Divisional Medical Officer, Seventh Division Kapit, Sarawak, 1982-84

Dr Tan Poh Tin writes about her experience as a divisional medical officer in Kapit, Sarawak, in 1982.

Kapit Division has a land area of 38,934 km². This is 11.8 per cent the size of Malaysia (329,847 km²), or 31.3 per cent of Sarawak. Formed in 1973, it is the largest among the twelve administrative divisions in Sarawak.

In 1982, when I was posted there as the divisional medical officer, Sarawak only had seven divisions.

Just to help you visualise how big Kapit Division is, the 13 states of Malaysia in descending order of size in km² are as follows:

Sarawak 124,450; Sabah 73,621; Pahang 35,965; Perak 21,146; Johor 19,166; Kelantan 15,040; Terengganu 12,958; Kedah 9,492; Selangor 7,951; Negeri Sembilan 6,658; Malacca 1,712; Penang 1,049; and Perlis 819. 

Kapit division is larger than Pahang, the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia. It has three districts, Song (3,935 km²), Kapit (15,595 km²), and Belaga (19,403 km²). 

The Batang (river) Rajang arises from the mountains on the border separating Sarawak from Kalimantan, Indonesia. It flows westward for 565 km (351 miles), connecting Kapit and Sibu to the South China Sea. It is the fourth-longest river in Borneo and the longest in Malaysia.

It powers three of the four hydroelectric stations in Sarawak, Bakun (2011), Murum (2014), and Balleh (due for completion in 2028).   

Malaysia’s largest and tallest (205m) hydroelectric project, the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam, is located on the Balui River, one of its tributaries. Bakun in 2011 was the third highest concrete face rock-fill dam in the world.

The tallest concrete-face rock-fill dam in the world is the 295m Lianghekou dam in Sichuan completed in 2021, followed by the 233m Shuibuya Dam in Hubei (completed in 2010), both in China.

Kapit town, the administrative centre, is 160 miles (260 km) from the South China Sea, and about 100 miles upriver from Sibu. 

Until the Sibu-Kapit road was finally completed in October 2020, the Rajang River was the main way to reach Kapit.

The airport in Kapit allowed only small 19-seater planes to land. As it had no options for guided or night landings, and the low thick clouds in the mornings and evenings made visual landings treacherous, flights were unpredictable, and often cancelled. 

The Twin Otter flight to Kapit is scenic and great for one’s blood pressure (almost heavenly, as you watch the pilot drink his coffee) – until the plane starts the descent, lands heavily and hurtles to an abrupt stop just before the end of the short runway.

One is thankful the runway surface is made of rough gravel, and we never had to test the back-up/terminal brakes, i.e. that mound of earth at the end of the runway. Prayers are in order when you disembark. I prefer the helicopter so I can look cool after landing, anytime.

The boat ride up the Rajang from Sibu to Kapit used to take four hours. In the 1980s, they had wooden seats. There was nothing much to see except miles of riverbanks and jungle.

Over the years, express boats have gotten faster, more canggih (sophisticated) with air-conditioning, sofa-padded seats, and television sets.  The three hours of loud, intrusive, and invariably violent action movies always gave me a headache.

Getting to Belaga was a mere 40-minute flight on the Flying Doctor Helicopter, but a gruelling, neck-cricking six to eight hours (155 km) on the Rajang when the river is navigable.

In the dry season, if you really must go by boat, be prepared to help the boatmen carry the longboat and engines over the rocky and exposed riverbeds, when the water level is too low for the outboard engines to be safely used.

As a woman and the ‘boss’, I only had to walk gingerly along the riverbank and through the jungle, until such time when the boat can go back on the water again, in deeper parts.

The commercial boats in those days took about six to eight hours. The wooden uncushioned seats were along the side of the boat, with cargo in the middle. By the time one has arrived, it was hard to untwist the neck crick. 

Shooting the Pelagus rapids in such boats were quite precarious, as the boatmen and the luan (the guy who sits in the front of the hull) have to constantly watch for hidden treacherous rocks.

