Water, People and Politics in the Interior of Sarawak. By Sharon Chin
Ruran Benung remembers a time when the Lun Bawang of Kampung Long Sukang lived in longhouses.
They got piped water in the mid-70s, courtesy of the Health Ministry. A few years later, Samling, one of Sarawak’s ‘Big 6’ timber companies, started logging the surrounding area.
The Lun Bawang used to be one of the fiercest upriver tribes in Sarawak. They were headhunters and slave takers, until the 1930s, when Australian missionaries came, bringing the word of God.
Today, church is at the center of village life, and the Lun Bawang are devout, teetotaler Christians.
Kampung Long Sukang is two hours drive from Lawas town by Samling’s logging road. When it rains, mini rivers the color of teh tarik gush down on either side. Job Yaris does this trip to and fro almost every day.
The Sabah Sarawak Gas Pipeline (SSGP) runs along the same route. Built by Petronas in 2013, it transports natural gas 512km from Kimanis to Bintulu.
No one was killed that night, but that is cold comfort to villagers who live barely a fistful of mud’s throw from the pipeline.
Job’s father, Yaris Semayong, is a community leader in Kampung Long Sukang. He opposed the pipeline by denying Petronas contractors access to his land for as long as he could.
In April 2015, however, he was looking to connect pipes — of a different sort.
Sekolah Kebangsaan Long Sukang cost an alleged RM25.8mill. It was to be one of the largest rural schools in the Lawas district.
By chance, Uncle Yaris saw an Impian Sarawak banner in neighboring Limbang. He called the number on it and a plan came together to supply S.K. Long Sukang with water. This did not go down well with the local authorities.
Impian Sarawak was set up by opposition party DAP in September 2013, after Barisan Nasional swept the 13th General Elections.
Modeled on developmental NGOs, it’s a social program with a political imperative: winning rural votes.
Full-time staff identify projects through local contacts, then call for volunteers — mainly through Facebook — to join in.
In July, I joined Impian staff Jiang, Vivian, and Lisa* [Identities obscured to prevent them being barred from entering Sarawak], and nine other volunteers on the S.K. Long Sukang pipe project.
The plan: connect 6.5km of pipes from a dam upriver to the school, with a break pressure tank in between. Total cost: RM30,000.
On Saturday, exactly a week since our arrival, a celebration is held at the astaka (outdoor pavilion) in front of the football field. It was built with timber donated from Samling.
A bamboo band greets YB Tony Pua, who has flown in from KL. The DAP MP for PJ Utara is the fundraising and political force behind Impian Sarawak. This is the first project involving a school, i.e. public infrastructure, so it will play well in the media and at fundraising dinners.
Sarawak state elections are held two years before the nationwide General Elections, and determine Malaysia’s entire political landscape to come. The 11th Sarawak State Election was held on 7 May 2016. In a crushing defeat for the opposition, Barisan Nasional won 72 out of 82 seats, giving it a super-majority in the state assembly. PKR kept its three seats, including Long Sukang’s constituency, Ba’Kelalan. DAP lost five of the 12 urban seats it previously held.
On the way back from Long Sukang, when he heard I was writing this piece, Pua offered to help me place it in The Malaysian Insider, one of the biggest online news portals in Malaysia [defunct since March 2016].
A few days earlier, under the same astaka, Uncle Yaris laid out for me in lucid terms the issues facing his community.
A year has passed since I was in Long Sukang. Before leaving, we received traditional hats as parting gifts.
We were also given Lun Bawang names.
The name is a strange, heavy gift. Like the unfinished school, it sits in me as promise unfulfilled. Even after the elections come and go, all the trees are cut down, the rivers run brown, and the animals disappear, it will remain, reminding me that a name is both honor and duty — to mean anything at all, it must be both given, and earned.
Will Impian Sarawak continue after the elections are over?
As for me, I don’t know when I will go back to Long Sukang.
Disclosure: I formerly campaigned for PKR in the 2011 Sarawak State Election. Lodgings were provided by the villagers of Kampung Long Sukang. Travel insurance was provided by Impian Sarawak. Other expenses were borne independently.
This piece was edited by Ling Low and Zedeck Siew. Many thanks to them.
This is Part 3 of ‘In The Land That Never Was Dry’, a series of illustrated journalism pieces about water issues in Malaysia, supported by Krishen Jit ASTRO Fund. Read Part 1 and Part 2: