By Salahuddin Hisham
A FRIEND had a business matter to attend to in Keningau, Sabah, and invited me to tag along. Going to Sabah is one opportunity not to be missed.
This trip made us understand and appreciate the stakeholders’ engagement in rural development practised in the days of the late prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.
The idea was simple.
All parties affected in any development initiative in the rural areas were brought into the planning, budgeting, decision-making and implementation.
At times, the rural development officer may need to educate the stakeholders on the benefits of the government initiative. The officer did not act with an “I know best” attitude but was still able bring out the desire to change within the rural community.
The involvement of stakeholders may slow things a little bit but civil service bureaucracy in government is far slower.
Stakeholder engagement is something a corporate CEO may find intolerable. However, all parties in the consensual decision will accept the decision, have a sense of ownership and support the initiative. It is a platform for perpetual support to the politicians involved.
Back to the Sabah trip, the green surrounding and its landscape of hills with cloud hanging over has a calming effect to this perpetually stressed city dweller.
While the friend goes about with his affairs in Keningau, we visited the interiors of Tenom and Pensiangan districts to see how people in the interior lived.
The visits and opportunity to meet the people provided soul relief. One learns to appreciate and feel grateful to the life one has attained. It brings out the sense of compassion for less fortunate Malaysians.
The first day trip in Tenom was to a highland village called Kampung Rundum. The road was rough and challenging, far worse than the road from Beluru to Marudi in Miri experienced last year.
After several stops at Pekan Kemabong, Kampung Ketubuk and Kampung Kapulu, we reached Kampung Rundum when it was about to rain. The wind was strong and temperature cold.
We had to wait for the rain to stop and visibility better before making the trip back.
These villages are inhabited by highland people of Murut descend. Kampung Rundum started as base camp for logging. The Murut were attracted by the employment prospect to move there.
The road to the villages were built and maintained by the loggers. When logging ended in the 80s and 90s, it was left to the federal government to maintain them.
Unfortunately, the ministry responsible eventually stopped this and the roads deteriorated to the extent that no ordinary four-wheel vehicle was enough. By the time the state JKR took over, the roads were almost beyond repair.
The road to the 400-people populated Kampung Semubu is said to be treacherous and even life threatening. We did not even attempt to go. It was getting dark by then.
Initially the Kampung Rundum people grew cabbages to sell at the weekly tamu market. When transportation became difficult and extremely expensive, they returned to subsistence farming, fishing and hunting for livelihood.
Their hope is to have a proper road. With it, they could grow and sell crops for money. Otherwise, they will be dependent on government assistance.
But the construction cost could be more than RM100 million and not economically viable to just serve a few hundred people. It is more feasible for the state government to move them nearer to Tenom town, build better homes with access to road, electricity, water, and telephone and give them to farm on.
That is what urban policy makers would think. However, the highlands are ancestral homes to the Muruts. There is the emotional attachment to the village they were born and grew up in.
A change means an uncertainty to them. To do this would require extensive stakeholder engagement to convince and assure them.
In the visit to another part of Kemabong, we saw how the lack of stakeholder engagement made an initiative to build a road ineffective. In fact it only angered the people.
The federal government under the Ministry for Rural and Regional Development (KKLW) decided to build a scenic 7-kilometre A-grade road from Kemabong to Kampung Marais.
However, it only angered the people in Kemabong. The locals called it jalan monyet (monkey road) as though it was built for animal use.
The road does not provide access to any village except Kampong Marais at the end and a house by the road side with a black coloured opposition party four-wheeled drive vehicle parked.
It is only used as access for landowners to get to their farms. A graveled road would have suffice.
In the meanwhile, the nearby two-lane wide road to Kampung Alutok, Kampung Ulu Tomani and Kampung Pilis is only covered with gravel or compacted earth, except for asphalt near a school.
An asphalt grade A road here would have served the few thousands population, if not voters.
At all the villages visited, the consistent grumblings were for toads that suited their needs. They even accused someone of ignoring their requests and recommendations by others.
It took quite a bit of effort to explain the decision making process and sooth the nerves. Still, they insisted someone had not been honest and sincere to them.
It was a clear cut case of not having stakeholder engagement. It was not done with transparency but the decision was made probably by someone in an air-conditioned office in Kota Kinabalu or Putrajaya.
A stakeholder engagement could have done wonders for the ministry.
As one rural development officer related his experience at a village in Selangor back in the 60s, which is similar to the current situation in Sabah and Sarawak, stakeholder engagement enabled them to better identify the route to build a road to a village.
The village elders suggested the route to pass by a school than the route through their farms. The road was ready ahead of schedule as the villagers worked the gotong royong way to build it.
If the villagers had been brought in together in the budgeting, they could have included the gotong royong concept to repair homes.
That is another story. Look up in our Facebook.