“HAVE you had rice?”

NO MORE RICE: Land which was once covered with paddy fields has now been developed for housing.

This is one of the first questions that an Iban would ask of a visitor, an old friend or relative or even a total stranger, to his longhouse.

It’s not exactly the equivalent of “How are you?” or “How do you do?” – to find out how life has been treating you generally – but genuinely meaning to find out if you are really hungry or thirsty so that some food could be offered.

From the Iban perspective, the state of health of the visitor is a priority. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that he is a good host. Of course, the cooking of food for the guest is the portfolio of his darling wife, while he gets most of the compliments.

Such is the importance of rice in the culture of many Asians that when the floods in Thailand destroyed vast areas of paddy fields, the rice eaters in Sarawak, especially the non-farmers, began to worry of possible shortages of the commodity in the market. Some resorted to panic buying and some vendors to hoarding of stock in the hope of making a killing when the demand exceeds supply.

This situation arises because we are so dependent on other countries for our staple food. And we are being ambivalent in tackling the situation. Why? Rice farming is not a lucrative undertaking; the investors would rather go for timber and oil palm planting. Or rubber now.

Chronic importer of rice

As a result of this policy, Sarawak is a chronic mporter of rice.

According to the Sarawak Annual Report, 1951, every year we imported rice – progressively from 19.272 metric tons in 1947 to 31,907 metric tons by 1951. That was about 50 per cent of the amount of the commodity produced locally.

The population of Sarawak was then 546,385, and it must have increased progressively for the past 50 years. But the production of rice has not been able to outstrip the increase in the number of its eaters. Now we are told that we have to import 70 per cent of our rice requirements to feed a population of about 2.5 million.

That’s why we got worried when the floods in Thailand destroyed paddy fields there; it is from Thailand that we have been buying our Beras Siam. Now we can also import the stuff from Vietnam, China, even Pakistan. But in Vietnam, there is progressive salination of the paddy lands especially in the lower parts of the Mekong Delta, meaning that there will be less rice produced there. Time may come, if not already, when these countries may not be able to produce enough for export to us. Then we continue to buy the stuff at a subsidised price. Many of these Indochinese countries have been hoarding supplies for their own consumption since last year.

Back to Sarawak, what have we done to reduce the percentage of imported rice since 1947?

The colonial government was rather ambivalent in its food security policy. While admitting that Sarawak could be self-supporting in rice, the government then did not seem to be able to produce a clear self- sufficiency measure in rice. Instead, it lamented the fact that “when prices for the main products are low and there is little money available in the rural areas for purchase of imported rice, the country does of necessity approach self-sufficiency in this commodity. When, however, prices of export products are high (as in 1950 and 1951 when rubber and pepper fetched record prices), interest in padi planting wanes, and Sarawak may become dependent on imports for as much as half its rice requirements.”

Though it had introduced in 1946 a padi purchasing scheme whereby a minimum buying price was guaranteed at $16 Straits Dollars per pikul of un-husked rice, the scheme fizzled out as a result of the rubber and pepper boom. That was the situation then.

No mention of big scale padi planting, let alone a plan for export of the commodity.

However, from the early years of Malaysia, food security became a top priority for the government. In 1965, while flying over the Lower Batang Lupar, our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, had a bright idea: there, down below was a vast country, the next rice bowl of Malaysia! Excitedly, he announced this to the reporters waiting for him at the old Kuching airport. I was moonlighting for the Vanguard then. The editor Desmond Leong splashed its front page with the rice the following day. So did the Sarawak Tribune.

Irrigation schemes were introduced and millions invested in areas from Lundu to Lawas. In 1970, I was accompanying the Chief Minister Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub on a tour of Sibuti, Lawas and Bario – keeping all eyes on land for rice and other agricultural crops.

Now some 40 years down the line, I have not been able to find statistics in terms of production of rice from these schemes – all the Tanjungs – Tanjung Purun, Tanjung Bijat, to name two; and various Payas – Selanyau in Sibuti, and so on. One had hoped that rice from these DID schemes be enough to supply home consumption, if not for sale.

But to date we hardly read about success stories of all of these irrigation schemes.

We have heard about a big project in the Lower Batang Lupar, the new Rice Bowl as envisaged by the Tunku, but for this to materialise fully, we will have to wait for five more years.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Meanwhile, there is a scramble for land for oil palms at the expense of land for padi cultivation, including hill padi. In and around Kuching, a lot of land used for padi in the past has been filled up to make way for shop houses and housing estates. Drive up to Serian today and you will see what’s on that land where beautiful rice fields could be seen for miles away – green in November and yellow in March. Drive along that un-named road from the end of Jalan Datu Bandar Haji Mustapha towards Jalan Stephen Yong and you will see the brand new houses on land opposite Kampung Sudat, no longer suitable for rice cultivation.

Well, that’s development, I agree. But fertile land for padi production is getting scarcer and scarcer by the day at the rate we are planting oil palms and building buildings. Not necessarily bad, I must say. But we have to rely more and more on rice from Thailand and other countries. And as a security measure, it would be dangerous to rely on others for the supply of the staple food. We are at the mercy of the exporters. We must reduce the 70 per cent reliance on imports of rice at all costs.

Some people have turned to bread, but wheat is from which bread is made. Australia has been one of our main suppliers but the production of Australia wheat was affected by bad weather and no one can guarantee that we will always get the supplies at affordable prices.

Friends have been teasing me that man does not live by bread alone … I know, he needs rice, that’s his bread.

by Sidi Munan. Posted on October 23, 2011, Sunday

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