60 years without water and power, Pulau Berhala folk expect better from new govt

Pulau Berhala, a 20-minute boat ride from Sandakan, has about 3,000 residents who are mostly fishermen and farmers.

KOTA KINABALU: Every morning, Suhidin Jidlani has to wake up before five to send his younger children to school from their home on Pulau Berhala to mainland Sandakan.

This is no ordinary trip as the 60-year-old fisherman-turned-boatman has to ferry his children, along with other passengers, across the sea to reach the mainland by 6am so that his children can be on time for school.

“Crashing through waves to send our children to school is daily life here on Pulau Berhala ever since I can remember.

“I was once a fisherman but I changed to being a boatman to earn more for my family,” he said, adding that his boat could take 60 people a trip.

He charges RM2 a trip and RM80 for charter visits to the island, which boasts several natural attractions such as its jungle, white sandy beaches and a rock cliff.

Suhidin, who has great grandchildren, has lived on the island all his life. He wishes things would change for the better with a new government in place.

Suhidin Jidlani, a Pulau Berhala resident who has lived on the island all his life.

“I worry for my children every time although I send them to the mainland myself. That is why we hope the entourage from the DAP today will hear our needs,” he said, referring to the visit by the DAP candidate in the Sandakan parliamentary by-election, Vivian Wong.

A leper colony during the colonial period, Pulau Berhala is now a thriving community of over 3,000 people who mostly count on the sea for their source of income.

There are generations of fishermen and boatmen on the island, a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland, although some also depend on farming for sustenance.

Villagers have no major complaints about their way of life but they are still without basic amenities such as electricity, clean water supply and schools on the island.

“Some have generator sets for temporary power but it’s costly to buy diesel. Most people on the island will only have candles to light up their homes at night,” Suhidin said.

The rocky cliffs on Pulau Berhala which, according to tourism players, has high tourism potential.

He said the demand for basic needs has increased, in line with the growing number of people on the island.

“I remember in the 1960s there were only five houses but now there are over 400.”

Nearby islands, Nunuyan and Tanjung Aru, have already received power and water supply, he said, wondering when their turn will come.

People boarding a boat to Pulau Berhala.

“We also need the government to build us at least a primary school here because of safety reasons. It’s also more costly to travel back and forth to the mainland every day,” he said.

Suhidin was grateful the army, which has a post on the island, had provided a 3M (reading, writing and counting) school on the island.

However, the children need proper schools, he said, adding that the 3M schools were mostly for stateless children on the island.

An aerial view of the jetty on Pulau Berhala.

Tourism industry players have also identified Pulau Berhala as a spot with high potential because of its obvious attractions, but development has been slow.

“Besides having no water and power, the beaches are always dirty because of waste, including from nearby islands. We also don’t have proper lodgings for tourists,” Suhidin said.

He said villagers were relieved when the late Stephen Wong, the previous Sandakan MP, told them he would arrange for assistance to the islanders, especially water and electricity.

DAP’s Sandakan by-election candidate Vivian Wong (right) cleaning the beach on Pulau Berhala with federal minister Yeo Bee Yin on Tuesday.

“He helped us a lot when he was still around, so we hope this will not stop here,” he said.

Vivian acknowledged that power and water were critically needed on the island. That was why she brought Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin with her on Tuesday.

The island has some 1,100 registered voters.