119 KPDNHEP transporters in Sarawak moving subsidised goods to rural settlements

Workers handling drums of diesel and RON95 at Marudi Wharf. (Photo courtesy of KPDNHEP)

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Anyone who knows Sarawak will know that it is a vast State of uncountable interior settlements scattered throughout every nook and corner. Just to reach some rural communities, such as Long Busang of Belaga, is already a long and tiring journey — a total of eight hours — with three hours on reasonably good roads and another five on timber trail.  

For some settlements that cannot be reached by land, it would mean a river journey worth hours, braving fast-flowing currents during raining season and rapids when going upstream during the dry season. 

So for the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry (KDPNHEP) to send subsidised goods to remote villages and settlements in the interior, it is costly due to the high transportation, handling, and logistic costs.  

Furthermore, to ensure the safe transporting of goods, the ministry has no choice but to engage local transporters. Who knows the area best if not the locals themselves?

Taking into consideration the arduous journeys, anyone sensible enough would understand that goods in rural areas will cost higher. And the further these settlements are, the higher the costs of transporting and handling the goods.  

Longboats are used to transport subsidised goods to interior Baram. (Photo courtesy of KPDNHEP)

Under such circumstances, the ministry in 2009 came out with the Price Standardisation Programme, under which seven essential merchandise, including white rice, flour, sugar, RON95, diesel, pure palm oil for cooking, and liquified gas cylinder are sold in rural areas at the same price as in the urban centres.  

To do so, the Federal government absorbs all costs of goods transportation and handling to lift a bit of the burden off the shoulders of the rural villagers and longhouse residents.

Sarawak, the land of transporters

For 2022, KPDNHEP engaged with 224 transporters nationwide, and as expected, Sarawak took up more than half, at 119.  

And to ensure that goods are effectively transported to designated remote destinations where the point-of-sale (POS) is located, the ministry put in place stringent requirements on the transporter companies.

Matthew Barin on a boat trip to inspect the Price Standardisation Programme. (Photo courtesy of KPDNHEP)

According to Sarawak KPDNHEP director Matthew Barin, to be a transporter under this programme, a company must be (among the main requirements):

  • Owned by local Sarawakians 
  • Companies that have registered with the Ministry of Finance 
  • Companies with sufficient workforce and assets such as transporting vehicles (lorries, boats, and 4WD vehicles), drums, etc
  • Know the rural areas concerned well and maintain good working relationships with operators of the POS
  • Sound financial standing
  • Good understanding of the responsibility of transporter and well-equipped with inventory management and record-keeping skills

Braving tough roads, weather and smuggling

“The far and difficult journey to reach the rural communities posts is the root cause for many challenges faced by KPDNHEP where the Price Standardisation Programme is concerned.

“Due to the tough journeys, it is also difficult to identify the transporters who can fulfil their responsibilities. 

“Apart from that, growth in the rural areas and their increasing activities are affecting the quotas the ministry set for them. For example, in Mulu, a tourist destination, the demand for petrol will depend on the tourists visiting. If there is a surge in the number of tourists, then the area will suffer the issue of insufficient petrol,” Matthew explained.

The stressful journeys also mean difficulties in getting sufficient supplies on short notice.

A Pajero which was confiscated during an operation by the General Operation Force (GOF). Photo credit: KPDNHEP

While the factors posed by nature — mountainous terrains and fast-flowing rivers — are already tough challenges, KPDNHEP is faced with an even more strenuous challenge involving human nature — smuggling.

Due to the high subsidy on the seven essential items, they become comparatively cheaper when reaching interior settlements near the border, resulting in Sarawak’s subsidised goods being well-sought after. That is why there are cases where foreigners on the other side cross the international border to buy these essential products in Sarawak’s grocery stores. 

The smuggling of these essential items, especially RON95 and diesel, has become a lucrative business for those with evil intentions to exploit the programme, turning the government’s noble endeavour into a fast money-making avenue.

“It is a situation that we have to watch closely and be on the alert constantly to reduce government’s leakage through this unlawful act of smuggling,” said Matthew.

The seven essential subsidised by KPDNHEP under the Price Standardisation Programme.

Ah Leong, the transporter

Hwong You Loong, better known as ‘Ah Leong’ to Marudi town folk, has been a transporter for KPDNHEP for the last three years.  

It has been a tough job, he said, to move these subsidised goods from Marudi to remote places as far as Mulu.  

“I am not sure how far Mulu is from Marudi. For us to transport goods to Mulu, we start by using a custom-made steel longboat which is powered by three outboard engines. When we reach the upstream, we switch to small longboats.  

“It will take about eight hours to reach Mulu,” Ah Leong told DayakDaily.

KPDNHEP transporter ‘Ah Keong’ (in green T-shirt)

He said when it is the rainy season, they have to brave the constant heavy downpour, and when it is dry, the water level is low. In such cases, it is impassable to small longboats, and the boatmen will have to step down from the boats to look for the part of the river where the water level is high enough to push through the longboat.  

Citing another rural area by the name of Kampung Asam Payah at Tutoh Apoh, Ah Leong said this rural village will take five hours to reach using river transport but is reachable in two hours using four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles on timber trails.   

“But we cannot use the timber trail all the time because it is a mud road, and it is dangerous to travel on when it rains heavily,” said Ah Leong. 

As an experienced transporter, Ah Leong knows his team cannot travel without a contingency plan. For river transport, the three outboard engines are the backup, while for land transport, the villagers are his contingency plan.

“If the 4WD vehicles were to give way in the middle of the journey, our team would have to wait for another vehicle to come to assist.  

“The consolation part is we are in good relationship with the villagers along the way and in the area. So with their help, it is not as bad. We will not be stranded in the middle of nowhere as they can always help us by providing food, shelter, and safety,” said Ah Leong.

Another challenge is the availability of a warehouse to keep all his merchandise, such as the gas cylinders and drums of petrol.  

“Then we have the issue of credit. Sometimes, the POS operators can’t pay up. This is not because of ill management, rather, it is because the villagers themselves cannot afford to pay the POS operators. This poses to be an issue but a small one compared to the laborious and dangerous journey,” said Ah Leong. — DayakDaily

A cargo barge carrying subsidised goods of KPDNHEP on the Baram River.