Meeting real needs in Sarawak

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Kuching skyline - Photo credit: sarawak.gov.my

Is the state government so out of touch with the hardships and rigours of life faced by the average Sarawakian, wonders Lynn Teo.

When I read the announcement on 28 June that the old State Legislative Assemby building in Petra Jaya, Sarawak would undergo a makeover and be turned into a performing arts centre, my first thought was: “Another ‘state-of-the-art’ project again?? How many hundred million ringgit would it cost this time?”

My mind started recalling the focus on fancy “state-of-the-art” projects. The ones that came to mind were:

How does this ‘masterpiece’ benefit the population at large in terms of job creation? Perhaps only 10-20% of city folks are able to afford the tickets to enjoy the performing arts. Does state-of-the-art mean hitech? Should it not be a private initiative with incentives from the government?

I did a quick online search for “performing arts centre” and found the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in Sentul Park, Kuala Lumpur, which is a private initiative.

Do Sarawak leaders really think we ordinary people are interested in their elitist “performing arts centre” when many find it hard to put food on the table? Lunch at the local kopitiam already costs RM10 these days.

Where is the focus on reducing hardship by providing a seamless public transport service, which should start with government-subsidised buses and strict enforcement of bus lanes? Why is it that no city in Sarawak – yes, and this includes Kuching! – has a public transport system worth talking about?

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What are the development priorities of the Gabungan Parti Sarawak-led state government in meeting the hierarchy of needs of individual Sarawakians? Are our basic needs and safety issues already fulfilled statewide that it is time to focus on self-actualisation?

Are we ready for such self-actualisation when Kuching, the Sarawak state capital, has not even managed to activate green campaigns – with the insignificant no-plastic day limited to weekends?

Why is Kuching entitled to such a ‘high’ standard of facilities whereas towns and settlements in the interior are bereft of basic facilities such as treated piped water, electricity, roads, bridges and clinics? Why must the folks in these places be satisfied with rainwater stored in tong biru (blue drums), unmaintained solar panels, self-funded generator sets, gravity-fed water supply, long journeys to health clinics and muddy tracks for roads?

Doesn’t the proposed state assembly building makeover project confirm the perception that folks in the interior are purposely kept dependent for political reasons?

I recently visited a fishing village in West Malaysia, and it was thriving. It had a flourishing aquaculture industry. A 50-pond aquaculture farm we visited was able to harvest 100 tonnes of fish monthly. More importantly, it had a market for its harvest. The produce, harvested by noon, made its way to the Selayang wholesale market in the Klang Valley by 1pm every single day.

In Sarawak, many of us have heard of complaints that those who made attempts at agricultural activities were unable to find markets for their produce. I personally have a friend who started cultivating bananas and papayas. The weekly harvest is about 100kg – but he is now worried stiff about how to market it.

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I also read somewhere that a Sarawak fruit producer had to invest in a factory in Johore because local logistics were not adequate. It would seem that the Sarawak government has got its priorities all wrong.

After more than 50 years of governance, it cannot be that the state government isn’t aware that it is vital to find markets for local produce and establish the logistical support to transport it. Is it not incumbent upon the government to incentivise private participation that will optimise the use of available local resources and human resources?

In a smaller town about 200km away from Kuching, a friend advertised for a clerical position recently. She was shocked to receive over a hundred applications – with several graduate applicants willing or forced to settle for minimum pay.

Closer to home in Kuching, a young mother within my circle of concern shared that she has to be out of her house by 5am daily – to bring her mother to the market and drop off her three children to school and a daycare centre – so that she can reach the office in time for work by 8.30am. She is already tired and stressed by the time she reaches her workplace daily.

I did not dare ask what time she gets up – because she has no budget for take-out meals and goes to work with ‘bekal’ (supplies) from home. Asked why her husband cannot help, she said he drives a lorry and heads out of the house sometimes as early as 2am!

Does our state government understand that it was voted in to govern for and in the interests of the people? Or is it so out of touch with the hardships and rigours of life faced by the average Sarawakian? Is it so used to an ‘obedient’ and acquiescent populace dependent on it for basic infrastructure that it continues to be heavy-handed and overbearing in its choice of development projects?

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I have been told by some friends with roots in the interior that most times, it is not that the rural folks are afraid to voice their grouses or dissatisfaction at the poor treatment. Often, they have no idea that it is their right to receive fair and reasonable services.

That being the case, non-government stakeholders and ordinary citizens residing in urban areas, ‘privileged’ not to have been sidelined, should step up efforts – on behalf of our rural fellow Sarawakians – to raise awareness and demand better facilities for ALL.

The under-privileged and the poor do not need handouts; they need support and a leg up and to be taught how to fish. It is a dereliction of the government’s duty if it is not doing that.

Lynn Teo is a believer of citizens’ participation for the common good. A grandmother, she is as an active member of Rise of Sarawak Efforts (Rose), an advocacy group in Sarawak upholding democracy through citizens’ participation in the democratic process.

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