The proposed construction of a dam in Kota Belud has drawn so many responses. The latest is from DAP parliamentary leader, YB Lim Kit Siang who visited Kota Belud for a few hours to celebrate Kaamatan festival several days ago.
As usual, without wasting any time, Lim Kit Siang launched into a political tirade, delivering vicious broadside on the BN government and tongue lashing the local YBs including yours truly ( I am the MP for Kota Belud). He took great pains to convince the public of the purported cruelty and heartlessness of the wicked BN government. He accused the government of trying to obliterate Kampung Tambatuon from the map of Sabah for no apparent reason at all.
While I like to consider myself as a person who could handle barrage of criticism, I find myself feeling disgusted at Lim Kit Siang’s sheer ignorance and lack of understanding of the issue.
To understand why the government mooted the idea of having a dam in Kota Belud, one needs to revisit agriculture Malaysia circa the 60s and 70s and the recent food crisis experience of year 2007/2008.
In the 60s and 70s Malaysia had been able to produce up to 90% of its rice requirement. The world prices and supply of rice were relatively stable. There were no major food crisis which resembled panic buying and depleting stockpiles except for a one or two brief occasions.
But by the 80s onwards, Malaysia (and the rest of the world for that matter) had been developing quite rapidly. The economy was booming, factories were humming and people by and large were more healthier and wealthier. Without doubt, industrialization of the nation was in full swing.
By the turn of the millineum, demand for food including rice started to rise exponentially in conjuction with increasing population and wealthier citizens. At the same time, more and more lands which could have been used to plant rice, were alienated to be industrial areas (which provide jobs) and housing estates. Infact, more lands were opened for palm oil and rubber plantation than for rice cultivation.
In 2007 and 2008, Malaysia and the world had experienced critical food shortage phenomenon, coupled with steep hikes in rice prices. There were several reasons for this. Rice exporting countries to Malaysia like Thailand and Vietnam suddenly curtailed their rice exports to ensure local demands in those countries were met. Severe weather related flooding and dry spells also resulted in massive crop failure and crop infestation problem in world’s populous countries like China and Bangladesh. This in turn forced them to procure more rice from the international market and thus putting more upward pressure on rice prices.
Observing this phenomenon closely (and nervously), many countries inadvertently exarcebated the acute supply of rice worldwide when they decided to increase the quantity of their rice stockpile (Malaysia raised its national rice stockpile from 92,000 tons to 292,000 tons). This extraordinary demand pushed world’s rice price to ever more dizzying heights.
Rice prices nearly tripled from USD362 a tonne in December 2007 to almost USD1,000 in April 2008 as stocks fell to 30-year lows amid surging global demand (according to International Rice Research Institute). There was a 30% jump in prices in Bangkok in a single day, and rice riots in Ho Chi Minh over a weekend. Egypt, the Philiphines, Haiti, Camerron and a host of other countries were struggling in handling the rice crisis. Almost suddenly, the world food crisis was a real threat to national security!
Although by 2009 the international prices of rice had somewhat stabilized (eventhough they were still higher compared to pre-crisis time), the trauma of the food crisis had left its mark in the psyche of Malaysians. Will Malaysia have another round of food supply crisis? Will there be panic buying and hoarding? Will the prices of rice skyrocketed so severly? Will Malaysia be again placed at the mercy of rice exporting foreign countries? Will Malaysians run out of rice if the crisis resurfaces in the future?
The government moved in quickly to allay fears of Malaysians. It initiated immediate plans to increase the national capacity to produce rice. This target was made into a firm commitment by the government in 10th Malaysia Plan when it said in the document, " Food security will be strategically addressed!”. More funds were made available to the rice production sector as well as indentifying more lands to be cultivated with rice.
When the government was looking for more lands to plant paddy, it naturally turned to Sabah and Sarawak which still have ample lands. All eyes were on Kota Belud's vast but unproductive 25,000 acres of paddy fields. Kota Belud was chosen as one of the areas to be further developed to help Sabah (30% self sufficiency) and the nation (70% self-sufficiency) avert future rice supply crisis.
The government had then ordered massive infrastructure undertaking to transform Kota Belud into the nation's newest ricebowl (jelapang padi). The government wanted the 25,000 acres ( approximately 10,000 hectares) of fertile lands in Kota Belud to produce up to 4 tons of rice per acre (currently about 1 to 1.8 tons per acre).
