Tuesday, April 6, 2010

SITIAWAN - A TOWN WHERE I WAS BORN


(I don't know whether it is a crime to take wholesale this article from Malaysian Insider but when I read it, my heart just keep beating really fast! I know it is a long article but it is quite interesting - especially about the church which started it all; reminds me of renown evangelist from China John Sung who came to lowly Sitiawan town.)

Sitiawan forges ahead into the future
By Sheridan Mahavera

SITIAWAN, April 5 — It really is hard to imagine that Perak’s most booming town was once just a handful of pre-war wooden shops huddled together at a four-way junction.
That is how Stephen Francis Fernandez recalls Sitiawan, back in the early 80s when he just moved here from Parit Buntar.

The way he describes the town centre, it is as if the man-made structures banded together at this crossroad, between Lumut to the west and Ipoh to the east, against the miles upon miles of dark oil plantations that carpeted this part of Perak.

“Now look at it,” he waves his arm around at the estates of houses and shops that stretch out in all directions from Simpang Empat — the ancient nexus that’s now just another traffic-light junction among many other junctions.

That in itself is testament to the town’s growth from remote settlement to near centre-of-the-state status. There are now junctions and bypass roads going to Teluk Intan and on to Selangor and Kuala Lumpur in the south and another one going north to Pantai Remis and Penang.

It may not have a swanky mall yet but Sitiawan has a four-screen cineplex, a Giant grocery store and a Tesco that’s coming up down the road from it. Of the 18 banks and financial institutions, there are exotic foreign ones such as the Royal Bank of Scotland. The rubber and oil palm trees that used to line Jalan Lumut, which bisects the town, have been replaced by shops that sell high-end car stereos, slimming treatments and imported furniture.

The wooden Chinese village house is a fast-disappearing exception to the brick and mortar terrace lots of Taman Samudera and Desa Manjung Raya or the “Venice of Perak”. It is a town where the old Chinaman stereotypes still exist: that of the grizzled old “uncle” in faded shorts or the weather beaten “auntie”, with pockets of hard cash.

Yet Sitiawan is a monument to those ancient archetypes. It was they who cut out a patch of land to call home from the unforgiving wilderness on the banks of Sungai Sitiawan more than 100 years ago and who continue to fuel Sitiawan’s growth.

No play, all work.

Sitiawan’s success is often traced to the incredible Foo Chow work ethic and how they are supposedly a “different breed of Chinese”. It sounds like communal preening, as if something special ran in their blood but the reason may be more environmental than genetic.

It started in 1903, when boats loaded with over 360 Chinese from eastern Fujian in China landed on the banks of Sungai Sitiawan/ Sungai Dinding to carve out a new settlement. According to information at the Sitiawan Settlement Museum, these Foo Chows were Methodist Christians led by three pastors. They had left their homes for this remote part of Perak in the hopes of finding a better future.

The heart of the settlement was the old Methodist Pioneer church (which now houses the museum) whose clergy and missionaries provided welfare, education and leadership. The museum’s guide says that no one was allocated a specific plot of land so the size of a settler’s land was basically determined by “how much jungle he can clear”.

This freedom for each settler to gain as much property was instrumental in creating Sitiawan’s nascent economy that in turn fuelled the boom that it sees now. The settlers planted cash crops such as rubber and oil palm in 100- to 200-acre plots.

Long-time resident and property developer Sam Tuck Wah explains that these holdings were passed on from generation to generation and is an important source of disposable income which is then funnelled into education or invested.

The community’s Christian roots also helped instil a certain moral discipline in the pioneers which they then passed on. “They work long hours and there is no time for nonsense,” Sam, executive director of DKLS Industries Berhad says.
What he means is that in Sitiawan, there is no official entertainment district. There are bars but they are lonely outposts of dim neon lights filled with sad-looking men in the back alleys of the new shop lots.

Carousing, says Sam, is extremely frowned upon by the pious community.
“This is a place where you can concentrate,” he says, either as a student on her studies or as a businessman, planter or amateur investor on making money.

Surrounded by money

By local estimates, Sitiawan’s transformation was a gradual, steady climb that took place over the past 20 years. It was greatly helped by several important mega projects: the Lumut Royal Malaysian Navy base, the JanaManjung and Segari power plants and the Lumut Port. The town is also at the centre of one of Malaysia’s most thriving prawn farming areas. It is also the first and one of the more successful regions for harvesting swiflet nests.

Praise must also be given to the Manjung district council, says Lumut MP Datuk Seri Kong Cho Ha, as the authority worked to ensure the area’s infrastructure is first-class. In fact it would not be wrong to say that property developers like DKLS Berhad depend on the hundreds of local and foreign professionals brought in by the port’s heavy industries and the two power plants.

High-end homes are also being snapped up by Sitiawan’s many successful farmers and planters.

The port handles mostly bulk cargo and what is termed the “dirty stuff” such as coal, sulphur and clinkers. The air at its neighbouring industrial estate is metallic and smooty as fabrication yards owned by Kenchana HL and IMPSA churn out oil rigs and towering container cranes.

Across the Sungai Sitiawan from Kenchana HL’s wharf, the Universiti Kuala Lumpur has set up its own maritime engineering school. Not far away is the famous Malayan Flour Mills “Ayam Dindings” chicken processing factory. A massive oil palm refinery, a few bio-diesel plants and some shipyards round out Perak’s bustling port.

Retired navy officer Poon Wee Ching explains that the Selat Dinding area is very strategic and was mapped out by the British navy in 1902. Lumut Port and its maritime industries along Sungai Sitiawan are protected from storms and the river is deep enough to handle cargo carriers and huge ships.

Though the professionals and skilled labourers provide a big and steady customer base for the properties and services of Sitiawan, their numbers are matched by the retirees from the RMN base.

“A good 40 per cent of navy personnel will settle in Lumut after they retire. After all, it’s a nice, quiet place,” says Poon. Sam of DKLS Industries Berhad goes so far as to claim that Sitiawan’s population growth is helped by these retirees.

“It’s not like bases in other parts of the country where you retire and you return to your home town. These ex-Navy like the environment, so they stay, they don’t go back. “When a new batch comes into the base, another one leaves. So every year our population goes up,” says Sam.

A reason to stay

The thing about those old uncles and aunties coming to invest their loads of hard cash is that it’s not just their money. A bank officer explains that many of these folks would take out a loan once their children go to study or work in Singapore. The loan would be used to buy real estate, property or financial instruments. A portion of what their child makes would then service the loan.

“Which is why house prices in Sitiawan are higher than Ipoh,” says the banker with years of experience in the district. It’s not just the money that’s being reinvested into the town. According to DKLS’s Sam, the heavy industries are attracting many locals with skilled shipyard experience in Singapore back home.

“They leave for Singapore as bachelors and when they return, they start families here. Which is why even with so many schools, enrolment and class sizes keep going up every year.”

That seems to be a crucial trait for any town or district which spurs development, stops people from leaving and prevents decay. Besides the well-maintained roads, the industries, the hard-working locals, there is a collective sense that it is worth putting money back into Sitiawan and that it is worth staying.

That kind of pride of place is seen in how the locals gush at how Sitiawan is going to be “City A One”.

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