Even the people with below average intelligence tend to reject Pakatan Harapan’s chairman, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s assertion that the people of Sarawak, comprising more than 30 ethnic groups, are lazy, slow and greedy. And Sarawak could have developed better if the people didn’t have low self esteem or if their leaders were not greedy.
He said the people of Sarawak, who tended to find the easy way out must work harder to reduce the economic gap with the Peninsula. It is typical of a comment from people, who have very little knowledge or are very ignorant of Sarawak.
But it is beyond the apprehension of the people of Sarawak, who, generally, have few reasons to be grateful to Mahathir, whose leadership of 22 years as the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia, did not touch their lives. Sarawak, with the total land mass of 12.2 million hectares, which is almost as big as Peninsular Malaysia, gained the status of self-government on July 22, 1963 and statehood in Independent Malaysia, on September 16, 1963.
Then the population was less than one million with the people living in 5,000 settlements, comprising traditional villages, longhouses and bazaars, which were far apart from each other, mostly between one and 30 miles.
They were scattered thinly over a wide area throughout the nooks and corners of the state. Some people like those in the Murut highlands or Kelabit highlands had to walk for 14 days from their longhouses to the nearest towns or bazaars in order to register for the identity cards or report the births of children or deaths of members of their families or do other official matters with the government. The poverty rate in Sarawak has decreased from 2.4 per cent in 2012 to 0.9 per cent in 2014.
The average monthly household income has increased from RM4,293 in 2012 to RM4,934 in 2014. Admittedly, there are still pockets of poverty both in the urban and rural areas where the income is less than RM4,000. Undoubtedly, Sarawak has been experiencing tremendous changes and progress. From the backwaters of development, the state has emerged to become one of the fastest developing states just behind Klang Valley and Putrajaya.
More importantly, the changes and progress can touch the livelihood of the people though some of them are far up in the hinterlands like Ba’kelalan, Belaga, Ulu Baram and Kapit, or in remote coastal areas of Kpg Nyabor near Kabong, Kpg. Penipah in Pulau Bruit, which used to be remote and inaccessible in the early days. The state’s gross domestic product in 1963 was RM505 million and now after 50 years of Independence, RM108 billion. The per capita in 1963 was RM688 and now, it is RM42,000. But the common concern is what the people actually get.
There were more people under employment than employment in 1963. Generally, the people had to live from hand to mouth. In other words, they had to work first before they could have their breakfast. By the 70s, there were only 300,000 job opportunities but now, there are 1.1 million job opportunities in the state. The rate of unemployment in 1990 was 9.9%, a drop of around 4% now.
Consequently, the rate of poverty has been reduced from more than 60% in 1963 to 2.4% now. The household income in 1963 was only RM410 and now, it is RM4,200, an increase of more than 10 times. The state’s success during the last 50 years is attributable to the ability of leaders of the Ibans, Malays, Bidayuhs, Orang Ulus, Chinese and others to work together with the realisation that it is very important in a struggle that it should not be based on communalism but based on working together to bring about positive changes to the way of life of the people.
The common view is that the progress of Sarawak is attributable largely to the leadership of Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud, (now Tun Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud, the Governor of Sarawak) who served as the fourth Chief Minister of Sarawak from March 26, 1981 to February 28, 2014). He is blessed with the wisdom, foresight and good health in leading the state much longer than his predecessors. Although he is acknowledged as the architect of modern Sarawak, he has always been very humble about it. He has often said: “Admittedly, I have been playing active roles in the development of Sarawak but success is not mine alone.”
Pehin Sri Abdul Taib’s primary concern as the fourth Chief Minister was to introduce a development philosophy to implement development programmes, which would be relevant and beneficial to all communities. The people, regardless of their ethnic origins and religious beliefs, share a common aspiration and high expectation to have continuous development for common benefits. He nurtured the ambition that Sarawak should attain the same per capita as Australia now by the year 2030 with the agenda to develop Sarawak not only to become a developed but the most progressive state in the country.
When he assumed the state leadership on March 26, 1981, the situation was very different compared with those in Peninsular Malaysia. He realised that he had to come up with development programmes that could suit the local situations and environment. Thence, about 80% of the population still lived in the rural areas, which still did not have roads, clinics, schools, basic communication facilities like telephones and amenities like water and electricity supplies.
Generally, it was very difficult to bring meaningful development, which must be comprehensive and thorough to such areas. Therefore, instead of talking about the strategy of development, which is more focused, Pehin Sri Abdul Taib talked about the philosophy of development, which is inclusive to cover social, political and human capital aspects of development. It was and still his belief that Sarawak could not depend on old activities even though how successful they might be, in anticipation of the growing competitions from outside. Instead, the state must develop the capability to produce goods, which can be sold in the world market at reasonable prices.
They must be able to compete with goods being produced from other countries. Without such capability, the state may not be able to sustain the current progress and advancement. Before Merdeka (Independence), the only secondary schools in Sarawak were Batu Lintang, Dragon, Kanowit and Tanjung Lobang in Miri. The earlier ones were St. Thomas’s and St. Joseph’s Schools in Kuching and St. Joseph’s School in Miri. The pupils in Primary Six had to sit for the Common Entrance Examination before they could proceed to Form 1. Actually, the Common Entrance Examination was a way to select only 10% of pupils for Form1.
If the practice were to persist, Sarawak would not be able to build up sufficient manpower for its development now and in the future. Thanks to the third Chief Minister, Tun Datuk Patinggi Haji Abdul Rahman Ya’akub, who took a bold step, after 10 years of Independence, to abolish the Common Entrance Examination and introduce a crash programme to build secondary schools throughout the state to ensure 100% of pupils in Primary 6 could automatically proceed to Form1 to pursue secondary education. Then, Sarawak did not have a university.