In order to achieve such ambitious plan, the government wanted to quickly upgrade Kota Belud's irrigation, management, technology and machinery. In the first year of implementation (2009/2010), the government spent approximately RM150 million. But that was just the beginning and it was not enough. For the plan to succeed, there must be new and adequate sources of water supply to irrigate those 25,000 acres of lands. Hence, the idea of the dam was mooted.
Without this dam, there is no other way to adequately irrigate the massive area of paddy fields. Some NGOS claim the irrigation can be done without building any dams. As of today, I am yet to see any proofs to back up their claim. But one thing for sure the volume of river flows in time of draught is not sufficient to cater for the water needs of 25,000 acres. A dam is needed to store up huge volume of water to be released in time of dryspells.
One of the most important objectives when the jelapang padi and the dam become reality, is that the thousands of Kota Belud poor paddy farmers will now be able to produce 4 tons of paddy per acre or 200,000 tons in two seasons every year. If the rice price maintains around RM1,000 per ton, this means every year the Kota Belud's rice bowl will be able to contribute RM200 million into the local gross income! Some of this money will end up in the hands of local traders, further reinvigorating the local economy with multiplier effect, providing more jobs and bright future for the younger generation. Soon such huge annual income will eventually shed Kota Belud’s unflattering title as “One of the poorest districts in Malaysia”.
Apart from ensuring enough water to be diverted to the paddy fields, the dam will also have several other benefits. Firstly, it will be able to prevent perennial problems of floodings in greater area of Kota Belud by controlling the water flow of the river during rainy season. The recurring flood problem has done untold damages to properties and crops in Kota Belud every year. Secondly, since independence, Kota Belud has been experiencing electricity power shortages due to development and sprouting new housing areas. This dam could be used to generate hydro power in the future. Thirdly, with the anticipated huge amount of water in the dam’s reservoir, part of it can be used to provide treated water supply for human consumption. And fourthly, the dam will become a tourist attraction, giving boost to Kota Belud’s tourism. The man made lake will attract sightseers and activities like fishing and camping.
When the plan to turn Kota Belud into a productive Jelapang Padi was mooted by the government, the District Office, the relevant agencies and the local YBs including myself, discussed the plan extensively in many meetings. We called the consultant to give us a briefing especially on the government’s proposal to build the dam. (Infact, I remember seeing the Ketua Kampung Tambatuon and the Chairman of the JKKK attending the meetings as well).
The consultant showed us an aerial map of several potential and suitable locations for the dam. Actually there were a few of them. Each one of the locations was discussed at great length with the intention to single out the one that had the least negative impact to the environment and the affected villagers. The consultant told us some of the other locations would involve flooding even bigger area and affecting several kampungs. Some spots required construction of higher dam walls which would be costly and structurally unstable.
After extensive discussions, the consultant zeroed in on Kampung Tambatuon as the spot with least destructive to nature and man. Even as the consultant based his findings on his technical observations, the YBs expressed concern about the well being of the affected villagers and the environmental impact. We asked for indepth studies to be conducted to determine whether Kampung Tambatuon was really suitable or not. This exercise would require the consultant to go on field trips to Kampung Tambatuon.
This is where the whole thing has ground to a halt at the moment. The villagers, despite assurances that the government will only proceed if the environmental and the societal study are positives, have refused to even allow the consultants to set foot in the kampung to do the studies!
The government has repeatedly said that the project is still in its infancy and that Kampung Tambatuon will only be chosen if the Environmental Impact Assesment (EIA) and societal survey prove positively. The villagers have jumped the gun too early. Click here
I am amuse reading statements coming from oppostion leaders and Suhakam over this issue. All of them demand the government to look into how the dam may affect the lives of the villagers and to do EIA study before proceeding with the dam (click here). I am absolutely in agreement with their call. But how do we do it? Doesnt this require the consultants to go to the ground and do test and survey both on the land and the community? On one hand they ask studies to be done, and on another hand they instigate the villagers to block the consultants from coming to the village. I am utterly baffled.
