Let’s do our part to help build Malaysia

Bringing Life Back to our River

At the Puah Pond information centre Masjid Jamek - Ablution StepsAt an era of our history, the muddy confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers served mainly as a means of transport for the tin-mining industry. Its waters were so pristine people would throng to the river at Masjid Jamek to perform ablution before prayers.
Over the years, with the steady erosion of the quality of the river, this activity is now only etched in the annals of history. As societies take shape, its rivers degenerate into waterways for the city’s garbage and sewage. The Klang River was forgotten.
Bringing life back to such a river is probably one of the most daunting task for any local authority.
Cities that have faced the challenge head-on and done so successfully, are now reaping the value of having beautiful waterfronts that cut across the city landscape.
Case in point – the Cheong-gye-Cheon River in Seoul. Prior to massive revival efforts in the late 80s, it is said that dead fish used to line its banks. The greed of industrialisation turned a river that people could swim in, into a heavily polluted sewage line.
On its embankments today are recreational paths, public parks and restaurants. Property value along the river skyrocketed.
Another good example is Singapore’s Kallang River. It took 10 years to clean the muddy, polluted garbage dump of a river that it was in the 1970s. Kallang today is a vibrant commercial district with hip establishments and its famed jogging and bicycling tracks.
In short, the revival efforts breathed new life into Seoul and Singapore.
It is possible to do the impossible here for our very own Klang River. The River of Life (RoL) project under the Greater KL NKEA is key to improving Kuala Lumpur’s liveability, transforming the river from its current Class 4 (toxic) to Class 2B, deemed suitable for recreational use.

But this mother-of-all-challenges begs a few key questions:

1. How do we pay for the cleaning?
Reversing damage from 50 years of irresponsible behaviours will cost the government a hefty bill. But having learnt from the experiences of South Korea and Singapore, we are confident of monetising land development projects around the banks.
The government’s 10.7 km stretch from Sentul to Brickfields will be revitalised into a thriving riverfront, enabling us to take in revenue from land sale whilst creating business opportunities, investments and jobs.
Commercial potential is expected to surpass the cost of the project.

2. How do we ensure the river stays clean?
To clean the river there are four priorities:
• As part of their regionalisation efforts Department of Sewerage Services (JPP) will build two regional Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) in Bunus and Jinjang-Kepong in the RoL project areas.
Scattered independent STPs can be a major source of river pollution during heavy rains due to sewage overflow. Of 507 existing STPs, 280 will be shut down in the RoL catchment areas with the remaining diverted to these two plants.
• To reduce pollutants being channelled into the river, we have built four waste water treatment plants at wet markets within the RoL area apart from having installed 478 gross pollutant traps.
• Eight river water treatment plants have been completed to ensure 2B standard in our river
• Education is probably the most important element in maintaining the cleanliness of our river.
JPS workers found refrigerators, mattresses and carcasses in the Klang River. Maintaining clean waterways is not the responsibility of the government alone. All of us must be accountable. We cannot willy nilly litter or be careless with our garbage.

3. How do we celebrate and enjoy the river?
The world-class river beautification initiative by DBKL first kick-started in the Masjid Jamek vicinity, refreshing the neighbourhoods of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Leboh Pasar Besar, Dayabumi Complex and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building.
The bigger plan is to uplift and restore heritage sites to attract retailers and tourists. There will also be public parks and cycling tracks. Serious bikers and joggers will applaud the trek from Sentul to Midvalley, a 10.7km scenic workout.

Shops and homes – understandably – now face away from the waterways, literally putting their backs against Klang River. With a clean and charming riverfront, we will see people clamouring for the coveted spot to be on its banks and enjoy its beauty.

I was at the Sungai Sering water treatment plant to review progress. There I saw the river water being diverted into the plant for treatment before its release into the outlet as clean water. As I looked out to where the treated water met the natural bend of the river, I saw a young man draw a net full of tilapia.
When we start to see fishes thrive in their natural habitat, this is the sign we are on the right track. We are only at the cusp of seeing real change take place in our river, but as an angler myself, it’s a thrill to see fish scooped up right in the middle of a river in the city.
Perhaps the day will not be too far off when I can take a lunch break to enjoy the ebb and flow of nature, sit by the stoop of Masjid Jamek and cast a line into the Klang River.

