Poverty, inequality and crocodiles in Sarawak

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As long as there are huge man-eating crocodiles in rivers to blame, the political and corporate crocodiles of Sarawak will continue feasting – unconscionably – upon the lives of the poor, observes Abang Benet.

The crocodile believed to be Bujang Seblak

On 19 June 2012, a young native woman named Siah was attacked and killed by a large crocodile at dusk while she was bathing in Sungai Anak, a tributary of the Seblak river in Roban, Saratok District. Her body was found at 9.40pm that night not far from where she was dragged underwater by the reptile. The Borneo Post reported that she had “bite marks on her right leg, right thigh and waist”.

Villagers believed that she was attacked by a man-eating crocodile nicknamed, ‘Bujang Seblak’. Siah was the fourth victim in the area since 2007. Three others had previously been taken by a “huge” crocodile in the area.

Soon after this attack, incensed villagers demanded that crocodiles in the river be culled. A licence to cull crocodiles was duly issued by the Sarawak Forest Department despite crocodiles being protected animals.

Perhaps due to the primordial horror a crocodile attack inspires, nobody stopped to ask why Siah was bathing in the river instead of in the comfortable security of her own bathroom.

Like so many other thousands of Sarawakians, Siah was poor and her home tragically does not have ready access to clean piped water. After all, if her home enjoyed a secure and clean supply of piped water, would Siah have needed to bathe in a river she knew had crocodiles?

So Siah died and became another sad statistic in the state’s record books.

Crocodile attacks are not uncommon in Sarawak. Since 1990, there have been a total of 73 crocodile attacks on humans, with 33 deaths recorded. Angry villagers just want the crocodiles killed.

Deflecting attention from poverty and neglect

Unsurprisingly, the state authorities regularly accede to such angry demands to deflect public attention from the villagers’ grinding poverty and lack of public amenities – poverty that rightly should not exist today and public amenities that rightly should have been provided by the government a long time ago.

After all, is not daily life that much more peaceful for politicians if angry villagers exact vengeance upon hapless crocodiles instead of targeting a state government that has failed miserably to overcome poverty let alone provide clean and safe drinking water to the poorest?

Is it not a truism that there would be fewer crocodile attacks if all riverine villages had a ready supply of clean, treated piped water? And is it also not a truism that there would be fewer attacks if impoverished rural villagers had a secure minimum monthly income and did not have to rely on the unpredictable danger of small-scale river fishing that puts them up close and personal with dangerous man-eating crocodiles?

Living off rain and river water

But Sarawak’s water woes don’t only haunt riverine communities.

June is the beginning of the dry season in Sarawak. And already there are significant communities in Betong, Serian, Selangau, Miri, Limbang, Sibu, Pusa, Beladin and Maludam that reportedly are facing serious water shortages. Reportedly, gravity-feed water supplies and other existing water sources are extremely low if not already running dry. Many impoverished communities are thus turning to expensive bottled mineral water for their drinking supplies and resorting to using contaminated water for bathing and cleaning their utensils. Other news reports indicate that communities in Puncak Borneo, Bengoh are flocking to rivers to bathe and to wash their clothes on account of their taps running dry. Similarly, the villagers of Kampung Skiat Baru, Seromah, Skio, Sogo and Segubang in Bau district are reportedly without any treated water supply, forcing many villagers to rely on rain water and streams for bathing, washing and cooking. Numerous schools throughout the state are also facing acute water shortages. For the worst hit communities, the state authorities are presently supplying up to 70 gallons of water per family per week while families in inaccessible areas are being given 12 bottles of 1.5 litres of drinking water. Indeed, numerous villages throughout the length and breadth of Sarawak have been relying solely on rainwater for their daily needs for years!

Stark contrats

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This annual phenomenon that impacts the poor most begs some stark questions.

How is it possible that after nearly five decades of Malaysia and over four decades of the New Economic Policy (NEP), thousands of Sarawak’s poor continue to rely on rain and river water for their water supply?

After all, if Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud is to be believed, Sarawak is on the cusp of becoming one of Malaysia’s richest states, with a per capita income of US$15,000 (over RM45,000) by 2015 owing to mega industrial developments taking place in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) particularly in Samalaju in Bintulu. Mind you, Abdul Taib Mahmud even boasted to the Sarawak media that Sarawak would be the richest state in Malaysia by 2030.

If so, how come significant groups of marginalised communities remain mired in crushing poverty, lacking access to the most basic of amenities even as Abdul Taib Mahmud talks of fabulous incomes far beyond the wildest dreams of poor Sarawakians? How come significant groups of marginalised communities remain bereft of employment opportunities and denied a basic minimum wage even as Sarawak’s elite (led by none other than CM Taib Mahmud himself) wallow in obscene wealth and live jet-set lifestyles?

