Saturday, August 15

Thinking of rice sufficiency for the state


Are all the DID projects in full production? — Bernama file photo

THIS topic is food for thought, for this Sunday.

If Malaysians had read the statement made by the secretary-general of the United Nations Antonio Guteres, they should have thanked their lucky stars for their daily bread. Many of them would have felt guilty for overeating anyway.

According to the latest UN report, there are some 820 million people in the world who are hungry and 144 million children under the age of five are stunted. Blame malnutrition; blame poor food production and its unavailability to all.

Blame Covid-19

Guteres was giving a warning of a possible global food emergency as a result of ‘our food systems failing’. To add insult to injury, the coronavirus pandemic has compounded that failing in terms of production of food and its distribution to all levels of society.

“This year,” he said, “some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the Covid-19 crisis”.

Unless and until all UN member nations fix the system soon by producing more food and improving its distribution network globally, the prospects for improvement to the conditions for the hungry people in many countries are not bright.

Malaysians are among those hungry millions, and their children are among those with growth stunted. These people are invisible to the tourists; they have no political clout, not knowing how to raise a complaint. They are there among the effluent of Kuching, in the middle of a city, if you care to help them.

Can we not make it a point in our national policy on agriculture that sometime in the foreseeable future that we will not be part of the UN’s statistics and that we can produce food for sale to other countries? Since the publication of the ‘Profile – Malaysia’s Primary Commodities’ by the Ministry of Primary Industries in December 2003, there has been no stress on rice production as a security measure.

Charity begins at home

Internally, we can do a lot for our own people of 31.58 (2018) million excluding the last baby born last night, if we could find a way that stops squandering of national wealth for the benefit of a few people only. If the wealth has been equitably distributed, no one in this country should go hungry now. If we use our land to advantage for food production and use our money from oil and gas for income generating projects, we would have more than enough rice and other foodstuff for ourselves.

An irony

Everybody says and everyone else nods their heads that Malaysia has plenty of land for food production. Rice being the staple food for most people here, yet we have not enough of the grain for home consumption, let alone for export. The only time, 179 years ago, when Sarawak ever exported rice (barter trading of rice for coconut and palm sugar) it was to Pulau Natuna (Natunas Islands), part of the Republic of Indonesia.

DID schemes

What’s happening to our Drainage and Irrigation projects (D.I.D) in Sarawak? Millions of ringgit had been sunk into these projects. As there has been silence on their success, are we allowed to wonder if they are still in full production at all?

What if …

In Peninsular Malaysia, Kedah is known as one of the rice bowls. Sarawak imports some rice from there. Forgive me for being imaginative – blame the coronavirus-imposed isolation – may I ask if anyone has ever thought of a possibility of a war in the South China Sea?

That conflict would disrupt civil shipping and thus the export of rice to Sarawak from the peninsula, Thailand, and Vietnam. Let’s not kid ourselves that any disruption to the supply chain could happen; it has happened before, during the Pacific War (1941-1945). We ran out of rice, sugar, salt, textiles, and cigarettes.

For the duration of any war in the South China Sea, and because of where we are geographically, we in Sarawak would be without enough rice, etc if we do not have enough reserve of rice of our own for the duration of the war. For sugar, salt, tobacco, or textiles, we can make do with substitutes (sugar and salt from the Nipah palms), tobacco from certain banana leaves, but there’s a problem with clothes. The trees (pendok) from whose bark clothes are made are not easily found because of the destruction of the jungle. Anyway, these are not essential but rice is. The substitute for it is corn, tapioca, or sago.

A puzzle

The insufficiency in rice in Sarawak has been chronic for a very long time, yet we do not seem to learn from the lesson of shortage of rice during the Japanese Occupation as a real national food security.

The plan to embark wet padi farming on a large scale was mooted during the colonial time (Sarawak Annual Report, 1951), but little was being implanted. The colony of Sarawak did not have enough money for large scale padi production though the need for such was obvious.

It was only during the first decade of the formation of Malaysia that Sarawak had embarked earnestly on building a number of drainage and irrigation projects (DID) mainly for rice cultivation in most of the administrative divisions. I remember visiting three of those schemes – Paya Selanyau, Bijat/Stumbin, and Tanjung Purun (started by the Japanese soldiers).

I wish someone in authority would tell the public soon if all or most of these padi schemes are ongoing projects and the rice eaters need not worry about shortage of their staple food. This is to avoid speculation that the multi-millions of ringgit spent on these food production projects have literally gone down the drain!

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