THIS year, we mark the 56th year of the Malaysian Federation. I wish to cast politics aside, or at least place it on the sidelines of this column as I try to take a short and personal journey down this road since we gained ‘independence’ from the British colonial masters in 1963 – let’s just forget all that squabbling about July 22 and Sept 16, and who else has another date when we actually became an independent state, country, nation, or federation.
I was 13 years old in Form 1 at St Thomas’ School, and on Aug 31, 1963, I remember that we were all filled with excitement and had high hopes on that day expecting that as our own leaders take over the reins of government in our country there would bound to be changes in all sectors of our society, community, and that we would see fast progress and development everywhere. The future was indeed bright.
During that moment frozen in time, we had more than half of our teaching staff manned by foreign teachers; from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Sweden, and from Malaya. They were all excellent teachers and together with the locals who had hard earned experience and overseas training, we were indeed blessed with excellent educators throughout our years in both primary and secondary school. We had excellent education during those days way back in the 1960s!
After 1963, within less than five short years, the majority of the foreign staff had left after completing their contracts; the ones left had either married locals or had earnestly wanted to carry on. The turning point for our education standards started in 1969, the last year we had English as the main medium of education in our schools.
The state of the country then was that we were living in a developing state – we had potable clean piped water that we could drink right from the tap; our electricity supply was 24/7 and reliable enough within the town areas except to the many outlying villages, which were then being gradually connected to the state grid. Our roads systems were good; there were still only a few motorcars and motorcycles and the public transport was served by a handful of public bus companies. Kuching Airport, which was extended in 1962, had by 1976 been improved to take on Boeing 707s, thus increasing the number of flights and the passengers in and out of the town. Tourism was still unknown.
Let’s take a look at what has happened since then. The good, the bad, and the missed opportunities and possibilities, and what can still happen in the years to come. Looking forward as a people, as a country, 1969 marked the first state election and from then onwards, we have seen gradual but sure development – what was later termed as the “politics of development” – the growth and the expansion of infrastructure throughout the length and breadth of the country.
The good: before 1969 we had to drive and travel along rough unpaved country roads but from then onwards we had gradually seen newly constructed twin lane roads into many parts of the countryside, into the interior, to places hitherto reachable only by river and streams or on jungle tracks. Bridges were being built, new airports too. The ones more remote, the newly opened up timber concessionaires had built rough timber roads to transport out their cut lumber. Travel on the waterways had seen growth by leaps and bounds by way of air-conditioned and comfortable express boats, especially up the Rajang, along the Baram, and the Kuching-Sarikei routes.
Many newly-erected electricity posts and telecommunications towers continued to be built along the main trunk roads, thus giving access of electric power and gradually telephones, and eventually advanced 2G then 3G and 4G services throughout the land. The advent and the swift growth of the internet were capably catered for by telecommunications companies and many entrepreneurs enriched themselves in the process.
Today, we now stand at the threshold of 5G capabilities as we continue down the road to even more advanced technology. But at the same time we still have kampungs totally lacking basic potable water, electricity, and other resources that we take for granted in the towns and cities.
Our towns and cities have expanded, our family grocery stores have turned into huge supermarkets and hypermarkets. New townships are being built by the dozens; shopping malls and specialist plazas abound. Eateries are opened on a weekly basis – you can eat from a wide selection of food from Turkey, Arabia, Japan to Thailand, Mongolia, France, and any country you can think of. Places of entertainment abound aplenty.
In other words, we have become quite a cosmopolitan country.
In the process of all that happening, we have devastated our land, our peoples, and our culture. We have virtually depleted all the good timber resources in the rich lands of the interior, cutting down every single tree of value and exported them to become furniture, or to build stadiums for other countries. We have demolished our way of life – of the natives who live off the land, the animals, especially the orangutans, the hornbills, and the other fast dwindling species of fauna and rare species that depend on the jungle to live.
We have polluted our rivers and streams. We have made life unbearable and sometimes unlivable for many who depend on the jungle for their livelihood. We have stolen their rights; we have taken away their way of life.
We have mined and exploited our oil and gas resources to such an extent and benefitting only a small segment of our ‘select group’ that total depletion level will be breached soon.
In our greed for development and modernisation, we have totally forgotten the fact that we have and will continue to encroach on the rights of the rightful original people, who all this actually belongs to. At worst we have not given anything back to them, whatever we think we have, has been pittance at best.
We can still make amends. We can still make a difference. We still have time to correct all the wrongs in the past. In our rush for development and to modernise the country, we have trampled over the rights and the way of life of many – what is there to stop us now from making it all right again? We have the means, we have the power, we should have the conscience. All we need now is to make it happen.
Wouldn’t Sarawak be such a lovely paradise on earth to live in if we can manage to make all this happen within our lifetime? We already have everything in place and it’s not an uphill battle. Our people, despite their differences – be they Malay, Iban, Bidayuh, Chinese, Indian, Kayan, Eurasian, or whatever race or dialect they profess to be – we are all living together in such idyllic peace, harmony, and prosperity since the early days of yore – what is there to stop us continuing to do so for many more years to come.