Mighty Rajang – Sarawak's hydro powerhouse
By:James Ritchie

We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle, a good candle, provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100 watt light bulb.

Bill Bryson, American author

I must be the first local journalist to travel up the 563km Rajang River in my initial research on the controversial Bakun hydroelectric dam.

When Prime Minister (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamed gave the greenlight to the proposed RM15 billion concrete face rockfill dam (CFRD) in 1983, Malaysia’s environmentalists were up in arms.

Apart from being the second tallest CFRC (205m) in the world, Bakun would entail inundating 14,750 sq km of Belaga’s pristine forests the size of Singapore.

One day in 1985 at Sarawak Badger Bar, my old friend Datuk Justine Jinggut, son of the illustrious Temenggong Jinggut Atan asked me, “Do you want to go to ulu Belaga?”

At the mention of the word “Belaga” I jumped at the offer. A Brooke enthusiast, “Tuan Muda” Charles Brooke fought an infamous war of retribution against the Kayan, 100 years ago. 

Charles, 34, was the heir-apparent of Sarawak, when two of his best friends Charles Fox and Henry Steel were killed by Kanowit rebels led by Sawing on June 7, 1859.

Robert Payne in “The White Rajahs of Sarawak” said: “For many years in the upper reaches of the Rajang River, the Kayan had been in revolt. They were a treacherous tribe and liked nothing better than putting out the eyes and cutting the throats of prisoners and burning them alive.”

In response, Charles launched the “Great Kayan Expedition” of May 1863; with a military force of 12,000 and 300 boats, travelling up the Rajang, past Bakun Rapids, and subjugated the rebels and killed scores.

Unlike Charles, my Belaga journey 35 years ago was by a Hornbill Skyways Bell helicopter skippered by ex-RMAF pilot Captain Greg Lim who like myself, enjoyed a tipple.

True to the spirit of camaraderie my erstwhile friend Justine, brought several cartons of beer and Guinness, to lighten the spirits of the Badeng — a much-feared Kenyah tribe.

As we hovered over the rolling hills, we eventually dived into a valley at Long Gang, where 1,200 natives at Uma Badeng lived in 14 longhouses. 

Its leader Penghulu Nyurang Ului, in his 50s, with his dangling ear-lobes, cleared the unkempt football field of where cheroot-smoking women and children had to meet Justine who was the MP of Hulu Rajang and political secretary Datuk Idris Bilong Bit.

Long Gang had been the hotbed of resistance of the 15 “Orang Ulu” longhouse communities comprising 8,000 inhabitants who opposed the dam since 1983.

Six NGOs, including Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), CIPLEX, SIPA, INSAN, SUARAM and the Society of Christian Services, had told the people that an area covering 14,750 sq km or an area as big as Singapore would flood them out.

Penghulu Nyurang was leader of the Bakun Residents Action Communities (BRAC) who had sent a petition to Dr Mahathir to scrap the dam.

It was almost “perfect timing” because Justine had run into a hornets’ nest as the Badeng — “adeng” is the Kenyah name for a killer bee — set up blockades around Long Gang. 

A fiery discussion, which started at about 5pm, took place at the massive veranda of Nyurang’s longhouse and lasted till midnight.

Unlike happier celebrations when liquor flowed freely, chief Nyurang “borak” (rice beer) was not served to the VIP guests to show the inhabitants’ discontent. 

According to the Sarawak hydro plan, the government would build a “new” settlement at Asap-Koyan enclave, a short distance away and it was a matter of time they had to abandon their village.

In the meantime, Greg and I were confined to our helicopter, parked on the grassy plain in a malaria-infested region, guzzling down the frothy black Irish ale — six big bottles each.

Within a year, I was back in Belaga and Justine introduced me to his father-in-law paramount chief Datuk Tajang Lang, living downriver at Uma Nyaving, Long Linau (Long is the Orang Ulu word for confluence).

For 30 years, Tajang from PBB, was the Belaga assemblyman until his younger rival Datuk Nyipa Bato from SUPP, assumed the mantle of power.

But the rivalry ended there: Tajang’s eldest daughter US graduate Lohong had married Justine.

To unite the feuding families, his charming younger daughter Livan married Nyipa’s son Richard and I had the honour to attend the grand traditional wedding ceremony at Nyipa’s longhouse.

To add to the influence of the family, the late Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing, whom I have known since 1982, also married one of Nyipa’s daughters Corrine.

Baleh assemblyman Masing had been involved in all three dams in Belaga — Bakun (2,400mw) in the early 2000s, the second dam in Murum (944mw) in 208 and in 2020, and Baleh (1,285wm) dam.

With Masing’s passing in October last year, he was not able to see the completion of Baleh in 2025.

Future generations may ask, what was the impact of the loss of a large proportion of the environment through dam construction?

With Indonesia’s Nusantara — 700km from Kapit — set to become South East Asia’s economic hub in five-year’s time, Sarawak can be a favoured beneficiary as Borneo’s “powerhouse”.

Even so, the Australian-trained anthropologist Masing’s name is synonymous with Belaga’s hydropower projects and it would be fitting to name the Baleh dam after him.

After all, Masing is the “doyen” of Kapit’s Iban intelligentsia, who for 40 years served Sarawak and his country loyally and with distinction.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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