Kuching is a city of contrasts. Modern mega shopping malls in its suburbs sit somewhat incongruently with its historic urban core still dominated by shophouses built at the turn of the last century. High-rise condominium blocks rise from one bank of the Sarawak River to look over traditional Malay kampungs on the other side of the river.
The river – venue for an annual regatta and even the launchpad for a rare and short-lived popular insurrection against the rule of Sarawak’s famed “White Rajahs” – is more than a natural dividing line that cuts a city that strives today to be a “City of Unity” in two.
Time was when the north bank of the river was more or less all of Kuching. When the first stirrings of modernity (and indeed, statehood) were ignited with the arrival of adventurer Sir James Brooke up the river on his schooner The Royalist in 1839, the kampungs hugging the riverbank were all there was of Kuching.
Not coincidentally, upon his being made rajah and ceded the territory that was to become his expanding domain by the Sultan of Brunei, Brooke chose a hillock by the river bend to build his bungalow on the very site where the Astana stands today.
Brooke and his two successors set up their administrative nerve-centre almost directly across the river from their residence, in what remains as the old Courthouse Complex. The recently completed Darul Hana pedestrian bridge is, incredibly, the first physical link between these two heritage buildings.
The influx of immigrants and Christian missionaries later ensured that the south bank of the river soon grew to become the commercial hub and education centre, particularly with the setting up of two premier schools by the Anglican and Roman Catholic missions which stand to this day. Kuching became more or less synonymous with the rapid development of its southern riverbank.
The south bank has also been happily multi-racial. Just a stone’s throw from the old bazaars parallel to the river is the old State Mosque with Malay kampungs extending all the way to the Satok area. Here, a Bumiputera business hub has grown and now straddles both banks. The two sides are linked by the Tun Rahman Ya’kub Bridge which was instrumental in opening up the north bank when it first opened for traffic in the mid-1970s.
When Kuching attained city status in 1988, a year shy of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Brooke, the existing Kuching Municipal Council – traditionally the fiefdom of the Sarawak United People’s Party which supplied a string of the council’s heads – morphed into two city jurisdictions.
A Malay mayor has headed Dewan Bandaraya Kuching Utara (DBKU) while a Chinese mayor leads the Kuching South City Council to this day. The decision to have two mayors for one relatively small city was, of course, one made for the sake of political expediency more than anything else.
The decision naturally flies in the face of the imperative for administrative efficiency. Two sets of city administrations necessarily mean duplication of most things to do with city governance. In fact, the greater Kuching area now has not two, but four, autonomous local authorities as the Padawan and Kota Samarahan municipal councils cover areas bordering those of the two city councils.
Rotation system mooted
Intermittent calls for a rationalisation in the manner the Sarawak capital is administered have been revived. It was recently given fresh impetus at a “City of Unity” workshop which was aimed, among other things, at winning international recognition for just such a status for Kuching. It was felt that a city internationally dedicated to “unity” will sit rather oddly with the political reality of it being administratively divided in two and more or less along ethnic cleavages to boot.
1Malaysia Foundation chairman Dr Chandra Muzaffar who chaired the unity workshop had noted: “We should study it because the implementation (of the city unity concept) might face certain challenges. But we cannot avoid it, because the matter of two mayors here is odd. Some parties will question it, especially if we want Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) to recognise Kuching as a ‘City of Unity’.”
The idea has, perhaps crucially, won the backing of DBKU Datuk Bandar Datuk Abang Abdul Wahap Abang Julai who suggested that the separate councils covering Kuching may be individually retained but all under a single mayor who will serve a maximum of two fixed terms before it is rotated so that all ethnic groups will get their respective turns to serve as Kuching mayor.
The position of Kuching mayor may thus become more a purely symbolic and ceremonial office in much the same mould as that of the Sarawak Yang di-Pertua Negeri or Lord Mayor of the City of London. This may be a fairly neat compromise that marries political pragmatism with unity of purpose, if only to serve the more substantive imperative for efficiency and greater coherence in the city’s administration.
Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg has said the state government will give full backing to the Unesco bid for Kuching to be a “City of Unity”. “The high degree of trust, understanding and tolerance among the people in Sarawak has created strong coexistence among us, which is a key element in bonding our unity,” said Abang Johari.
Sarawak, which has always prided itself for being a great example of multi-ethnic coexistence and harmony, is a worthy model for the country and indeed even the larger world community. Which is probably why it takes the idea of a “City of Unity” this seriously.
If all this leads to greater thought and positive inputs given to finding ways to give the idea of harmonious living a more concrete push, it should indeed be a very worthwhile exercise. As things stand, there is still much that can be done so that the different ethnic groups populating Kuching and the state are fully integrated and the city becomes less and less marked by the existence of areas and districts where one or another ethnic group is predominant.
Ideally, there ought to come a time when who gets to be Kuching mayor is decided by nothing more than strict competence of the person holding the position.
John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org