Thursday, October 22

Thoughts of the day

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Are we still bogged down on this rural highway?

LET’S join in the celebrations of the 63rd anniversary of Hari Merdeka (Malayan Independence Day). It has become a tradition for us in Sarawak to do this since 1963.

While acknowledging the significance of the day, though it isn’t the only one we should celebrate, my mind today is also on mundane matters. Forget the fun and the fireworks for a moment, look at the mountains, the rivers, and the jungle (or what’s left of the jungle).

Rural economy

After almost 60 years of independence within Malaysia, no one in Sarawak should complain anymore about lack of rural development in their state. Many people were expecting too much of Malaysia, thinking of fast track development whereas physical and fiscal constraints on the ground have been formidable indeed.

When the First Malaysia Plan (1966 to 1970) was being prepared, Sarawak was excluded, but the central planners incorporated the basic needs of Sarawak contained in its Development Plan (1964 to 1968). In the subsequent five-year national plans, development of the rural areas has never been neglected.

Billions of ringgit have been spent on building basic infrastructure where there was very little before. Drainage and irrigation projects for food production in the Nonok Peninsula; rubber plantations at Triboh, Melugu, Skrang, Maradong, Sibintek, Lambir, and Lubai Tengah. People were settled permanently in these schemes. In addition, there were numerous other projects initiated and supervised by the Department of Agriculture.

In the 1970s and 1980s, large scale oil palm plantations were introduced to the rural area. However, these projects could only be implemented where the land size is big enough and the terrain and soil are suitable. As a result, only a small fraction of the state’s interior has been developed for large scale plantations. Within a period of 30 years of the implementation of these development schemes, together with various projects under the supervision of the state’s Department of Agriculture, there should have been some improvement to the standard of living of the rural people.

I think that many of these rural-based projects have met with varying scales of success; failures there were, admittedly. But there are more successes than failures.

If the basic needs of the many people in the rural economy have been largely addressed and met since 1963, many Sarawakians living in the rural areas should be happy or fairly contented with life in general.

Our state should have reached a more advanced stage of development than what it was 57 years ago. And with the exploitation of our oil and gas and given the size of the population, we should have been enjoying first class facilities. And yet absolute poverty still exists in certain districts apart from causes such as longhouse fires.

Now we should be upgrading the standard of the roads built in the 1970s and the 1980s, not complaining about muddy tracks deemed to be the roads that link one district with another. We should be talking about improvement to the supply of piped water, not about the water from the polluted rivers; about a reliable supply of electricity from the central state grid, not about the frequent breakdowns of the diesel-driven generators.

We should be talking about extra income from sales of the various products: rubber, pepper, durians and other fruits, cocoa, inland fisheries, palm oil, tea, teak, silk (from Sematan), and about the markets for all of these products.

We should be talking about increased personal income, plus enough money for saving and investment.

We should be talking about more and more of our boys and girls getting higher education, acquiring more skills, and availability of good jobs, not about inability of university graduates to find employment for which their educational qualifications are suitable. Or students taking courses which make them unemployable in the end.

We should be talking about how to improve the skills and techniques of modern agriculture – profitable ventures, economies of scale, and global marketability of our products, not about letting the rambutans rot on the trees.

We should be talking about enjoying the benefits of land under registrable title – asset that is inheritable and is of considerable market value, not about restrictions and encumbrances on securing bank loans, and not about disputes over ownership of customary rights land.

Welfare state 

We should no longer talk about a long list of Sarawakians needing social welfare assistance. We should talk about well-run, comfortable retirement homes, about universal healthcare and easily available medical services, not about the weather condition that prevents the plane carrying the flying doctor to land near your longhouse.

Role of private companies

Talking about income for rural people, we must not ignore the role of the private companies operating in the rural areas in this regard. During the timber boom and the opening of new industries in Bintulu and other localities, many able-bodied rural people found employment easily. If they didn’t save a bit for a rainy day, it isn’t anybody else’s fault but their own.

Needless to say that the government and the private sector will continue with their respective plans to develop the rural area, private motive and political motive side by side. For the rural people all they want is a fair deal: purchasing power based on equitable sharing of the commonwealth from the country’s natural resources.

During the festivities, you have ample time to talk about rural development in your district. If you notice incidence of extreme poverty as a result of neglect by the authorities, or little improvement to the standard of living of the people despite all efforts to address them, or signs of government inertia and fatigue, then you may propose appropriate reforms through the proper channel, that is to say, the government of the day and your representatives in the legislature, not grousing in the social media waiting for the powers that be to act on these complaints. No way.

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