We Must Not Forget The Villages

A case of a village named Bario

Villages all over the world, including in Malaysia undergo similar development cycles. Urbanisation and access to better education has led to many young people leaving the villages for life in towns.

EPU’s latest data shows that more than 70% of Malaysians live in urban and semi urban areas whilst farms in villages lay untended because the aging population left are unable to handle back-breaking work.

A few weeks ago, I visited my village Bario and I want to share my experience.

A collection of about 16 villages make up the Bario Highlands deep in the interiors near the Kalimantan border. Due to such intimidating geographical barriers, the highlands have been isolated from the rest of Malaysia and the world.

There are very good reasons for this. It takes a day to walk from the centre of Bario across mountains and rivers to some of the villages, and weeks to get to the nearest towns of Marudi and Miri.

In the early days, Bario benefitted from the initial work of the Christian missionaries and the introduction of education by the Government. Later, given its remoteness, the Government executed a game changer – a small runway was built and Malaysia Airlines started operating 19-seater Twin Otter planes flying in twice daily, carrying mainly cargo.

Three years ago, under the GTP, we started building rural roads and rural electrification projects in Bario. The Prime Minister announced the building of a road linking Bario to Ba Kelalan, which is connected to Lawas.

During this visit, I saw my homeland in a new light. Once isolated, villages are now connected via road networks, enabling trade and connectivity. The main centre, Bario Asal to the nearest village is now only an hour’s Jeep ride away, and to towns, a day’s drive.

To study at night in my school days, I collected discarded batteries and wired up a simple circuit to light a bulb. Under the faint flare, the few of us would gather to finish our homework.

By year-end, Bario will have steady electricity supply for the first time through solar hybrid generators in eight villages. Students can now study any time they wish, this activity no longer dictated by the setting of the sun.

Despite these developments, you cannot stop the young from leaving for cities to forge better futures. With the Agriculture NKEA promoting automation however, the elder farmers living in Bario can now have their fields mechanised, increasing monthly incomes – at mature state – from RM800 to RM3000 for a three to five acre field.

I may be biased but one of the best premium rice in the world is from Bario. This specialty grain is much sought after among rice aficionados. With greater yield and marketing under the NKEA, Bario rice is now sold in specialty stores throughout Malaysia.

Some may say Bario receives special attention because of my position in government. But Bario is just a microcosm of 24,000 villages throughout Malaysia experiencing infrastructure and social development under the government’s mandate to lift the livelihoods of rural communities. In the past, the work of the Government via FELDA is one of the best examples in the world of a successful agrarian reforms. The introduction of oil palm and rubber has improved the livelihood of many rural communities.

Rural Malaysia still needs a lot of work. We mustn’t forget the villages. Federal and State Governments should allocate more funds for this as after all, inclusiveness is one of the three pillars supporting the New Economic Model. More funding is a key prerequisite but that is not enough to ensure success. I believe there are four priority areas:

1. Leadership from the young
There must be strong leadership from amongst the kampong to get buy-in, and work with agencies tasked to support development in their community.
In Bario, young Kelabit professionals return to provide input to the community. As sons and daughters, they have influence on the ‘old guards’ and are able to sway opinion towards constructive development.

2. Basic infrastructure in place
Roads, treated water and electricity form basic requirements to allow villages to grow their business, conduct trade, connect with their neighbours and overall, live a more productive life. In Bario, we saw our first mobile communications tower in 2010 and since then, calls and SMSes have become the norm.

3. An economic-based community
Each village has its own areas of strengths – be it agriculture produce or beautiful landscape. It is important to leverage on what will allow for greater local enterprise and business.
Aside from rice, our homestays are key attractions. They showcase fishing, trekking and a charmed lifestyle that attracts international tourists wanting a unique experience and willing to pay top dollar for it.

4. Education, education, education
I have often repeated this, and will continue to stress that education is the final answer and ultimately, the only sustainable path out of poverty. I was fortunate that my father was also the school teacher. He taught me in class and taught me at home.

Even though my village is poor and isolated, somehow its forefathers understood intrinsically the value of giving their children an education. Today, Kelabits make up one of the highest ratio of graduates per population, across the country.
In this hectic week traipsing the vast span of my highlands, I examined drainages, walked the fields, talked to people, and listened to farmers.

More importantly I tried to understand what works and what can be replicated across other rural communities. If real progress impacting rural lives can be done in Bario, it can be done anywhere in Malaysia.

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