A treasure at the rainbow’s end — Masing’s strategy to develop Baleh

Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing

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This was the last interview DayakDaily did with late Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing who was also Baleh assemblyman.  It was supposed to a pre-election piece. Since he had passed on, DayakDaily is publishing this story as a tribute to him.

By Lian Cheng

Although he was elected to represent Baleh, where development is concerned, Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) president Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing does not confine his sense of responsibility only to his constituency but extends it to Kapit Division as a whole in the context of Sarawak’s overall development.

He believes deep in his psyche that for any regional development to be sustainable, it must be implemented in connection with the greater Sarawak.  The development of Baleh and Kapit Division, he is certain, cannot take place in isolation but must be linked to other parts of Sarawak.  

This is why he has made it his priority ever since becoming Infrastructure and Port Development Minister, to ensure that the long-awaited Sibu-Kapit Road became a reality. 

And it did. Following the partial completion of the Ngemah-Temalat stretch, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg led a motorcycle convoy from Sibu to Kapit on Oct 4, 2020, marking the opening of the road.

Sibu-Kapit Road, a catalyst to open up Greater Kapit

Growing up as a boy in a remote Baleh longhouse, Masing understands firsthand the needs of rural folks, and has been as frustrated as any Kapit resident that the town had remained for 57 years an island within the island of Borneo until last year.

“Therefore, my first concern as a minister and the first concern of other YBs in the area was how to connect Kapit with the rest of Sarawak. So our first priority was make sure that we built the road from Sibu to Kanowit, from Kanowit to Song, from Song to Kapit. That was our first priority, which we accomplished,” said Masing.

With Kapit now linked to Sibu and hence other parts of Sarawak, businesses in Kapit have been flourishing. Kapit’s products and produce such as fish, meat, jungle produce and vegetables are “quite wanted” as described by Masing; and understandably, creating sources of income for Kapit folks.

“During weekends, you can see many people coming here to buy and snap up anything that is available. But that is not enough, my vision is to make sure that Kapit town is connected to the hinterland, so that the rural people from the hinterland may sell their produce to Kapit and from Kapit, these items may be sold to the rest of Sarawak.”

The next step for the Baleh assemblyman is to make sure the Kapit hinterland is well-linked with roads. This greater Kapit or Kapit Division, consisting of areas under the Song District Council, Kapit District Council, Pelagus District Council and Bukit Mamong District Council, is no less than 50,000 square kilometres, about the size of one-fifth of Sarawak. Land is obviously the main resource and source of livelihood for people residing there.

The Kapit Wharf

Kapit Division has historically been one of Sarawak’s biggest producers of timber. With depleting timber sources, it does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that the timber industry is dying. It is thus imperative that other industries should rise up to provide Kapit residents with other forms of employment and sources of income. With vast stretches of fertile land, the potential of the Kapit hinterland is great, especially when the economic vision for Sarawak is leaning towards becoming a digital-based food producing giant within the region.  

“The potential is great as the land will be productive. However, it can only be productive if you make it accessible. That is why I was very pleased when the late Tok Nan (former Chief Minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem) asked me to be in charge of infrastructure since he knew I wanted to deal with rural development.

“That fits into what I want. So I am tasked to create accessibility for rural areas which otherwise will not be accessible. So my vision is for the roads to reach Kapit first, then from Kapit, like a spider’s web, the road network will spread to all areas of greater Kapit.”

Treasure at the end of the rainbow

To build the road network linking the whole of Kapit Division, Masing has an ingenious tactic — to leave a treasure at the end of the rainbow.

Building infrastructure such as rural roads is costly due to the distance whereby transportation of material and manpower consumes a large chunk of the expenses. For the government to agree to build these roads, there must be economies of scale – there must be a large enough population to justify the construction projects. The fact of the matter is Kapit Division is sparsely populated. 

When Baram residents rejected a dam earmarked for their area, Masing quickly snatched up the opportunity to propose for it to be built at Ulu Baleh, with the condition that a good road must be constructed to connect Ulu Baleh to Kapit.

“To have the HEP (hydroelectric dam), there is a necessity to build a 120km road from Kapit to Ulu Baleh. Even though the dam is financed by Sarawak Energy, the road is funded by the federal government. The federal government will not build the road if there is no dam. There must be a treasure at the end of the rainbow.