Lim Kit Siang incessantly questioned why no discussions were held with the villagers themselves. All local YBs have met the “Jawatankuasa Bertindak” which was formed specifically by the villagers themselves to represent their interest. Infact, the Ketua Kampung and JKKK Chairman have all been briefed by district office. There is no doubt that the concerns of the villagers have been heard loud and clear. I believe the memorandum that was given by the Jawatankuasa Bertindak to all YBs as well as to the Chief Minister have essentially captured the gist, essence and substance of their objections.
Given the fact that it is now become highly politicised issue (thanks to opposition political rhetorics), we feel it is better to wait for the EIA report and the government proposed compensation terms before meeting the villagers. At least with the EIA and compensation terms made known, the villagers can consider them and all parties can use that as the basis to have productive meeting. Without the EIA and compensation terms, very likely any meeting with the villagers will only be repeating what has been said by the village leaders and the Jawatankuasa Bertindak in the numerous meetings previously.
No YB worth his salt likes to see a village in his constituency destroyed or his constituents being resettled. But resettlement of communities have been done before. From preventing communist influence in pre-independence Malaysia (new villages) to current day building of highways and MRTs in urban areas, people affected by the government’s projects have to move and resettle elsewhere. This is not the first time and certainly wont be last. I dare DAP to put in their election manifesto that if they form the government, no person will be resettled whatsoever to make way for development and construction of crucial public infrastructures. Not even for national security!
For the life of me, I cant understand why Lim Kit Siang refuses to acknowledge the necessity to have food security for the country. Does he want Malaysians to go through the rice crisis panic which happened in 2008 when supplies of rice to Malaysia were badly affected due to export restrictions? Does he want Malaysians to go through another crisis where the national rice stockpile could only lasted for two weeks? Does he even care whether Malaysians have rice for food or not in the future? Will he take full responsibility if Malaysians are faced with acute shortage of rice supply and high prices? These are hard questions that need to be answered by “leaders” not “politicians”. Sadly Lim Kit Siang is more the later than the former.
I like to reiterate once more that no kampung has been identified as the final location of the dam. More studies must be done before any location is chosen including Kampung Tambatuon. But I believe the people as a whole understand that there is no progress or eradication of poverty if there is no development, which at times require migration, resetllement and restructuring of communities. Of course as responsible YBs, we will ensure the government gives adequate and fair compensation the the villagers and that their welfare is not sidelined. Government must recognise that this people will be sacrificing their village for the greater good of the nation. Perhaps the villagers affected can demand for better houses and systematic infrastructure and amenities. Maybe villagers can insist new school, shoplots, balai polis and klinik desa to be part of the deal. All I am saying is talk to the government. Afterall, if they wait for normal progress of development, they may need to wait for years before the government can bring this development to them. Whatever it is, on that note, the local YBs will ensure that the affected villagers are not sacrificing their land for pittance.
In short, the objectives of the jelapang padi and the construction of the dam can be summed up this way. In one fell swoop, the government hopes the construction of the dam and the success of the jelapang padi will help eradicate Kota Belud’s poverty, bring development and wealth, solve water supply to the people of Kota Belud, solve elctricity shortages, solve the country's food security threat and generate employment for the locals. Nothing sinister at all (as claimed by Lim Kit Siang) about the government’s motive.
Unfortunately Lim Kit Siang has no qualms to forever condemn the rural people of Kota Belud to perpetual poverty. He refuses to see the benefits of the dam and the Jelapang Padi. He will always play politics even at the expense of the poor people and the security of the nation. I remember how he always pride himself as being "Malaysian First". But now everyone can see he is actually "Politician First, Malaysian A Distant Second".
Lim Kit Siang rightly pointed the need for YBs to fight for the interest of the people he represent above everything else. But in this case any YB will find himself sandwiched between the interest of the villagers ( about 550 of them ) and the greater interest of tens of thousands of poor farmers in Kota Belud as well as millions of Malaysians. How do you balance this delicate moral question? Do you compromise the welfare of the few (while ensuring they are adequately and fairly compensated) for the benefit of the larger population and the future of the nation or do you play politics and thus putting the nation at risk? I dont blame Lim Kit Siang if he is unable to answer this moral question. Afterall, he is always been an urban YB and never hold any government positions which at times requires him to make tough decisions such as this.
Some readings on 2007/2008 rice crisis