By James Gough
Building a 43-metre suspension bridge over a river in the remote jungle of Sungai Siput without government’s funding is not an easy task. But, through the spirit of gotong-royong, an innovative Orang Asli community has shown how it was achieved. Working in coordination with the MP for Sungai Siput, Dr. D. Jeyakumar and various volunteers, with contributions from well-wishers, the bridge across Sungai Pelus, a tributary of the Sungai Perak, was inaugurated recently.
A Bridge Over Troubled Waters
The bridge, now known as “Titi Gantong Solidariti Rakyat” (or People’s Solidarity Suspension Bridge), constructed in accordance with professional engineering specifications for safety, replaces another built more than 10 years ago about one kilometre upstream.
The Temiar community in Kampong Perjek, Lasah, had, through their own initiative, built a “rickety” bridge suspended by cables discarded by logging companies tied to large trees at both sides of the river, which often swells after heavy rains in the jungle, making it impossible for them to wade across.
Kampung Perjek is located 44 km east of Sungai Siput town. The route is connected with about 17 km of an uphill logging dirt road which requires a 4-wheel-drive to negotiate up to the village. It consists of 50 households with a population of 400. The villagers need to get to the other side of the river daily, where their saka (ancestral hunting ground) lies, to tend to their farms and collect jungle products for their livelihood.
New Bridge Wider and Safer
With the new bridge, getting to the opposite bank is easier as it is wide enough for a motorcycle, and safer with floor decking of wood planks bolted down and joined to the suspension cables with square nettings throughout the length of the bridge. This is supported by 10-metre concrete towers on each sides of the riverbank, unlike the old one with bamboo floorboards and no netting at the side. Walking on the old bridge was often a hair-raising experience.
The idea of building a better and safer bridge was mooted about two years ago when the villagers made a request to Dr. Jeyakumar, who was elected as MP for Sungai Siput in the last general elections, for new cables to prop up their dilapidated bridge.
Upon careful consideration Dr. Jeyakumar decided that it was an urgent question of safety for the villagers to have a new bridge. “It would be safer to build a new bridge than repair the old rickety bridge,” he said. Knowing well that funding for the project would be an issue, he told the villagers that it would have to be a collaborative effort saying, “saya dengan kau buat sama-sama” (I will work alongside with you), as he stressed to the Orang Asli community during one of his regular visits together with Tijah Yok Copil, the Secretary of Jaringan Orang Asal Perak (an NGO of the Orang Asli).
As an opposition MP for Sungai Siput he has not received his constituency allocation of RM1million per year which by contrast is paid to the BN legislators by the federal government.
Parti Socialis Malaysia (PSM) had subsequently filed suit in the Kuala Lumpur High Court to declare that the special allocation for electoral constituencies must be given to all MPs regardless of political affiliation. The Kuala Lumpur High Court had on February 25 granted leave to Dr. Jeyakumar’s application for a judicial review.
It cost RM70,000 to build the new bridge, which can support 10 people and a fully laden motorcycle at any one time. The funding for the project came from PAS (RM5,000), two Catholic Christian groups (RM10,000), well-wishers (RM20,000) and Dr. Kumar’s MP allowance (RM35,000).
Dr. Jeyakumar, who describes the Orang Asli as a “very marginalized group that needs a lot of help”, approached a retired army engineer Ahmad Mazlan Othman for assistance. Ahmad, who runs a consulting engineering
company in Kuala Lumpur, did a complete study of the site “soil test and all” and identified the location for the
bridge. “The design was basic and practical but safe and could be done by a layman. The main cost was for the building material though the cost to transport the material to the site took up a major portion,” added Ahmad.
According to Ahmad work started even before funding was collected. “Except for a cement mixer, all the work was done manually. The Orang Asli built us a bamboo raft to transfer the material across the river. The holes for the foundation for the concrete towers to hold the suspension bridge were dug using spade and cangkul (hoe) and pouring the concrete was done in a chain-gang style.
Working Without Racial Barrier
“We worked on the weekends and supervised the work at every stage. Labour was free and we had Malay, Chinese,
Indian and Orang Asli working together. Additionally the villagers were involved throughout and will be able to take care of the basic maintenance in future. It was a wonderful experience and I and the team have come to
appreciate each other,” said Ahmad.
Of course, there is nothing extraordinary about building the bridge except that the funding, technical expertise and the labour to construct it was totally volunteered and most importantly the Temiar villagers themselves were actively involved. Absolutely no government funding was requisitioned.
Anything is Possible
Speaking on behalf of the Temiar community, Saudara Busu, thanked all those involved in the construction of the bridge. He said the villagers could now get across the river to their farms safely.
This success of the Temiar community should be an eye opener to people everywhere that in the spirit of gotong-royong anything is possible.