In Beverly Hills, Orange County, New Jersey and New York City in the United States, the lives of affluent homemakers provide a sure-fire script for a hit in reality television. 

But in the Klang Valley, Malaysia, the story of five homemakers - just as real and possibly equally affluent - takes a twist, all the way into the interior of Sabah and Sarawak.

In fact, said a spokesperson for volunteer group Light Up Borneo, it was the funds raised by these women that helped kick-start the movement which is bringing electricity to rural Sabah and Sarawak.

“Lots of people ask for money for this or that, so these women took a ‘why not see for ourselves’ approach,” the spokesperson said. 

Driving two hours from Kuching, the five women survived a three-hour trek up a hilly and muddy trail, crossed ravines and rivers on bamboo bridges, and spent a week in the interior.

When they returned to Kuala Lumpur, they raised RM40,000 for what would become be Light Up Borneo's first mini-hydroelectricity project. 

Since then, the volunteer group has installed 13 such projects, lighting up hundreds of homes in the two states through the generation of renewable energy. 

And yet, the identity of those behind the movement remains hidden - for good reason. 

NONEAs Peninsular Malaysians, they fear being barred from entering the two states, as this would jeopardise their mission. 

“Based on logic, we shouldn't get into trouble, but we never know,” said the spokesperson, an almost shabbily dressed man whose passion for the project permeates the room.

For now, the one person who can show his face is Sarawak-born filmmaker Joachim Leong (left), but even he is a little concerned that he could be banned from his home state.

“They've done it before,” said Leong, whose documentary ‘Darom Pinn’ won the Freedom Film Fest award in 2011. 

Of collaboration and bonding

Returning to Sarawak to find out why BN was voted back into power in the 2011 state elections, Leong went to Bengoh, where four villages had been displaced because of the dam construction.
Residents of one village were completely uprooted and moved to higher ground to escape the impoundment.

Ironically, having been driven to make way for a massive hydroelectric dam, not a single light bulb could be lighted up in Kampung Nyegol.

NONEUsing proceeds from DVD sales of ‘Darom Pinn’, Leongcontributed to Light Up Borneo, which then worked in collaboration with the villagers to install the mini- hydroelectricity generator. 

It is this collaboration that the 20-something believes makes the model sustainable - a combination of funds and technical know-how from Light Up Borneo and the villagers' time and labour. 

Leong's short documentary of the whole process shows villagers lugging large machinery up slippery slopes to sites that they earlier surveyed and cleared. 

NONE“It took a few weeks for them to survey the area, clear the site and path, and carry the pipes up. If they weren't doing this they would be farming, so there was an opportunity cost for them, too,” he said. 

The project, he said, also builds connections between Peninsular Malaysian urbanites and rural-dwellers in Sabah and Sarawak.

This is seen in the bond established between an electrician who Light Up Borneo flew out to Kuching to assist in the project and the Kampung Nyegol residents.  

“The electrician was a typical Chinese archetype, very bossy, but when the day ended, the villagers would all be massaging him,” Leong said. 

Electicity, he said, is more than lighting up light bulbs.

NONEIt means entertainment, education and one day, even the Internet”, he said, noting though that not all settlements are happy to get involved. 

“We don't want to impose our way of life on them. We tried to convince them nicely, If they don’t want to, then we move on to the next village,” Leong said. 

“For us, we want to see change. We question the building of these large dams, the companies which benefit from it through the supplies of cement and other raw materials. Where does the money go?”

And herein lies the underlying politics that Leong believes drives many to back the mini-hydroelectricity projects. 

He says on top of providing electricity, many backers hope that the project can make the villagers less reliant on the BN government and question why they have been left behind. 

Cautiously, however, Leong added: “In the end, it is not about what we want, but what they want.”

~ Malaysiakini