How long more will Sarawak’s poor have to wait before receiving clean and secure water supply? 2015? 2020? 2030? 2050? How difficult is it to solve Sarawak’s water supply woes given the state’s huge annual budget? Why are communities not given secure access to clean piped water when there is no shortage of funds to build hugely expensive mega-dams like Bakun, Murum and Baram along with 50 more planned for the near-future?

What benefit is the poverty-eradicating NEP to the poor if the Sarawak BN cannot even get its act together to supply clean piped water to all poor communities in the state? What benefit is the poverty-eradicating NEP to the poor if both the federal and state governments cannot overcome poverty in Sarawak?

Sarawak’s “No Equality Policy”

Overall economic growth and standards of living may have risen in Sarawak since the NEP was launched in 1970. Poverty rates, including hardcore poverty levels, reportedly have fallen. But the curse of poverty remains since Sarawak’s development has benefited its population very unequally.

A quick scrutiny of recent poverty and inequality figures for the state reflects some surprising and rarely spoken of realities.

Since 1975, while overall poverty has fallen significantly in the state (from 56.5 per cent to 5.3 per cent), rural poverty remains persistently high (1995: 21.1 per cent). Hardcore poverty dropped significantly but is on the rise again according to official data (see Table below).

Poverty in Sarawak (% of households below official poverty line)

Yet, despite progress, Economic Planning Unit (EPU) figures in 2011 put Sarawak among the bottom five states with the highest poverty and hardcore poverty rates in the country, along with Sabah, Perlis, Kedah and Kelantan.

[EPU figures for 2011 note that in 2009, the poverty rates of the other four states were as follows: Sabah (19.2 per cent); Perlis (6.0 per cent); Kedah (5.3 per cent) and Kelantan (4.8 per cent). Hardcore poverty figures for the same states were: Sabah (4.7 per cent); Perlis (0.8 per cent); Kedah (0.8 per cent); Kelantan (1.0 per cent).]

This would also explain why in 2006, resource-rich Sarawak was officially ranked a mere 11 out of 14 in the country’s overall development composite index.

In 2009, after nearly 40 years of the NEP, the EPU reported that 10.1 per cent of the total number of all households earning less RM2300/month in Malaysia (the bottom 40 per cent distribution of poor households by income class in the country) were in Sarawak. From these figures, we can surmise that about 242,400 poor households in Sarawak were earning less than RM2300/month in 2009; most of whom only earned an average of RM1400/month.

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[EPU figures for 2010 indicate that the bottom 40 per cent of all households in Malaysia had a total household income level of less than RM2300 per month. There were a total of 2.4 million households in this category. The mean monthly income of the bottom 40 per cent households in 2009 was RM1440.]

Indeed, the 10th Malaysia Plan (see Appendix, Thrust 3) noted that in 2004, 7.5 per cent of all households in Sarawak were mired in poverty. That’s 34,800 households out of 465,400 households earning less than RM912/month (the revised poverty line income threshold under the Tenth Malaysia Plan). By 2009, there were 5.3 per cent of all households living in poverty. That’s 27,100 households out of 510,400 households earning less than RM912/month. While certainly a drop in poverty, one must note that only 7,700 households escaped poverty over five years. The rest of the poor remained trapped in poverty.

The latest available information on poverty and inequality paints an even bleaker picture of poverty in the state. In a written parliamentary reply dated 12 June 2012 to a question from the Bandar Kuching MP, the Prime Minister (quoting data derived from the 2009 Household Census Data) said:

“Bagi Negeri Sarawak, pendapatan per kapita mengikut kumpulan isi rumah adalah berikut:

i) Kumpulan isi rumah 40 peratus terendah – pendapatan per kapita adalah RM312 sebulan;
ii) Kumpulan isi rumah 40 peratus pertengahan – pendapatan per kapita adalah RM822 sebulan;
iii) Kumpulan isi rumah 20 peratus teratas – pendapatan per kapita adalah RM2600 sebulan.”

Stop and reflect on these figures awhile. The bottom 40 per cent distribution of households by income class in Sarawak earned a per capita income of RM312/month. The middle 40 percent of households by income class in the state earned a per capita income of RM822/month. How do these households cope if they only earn so little per capita?

When was the last time you and your household ever tried to live on a per capita income of RM312/month? Or even on a more generous sum of RM822/month? And yet, the 10th Malaysia Plan (See Appendix, Thrust 3) fixes the mean per capita poverty line income (PLI) for each Sarawak household at a mere RM208! Classified at such a low level, it is indeed no wonder that the statistical story shows that Sarawak’s achievements under the NEP have been sterling for the BN government. Little wonder Taib Mahmud is so gung-ho on Sarawak’s progress and rapidly increasing material wealth! Malaysia Boleh!