Now it can boast at least seven universities including foreign university campuses, numerous Science and Technical Colleges, Skills Development Centres and thousands of secondary and primary schools throughout its nooks and corners. Undoubtedly, Sarawak has experienced tremendous changes and progress that can touch the livelihood of the people though some of them are far up in the hinterlands like Belaga, Ulu Baram and Kapit, which used to be quite inaccessible in the early days. This is being exemplified with the increase in per capita income of RM680 in 1963 to RM43,000 now.
Actually, Sarawak has already achieved the same level of progress as Brazil, a more successful nation with a per capita income of RM40,000 in South America. But Brazil has been Independent for almost 200 years whereas Sarawak 50 years only.
With such performance, Sarawak has the higher ambitions to do much more in pursuit of progress and prosperity. Sarawak, led by visionary leaders, has been able to construct more than 30,000 kms of roads, mainly Class 3 and Class 5 types of roads throughout the state, since the early 80s, with the primary objective of making more rural areas accessible by roads. Thanks to the current Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who included the construction of Pan Borneo Highway project in the manifesto for the G13 May 2013 General Election. The construction on certain phases of the highway in Sarawak is being carried ahead of schedule. Besides, the construction of the trunk road to connect Kapit, which has been an island since Independence, to the Pan Borneo Highway is also being carried out ahead of schedule.
The missing link is the Kanowit/ Song stretch of road, which is scheduled for completion in 2021. Mahathir, 93, now seeking to be the Prime Minister of Malaysia for the second time, during his time as the Prime Minister was of the view that Sarawak did not need a highway as the traffic volume was still very low. Of course, the opposition, being familiar with the urban areas in Semenanjung Malaysia and not the vast rural areas in Sarawak, has benchmarked the success in infrastructure development to the development of highways, which is the responsibility of the Federal government.
The leaders, ignorant of such provision, have been quick to criticise the poor quality of roads in Sarawak compared with Peninsular Malaysia. Sarawak has been able to move step by step forward in the struggle to develop the economy according to the local moulds. The changes have been astonishing; in the 60s and 70s, Sarawak was one of the poorest states in the new nation.
Then, the people in Semenajung Malaysia had the tendency to consider only Peninsular Malaysia as Malaysia. Worse, some of them even ventured to ask whether the people in Sarawak were still living on trees. Such misconception should have been long gone had it not been for the behaviours of some opposition leaders, who tend to be showy and arrogant to show that they are superior when carrying out political activities in Sarawak. Generally, they consider that Sarawak is still backward and the local leaders are lacking in capability to push its development. Clearly, they are very shallow in their knowledge of the local situation.
Initially, development in Sarawak was quite slow mainly due to the state’s huge land surface, which has rugged terrains mainly of hilly and mountainous hinterlands and soggy and muddy coastal areas. The problem was compounded by security problems caused by armed communist terrorists, who had been bent on toppling the elected government in order to install a proletarian regime. Consequently, the state remained in the backwater of development and progress until the early 80s. However, since the mid-80s, the land surface started to change and the people started to experience improvements in their livelihood. Generally, the people started to enjoy greater comfort from the situation of poverty and deprivation.
The state is endowed with peace and tranquility from the situation of insecurity. Recently, the state government, with additional financial allocations from the Federal government under the National Key Result Areas (NKRA) started to work very hard to develop the infrastructure and provide basic amenities like clean water and electricity that can give some comfort to the people in the rural areas. The electricity gives light to the people.
For example, schoolchildren can use computers and surf the internet to get access to information on knowledge and skills and keep up with the progress in the world. More importantly, the people started to nurture the attitude of self-help in working to improve their livelihood from the situation of waiting for help from other people. These are important changes to the people without which they cannot enjoy the standard of living.
The state’s success during the last 50 years will motivate the people to do much more to achieve greater progress and prosperity in future. Generally, the people expect more employment and business opportunities to be created for them in future in the economic transformation from medium to high income economy.
The people of Sarawak remain comfortable with the concept of compromise and consensus of the Barisan Nasional, which conforms to their own nature and characteristics of being kind and friendly, as the most appropriate model of politics, which cannot be founded through unity based on one race or one religion only. Certainly, all the 30 ethnic groups in the hinterlands, coastal areas and some inaccessible areas, have different backgrounds.
Certainly, they will find it easy to reject the politics of lies and falsehood of the opposition and the politics of hatred and U-turns of Mahathir and give their support to Barisan Nasional, which they believe can bring the people together in pursuing the common struggle of nation building. Hence, whatever development to be carried out to improve standard of living of the people must give priority to creating more opportunities for the people to be mobile in looking for opportunities to improve their standard of living.
Then the people whether they are Ibans, Malays, Chinese, Bidayuhs, Orang Ulus and others, feel that they are equal and interacting freely among them. The state is rich in natural resources that should be exploited in order to create more opportunities for the people, the young people in particular to do business or get employment. However, the people must focus their efforts on getting higher rewards in order to achieve greater success towards the year 2030.
The state, as an integral part of the beloved nation, has been able to retain an identity that is distinct and undiminished in the country because it has its own history, varied customs and traditions, a way of life that is distinguished by pluralism in culture. It remains steadfast in pursuing a future that is neither separate nor independent from that of the nation.
In other words, it remains true to its status as an indispensable part of the nation and a major contributor to the larger identity of Malaysia. Generally, the people of Sarawak must continue to share a clear vision and aspiration to move forward into the future.
More importantly, they must remain steadfast with the struggle of nation building; they must not take defeat as an option. The achievement, after 50 years of continuous development, gives the people the courage and confidence to move forward to realise Sarawak’s vision of 2030 not only to become a developed but also the most progressive state in Malaysia.