KUCHING, Sarawak: In the Bengoh resettlement scheme in the interior of Sarawak, children study in a school that was converted from a developer’s management office.
The single-storey structure was originally built to accommodate about 40 adults working on the resettlement project to relocate several villages affected by the construction of the Bengoh dam.
In 2013, it was fashioned into a temporary site for SK Taba Sait, a primary school. Today it has over 120 students in six small classrooms, each barely able to fit 10 tables.
“It’s crowded. There are over 20 students in a class for the lower primary classes and it can get really difficult,” said a teacher who only wanted to be known as Ms Tini. She said all teachers in Sarawak have been instructed not to comment on the situation in their schools.
“The children do not complain as they are happy to be here learning with their friends, but as teachers, we know they are deprived of an opportunity to study in an ideal environment,” she added.
While the students put up with cramped classrooms and a basic canteen that is too small to fit all of them during recess, over 60 kids from the same settlement do not get the chance to attend school.
“This is simply because there is not enough room to house all of them, and their families cannot afford to send them to schools in nearby villages,” said Mr Lo Khere Chiang, a councillor of the Padawan Municipal Council in Kuching.
SK Taba Sait is already considered one of the better schools in the district, he added.
“There are schools that do not even have clean water or steady electricity supply.”
In total, the state education department has identified 1,002 dilapidated schools in the whole of Sarawak, of which 415 are in critical condition.
The federal government, in the 2020 budget tabled last month, has allocated RM783 million (US$188.6 million) to repair such schools in Malaysia, particularly those in Sabah and Sarawak.
Of the total, RM350 million will be reserved for dilapidated schools in Sarawak while RM228.5 million will be allocated for Sabah, according to a Facebook post by Education Minister Maszlee Malik.
“Education is a basic right, but here in Sarawak, children are made to feel like it is a privilege,” Mr Lo lamented.
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SQUABBLES OVER FEDERAL FUNDING
Sarawak, the largest state of Malaysia, is resource-rich and has a huge reserve of RM30 billion.
In its manifesto for the May 2018 general election (GE14), PH had pledged that the Sabah and Sarawak governments will be given the rights to make decisions in education and health matters.
However, politicians from ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak – made up of parties which left Barisan Nasional following its historic defeat in GE14 – said they are in favour of decentralisation, but insist the federal government must provide funds for both sectors.
Sarawak’s Local Government and Housing Minister Sim Kui Hian told CNA that the federal government should provide the state with money to carry out functions under the two sectors, in accordance to Article 80(5) of the Malaysia Agreement (1963).
“Sarawak's PH chairman Chong Chieng Jien had estimated that the annual expenditure for education and health amounted to RM8 billion,” he said.
The allocation to repair dilapidated schools nationwide in the 2020 budget is a significant increase from the RM100 million in that of the previous year.
However, it is still a reduction compared to the RM2.5 billion provided by the BN government in 2018.
Of the total, RM1 billion was for Sarawak, another RM1 billion for Sabah and the rest for schools in Peninsular Malaysia.
State Education Minister Michael Manyin urged the Finance Ministry to expedite approval for the RM1 billion, which would be deposited in a special account managed by the federal and state governments.
However, the Finance Ministry had said the funding was subject to four prescribed legal mechanisms, one of which required the state government to repay up to RM1 billion of its total debt to Putrajaya. The money will then be deposited into the Federal Government Consolidated Fund.
To date, the federal and state governments have not reached an agreement.
“Sarawak would not have dilapidated schools should the autonomy for education be returned to the state,” Mr Manyin told CNA.
COLLAPSED CANTEEN, OPEN-AIR LIBRARY
Two hours away from the state capital of Kuching, SK Kambug, another primary school in Padawan, relies on a piping system to draw water from the river as there is no direct clean water supply to the school.
A wooden bridge over the river leads students from the main road to the school perched atop a small hill.
As the school session ended, students were seen jumping over a large drain behind the school to get back to their hostel.
A mother, who only wanted to be known as Dayang, said she lives 20km away in Kampung Karu but sends her son to this school as the one in their village is already full.
“SK Puruh Karu in our village has a library and water supply, but when I tried to enroll my child last year, I was told the classrooms were packed.
“So I send my boy here and put him in the hostel here. We do have to pay more for the travel and it’s not easy for my husband and I, but we want our boy to go to school instead of suffering like us,” she said.
SK Puruh Karu, although equipped with clean running water and subscription to satellite television, is infested with termites.
Its termite-infested canteen had collapsed following a storm and has not been fixed for over a year, so meals have to be delivered to the school as part of a government-run food programme.
There is a playground within the school compound but the kids are forbidden to go near.
“We do not allow children around the playground as the equipment has all rusted,” said the school’s assistant student manager Narolah Barahim.
“The chairs and tables in most classrooms are in a deplorable state and sometimes the children get their hands or legs stuck in the broken hinges,” she added.
Mdm Narolah, who has been in-charge of the children’s welfare for nine years, said the school has written to the government multiple times over the years.
“You can see for yourself. Our library is just that open-air space. When it rains, all the books get wet and then the students are left with books that fall apart when they try to read," she said.
Mdm Narolah said she sends her own children to schools in Kuching.
“It costs us a lot more money, but I’ve witnessed the difficulty these children here go through on a daily basis.
“It’s not that I do not love these children - I do and that is why the management keeps writing in to the government asking for help. However, I certainly am not able to tolerate the idea of my kids studying in this environment,” she said.
REPAIR WORKS TO BEGIN IN 2020: FEDERAL MINISTER
There is no easy fix.
Mr Manyin, the state minister in-charge of education, said it was impossible to tackle the problem in a short period of time, as the actual budget required is far too big.
Councillor Mr Lo said the federal government needs to understand that Sarawakians are not being greedy.
“We are merely asking for what rightfully belongs to us.
“Every day the federal government makes millions from petroleum in Sarawak. In this case, we are just asking for schools to be on par with those in the cities of Peninsular Malaysia – not better, not any more extravagant, just equal,” he said.
Children in Sarawak should have access to computers and good books, and to be able to sit in a classroom and study comfortably without having to worry about the weather, Mr Lo added.
Former Works Minister Fadillah Yusof, who is also a Sarawak member of parliament, told CNA that the federal allocation is insufficient.
“At least RM3 billion is needed for the repair works,” he said.
When contacted, Dr Mazlee, the federal Education Minister, told CNA that the allocation in 2020 budget was decided based on the estimation by the Sarawak Public Works Department.
Repair works for the affected schools will begin in 2020, he said.
“The schools are selected based on five criteria, such as whether they are located in flood or landslide-prone areas and have more than 100 students.
“The schools should also have no land issues and priority will be given to schools located on land registered under the Federal Land Commissioner,” he said.
The Sarawak Public Works Department would decide which schools get priority, Dr Maszlee added.