RIVER transport is largely to Sarawak what toll highways are to Peninsular Malaysia. But that's where the similarity ends. While people who want to avoid paying toll can use other roads, it's solely river transport for an estimated 600,000 people, or one out of every four persons in the state that's almost the size of Peninsular Malaysia.
The high dependence on rivers by the population and the need to maintain them as a safe means of transport was the reason for setting up the Sarawak Rivers Board in 1993. It is tasked with the development and improvement of the riverine transport system, control and regulation of river traffic and implementation of safety measures and river environment management.
Yes, it's true that by and large river transport is safe compared with the average of 6,500 people killed in road accidents in the peninsula yearly.
To the police and the Road Transport Department, fears about road safety heighten during festive seasons and various measures are taken to minimise accidents.
But such enforcement is apparently not done in Sarawak during the Gawai festival, the biggest celebration in the calendar of the Dayaks, the state's largest community, where balik kampung means going home to riverine longhouses.
During this festive season which was celebrated last week, it's common to see express boats on the Rajang, Malaysia's longest river, packed with passengers rushing home to celebrate the occasion.
Last Tuesday, one such express boat, Kawan Mas, overloaded with logging camp workers from Belaga, capsized after striking a log and floundering on rocks. The boat was permitted to carry not more than 75 passengers but it had 205 on board.
But what could have been a major disaster turned out to be what a newspaper called the "miracle of Belaga". Most of the passengers were rescued or swam to safety.
Miraculously, only one death has been recorded so far, a 44-year-old man whose body was found on Friday 2km from where the boat had sunk. Two people are still listed as missing but the actual casualty figure is yet to be known because more than one week of operations to right the capsized vessel were still unsuccessful due to the treacherous river conditions.
The authorities have had difficulty in ascertaining the number of missing persons as they are relying on information from family members or friends of passengers as there was no passenger manifest.
The last time I travelled in an express boat was over two years ago for the five-hour trip from Sibu to Kapit, my birthplace. It was all right during the off-festive season but it's a different story when Gawai approaches.
This time, luck was on the side of the passengers. The only thing that was ruined was their celebration, a small price to price to pay compared to what could have happened.
And as luck would have it, Belaga state assemblyman Liwan Lagang was on his way to Kuching in a helicopter when the boat capsized. He witnessed the incident and it was his quick action to alert the authorities that enabled rescuers to save many lives.
But this is one incident that does not require any more extensive or expensive investigations to be conducted all over again. Newspaper photographs of the Kawan Mas before it embarked on the journey show it was over-loaded with more than 100 passengers on the rooftop.
And this does not take into account the luggage on board. As is customary during a festive season, the revellers would be bringing gifts for their loved ones and reports quoted some survivors as saying they even had generators. These items are much sought after in longhouses where electricity is still a luxury.
If passengers boarding flights at airports are checked for the weight of the luggage, there is no such thing for express boats. So imagine the excess weight of Kawan Mas that day.
Instead of more time and money being wasted on a full-scale investigation, serious attention should be given to the strict enforcement of safety laws.
I asked Kapit MP Datuk Alexander Nanta Linggi, why the authorities were "closing both eyes" by not enforcing the safety laws on river transport?
Alexander, who is deputy minister of rural and regional development, responded: "It's not fair to say the government is closing both eyes to the problem of overloading. The SRB has been issuing warnings to boat operators not to overload. The problem largely is due to passengers, and boat operators equally to be blamed. Passengers are too eager to join the balik kampung exodus and disregard their safety. Usually they would scold the juragan (skipper) if they can't get on board."
While what he said to explain the almost impossible position faced by a boat skipper to bar passengers from boarding in such a situation, the point being missed is the lax enforcement of safety rules. The SRB cannot be satisfied that its job is done merely by issuing warnings.
It is pathetic to hear SRB chairman Roland Sagah telling the media that there are no enforcement officers stationed at Bakun and Belaga where the vessel capsized although the SRB had asked for it. "After the tragedy, I will push for it," he said.
SRB controller William Jinep told me he does not have enough boats and manpower to enforce the safety laws. Enforcement is normally done at the main terminals like Sibu but not in Kapit or Belaga further up the Rajang where enforcement is necessary.
Among the many safety laws in SRB statutes, there is one that states that if any passenger or cargo carried upon any vessel is in excess of the numbers or quantity stated in the permit of such a vessel, the owner or skipper shall each be guilty of an offence. The penalty is imprisonment for two years and a fine of RM5,000.
So there are strict laws but the reluctance to enforce them defeats the purpose of the law.
Jinep admitted that although overloaded express boats were rampant especially during the Gawai festival, no operator or skipper had been jailed. Offenders were mostly given compound fines of RM1,000.
The prime minister in a Facebook post last Thursday called on all operators of ferry services to be responsible when ensuring the safety of passengers. It is obvious that for some operators, taking in more passengers than the law allows would mean better business for them and it is upon these irresponsible ones that the full weight of the law must be brought to bear.
Former Sarawak state minister Tan Sri Leonard Linggi Jugah told me the SRB should place its staff at the major riverine towns especially along the Rajang, Baram and Kemena.
In taking the SRB to task, Linggi said: "They never take their job seriously. River disaster is almost a yearly occurrence."
An outraged Sarawak Land Development Minister Tan Sri James Masing said it was "pure negligence" on the part of the express boat owner and skipper to allow more passengers on board than allowed by its licence.
He also described the express boat, which had poor safety design, as a "plying coffin". Most of them have just one entrance and one exit.
Masing said boat operators should increase the frequency of trips especially during festivals and school holidays to minimise overcrowding.
To me, the onus is on the state attorney-general's office to start prosecuting such offenders and the court to mete out the necessary penalty as a deterrent. Because the next time a boat capsizes, the passengers may not be that lucky.
Azman Ujang is a former editor-in-chief of Bernama. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org