Opportunities in Bario made me want to come home to Malaysia

Wednesday September 16th, 2015 - Lee Rui Ci

What questions does the typical fifteen-year-old city Malaysian ask?

‘Should I look for a job this school holiday?’
‘What do I want to do in the future? Go into business or work for someone?’
‘Should I pick the science or art stream for school next year?’
‘Should I continue my tertiary education locally or overseas?’
‘Should I migrate overseas once I complete my education?’

Fifteen is the age when many teenagers start to ponder their future. In Malaysia, one question many fifteen-year-olds ask is whether or not to permanently migrate overseas after they graduate from foreign universities.

This was the question I asked myself at fifteen. Older Malaysians tend to advise their nieces, nephews and children to migrate to other countries that offer better education and employment opportunities.

In 2013, a total of 308,834 high-skilled Malaysians have moved overseas, travelling to destinations including Singapore,  Australia,  the USA and Europe.

The Land of a Hundred Handshakes

After completing my secondary school education, I took a gap year and participated in WHEE!, a rural community development and exchange project to Bario, Borneo Malaysia. The project aims to help and empower the mountainous community of Bario earn an income through eco-tourism, product development, e-services and other means.

Our work includes developing eco-tourism activities for the local community, training them to carry out these activities, and assisting in the setting up of other sustainable projects. We recruit participants to teach the women participating in eco-tourism spoken English so that they can communicate more effectively with tourists as community guides and/or homestay hosts.

One of the few cemented roads in Bario. Being a remote settlement, Bario does not always have roads like this – mud, grass and rocks are often found beneath one’s feet.

One of the few cemented roads in Bario. Being a remote settlement, Bario does not always have roads like this – mud, grass and rocks are often found beneath one’s feet.

Bario is a remote settlement located in the Kelabit Highlands east of Sarawak. It is primarily resided by Kelabits, one of the smallest ethnic groups in Malaysia. The Kelabits fall under the Orang Ulu, whose other tribes include the Penans, Kayans, Kenyah and Lun Bawang.

Kelabits were heavily involved in headhunting practices over a century ago. However, this practice, along with animistic beliefs, was discontinued when they embraced Christianity in the 1940s. Now, they are well-known for their friendliness and unique culture, earning Bario the title ‘Land of a Hundred Handshakes’.

The Two Sides of Solitude

I stayed in Bario for three weeks and worked very closely with the locals. I was assigned to a local Kelabit woman, and my role was to teach her basic communication in English so that she can supplement her farm income by becoming a community guide.

I love Bario because of its remoteness. The limited Internet access there means checking one’s smartphone every five minutes for social media updates is not possible. In Bario, what mattered the most to me was neither the past nor the future. It was the present – the moments I spent with my fellow batch mates and the lady I was assigned to.

On the flip side of the coin, Bario’s remoteness has caused young Kelabits to migrate. There are very limited skilled jobs in Bario. The local schools only offer education up to Secondary Three (fifteen year-old).

Most of the electricity there is supplied by communal micro hydro-dams, mini solar farms and fuel generators. There are only three 19-seater flights to Bario each day. Phone network coverage in Bario is limited and the hospital there only treats common maladies.
After communicating with the students in Bario, I managed to gather what most fifteen year-old students in Bario would possibly think.

‘Should I help my parents in the paddy field this school holiday?’
‘What do I want to do in the future? Go into business or work for someone?’
‘Should I pick the science or art stream for school next year?’
‘Should I move to the city to study or is the Bario life enough for me?’
‘Should I stay in the city forever once I complete my education?’

Reflections of Two Different Worlds

Due to rural depopulation, it is a common sight to see villagers as old as 88 working in the paddy fields under the hot sun daily as there are not enough younger people for farm labor. Those who are physically unable to carry out such back-breaking work either outsource it to the Indonesian and Penan labourers or transition to mechanized farming.

A plus point to being a WHEE! participant in Bario was that the villagers treated us as if we were one of them. We helped to prepare and also participated in many cultural events. Although this was an amazing cultural exchange for me, I could not help but realize the effect rural depopulation had on these events.

Bario, like many other villages in Malaysia, practice ‘gotong-royong’ (a tradition of helping each other and the community) during major events or ceremonies. It is evident that there are not enough young people in the community to help out and participate in these events.

There was once during a pineapple welcoming ceremony for a ministerial visit, the ladies holding the pineapples were mostly above 40 and almost all the younger ladies were WHEE! participants!

WHEE! Participants all dressed up in traditional clothes for the pineapple welcoming ceremony.

WHEE! Participants all dressed up in traditional clothes for the pineapple welcoming ceremony.

It is also common for us participants to hear our assigned ladies lamenting about how they miss their children and grandchildren living in the cities. One can see the longing in these mothers/grandmothers’ eyes when they talk to their family members over the phone.

