, I have visited many such houses for the past 40 years. From close observation and discussions with people there, I have learnt some of the cultural norms and even their attitudes.

Opinion is divided on the merits and demerits of the structure of the longhouse; the cultural aspect is another question. Like the squares in the Snakes and Ladders game, there are traps and dangers.

My past statements on longhouse living have drawn instant fire from some quarters, who refuse to consider a change for what I consider a better alternative of accommodation and quarters: single houses. It appears that I am alone in this campaign, but I will go on touching on the problem at every conceivable occasion, hoping someone would listen or prove me wrong.

Government policy 

I wish the government of all levels would make a double effort to find ways and means by which the longhouse fires and related problems be made into a special programme. Workshops could be organised to brainstorm the problems and the methods of fire prevention. However, in this regard, I may not be aware of discussions on this subject at the district or longhouse level. If there have been such meetings, please accept my apologies for the ignorance. For I rely mostly on the media for information and most of the information that I get is about people donating food and materials to the victims of fires, not about discussions on fire preventive measures. It is all right for the donations and the generosity of the donors is to be greatly appreciated. But how long can one live on charity?

I wish the government would initiate a public discussion on the topic. That would be a useful exercise for people who live in town in single houses to participate, while the longhouse dwellers listen to the views – how those who live in single houses or those living in terraced houses have not lost their culture and custom, norms, as well as the pros and cons of modern housing.

Longhouse model 

Although there have been a number of attempts made by the authorities to produce a model longhouse that can prevent fire, yet houses go up in flames frequently and regularly. This year alone, fires have gutted an average of two longhouses every month. On July 26, some 1,000 people at Long Ikang were made homeless, even though the rest of the longhouse was saved by people who used fire extinguishers. Not many longhouses on fire can be saved, especially those far away from the nearest fire brigade.

Millions worth of property must have been destroyed by those fires, not to mention the psychological trauma experienced by the victims. And the uncertain future.

The Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) will tell you what the possible cause(s) of fires were and what the estimated amount of property lost would be. However, the result is not as important as the prevention. Heard of “prevention is better than cure”?

I opt for prevention. My take on longhouse living has not changed since I advocated for a drastic change many years ago. I do not suggest for a moment – not by any stretch of the imagination – that the existing longhouses should be pulled down. Look after them well and adopt measures to prevent fires. But do not build NEW ones in Sarawak. That is the long and the short of my idea. Slowly opt for a single house in a well-planned village, which is supplied with the basic facilities like treated water supply and regular and reliable supply of electricity.

I’m sure the state or federal government or both have the necessary funds for this alternative housing scheme. Land can be made available for this purpose by the state, if there is a political will.

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