There was a foreign tourist, who, in her enthusiasm to get good photos, tied herself to the boat and stood on the hull. Unfortunately, she was thrown off balance as the boat twisted and turned with the powerful rapids. She drowned. 

There was a legend that says that if you were to collect the eyeballs of all those who have lost their lives to those rapids, they would fill more than a few gunny sacks.

On my maiden trip, as the newly appointed DMO7, in a department longboat to visit Ng Merit clinic just above the Pelagus, I was very excited and sat myself right in the middle section of the long boat. The mostly male staff travelling with me sat discreetly in the front and back sections. I soon found out why.  

As we shot the rapids, the long boat, powered by two powerful outboard engines, cut through the raging waters. The waters separated on both sides of the hull and converged on me in the middle. It was a real baptism. I was totally drenched. The staff had great difficulty adjusting their faces, between their great urge to laugh and genuine concern. 

I have great respect for the boatmen who braved these rapids regularly. Whenever they asked for new outboard engines to replace the ones that broke because they hit submerged rocks, we always try to make such purchases, even though the yearly budget did not include them. 

It is so dangerous to have engines that could fail in the middle of attempts to shoot these rapids.

I remember visiting a remote clinic upriver. There was a really sick man with suspected appendicitis. We were unable to call for a medevac, as this clinic did not have a radio call unit. 

Since we were returning to Kapit by boat anyway, we took him with us. Normally it is not wise to shoot the rapids in the evening because of limited visibility, but because of the urgency of the patient’s condition, we did it anyway. It was very brave of the staff and probably foolhardy of me to have asked them. The sunset over the Pelagus, after we crossed it, was so beautiful.

The patient was eventually operated at Kapit Hospital for acute appendicitis and survived.

I had superb health inspectors, medical assistants, and staff members. It was the first time they had a woman boss. When I visited the longhouses with them to check on the rural sanitation projects or installed toilets, they were careful to warn the tuai rumah (headman) that I was indu (Iban for woman).

This was after the very embarrassing faux pas in the initial months when the male health inspector was garlanded instead of me by the welcoming committee, as he went up the rickety longhouse log steps before me.

Ulu (rural) people were truly hospitable. I remember one loghouse where we were offered free flow of a white clear drink called ijok that they had tapped from a palm tree. It tasted like the most wonderful sweet wine.

Alas, I realised too late, it had more alcohol content than I thought. I almost fell into the river, while trying to walk the single plank to where the boat was parked. The Sarawak version of the Drunk Driver Walk-and-Turn Test?

People were truly hospitable. When we had to stay overnight, I was always given the best bed in the headman’s house — a huge double bed with mosquito netting and sometimes Christmas decorations around the sides.

The men usually have to sleep in the ruai, where in the middle of the night, they will find themselves sleeping with mangy village dogs seeking body heat. 

In villages where there were too many bedbugs, sandflies, or mosquitoes, we would sleep like a string of sausages inside the longboat. It was very interesting, being gently rocked to sleep in the floating longboat tied to the riverbank.

Even before the crack of dawn, the roosters would start crowing. Soon, people would come to brush their teeth and bathe in the cold stream. The day begins really early in the Ulu for the locals and travelling staff.

The rivers in those days were crystal clear in many places, with fish which the staff members would catch aplenty. We would stop on the rocky riverbanks to barbeque the catch. What a life! 

For all my ‘river miles’ accumulated while I was serving in Kapit division, I do not remember if the department boats had life jackets (in the 1980s).

I remember the useful tip of a health superintendent who fell into the river when his boat capsized in one of the rivers. He could not swim but had the presence of mind to sink all the way to the bottom, and slowly crawled his way to the riverbank. I never checked if this was a very tall story, or a very narrow river.

Crocodiles have been reported in the Rajang and Balleh. There were water snakes too. I saw a long one in one of the smaller rivers. In medical school, we learn that all water snakes are poisonous. My staff did not try to catch it, as being Ibans, they do not eat snake. It might well have been a harmless land snake enjoying a jacuzzi moment? A reassuring thought, since I had to bathe in the river.

Dr Tan Poh Tin, proudly Sarawakian, is a paediatrician and public health specialist. She says: “Sarawak – to know you is to love you.”

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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