Tuesday, May 11

Towards self-sufficiency in rice

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The view of Tanjong Purun padi scheme, with the flank of Gunong Gading on the horizon.

ON Wednesday this week, I was taken for a ride – literally. It’s called ‘stretching the legs’ – for 80km one way and 80km back. We headed for the rice cultivation scheme at Tanjong Purun in Lundu. My grandson, Joshua, wanted to see how machines were being used there, particularly the combined harvesters.

The trip was a success. The hot weather could have been kinder, with a bit of breeze, but for padi-harvesting, it was perfect.

Some 96 participants benefit from the project on an 88-hectare irrigated site. Since 2017, the Sarawak Government has injected RM11.78 million to ensure that the project would not run out of water and money.

I’m commending the relevant ministry, the related agencies and the marketing agents for every success. The aim is, and has been for many decades, to make Sarawak self-sufficient when it comes to this vital staple.

The combine-harvester in the field, which cuts and threshes the grain in just one operation.

Agriculture – Brooke’s time   

In her book ‘My Life in Sarawak’ (OUP 1986), Ranee Margaret, the wife of Charles Brooke, the second English Rajah of Sarawak (1868-1917), devoted one whole chapter to Lundu, calling it ‘one of my places of predilection’ because ‘it differs from most of the other settlements in Sarawak by the fact that a good deal of agriculture goes on in the neighbourhood, and that the country is flat near the Government Bungalow’.

Opposite the site of the Government Bungalow across river, there’s an area of flat land known as Tanjong Purun – a field of grass called ‘purun’ or ‘benta’. It had been cleared of the virgin jungle by the local inhabitants for the cultivation of rice. These were Dayaks (Ibans Sebuyau) mainly from Sungai Lundu, Kadaong, Sileng, Tanjung Batu, Klaoh and Temelan.

Sometime in 1969, an old shopkeeper at the bazaar by the name of Yew Lim told me that some Chinese used to plant vegetables and ‘keribang’ (sweet potatoes) at Tanjong Purun. They exchanged the potatoes for the Dayak rice; they also sold to them sugar, salt, tobacco, and ‘kapu’ (lime, to be consumed with ‘sireh’ and ‘pinang’ – betel leaves and betel nuts, respectively).

The Dayaks did barter-trading with the Malays from Sempadi, Stoh and Rambungan – fragrant rice for ‘belacan’ (prawn paste), sundried ‘bubok’ (krill shrimps), ‘belungkin’ (a kind of shell fish), crabs, ‘ambal’ (bamboo snails), dried fish, and ‘rusip’ (fermented fine anchovies). During the fasting month of Ramadan, ‘kurma’ (dates) were exchanged for ‘pulut’ (glutinous rice).

One prominent Brunei Malay trader, Pengiran Haji Dewa, had a rice mill in town. To this mill, the Dayaks sent their rice to be husked; it saved the womenfolk the labour of hand-pounding the padi. Some Malays from Kampong Sileng and Kampong Dagang started planting rice at Tanjong Purun during the Japanese Occupation.

During the Occupation (1941-1945), other Malays at Kampung Stunggang – many of them migrants from Sambas, Indonesia – began to plant rice there too. In the early years of the Occupation, the whole district was short of the staple food.

At the same time, there was plenty smuggling of rice, pork and tobacco across the Dutch Borneo/Sarawak border, especially at the crossings near Sentimu and Kandaie. The rice was mainly from Tebas and Pemangkat.

The harvested padi grains being pumped out of the combine-harvester and filled into sacks.

Japanese Scheme 

Towards the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese started developing the land at Tanjong Purun on a large scale using modern machines. They built a wharf made of ‘belian’ (Borneo hardwood) for their ships to take rice to other districts.

If you’re prepared to wade in the mud during low tide where the wharf once was (I can tell you where it is), you’d probably find some old timber – still good ones at that.

Beware of the crocodiles, though – it’s their territory.

For the Japanese, the Second World War ended too soon. They did not see the result of their agricultural work in Lundu. Incidentally, the combined harvester that I saw on Wednesday was made in Japan!

Once, while I was writing about possible shortage of rice in Sarawak in the event of the war in South China Sea, I was wishing that the Japanese could have completed their rice project at Tanjong Purun before the end of the war.

The scheme would have been there for 76 years today!

After Malaysia 

Rice production was among the top priorities of the government’s policy in the early years of Malaysia. The Department of Drainage and Irrigation (DID) was spearheading the construction of basic infrastructure of a number of rice production sites in Sarawak, with Tanjong Purun being one of them.

I remember that in the 1980s, I read about the state government’s plan to invite the Taiwanese to invest in the development of land across the river on a commercial scale.

What has become of that plan – can anyone enlighten us?

I think that there have been several other plans to develop the land there throughout the past decades, but none has taken off like the present in terms of the machinery used and the variety of rice produced.

If the Ranee of Sarawak could pay a return visit to her ‘place of predilection’ during the rice-harvesting season, which is within March and April, she would not be accommodated in Mr Bloomfield Douglas’ bungalow – she would have a few hotels to choose from, or even beach resorts!

She would see Lundu District Council Office and the new bazaar.

No doubt, the government servants would have included a visit to Tanjong Purun in her itinerary – crossing the river by boat, of course.

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