KANOWIT: Deputy Education Minister Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi started his state walkabout in last August, visiting some 27 schools in the deep interiors of Belaga, Kapit and Song districts in six days.
Accompanied by officials from the State Education Department and the Education Ministry, Mohd Puad traveled over long distances and rugged terrains in four-wheel-drive vehicles, speedboats, longboats and later fast express boats.
Stopping for a few hours at each destination to look into the problems at the respective schools, the journey was certainly not for one unfit and with frail health.
But such was the commitment and concern that the Deputy Education Minister had shown.
Mohd Puad said he had been given this responsibility by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who is also Najib's deputy to troubleshoot problems that hampered the progress of rural education nationwide.
Recently Mohd Puad was back in Sarawak, visiting more schools in the state's northen tip of Limbang and Miri divisions.
Among the schools he had visited was SK Ulu Lubai, now dubbed the crown jewel of the state's rural schools, having made it to "the best of the best schools" nationwide ("Sekolah Berprestasi Tinggi" or SBT) or the elite high performance school.
Mohd Puad continued his visit to 11 schools in Kanowit district.
He was accompanied by his wife Dr Rubiah Lehman, Machan state assemblyman Datuk Gramong Juna who is also the Assistant Minister of Rural Development and Kanowit member of parliament Datuk Aaron Dagang.
The deputy minister's visit was made up by hopping from a speedboat to a longboat and heading for the most interior-located schools. He also flew in the seven-seater Hornbill Skyway Eurocopter helicopter.
On this visit too, Mohd Puad and his wife got the chance to experience the hospitality extended by the rural folks when they spent the night at longhouse Rh Umau in Ulu Poi, some five hours journey by longboat from here.
It was during this visit that problems faced by the school there were brought to his attention.
In the SK Nanga Poi, he was told that each of the 53 hostel students had to bring five bottles of drinking water for their own consumption each week.
"They wash and bathe in the river under the watchful eyes of the school security personnel," SK Nanga Poi headmaster Ambrose Tengai told Dr Mohd Puad.
Ambrose said technical problems had been bogging the school's RM1 million tube well system, causing it to fail to bring up sufficient underground water.
Some schools do not have the tube wells and have to rely on the gravity feedwater system where water from a source high up and deep in the jungle is channelled through PVC pipes.
But these schools have to share the water supply with longhouses in the vicinity and during the dry season, the water supply is erratic and limited.
The most serious requests must be for the Education Ministry to reconsider its recent directive to limit the power supply beginning this April from the current 24 hours to 14.5 hours.
Indeed the ministry had spent RM1.05 billion to purchase power generator sets for some 429 rural schools statewide under the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP).
According to Mohd Puad it must have been the high cost of diesel to run the generators that led to the ministry to announce the power reduction directive.
The schools feared that it would psychologically affect the hostel boarders at night and spoiling the perishable food supplies stored in the refrigerators as well as preventing teachers from using their computers.
Mohd Puad promised to discuss the issue with the ministry officials.
Other woes faced by the schools were the flood problem, poor internet connectivity although many schools have air-conditioned computer laboratories as well as the ramshackle or inadequate teachers quarters and school buildings.
For the record Mohd Puad said the government, among others, this year had allocated to the ministry, RM29.3 billion for management purposes, RM6.4 billion for development and RM519 million to help some 60,000 non-graduate teachers to obtain their degrees by 2015.
This year, the ministry is spending RM245 million to bring more nutritious food to some 690,000 students from poor families throughout the country.
Dr Puad's visits certaintly bring cheers, new hope, motivation and transformation to the rural schools and the rural community in Sarawak.
In the words of Gramong, Mohd Puad "is very serious in wanting to help. Has been an attentive listener to the briefings given by the headmasters. Undeniably, some schools have very poor facilities."
He believed the headmasters, teachers, students and parents were very encouraged by the visit which demonstrated the government's deep concerns for the people who were living in the interiors.
Aaron too was full of appreciation for Dr Mohd Puad's hand-on approach, saying: "It is a very good move. He is going on the ground to check for himself the actual situation".
Nanga Jagau community leader Penghulu Johnny Masam hoped all the problems and shortcomings that the deputy minister had identified during his visit could be rectified soon for the benefit of all the rural schools located far in the interiors.
Meanwhile Mohd Puad said SK Ulu Lubai's sterling achievement should be made the benchmark for all rural schools.
"It is a typical small rural school with only 30 students. Headmasters, teachers and parents should visit the school to emulate its success," he said. — Bernama
TOP PICKS BY EDGEPROP
OFF JALAN SUNGAI CHOH / BUKIT BERUNTUNG
Taman Mawar, Bandar Baru Salak Tinggi
Paisley Serviced Residences, Tropicana Metropark
Subang Jaya, Selangor
Elegan Townhouse, Taman Putra Perdana