For two days the Sarawak boat tragedy that claimed 12 lives hogged the headlines – but it was later relegated to routine news. Isn’t that a reflection of how cheaply Sarawakian lives are rated. wonders Rani Rasiah.
Some points to consider. On Tuesday, 28 May 2013, an express boat filled to overflowing with passengers returning home for Gawai hit a boulder on the Balui River and capsized.
The boat was meant for a passenger load of 67, but on that fateful morning, the Kawan Mas ferried three times as many, despite the route being a treacherous one, filled with stretches of rapids and driftwood. We are told that currently there is only one express boat plying the route in question between the Bakun area and Kapit.
On the morning of the tragedy, search-and-rescue operations for survivors could not be carried out in full force because the nearest town of Belaga does not have the equipment or personnel to deal with emergencies. Belaga doesn’t even have a fire station, we are informed!
Reminder: The Balui River and Belaga district are part of Malaysia! They are in Sarawak, which is a vote bank of the Barisan Nasional. In fact, the people of Sarawak saved the BN from sinking in the 13th General Elections less than a month ago on 5 May 2013. Such is the debt of gratitude the BN owes the people of Sarawak.
Yet less than a month after the elections, the people have lost loved ones, and continue to face the risk of losing more lives, because the BN government failed to provide basic infrastructure to the people.
The BN government has failed to use the abundant resources of the state to provide infrastructure. For the BN, infrastructure development has been linked not to the people but to projects such as dams and aluminum smelting plants. It has failed to evenly distribute the wealth of the state and has instead concentrated it in the hands of the Chief Minister and his cronies, whose obscenely rich lifestyles stand in stark contrast to the backwardness and deprivation endured by the people.
The responses of the government are feeble and disgraceful. The Chief Minister gently chided the boat operators for being “too kind and obliging”. Incredible, but that is what he had to say about the business of risking the lives of people by dangerously overloading the boats.
He had nothing to say about the screaming need for alternative transport means, like roads, for the people living in the interior. He takes no responsibility for the tragedy, and offers no plans on what he is going to do to stop such a tragedy from recurring.
From his reaction, one can conclude that things will go back to usual once the initial excitement is over. After all, the very next day, exactly the same scene was said to have presented itself at the Kapit jetty, with equally large crowds trying to get home for the Dayak Gawai harvest festival.What can people do? As someone from Kapit said, “If we do not go by boat, how can we get back? Like others, I have no choice…” How much louder can that be said?
Official criticism is limited to non-compliance with safety regulations and lax enforcement. If we take this official line to its logical conclusion, the workers wanting to return home should be advised to stay back and miss the Gawai. But the hypocrites in power will not dare to say it. They are confining themselves to the need to observe “passenger capacity” and take “safety measures”.
The repeated and unfailing support of the people of Sarawak for the BN unfortunately has not resulted in improving their socio-economic status. Many areas have remained ‘interior’ despite a wealthy economy and unbroken BN rule. The plunder of state wealth has made the Chief Minister its undisputed richest man whilst rendering the people the poorest.
Some change to this state of affairs could have been possible if the BN had not won or not won so comfortably in Sarawak. To a government that seems to have taken its support so much for granted, and that continues to ride roughshod over its people, such a strong warning is necessary.
That is not to say that if the PR had won, it would do a great job. But the good it will do is show that people are the boss, that they have the power to unseat you if you oppress them.