KOTA KINABALU, Aug 18 — Recently, yet another clip of life in rural Sabah went viral on social media — a group of primary school students were recorded clambering across a pipe bridge suspended over a fast-flowing river to get to school.
Videos like this crop up from time to time — students climbing trees to get internet access, making perilous journeys to school or to seek medical care — showing Sabah’s inadequate infrastructure, forcing communities to find their own, sometimes dangerous way.
Now fed up with constantly being labelled the poorest state in the country, Sabahans want their leaders to stop politicking and take its development seriously when the next general election (GE15) rolls around.
“It is not right that villagers have to go through such hardships for the most basic of necessities. I do not think we are asking for much, but it always seems like there is some excuse why we are left to fend for ourselves,” said businessman Alan Sebastian.
Though voter demands vary from place to place, Sabahans are united in their wish for better development and strong and stable leadership.
No fickle politicking
“The last few years have been a mess. I know it is not just Sabahans who had to go through a lot, but I feel like no matter what happens, Sabahans are always the ones left lacking,” said the 38-year-old Keningau-born Alan.
Like most people interviewed, his expression changed to that of bitterness and resignation when he talked about how a state as big and blessed with natural resources as Sabah could not capitalise on its good fortune and was still far behind its west Malaysian counterparts.
He also said that it has been painful to watch his family and community struggle in the last two years to adjust to the changing needs triggered by the pandemic while politicians went through their own self-inflicted “power struggle”.
“I think we need strong, stable leaders, unafraid to speak for what’s right for Sabah. It is frustrating to hear of their endless fighting and ‘jumping around’ when we are struggling just to put food on the table. I don’t think they understand what it is like to have barely enough to get by,” he said.
Those who spoke to Malay Mail expressed a variety of opinions, from saying it was preferable to have a federal-aligned state government, as it was essential for federal government funding, to being OK with any leader “as long as they know how to do their job”.
“I just think once it is decided who is the government, they should be given a chance to do their job. Don’t interfere and make it harder. How much time and money was wasted on politicking when it could have gone to make our lives better?” said Alan.
Development, development, development
The sentiments on the ground in rural and semi-rural areas often differ, with talk about good governance such as the anti-tobacco Bill and socio-economic policies leaving villagers glassy-eyed as they think about whether there will be electricity supply that week.
Basic infrastructure, such as road connectivity and internet access, schools, medical care, even water and electricity, is not fulfilled so any talk of state entitlement in the Malaysian Agreement 1963 (MA63), the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal and the Sulu sultanate’s claim on Sabah is far from their minds.
In the semi-rural district of Kiulu, things have been looking up as the state regains its foothold in tourism and tourists start to return, but people here are now feeling the pinch from the rising cost of goods.
“Many people have their own farms, so we have vegetables, eggs... but the price of basic goods like fertiliser and oil is going up too. We have benefitted from handouts before, but what are they going to do to help us now?” asked James Dungkil, a tourism player from Kiulu.
James said that access roads were essential for smaller villages that need to be able to move goods such as farm produce, the catch of the day or fresh meat in order to make a living.
“We have had some development in this area — they built a road through Rondogung to Ranau a few years ago, which has been a big help — but there is still a lot more to be done,” he said.
Like many rural areas in Sabah, some still don’t have running water and electricity, internet is spotty, and youths often leave the village as soon as they can in search of a better living.
Juliana Long, a housewife who also lives in Kiulu, said that a leader ought to be someone whose vision also provides for the youth.
Her two daughters, aged 17 and 19, want to stay in their hometown, but the job outlook is bleak.
Any dreams of being a lawyer, doctor, engineer or entrepreneur will mean having to move to the city.
“As much as it is an idyllic life, we want our children to have better opportunities, so they will have to move to the city,” she said.
In villages, the trading hub or pekan are often small commercial lots where a sundry shop, some eateries, maybe the village tailor or an internet cafe are located.
“Maybe some places like Kiulu are luckier because we have tourism as a draw, but not all areas have this option.
“It would be good to see more options available for the youth, so they are not always forced to move away from home.
“Without young blood, we might never be able to move forward,” she said.
At the end of the day, what wins voters over is a personal connection to their local leader.
“We want to be able to see our leaders and get to know him.
“I think this is probably one of the biggest factors when it comes to rural areas. You have to turun padang and show people you care.
“A visit to their son’s birthday party, a kenduri kahwin or wake is necessary to be able to win hearts,” said James.