“Once the road is done, other basic infrastructure and utilities such as electricity and water will be able come in. They all go together. So I convinced the people of Baleh that we must accept the dam.”

The locations of three dams of Sarawak

With the Kapit-Ulu Baleh Road in place, Masing’s next goal is to build subsidiary roads to interlink the various parts of Kapit Division — Tunoh, Pelagus, and Bukit Mabong. This is part of Masing’s vision as the Baleh assemblyman.

“If I am still around here for the next five years, my vision is to link the whole of the hinterland of Kapit Division which is about one-fifth the size of Sarawak. I need to give access to the whole area which is very fertile and suitable for agriculture. That (is what) we need to do. Once we have access to roads, then the people who reside in rural areas can make a better living because they can send their produce to Kapit and from Kapit, it goes to the rest of Sarawak, and maybe to the rest of the world. That is my vision.

“I am lucky that the vision is in line with Sarawak’s vision and the 12th Malaysia Plan. The CM (Abang Johari) is very particular that the 12MP is for rural development and that is also my aim for Kapit. And that is what I am going to do for the next five years, if I am back again as part of the administration,” said Masing, referring to the upcoming Sarawak Election which must be held later this year. 

Stolport and security

Districts in Sarawak tend to start out as central bazaars and later slowly upgrade into districts after the local population has grown and there is a need to set up administrative offices to better manage the place and the people. Bukit Mabong District, however, is a rare exception. It started off as a planned or visual township.  

Currently, the district comprises mostly vast areas of un-utilised vacant land with few inhabitants.  There is a district council nonetheless. What is notable about the new township is that a short take-off and landing airport (stolport) will be built there.

The stolport’s existence will be purely for the export of agricultural produce from this part of Sarawak. The main purpose to build it is to prepare for the eventuality of Kapit Division becoming a major agricultural producer, in tandem with Sarawak’s vision of becoming a regional food producing hub.

It is obvious that the building of the Bukit Mabong township and the stolport is yet another example of Masing’s ingenuity – they are the treasures at the end of the rainbow, and hence, the perfect rationale and excuse for roads to be built to link them to the main trunk road – the Kapit-Ulu Baleh Road.

It is also a part of Masing’s plan that the presence of a stolport will convince the federal government to enhance the security of Kapit Division, in view that three of Sarawak’s hydropower dams — Bakun, Murum and Baleh — are all situated in Kapit Division.

For Masing, the security of these three dams is of utmost significance and he is never shy in making the calls for it to be enhanced and intensified.

“Without Kapit, Sarawak will go blind (sic). What happens in Kapit Division becomes very important to Sarawak. In other words, they (the authorities) must safeguard the security of Baleh, which is so closely linked to Belaga and Murum.”

Longhouse chief Inguh Miut, Sg Paku, Bukit Mamong

No one understands the crucial need for physical connectivity better than the rural folks who have been deprived of it. Longhouse chief Inguh Miut of Sg Paku, Bukit Mabong is one of them. Following the completion of the Kapit-Baleh Dam Road, and the 76km subsidiary Kapit-Mujong Road, the Inguh Longhouse is now only an hour away from Kapit and four hours away from Sibu.

“Before the construction of the Kapit-Ulu Baleh Road, it took six to seven hours by boat to reach my longhouse from Kapit. Now with road accessibility from Kapit to Mujong, it takes only one hour to reach my longhouse from Kapit. Life is much easier now with road connectivity,” said Inguh.

Deep in the interior, road construction is no easy matter. To build the Kapit-Mujong Road, the government first had to build three bridges: the Baleh Bridge which was completed in 2016, and the Banjau Bridge and the Mujong Bridge which were completed this year.  

As a resident of the area, Inguh is of the view Masing’s persistent efforts together with the support of the Sarawak and federal governments had made the road a reality.

“He did not only build the road, he also constructed feeder roads to our longhouses. Then he upgraded our longhouses through the disbursement of rural transformation funds. He also brought about 24-hour electricity supply through solar panel installations for our longhouse which has 30 doors. It is a temporary measure before the longhouse can be connected to the main power grid,” revealed Inguh.

Longhouse chief Inguh Miut, Sg Paku, Bukit Mamong.

He is grateful and will continue to give his support to Masing, whom he believes would bring about more good things to Baleh.

