TRAGEDY struck in the heart of Sarawak this week when an overloaded express boat capsized in the upper reaches of Rajang River en route from Bakun to Kapit.
The Kawan Mas boat was reportedly carrying about 200 passengers, more than double its capacity of 75, when its engine apparently stalled and it hit a rock. Most of the passengers were travelling home to celebrate Gawai this weekend.
At the time of writing, one body had been recovered in the ongoing search and rescue operations. Some 190 passengers survived the accident while 11 are still missing.
It’s difficult to determine the actual numbers as there is no passenger list.
Tragic events like this tend to bring people together, united in grief or sympathy for the victims and sometimes in a common cause to seek solutions and take preventive action.
Indeed, it was heartening to witness a rare show of solidarity in the State Assembly on Wednesday, when members transcended the political divide in an impeccable observation of a minute’s silence for the victims of the tragedy and in contributing towards a fund initiated by the Barisan Nasional Backbenchers Club.
After Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Alfred Jabu announced that the backbenchers had raised RM24,000 among themselves, DAP’s Kota Sentosa assemblyman Chong Chieng Jen stood to say that the Pakatan Rakyat members were pledging RM2,500 to the fund, which they would hand over to the club chairman Abdullah Saidol.
In response, Abdullah, the Semop assemblyman, said he appreciated all the contributions.
Congratulating members from both sides for their generosity, Speaker Datuk Seri Mohd Asfia Awang Nassar said it reflected the true Sarawak spirit.
While it’s good to see the assemblymen putting aside their political differences to convey their condolences, it’s a pity that this was not extended further to a debate on measures to prevent such tragedies from happening again, from stringent enforcement against overloading to the construction of much-needed roads.
In this light, the dismissal of Chong’s motion to discuss the tragedy in the State Assembly feels like a missed opportunity.
To be sure, the motion had a political spin to it, blaming the “50-year neglect” by the Barisan Nasional government in not providing proper road access to the state’s rural districts as the root cause of the accident.
However, the resolutions it sought seemed reasonable, that the Sarawak Rivers Board chairman should be held accountable as the overloading of passengers had occurred repeatedly, and that the government must immediately implement the construction of a road from Kanowit to Song, Kapit and Belaga with a commitment to complete it within three years.
The motion was rejected on a number of technicalities, including being in breach of the 250-word limit, and also on the ground that it would appear to “prejudge the tragedy”, in Asfia’s words, while the search and rescue operations were still being carried out.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that after all these years, rural folk in Sarawak’s interior still depend on rivers as their only means of transportation.
Surely the Belaga tragedy brings into sharper focus the urgent need for roads to link upriver towns and settlements, along with pertinent debate on how best and quickly this can be achieved.
Even Abdullah, the backbenchers club chairman, expressed some frustration at the situation.
“Much as we care about what happened in this tragedy, I want to say on behalf of all the YBs who are from the rural areas and have shown their sincerity and loyalty all this while to Barisan Nasional, (that) I think it’s about time for the state to get more funds from the Federal Government to concentrate on the rural areas.
“We have been fighting for this all this while. We want decent roads. We don’t fix a time but we want them very fast.
“We want attention from the Federal Government. Give funds for us to build the roads and other basic infrastructure like water and electricity,” he told reporters after the sitting was adjourned on Wednesday morning.
Abdullah pointed out that time and again in state and parliamentary elections, most of Barisan’s votes were in the rural areas.
“It’s about time for rural people to be compensated with better allocations,” he added.
Here’s the thing though. Development is the government’s responsibility, regardless of how people vote. It’s not something to be doled out as a reward for votes.
In any case, even after years of voting for Barisan, the state’s rural population still lack basic amenities and infrastructure.
Now’s the time for the government to walk the talk and find the political will to expedite the implementation of existing proposed road projects and plan the construction of others.
Both state and Federal governments must be serious about this and make it their priority.