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Tatau District is truly a large area, several times larger than Singapore and nearly as big as Brunei, spanning about 4,945.85 square kilometres. It is, however, sparsely populated, home to about 36,500 people, according to data from the Department of Statistics 2020.
Ibans makes up the majority of the population of Tatau District, followed by the Orang Ulu (Punan, Kenyah, Beketan, Lisum, Lugat), Chinese, Malay and Melanau.
Tatau town, previously known to the locals as ‘kedai Jelai’ (Jelai town), was a mere row of wooden shophouses, a trading post established by the Brooke regime in 1886. It grew over the centuries to become the Tatau main commercial hub and administrative centre.
Tatau is located about 60km southwest of Bintulu, soon to be linked by the Pan Borneo Highway project.
Tatau became a district on April 2, 1989. Being a rural district, its main economic activities have always been centred around agriculture. Since about four decades ago, modern large-scale agriculture development has been the main engine of growth and development for Tatau District, replacing the timber industry.
Tatau’s transformation under GPS
Light up the night
The transformation of Tatau District, which is within the N60 Kakus constituency, has been rapid. At the turn of the new millennium, communities scattered along the basin were still largely dependent on diesel-powered generators to light up the night. Maintaining the gen-set is expensive — with users paying more than triple the typical electricity rate in urban areas.
Diesel generators also were so noisy that longhouse folks had to turn it off before midnight. The cost of diesel fuel is also expensive, with most longhouses willing to brave the dark than pay for the fuel.
That has to change. In recent years the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) State government has been doubling its efforts to illuminate rural areas. The choice is often an off-grid solution, as communities are scattered miles away from the state power grid, entailing a high upfront cost for electricity supply works.
The GPS government dubbed the initiative the Sarawak Alternative Rural Electrification Scheme (SARES). The solution to rural electrification utilised two sources of energy: the sun and fast-flowing bodies of water.
SARES has been a real success. It has created a huge difference in the lives of the remote communities in the State ever since it was launched in June 2016, reported Sarawak Energy, the State-owned power company directly involved in the project. By the end of 2020, the Sarawak Rural Electrification Master Plan had successfully expanded electricity supply to about 93 per cent of the State’s population.
In Kakus, the first to enjoy a pollution-free, renewable 24-hour electricity supply was the cluster of longhouses in the middle of Penyarai River. The transformation has been exhilarating and welcomed by these rural communities.
A Tuai Rumah (Tr) said they were used to hearing the exhaust noises of a diesel generator, but now they can listen to the sound of cicadas, frogs and nature with SARES in place.
Following the success of the first solar project in the Penayarai area, Kakus incumbent Datuk John Sikie Tayai said the government is expanding the project to other rural areas, such as Takan in upper Anap.
“The very remote areas will be prioritised such as Takan area and Ulu Anap Tatau,” he said.
Along the Anap River, two longhouses had already benefited from the SARES project implementation; Rumah Gerunsin and Rumah Gani.
Areas within reach of the State electrical grid will be connected to the grid, according to Datuk John Sikie. Alongside Kakus, several longhouses from Rumah Ado at Lirung Beleang (or Lubok Kubong) downriver will also be linked to Tatau town. The total cost of connecting them to the State grid, from Kelebu to Rumah Ado, will cost RM18 million.
In the late 1970s, logging companies started building a network of logging roads in the district. The crudely made roads are unpaved and were often rendered impassable during the monsoon season. In recent decades, more and more rural communities in the district also began using these roads meant for only log-laden heavy trucks. An economic indicator, a measure of their prosperity.
In tandem with this development, efforts are already underway to upgrade and turn several of these logging roads into proper State-developed roads. These road construction projects are a massive infrastructure project for the government, estimated to cost RM487.51 million.
But this is an important infrastructure that the government had already planned and implemented in the N60 Kakus state constituency for the 2016-2020 period, according to Sikie.
“This has been my focus since I became Kakus assemblyman,” stressed Sikie. “And it is also the aspiration of the GPS government’s leadership for the development of Kakus constituency to continue.
“These roads will help stimulate the rural economy and bring other social benefits to our people,” Sikie said.
Rh Ado at Lirung Beleang, Kakus is a cluster of Punan villages, home to over 2,000 people. It is the largest Punan settlement in Sarawak. Datuk John Sikie, by lineage, is related to the Punans; his late grandfather, Lekan was living with them before his marriage.
“I am one of you, in case some of you had forgotten my grandfather,” Sikie said at the launch of the Punan National Association (PNA) at Rh Ado in 2007. He confessed that Rh Ado has always had a special place in his heart.
He revisited these Punan communities recently. Speaking at a function to rename the village development and security committee (JKKK) from Lubok Kubong to Lirung Beleang on Dec 13, 2020, Sikie announced another project for the Punans. He said the government had proposed a project under the Sarawak Alternative Water Supply (Sawas) for the community.
