By Jerry Francis
Kampar, like most mining towns in the rich alluvial tin deposit region of the Kinta Valley, plunged into a depression when the international tin price collapsed in October, 1985. Several tin mines on which the town’s economy largely depended, gradually ceased operation. Also affected were scores of supporting industries, such as foundries, hardware shops, machinery workshops and timber traders. As a result, thousands of workers lost their jobs. Without any alternative employment opportunity available, most of the young people left as immigrant workers to Japan, Taiwan, Europe and the United States and sent their hard earned money home to their dependants. Kampar founded in 1887, thus became like an old-folks and children’s home. However, in just over two decades, Kampar has emerged from the tailings of the tin mines into a fast growing hub for tertiary education in Perak.
The revival of Kampar was possible largely because of the vision of a former veteran tin miner Tan Sri Hew See Tong, who gave a kiss of life to an otherwise dying mining town.
“Hew, a miner since 1949, was an advisor for a number of years to the International Tin Council (ITC) in London, which was established in 1956 to manage a buffer stock to keep the tin price at a steady level until 1985 when its buffer manager could no longer maintain the price due to rising cost of production and an increase in production by non-member countries. As a result ITC collapsed and so did the tin mining industry in the country.
After the tin mining industry collapsed, I managed to carry on until the drop of the tin price became unbearable”, said the 79-year-old Hew at a casual interview in a coffee-shop.
On ceasing mining operations in 1989, he decided to diversify and use his ex-mining land just north of Kampar town for housing and industrial developments. And so, a new township – Bandar Baru Kampar, sprang out in the midst of the vast sandy landscape.
This gave some clout to his efforts. Hew’s hope was to develop the new township to be a catalyst in bringing much deve-lopment and growth to the region.
He started off by luring three foreign electronic companies to set up their operations in the new township and provide employment for about 7,000 workers.
Need for Progress
Despite some critics accusing him of having a personal agenda, the soft-spoken Hew crusaded on with his vision to bring progress and new hope to the residents of his birthplace. “I felt we needed to do something and so decided to make Kampar a hub of tertiary education”, he said.
Hew then went on to persuade Tunku Abdul Rahman College (TARC) to set up a branch. His offer of five shop lots at a nominal rental of RM1 per year and a donation of 20.2ha of his ex-mining land for the college’s permanent site was too good to refuse.
And with the support of Tun Dr. Ling Liong Sek (former MCA president), he managed to get TARC to come in and the branch campus was constructed and officially opened on May 18, 2003. Today, the branch campus, surrounded by beautiful scenery and lakes, offers outstanding facilities and resources that further promote excellent teaching and learning.
Hew was also instrumental in getting the University Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) to set up its main campus in the new township. It was with the help of two former Menteri Besars of Perak, Tan Sri Ramli Ngah and Datuk Seri Tajol Rosli, and an MCA leader Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan that a 520-ha piece of ex-mining land surrounded by lush greenery and lakes was allocated by the Perak Government to UTAR.
The university was officially opened on June 1, 2007. UTAR has progressed steadily to be a comprehensive university providing “a diverse portfolio of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes with a niche in research and consultancy”.
Under its second phase of development, UTAR is constructing a grand-hall with a capacity for 3,500 people and a number of lecture theatres. Currently, UTAR has an enrolment of 12,500 students and TARC has 2,100 students.Bandar Baru Kampar has about 4,000 houses, 300 commercial buildings, two government schools, a large supermarket and a seven-storey hotel. Housing developments are still underway.
The Federal Govern-ment is proposing to build a satellite hospital in the township to cater to the residents of Lower Perak and MARA is planning to set up its university at nearby Gua Tempurung.
With plans for expansion by the two education institutions, the student population is expected to hit well above 20,000. Kampar is therefore primed to move further with the education sector as the main driving force of its economy.
Providing accommodation and essential needs of the students alone offers great prospects to the economic and commercial activities of the township as well as the old town. Already, restaurants, hotels, internet cafes and retail shops are among others thriving in the town.
Confidence in the economic boom of Kampar is shown by the number of commercial banks (8) which have their branches in the town. With its population on the increase to well above 70,000, the sub-district was upgraded to a full district – the 10th in Perak last year.
Having seen Kampar turn around to become a hub of tertiary education is not sufficient for Hew to rest on his laurels. “My dream is to see Kampar become both a hub for tertiary education and a tourist destination.
“There is potential for tourism development in Kampar and its surroundings”, he claimed. He pointed out the bird sanctuary in the area, Gua Tempurung and the old tin dredge in Chendrong as among the tourist attractions.
As for his role towards tourism, Hew said he, together with some former miners, were working on setting up a gravel pump mines museum to be located in the township.
“We want to show the young generation and the generations to come, the contribution of the tin mining industry to the economy of the country as well as remind the residents of the town’s heritage”, he said.
The old town was once famous for its chicken clay-pot rice, chicken biscuits and fish-ball noodles. Bus-loads of tourists were known to make a bee-line to the town to savourthe delicacies. However theconstruction of the North-South Highway soon made the detour to Kampar too tedious and foodie visits dwindled. With the new focus on tourism, Kampar should soon see the full buses returning, making Kampar a full destination rather than a detour.