Our memories of school days are usually peppered with homework, exams and fun with friends.
However, students of most schools in rural Sarawak will most probably remember bracing through high current rivers and walking for hours on end just to get to school.
Everyday is a battle for these children living in rural villages in Sarawak.
A primary school in Lawas, SK Long Sukang was surviving for years with a tattered wooden school building, until the ministry stepped in 2010 and things got worse.
We would naturally assume things took a positive turn and the students are now better off with proper, concrete buildings resembling the ones that we are familiar with in urban areas.
But, a recent report by The Malaysian Insider revealed the unfortunate reality of SK Long Sukang following the government's promise of a brand new building.
The one common reason we hear when it comes to halted public projects; contractors are not doing their jobs right, was used for this unfinished project too.
One thing led to another and 5 long years later, all promises were forgotten as the students were left with nothing but an abandoned, unfinished school building
Not having anywhere else to go, the teachers were forced to move the students into these dangerous, unhygienic school quarters
With SK Long Sukang being a boarding school, the students are not only required to study there, but also stay there for the school terms.
In an extensive report by The Malaysian Insider, it was noted that three buildings were somewhat completed, namely, two dorms and a dining hall.
Why did they move into the unfinished school buildings?
“They just could not stand staying in the old wooden dorms any more. We waited so long for the new school and yet it was incomplete. We wanted to move in very badly so we had to make adjustments," lamented SK Long Sukang parent-teacher association (PTA) head Yaris Semayong when speaking to The Malaysian Insider.
What's worst is that some of these children are left sleeping on wispy mattresses on the cold, concrete floors due to the lack of beds
Making the best out of the very little that they have, one dorm was converted into the classroom and the other remained as the sleeping area for the kids
Privacy is a far cry for these students as they all sleep in the same building, with the boys pushed the west side and the girls at the east of the building.
“The school didn’t even have money for plastic mats to cover the concrete floors. The PTA had to pitch in money to buy them,” said Semayong.themalaysianinsider.com
The buildings were left in such a terrible state by the contractors that even the walkways do not have stairs yet
Despite the fact that wooden stairs were built temporarily, the photos of the school are enough to tell us how dangerous it is for anyone, especially young, active children to be in.
So, what is the government's response to this issue that has been ongoing for 3 years?
Ministry secretary-general Tan Sri Dr Madinah Mohamad explained that the construction work was stopped abruptly, 5 years ago, after they detected soil movement and water flow near the administrative and classroom buildings.
“Due to safety factors, a stop-work order was issued. But work on other blocks not affected continued,” said Madinah in an email response.
Madinah said the school project was packaged with several others and admitted that it was behind schedule due to internal problems of the contractor, a joint venture between NCSB Engineering Sdn Bhd and Sebiro Holdings Sdn Bhd.
She said the ministry was finalising plans to stabilise and repair the slope. Once these are complete, construction on the abandoned block will resume.
“So the question is why build on a stream in the first place?”
“They had built the administrative block on what used to be a stream. They diverted the original stream so that it flows around the new building.
“But the land which they built on is still waterlogged,” said Semayong, pointing to a section of the ground floor which had a large pool of water despite the fact that it had not rained in days in Long Sukang.
During The Malaysian Insider’s visit, Semayong showed how the ground underneath half of the administrative and classroom building was swampy and that water pooled around the floors.
Stepping in after years, the ministry stressed that they are working towards ensuring that the students are comfortable in the unfinished quarters of the school
In the meantime, efforts were being made to make the pupils’ stay at the completed dormitories as comfortable as possible. This included making sure there was enough staff to monitor their movements at night given that the boys and girls are housed in the same building.
“There are three pupil management assistants to look after the safety, their hygiene, health and discipline of all pupils in the dorm. The teachers also act as hostel wardens to monitor the dorms and the pupil’s movements at night,” said Madinah.
The ministry has also started the process of buying furniture and beds for pupils, said Madinah, adding that linoleum mats had been bought for pupils to place their mattresses and personal belongings.
Sadly, SK Long Sukang isn't the only school that was neglected to the point of being a danger to the students.