People often say that East Malaysia is very different from Peninsular Malaysia, but some similarities were glaring.

In Bario, many students dream of flying to Miri to study; in the city, many students dream of flying overseas to live.

In Bario, the elderly villagers pay labourers to manage their field; in the city, an agreement with Bangladesh to bring in 1.5 million workers for various sectors to overcome the issue of the Malaysian brain drain is pending.

In towns neighbouring Bario, the competition for jobs gets tougher due to an increase in applicants from other rural areas; in the UK, foreign students including Malaysians are banned to work while studying in order to stop the sale of illegal access to the UK job markets.

Depopulation does not only happen in rural areas, it happens in Malaysia as a country too, and the repercussions are similar.

Sparking Inspiration

The Malaysian government has begun taking measures to attract working Malaysians overseas to return home. At the same time, eHomemakers, a Malaysian social enterprise, is also working in attracting and retaining younger people in Bario.

In 2011, eHomemakers initiated a human capital development project (Upskilling of Women project) for women in the Bario Asal, Ulong Palang and Arur Dalan villages.

The 15-month project was seed funded by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit, PEMANDU, a unit under the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Department. They were trained in three aspects: community guiding, computer-based office work and product development.

In 2013, this project was continued by WHEE!, a youth arm of eHomemakers. WHEE! recruits university-aged students and sends them to Bario through exchange programmes to continue training the locals on the three aspects above.

WHEE! does not only provide training for skills, it also is a platform for cultural exchange. Pictured here is the WHEE! Coordinator, Daniel Devan, a Malaysian Indian teaching the Kelabit women some classic Indian dance moves.

WHEE! does not only provide training for skills, it also is a platform for cultural exchange. Pictured here is the WHEE! Coordinator, Daniel Devan, a Malaysian Indian teaching the Kelabit women some classic Indian dance moves.

WHEE! has proven to be successful in inspiring young Kelabits living elsewhere to return home. Images of university students from cities working in paddy fields in Bario posted on the Facebook page made them realize that highly-educated young individuals can work in the mud and under the hot sun too!

Devraj Sathivelu of Batch 5 giving paddy harvesting a go.

Devraj Sathivelu of Batch 5 giving paddy harvesting a go.

Batch 1 participants treating the Bario women to a little pampering session.

Batch 1 participants treating the Bario women to a little pampering session.

Within a year since the launch of WHEE!, Sina Rang Lemulun, a homestay operator in Bario Asal has had two of her children, Julian and Rasulla, returning from the city to Bario.

The Persisting Problems

Julian was a tour guide in the Mulu National Park. He has returned to Bario with dreams of developing his hometown into the next eco-tourism hotspot.

‘Bario has a lot of potential but a lot of people don’t see it. I want to train more people in Bario to become tour guides, but the young people who are here right now don’t have the commitment to become a guide,’ said Julian.

To update his friends and relatives all over the world about Bario, Julian has set up a WhatsApp (a messaging application) group, Bario Reality Tourism. He posts photos of cultural events and potential tour sites daily.

‘My goal is to get 100 people in the group. With this group, more and more people will keep in contact with Bario,’ he said.

This group would be more effective with a Facebook or Twitter account. However, due to the limited Internet access in Bario, WhatsApp is the only application that functions properly, hence the usage of this particular application.

Bario has improved in many ways since eHomemakers and WHEE! first went in. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

While the authorities work on improving the Internet connection in Bario so that people can telework and Julian can transfer the Bario Reality Tourism group to a Facebook platform, WHEE! will assist in the introduction of innovative solutions for sustainable development to the community, such as Isang Litrong Liwanag, garbage enzyme, biofuel as a substitute for cylindrical gas for cooking and so on.

Sina Mayda and Lee Rui Ci

Bario Resident, Sina Mayda and Lee Rui Ci

The Questions of a Fifteen-Year-Old

Before Bario, I was clueless about my career aspirations and life goals. However, I had always been insistent on furthering my education overseas and permanently residing there to enjoy the benefits of greener pastures.

After Bario and meeting people from all walks of life, I thought to myself, ‘Why not return home to lead a change instead of joining the brain drain?’

Fifteen is the age when many teenagers begin to ponder upon their future. In Malaysia, one question many fifteen-year-olds ask is whether or not to migrate overseas after they graduate from foreign universities.

I hope to work in a line that will make my country a better place so that in the future, when a fifteen-year-old asks me if he or she should migrate overseas, I can proudly and patriotically say, ‘Come home.’

Lee Rui Ci was an intern under eHomemakers, a Malaysian social enterprise and a coordinator for WHEE!, a rural community development project. She is currently reading law in a Malaysian university.