“He may be a minister but his aid for us the longhouse folks is ever ready due to his effective services. He is from our place and he has been with us for many years. He knows what we nee

d and knows how to make it happens.

“And he is a man of his word. If he can help, he will, very quickly. If he can’t, he will either ask us to wait or he will tell us the truth that it cannot be done. There is no guesswork with him and no bluffing that something may be done, but not done,” said Inguh.

Longhouse chief Weng Rasar, Nanga Sempurau, Mujong

Similar to the Inguh Longhouse, the 21-door Weng Longhouse is now an hour’s drive from Kapit, following the completion of the Mujong Bridge. Its headman Weng Rasar is looking forward with excitement to the arrival of electricity supply to his longhouse at Nanga Sempurau, Mujong, which he expects will happen this year.

“With our longhouse connected by road, electricity poles are now being erected from Kapit towards us. We are expecting power to reach our longhouse this year,” said Weng.

He revealed that Masing as the elected representative of the area, has brought about many projects to Baleh. There are big projects such as the Baleh dam and road building which benefits all residents in the area. There are also smaller projects such as the construction of jetties, upgrading of longhouses, and provision of longhouse feeder roads which benefits local communities in specific locations.

“It is not true that he (Masing) did not bring any projects to his people.  What I know, if he promises, he will give (sic), and if he can’t, he will try to find the money. He doesn’t make empty promises.

“No man can serve Baleh better than him. We, the longhouse chiefs in the Mujong area of Baleh, will all give him all our support to be the candidate for Baleh. No one should come to disturb (sic). He must keep his position,” said Weng.

Longhouse chief Weng Rasar, Nanga Sempurau, Mujong.

On the prospective challenger from Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) Koh Kumbong, Weng claimed that the former did not even have support from his own longhouse neighbours.

“It is good that it is Koh Kumbong that Tan Sri is facing. He (Koh) has been moving around. We have told others, if he were to come, don’t be hostile to him but give him food according to the Iban culture.  However, we told them not to follow his footsteps. Don’t support or vote for him.  

“Those following him are the opposition anyway and they have been around since the beginning. They are the same people for the last 30 years and they have been opposing Tan Sri since the first day he stood as Baleh candidate. There are about 1,500 of them,” said Weng.

Longhouse chief Peter Raggau, Rantau Bidai, Sg Mujong

Randau Bidai in Sungai Mujong is three hours from Kapit. It is presently accessible via a 106km Jiwa Murni road.  

“We can’t continue to depend on river transport. It was tough to depend on rivers. Before our longhouse was linked by road, whenever a person fell sick, we were forced to navigate at night on the river, using only torch light (to bring them for treatment). It was very dangerous.

“It was even more dangerous when the water level in the river was low. Now with the Jiwa Murni road, even though the road may not be a good road, at least it provides connectivity and we don’t have to risk our lives navigating along rivers in the dark anymore,” revealed longhouse chief Peter Raggau.

Longhouse chief Peter Raggau, Rantau Bidai, Sg Mujong

Not only is he grateful for the Jiwa Murni road which holds a vital role in the daily lives of rural folks which many city folks may not fully understand, Peter is also thankful that though situated in the deep interior, his longhouse and others in the vicinity have been upgraded to concrete longhouses, a far cry from times past, where longhouses were made of wood with thatched roofs.

“Tan Sri had helped us all to rebuild our longhouses as concrete longhouses with PPRMS (‘Projek Penambahbaikan Rumah Miskin Sarawak’ or Poor Housing Upgrading Programmes) allocation.

“Tan Sri is helpful — easy to meet, talk and discuss with him. We and all the folks of the longhouses within our vicinity will support him and no one else,” said Peter who is the headman of the 32-door Peter Longhouse.

Masing who is the PRS candidate for Baleh has represented the area since 1983. Over the last eight terms, support for him has remained strong.  

In the 1991 Sarawak Election, support for him was 67.15 per cent but in 2016, it soared to 91.67 per cent. Apart from during the 1991 and 2011 state elections, none of his opponents managed to poll more than 1,000 votes. As of 2016, the total number of voters for Baleh constituency is 5,272.

After 2016, Masing was appointed the Infrastructure Development Minister, the first time he has held the post despite being an eight-term assemblyman. — DayakDaily