“The projects have been tendered and now are pending decision,” he said.
In addition, Sikie also announced a minor rural project (MRP) for Rumah Ado’s women bureau worth RM16,000, for its JKKK (RM124,000) and Rumah Kiah’s JKKK (RM21,000).
Sikie also told the Punan that the stalled road projects and upgrading off the logging road linking their village to Kelebu trunk road are progressing well. The project costs RM17.4 million and is expected to be completed soon.
According to Sikie, currently, there is one road project that is already fully completed in Kakus constituency — the road linking Tatau, Sangan to Nanga Melekun, in Batang Rejang, costing RM169.9 million.
Projects still in progress are: (1) the upgrading of roads to linked clusters of Punan villages in Kakus and SK Rumah Keseng, at RM17.4 million; (2) the RM4.8 million upgrading work for a road from SK Iban Union in Ulu Arip to the pan Borneo highway; and (3) new road linking Tatau to Kuala Tatau costing RM28.1 million.
Other major road construction projects being planned are: (1) upgrading of Penyarai road to Tatau at RM204.4 million; and (2) the RM55.38 million road to Kenyah village at Long Beyak to Tatau.
Rural internet connectivity
To expand rural connectivity and to ensure every longhouse in the Kakus basin has decent internet connectivity, the GPS-led government has already approved an allocation for the construction of more telecommunication towers.
Schooling had been severely disrupted since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in late 2019. Schools throughout the country abruptly shifted to a largely untested, new form of learning — ‘online classrooms’. Rural schools, without internet connectivity, were among the worst affected.
“We can’t let our children be affected by the pandemic,” stressed Sikie.
According to him, in Kakus constituency, the government has approved the construction of an additional 30 telecommunications towers.
This will ensure no longhouses — even remote communities, for example, Rh Paren Bunyam at Meluyou or Rh Ta, Rh Degum Usit in upper Kakus will have reliable internet access at all times.
This is to ensure that their children can participate in online classes, as other schoolchildren in Bintulu or Tatau towns do, assured Sikie.
This year, about 192 families from six longhouses in Kakus constituency had been allocated funds to repair their dilapidated houses. The project came under the Sarawak Poor Housing Improvement Project (PPRMS), an initiative of the GPS-led government.
Each house will be given construction materials worth RM2,500 to repair their houses.
“These 192 households will be the recipients for the first stage of the programme,” Sikie said.
He added that the financial assistance from the State government-funded programme —PPRMS — is to ensure that the people can live in a safe and comfortable environment.
The PPRMS program is carried by the communities on a communal or gotong-royong basis.
Sikie also reminded those who had been entrusted with the project to complete the repairs and renovation works in a timely manner.
The six longhouses receiving PPRMS in Kakus were Rh Norma Sanggat, Jalan Samarakan; Rh Arjey Kenai, Nanga Mina; Rh Gerry Jani, Ulu Mejau, Tatau; Rh Robert Ahsoon, Nanga Empang; Rh Was Janting, Sungai Entajum and Rh Degum Usit, Sungai Puti, Kakus.
List of Development Projects in N.60 Kakus Constituency 2016-2020
1. Tatau, Nanga Sangan and Nanga Melukun Batang Rejang (RM169.9 million ― completed)
2. Upgrading of Kelebu trunk road to Rh Ado and SK Rh Keseng (RM17.4 million ― construction in progress)
3. Upgrading of Ulu Arip road to SK Iban Union, Selangau (RM4.8 million ― construction in progress)
4. Upgrading of Kampung Long Beyak, upper Kakus (RM55.4 million ― construction soon)
5. New road linking Tatau to Kuala Tatau (RM28.1 million ― in progress)
6. Upgrading of Sungai Penyarai road (RM204.4 million ― under Malaysia Plan 12)
7. Upgrading of Rh Nanang, Rh Edward Jalin and Rh Tadong (RM7.5 million)
8. Sungai Jatan Recreational Park (RM5.3 million ― construction in progress)
Sawas Projects (RMSarawak Alternative Water Supply)
9. Rh. Ado
Total cost RM14 million in tendering process
11. Tatau 275KV Substation (RM58 million)
12. Sangan Substation (RM8 million)
13. Bekalan Elektrik Luar Bandar (BELB) Last mile phase 2 (RM14.2 million)
14. Bekalan Elektrik Luar Bandar (BELB) Last mile phase 3 (RM30 million)
Sares Project (Sarawak Alternative Rural Electrification Scheme)
15. Penyarai, Upper Kakus (RM6.2 million)
16. Takan and Ulu Anap (RM9.5 million)
17. Tau (RM9.4 million)