Cow projects in Malaysia get funded to the tune of up to RM250m. So why can’t we earmark urgent and adequate funds to ensure that all our rural schools are made safe for our children once and for all, wonders Andrew Aeria.
On the night of 31 January, 18 young children, all students of a rural boarding school, SK Punan Ba in Sarawak’s Belaga district, were injured when their dilapidated wooden hostel (built in 1983) collapsed on them. According to the school’s headmaster, the ‘ramshackle wooden hostel’ had been earmarked for renovation (see Borneo Post report).
Instead, for lack of repairs, five primary schoolgirls suffered ‘serious injuries’ while 13 others had ‘minor fractures’. Luckily, there were no fatalities reported – although fatalities or permanent paralysis may still occur if any of the five ‘seriously injured’ schoolgirls do not respond well to medical treatment.
For those who do not understand medical parlance, a ‘serious injury’ refers to the fact that the patient is bedridden after an accident and is incapable of walking. For those amongst us who have suffered ‘minor fractures’, we would all understand how painful, difficult and inconvenient an experience that can be. What more if the person is a child who is living in a rural and underfunded boarding school far away from family and loved ones, most of whom are poor and marginalised.
School buildings collapse and burn down regularly in Sarawak and Sabah owing to neglect and for lack of urgent maintenance funds.
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Yet, the news of this accident only emerged on the front pages of the Borneo Post, a local Sarawak English daily, on 4 February. Instead of focusing on the sad plight of the schoolchildren and their recovery; instead of engaging politicians and bureaucrats by demanding concrete measures to ensure that such accidents do not recur, the newspaper focused on the visit of local luminaries, MP Billy Abit Joo (Hulu Rejang), Kapit Resident Dahim Nadot and Belaga District Education Officer Nelson @ Milon Saing to the school.
According to the news report, the three visited the school last Thursday to see for themselves the extent of damage. The newspaper also carried a front page photo of the trio looking upon the accident site, presumably to showcase ‘how deeply concerned’ they were.
To this end, the news report also highlighted that Hulu Rajang MP Billy Abit Joo handed over a RM10000 grant to the school’s Parent-Teacher Association to carry out repair work in the school. He was quoted as having said, “I am saddened by what had happened. Safety of the pupils should always be given priority. I hope such an incident will not happen again in future.”
Yeah, right! Ho-hum…
What’s the use of Billy Abit applying a paltry RM10000 plaster on a long festering wound? He has been MP of Hulu Rajang for 22 years now. And still the numerous rural schools within his constituency continue to be badly neglected and lack maintenance funds. Why has he not done more to ensure that school buildings and facilities in his constituency are safe and secure for rural schoolchildren?
Indeed, considering that this school building collapse is only another mishap in a long litany of many others in Sabah and Sarawak that have succumbed to collapse and to fires, why has the government not done anything significant to ensure that our rural children get to live and study in safe and secure school buildings?
Or is this school collapse just another case of poor, rural students not being important enough in our high-level national development agendas?
Perhaps if a building had collapsed on MP Billy Abit Joo (Hulu Rejang), Kapit Resident Dahim Nadot and Belaga District Education Officer Nelson @ Milon Saing or better still on the Federal Minister of Education during a previous official visit to a rural school in Sabah or Sarawak, things would have been different. Comprehensive remedial measures would certainly have been implemented a long time ago and the poor 18 children would probably not have suffered their unfortunate fate.
Sarawak’s budget has earmarked RM3.3bn as development expenditure for 2012. Our federal budget has earmarked RM51.2bn as total development expenditure for 2012. And how much are we allocating for rural school renovations and maintenance?
Sarawak’s new state legislative assembly building cost a cool RM296.5m. But we cannot even spend a few million ringgit repairing all our ramshackle rural schools and boarding facilities in Sarawak?
Cow projects in Malaysia get funded to the tune of up to RM250m. But we cannot earmark urgent and adequate funds to ensure that all our rural schools are made safe for our children once and for all?
Don’t our rural schoolchildren in Sarawak and Sabah deserve at least as much as our cows?
Or are all our hot-shot, media-loving politicians and senior bureaucrats just too cow-brained to realise this?
Andrew Aeria is an Aliran exco member