A highway of opportunities

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 17 Nov 2019

The dream road: Baru launching the RM5.2bil Sarawak -Sabah Link Road in Lawas, Sarawak, recently.

While some remain sceptical about the the much awaited multi-billion ringgit Sarawak-Sabah Link Road project, many are optimistic about where it can lead them in the future.

THE roads are narrow and on both sides, the countryside open up to vast green highlands. Way beyond, the mountains stand majestically.

We have just reached the Lawas town in Sarawak, and around us are the villages of Ba’ Kelalan, Long Semadoh, Bario, Long Pasia and Nanga Mendamit.

These are among the most remote villages of Sarawak, known as the last frontier of the state.

About a thousand villagers from the villages around the area – some dressed in their native gears – have been waiting patiently under the hot sun. Luckily, the air is crisp and fresh.

Most are from the Lun Bawang tribe but there are also other tribes present. Ba Kelalan is home to the Lun Bawang, Kayan and other ethnicities, with three weekly flights by the 18-seater Twin Otter planes.

Two groups of Lun Bawang women musicians dressed in beautiful tribal wear with angklungs and flutes welcome our entourage with traditional songs.

Many ministers have come and gone whenever roads are tarred in this area, but this welcome seems to be grander than usual; after all, the minister is a local boy who has made good and he speaks their language – the language of Lun Bawang.

It is the much-awaited launching of the RM5.3bil Sarawak-Sabah Link Road – the first road to link the two Borneo states without going through Brunei.

SSLR is an important part of the 4,000 km Trans Borneo, the first highway to link the Sabah and Sarawak to Kalimantan, which in the near future will be where the new Indonesian capital is located.

“I bet my career on this SSLR and Trans Borneo. I will make sure it is completed, ” says Works Minister Baru Bian, who hails from a poor family in Long Semadoh.

“This highway is personal, ” his aide Vernon Kedit notes

To my retort that politicians should not personalise projects and it is his job as Works Minister to build roads, Vernon replies: “Yes, but he will die for this one, and lay his life for it to be completed.”

It soon becomes clear what “personal” here means.

“Every term, to get to school, we would have to walk three days and two nights with our supply of rice and salt. And at the end of the term, we would have to return the same route.

“Once this road is built, children do not have to stay in hostels anymore. Now, we have to use off road vehicles, but with this road, even a Kancil can go into our villages, ” Baru says in his speech.

The routes the villagers take now are across streams and steep mountain paths. (No wonder I hardly saw small cars anywhere for miles.)

Since independence, this part of Sarawak has been kept as it is with the only outsiders being loggers and environmentalists.

The locals made up of many tribes have just carried on their lives as it was for decades, just eking out a living with farming from day to day.

There are schools, but children would have to stay in hostels, so many parents, fearing to let go of their children, would rather forego education. Some who persist, like Baru, make it to universities and they move out, but keeping these villages in their hearts.

Baru’s story might not be a norm in the cities, but in the Sarawak hinterland, it’s a common tale – quite a number have made a successful career only by moving out into the world.

One old woman, who walked for two hours to attend the event, says, “It is not that we are poor, but we are rich with beauty and food and good air, but it is as if we are on an island and not connected to the world – some of us do not even know there is an outside world bigger than us.

“Here, we are left behind by the world and one day I fear the loggers will chop us down along with the trees.”

Loggers are the only ones who have made logging trails to carry their products out.

The government following suit, would have tarred some of these logging roads but there is no proper connection if one is to drive out of the village – one would have to go through a maze, to get to the big cities.

There have been many tussles for the thousands of acres of “tanah adat” (customary land), which belong to the villagers and the loggers who have got their logging permits from the authorities.

The Native Communal Rights (NCR) land is the most touche issue for the people here, for although the NCR lands are recognised as belonging to the villagers, they have no papers to prove they are the owners. Thus, the Courts have to decide.

Before Baru joined politics, he was popular as a lawyer who fought for NCR lands on behalf of his own family and other villagers.

He handled many cases successfully and was much sought after by villagers. In fact, it was on this ticket that he joined Parti Keadilan Rakyat and politics.

Realising that NCR lands would be the most valuable asset in the building of SSLR, Baru has already started works on the ground to ensure that villagers do not lose out their land.

Perhaps it is with his capability on this issue in mind that had the big logging towkays also lining up early at the Hotel Seri Malaysia in Lawas to shake his hands – once the SSLR comes up, their logging activities and plantations will be monitored more closely.

For a long time, these plantations and loggers have managed to coup their profits without much watchful eyes as long as they have the permit.

The locals have remained as poor as they were while their land’s riches were taken away and strangers have become millionaires.

While a number of the villagers who came on that day, came to see whether the SSLR is for real this time, their skepticism is matched by their eagerness for the roads.

“I know people like to come and see how we live, but my friends and I are tired of strangers coming in to gawk at us. But it is so far for us to go out, ” says one young man named John.

“I really hope it is during my lifetime. I have waited so long and many promises have passed by.

“We just hope since he is a local boy, he would fulfil it or he would not be able to show his face here if this is abandoned as well, ” says another, who declines to be named, but says he was from Baru’s village.

It looks like Baru definitely must make this personal, or he won’t be able to balik kampung.

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