Text and photos by Carolyn Hong
The electricity only comes on for a few hours a night, sometimes there’s no running water, and sometimes, the only way to get there is to walk for hours in the jungle.
The conditions in the interior of East Malaysia can be tough but that hasn’t stopped a steady stream of city folk from volunteering with Impian Malaysia to build infrastructure projects for these remote villages.
The volunteers, who pay their own way, are posted for seven to 10 days to live with host families and carry out heavy work like digging, laying cement and carrying heavy equipment.
Using just volunteer power, Impian Malaysia has built around 30 infrastructure projects like water supply and roads, and has become one of the best known volunteer initiatives in East Malaysia.
But interestingly, it isn’t a standard non-governmental organisation.
Impian Malaysia (loosely translated as Malaysian Dream) is an ambitious scheme launched two years ago by the opposition Democratic Action Party to meet the infrastructural and other needs of remote communities in Sabah and Sarawak.
It was launched after the party failed to win any traction in these rural areas during the general election.
Tony Pua, the party’s MP in charge of the East Malaysian projects, said it had always been said that rural voters rejected the opposition because they were tempted by material development promised by the ruling party, or that they were ignorant.
“But I thought perhaps there is another reason. Perhaps it’s because we are never there. How can we ask them to vote against the ruling party because they are bad when we might well be worse?” he said. “We need to go in to demonstrate our sincerity and to build trust.”
And so, Impian Malaysia was born, to let the DAP make itself known and trusted by the local people.
Its first project in 2013 was a water system built for a village in Sarawak by the villagers alongside city volunteers, and funded by Impian Malaysia.
Although unskilled volunteers aren’t anywhere as good as skilled workmen, they are still recruited to help bridge the friendship gap between West and East Malaysians.
Since then, around 30 projects have been completed including a road to a village where people had once had to walk hours to town. Other projects include water and electricity supply, bridges and jetties.
The projects are impressive but even more impressive was the tremendous response. Donors and volunteers queued to sign up as soon as these previously little-known needs of the remotest places in Malaysia became known.
The success has encouraged Impian Malaysia to push forward with an expanded goal of empowering the rural people with better healthcare and education.
“We came to realise that many villages actually do have access to electricity and water but they remain poor. We spent some time figuring out how to help them,” Pua said.
The shift began last year, with health camps being organised, staffed by volunteer doctors and dentists. Dental services are often particularly in dire need. Education was the next major project, with a team of staff and volunteers running weekend and holiday reading camps for students.
Pua said the education camps can’t, by themselves, achieve great results but they hoped that it would encourage students to see learning as fun. In the longer term, they hope to expand to building computer centres and libraries, and offer more subject-focused tuition classes.
Being a politically-initiated social project brings a unique set of pros and cons.
The biggest disadvantage is its political nature which is inherently divisive, and has caused the authorities and some villages to respond warily.
But on the plus side, Impian Malaysia has a ready-built political network and machinery that can oil the wheels of a nascent social project.
Social projects often struggle to get off the ground and to stay the course due to difficulties in funding, commitment and manpower. Impian Malaysia doesn’t suffer from that. Thanks to its wide network, it hasn’t had to struggle for funding although it did have to work for it.
Pua raised funds from corporate contributions and through events like fund-raising dinners. More memorably, he used this 43rd birthday in 2015 to make a video appeal for funding in multiples of RM43 and got enough to keep it running for another year.
In this sense, it helped to have the DAP brandname on it.
Nevertheless, it has been a delicate balancing act.
Pua insists that the politics never takes centrestage in Impian Malaysia, and efforts have been made to shield it from the politics. Its funding and staffing are separate from the party’s, and no political rallies are held during the projects.
At any rate, he said, they aren’t sure of its political impact, if any. It may win new votes, or not. It could well be a roaring success at the social level but a dismal failure at the political. No one knows yet.
But that’s not the point, he said.
“We went in fully committed to help. Even if we don’t achieve our political objective at all, even if we achieved zero here, we would have done something good. We would have done humanitarian work for the under-served communities,” he said.
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