SK Lubok Mawang in Kapit is so rundown, it has dormitory floorboards that creak even when a waify, 29kg weighing girl walks on it
This more than half a century old school was built back in 1952 and from the looks of it, it hasn't been through much of a renovation since.
Borneo Post reported a couple of years ago, that the wooden buildings are so frail to the point of shaking when a group of young students just run around in it.
At a place where young minds should be taught about cleanliness and all its importance, the toilets are broken and look like this, instead
One of the students there, Sabai, left home at the tender age of seven and opted to stay at the school's dormitory due to the harrowing distance that requires a 30-minute longboat ride from her village to the school, as reported by the East Malaysian daily, the Borneo Post.
Most children studying at this school have opted to do the same, all for the sake of education and breaking the cycle of poverty and illiteracy.
Instead of ensuring that these determined young children are provided with the best care and facility available, they are, however, forced to live in such sad, medieval conditions.
Less than 5 years away from Vision 2020, achieving it seems like a distant dream with schools in major parts of the country that resemble shacks and are so dangerous for the students and teachers alike
It is the bitter truth that Sabai is just one of the many students in rural areas of Malaysia that go through such unjust conditions while they continue striving to educate themselves.
While hopeful, trusting parents are eagerly sending their children to schools, the ministry has clearly done little to address the growing problems in the form of facilities and lack of the teachers in the rural schools.
One of the most feared dangers materialised in 2012, when a rundown hostel collapsed at SK Punan Ba in Sibu, injuring 18 young students
Out of the 18 injured students, 5 were in serious conditions due the collapse.
Following the shocking incident, the students were left with no choice but to cramp at their headmaster's house.
Former STU president, the late William Ghani Bina said after the incident, on 6 December 2012, that this was a glaring example of how the state has been sidelined.
“Sarawak has the largest volume of gas and oil in the world and yet gets only 5 per cent in oil royalties. In fact, the 95 per cent should be used to develop the whole country.
Ghani lamented that while other states in the country continued to progress rapidly, Sabah and Sarawak are still lagging behind.
“Both states (Sabah and Sarawak) are the key contributors to the country’s economy. Hence, it is only right that we are better developed or at least being developed immediately,” he said
The following year, in 2013, the staff quarters of a rural school in Kapit caved-in, but thankfully, the incident did not cause any fatalities or injuries
How does the ministry plan to solve these problems?
About a week ago, the Minister of Welfare, Women and Family Development Datuk Hajah Fatimah Abdullah announced that a special committee is being set up to look into the terrible conditions of rural schools in Sarawak, as reported by the Sarawak Tribune.
"We have already listed down the names of these unfortunate schools and quotes the appropriate allocations so that these schools may operate properly when all the work are completed," said Fatimah.
She also noted that rural schools in Sarawak were suffering from numerous other problems such as lack of utility resources, run-down dormitories, and inappropriate roads.
"In order for us to improve the performance of our students, we must cover their basic needs so that they are able to study without any deficiency in terms of infrastructures and facilities," added Fatimah.
Impian Sarawak, an initiative by DAP has been making changes to rural areas in Malaysia with breakthrough projects and ideas
Continuing with their efforts to solve the problems faced by the Malaysians living in rural areas of the country, Impian Sarawak has also helped SK Long Sukang to build their running water project, gravity feed-water system.
The project was completed back in June and that has enabled the school and the surrounding area to finally have fresh, running water.
Impian Sarawak's projects are all run with efforts of the community, volunteers and kind politicians in DAP.
In line with their education projects, the amazing folks at Impian, also organised a reading camp at Long Sukang, recently
The camp was held from the 10th till the 11th of October and a Facebook posting by Impian talked about how much the kids loved reading and took every opportunity they got to pick up the books and start reading.
They are also said to be working towards coming up with more resources to further enrich the children's learning processes.
If you are interested to make a difference in these people's lives, you can do so with Impian by registering here.
While we are on the subject of education, read this inspiring story of a teacher who travels for 4.5 hours daily, to teach and transform lives:
Meanwhile, get inspired by Impian Sarawak's efforts to provide basic electricity and clean water to villages in Malaysia:
The problems faced by the Orang Asli community in Malaysia goes beyond education. The Penans have been fighting for decades to protect their own lands: