IT is the biggest island in Malaysia, and yet Pulau Banggi, located on the northern tip of Sabah, is virtually unknown to most Malaysians, especially those from the peninsula.
It would not be wrong to describe Pulau Banggi, just an hour’s boat ride from Kudat, 190km north of Kota Kinabalu, as the country’s most forgotten island.
Obviously neglected by the state's politicians, the 440 sq kilometre island has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
I had the opportunity of making a trip to this island a few years ago. Spending a night in a hotel located above a Chinese coffeeshop in Kudat, I flew to the island by helicopter.
The then Chief Minister Datuk Yong Teck Lee told me that semenanjung journalists had to open their eyes to see why rural development was important.
I have never forgotten what I saw on that island. The majority of the people had no access to basic amenities like electricity and piped water supply and fixed-line telephone.
It was a shock for me to see Malaysians walking around the villages wearing just loincloth.
But that was 10 years ago. I believe there has been much improvement since then but it's still not enough.
I remember telling myself that their representative, Datuk Amirkahar Tun Mustapha, whom the people kept returning to the constituency, had not done much to improve the place.
The 56-year-old politician was first voted to the Banggi seat in 1985 as an Usno candidate and remained as one to this day. In the 2004 polls, he won with a narrow 392-vote majority against an independent candidate and another from Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
He has been lucky. To put it mildly, he needs to do a “quantum leap” for his faithful constituents if he still wants to represent them.
The chaotic politics in Sabah then, where voters lose track of the elected representatives' political affiliation, also meant that development in their areas remained on the backburner.
The visit not only opened my eyes but also stirred me. The images of the people there remained until today.
Next week, the Prime Minister will travel to this island to launch a programme to help these 20,000 people, who comprise the smallest group of the indigenous people of Malaysia.
Among the largest ethnic groups are the Bonggis who speak Molbog, a language of the southern Palawans in the Philippines, and the Orang Sama, who are known as the Sea Gypsies.
Under the Government’s High Impact Rural Development Programme, via the agropolitan concept, 2,600ha have been set aside by Felcra Bhd for rubber planting and fishing cultivation.
The majority of the islanders are fishermen but Felcra has plans to turn them into settlers by employing them as rubber-tappers for a start.
The settlers may eventually generate an income of between RM900 and RM1,200 a month, which will be a quantum leap for them.
About 300,000 rubber seedlings will be brought in from the peninsula and planted on the island, where 3,000 people are regarded as the hardcore poor.
The Government has also planned to set up a hybrid solar system to provide them electricity supply on a 24-hour basis.
Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein Onn had made a trip to Pulau Banggi recently. At present, the children there often have only four days of schooling as the teachers, all from the peninsula, stay on the mainland.
Many of the children walk to school with no shoes on, according to Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Aziz Shamsuddin, who has a strong understanding of the problem in Sabah.
“Many (of the local people) had never seen RM500 in their entire lives, and when they got their salaries, many bought shoes for their children, who had to walk to school without shoes daily,” he said.
A government official said some of the Felcra participants of Pulau Banggi had never left their home before although Kudat was just an hour away.
When a workshop was held in Kudat recently, several of them had to be taught how to turn on the tap at the hotel while others used the lift for the first time.
There is much to be done and Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi must be commended for remembering the people of Pulau Banggi.
He has decided to change the lives of these people and every effort must be made to ensure the success of this project after the fanfare of the launch is over.
Security needs to be beefed up to ensure that illegal immigrants, who have long been a thorny problem on the island, do not get the slice of the cake.
There was a plan to log 4,000ha of timber land involving powerful Sabah businessmen and South Koreans but this was stalled following protests by the islanders.
Give the people of Pulau Banggi, who have long been loyal voters of the Barisan Nasional, a chance. The electoral code for Banggi is N1 but unfortunately, it has remained neglected.
However, now that the Prime Minister has given his personal attention to the place, the politicians in Sabah have better sit up.