And yet the reality is stark. The Borneo Post (18 May 2012) quoted Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu admitting that Penan families in Long Beluan and Ulu Baram make a mere RM300/month presently. Umm, say again? US$15,000 per capita by 2015?

EPU 2009 and 2011 figures further confirm that Sarawak’s Gini Coefficient (the common measure of wealth and income inequality)1 is rising.[The Gini coefficient measures levels of inequality. A score of 1 means perfect inequality while a score of 0 means perfect equality.] The 1979 Gini reading of 0.501 fell to a low of 0.407 (1999) before rising again to 0.448 (2009). This meant that although income and wealth inequality in Sarawak actually fell during the first 30 years of the NEP, it began rising again rapidly over the last decade. Unsurprisingly, it is the hardcore poor who are most affected. EPU 2008 and 2011 data corroborates this. From a 1984 high of 10 per cent, the percentage of hardcore poor dropped to 0.7 per cent in 2007 before rising again to 1.0 per cent in 2009.

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Who are the Sarawak rich?

While the poor collect, carry and consume rain and river water for their daily needs, and occasionally get eaten by predatory crocodiles, every BN politician in Sarawak – without exception – is a millionaire; some many times over.

Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and his extended family are valued in the billions (yes, billions!) of US dollars, owning real estate, properties and over 400 companies all over the world. Deputy CM Alfred Jabu and family are millionaires a few times over. So too former DCM George Chan. As are senior state ministers like James Masing, William Mawan, Adenan Satem, Awang Tengah, Abang Johari, Michael Manyin and Wong Soon Koh. Mind you, many of them come from very humble backgrounds before making it big in political life.

A review of the whistleblower website, Sarawak Report (www.sarawakreport.org ) and the detailed forensic investigation revelations into the corporate wealth of Abdul Taib Mahmud and family by the Bruno Manser Fonds (www.stop-timber-corruption.org ; www.bmf.ch ) give readers a rather comprehensive view of the wealth of many BN politicians and how they have enriched themselves, their families and their business associates via patronage projects under the guise of NEP-development.

These politicians are merely the tip of the obscene rich of Sarawak. Behind many if not all of them are hordes of business associates. Some of the largest timber companies in the world like Rimbunan Hijau, Samling, WTK, KTS, Sanyan, and Shin Yang are Sarawakian companies. All benefited from patronage and superlative political links since the 1970s. Today, they are global, diversified conglomerates with listings on the local and international stock markets. Their patriarch-owners are the crème de la crème of Sarawak’s superlative rich.

An examination of a recently leaked Sarawak Land and Survey Department Land Register (http://map.sarawakreport.org/data.html ) also reveals a ‘Who’s Who’ list of elite society. Clearly shown are the identities of the elites who have benefited from thousands of hectares of agricultural land lease patronage. Go check out the list and see for yourself how much land these elite few control often at the expense of thousands of natives, many of whom remain fully reliant upon rain and river water and/or who presently face dry taps. Natives affected by the allocation of many of these provisional land leases over their Native Customary Rights (NCR) lands have filed legal suits against the encroachment of their NCR lands. Over 200 of these cases are currently pending in the High Court of Borneo.

How then can Abdul Taib Mahmud and the BN claim that the NEP is a huge success in Sarawak unless they are cynically referring to a “No ­Equality Policy”?

What NEP? Poverty and inequality rules, OK!

After over 40 years of the NEP, a few facts are glaringly obvious.

Firstly, from information provided by none other than the Prime Minister himself in parliament, the NEP has not necessarily succeeded in Sarawak. Indeed, the statistics can and do mislead and misinform, and often deliberately.

Secondly, desperately poor natives who go thirsty every year and who continue to wait patiently for a secure supply of clean water despite 40 years of the NEP indicate that both the federal and state governments have failed miserably in providing the poor of the state with even the most basic of amenities. Instead, villagers have watched state politicians use the NEP to enrich themselves, their families and their business associates beyond their wildest dreams.

And finally, as long as there are huge man-eating crocodiles to blame and to be made targets for the anger of rural, riverine communities who regularly lose family members to these beastly reptiles on account of their poverty, marginalisation and official neglect, the political and corporate crocodiles of Sarawak will continue feasting – unconscionably – upon the lives of the poor.

Abang Benet is an occasional contributor to Aliran Monthly.

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1 plunder
1 plunder
17 Aug 2012 3.42pm

poverty only exists among the citizens at large__ no poverty at the taaibb M FAMILY n cronies– they have billions,, poor citizens only — rich leaders– ha ha hi hi–

… silly sarawakians get con always by the buayas n crocodiles

Fat War
Fat War
15 Aug 2012 11.21am

Apparently, ‘reptilia taibu’ and ‘reptilia numpangua’ thrive best in Sarawak green and lush vegetation.

Every time perception data flops they go on a feeding spree