‘Village head duties too burdensome’
THE rezoning of Belait's largest residential areas is stalling due to dismal turnouts for new village head positions that prevent the formation of consultative councils to oversee the community welfare of the proposed delineated boundaries.
The Belait District Office, which spearheads the ambitious rezoning plan, are now faced with an uphill task in changing the perception among the wider community that the village head role is, as one village head put it - “seen as either too burdensome or of petty significance”.
Tied closely to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MoHA) ‘Service Scheme for Penghulu and Ketua Kampong 2013’ - approved last May by the previous minister, the rezoning initiative primarily targets the division of the district's most densely populated villages and national housing schemes (RPN) that exceeded the recommended 3,000 residents per village.
The Belait District Office advertised four newly-approved village head posts last year for the national housing schemes of Panaga, Lorong Tengah and Lumut as well as a second village head for Mumong, through the government's news publication Pelita Brunei - the first in September and the second in November.
That resulted in only five applicants, none who are qualified to run for elections based on MoHA's new scheme.
RPN Lorong Tengah, with an estimated population of 2,000 residents, failed to turn up any applicants, while RPN Lumut with an even bigger population of 4,500 and Kg Mumong B only managed a sole applicant each.
A bright spot was the 2,000 houses of RPN Panaga that saw three applying for the post, but they either did not meet the age requirement of 45 to 55, or came short under the new academic requirement of a minimum of two GCE O-level credits or its equivalent.
“The turnout has not been good, but we are still moving forward. We will continue to put out the advertisements and try new ways to attract residents to apply,” said Belait District Officer Hj Haris Othman.
But the apathy and lack of interest towards grassroots leader positions go beyond the scope of the district office, and is not a new development in Belait.
Grassroots leaders currently serving in the district are all too familiar with the problem, and for the most part claim that majority of the public see the post as either restrictive and bearing too much responsibility or one that has little function beyond distributing pension.
Seria's Penghulu Hj Jamail Hj Linap, who until January last year, was Seria's only grassroots leader for over 20,000 residents, about twice the population of Temburong - leading to a highly publicised pension distribution problem.
The appointment of a village head for Kg Lorong 3 at the start of 2015 eased the penghulu's responsibilities, but he continues to serve as the sole head for RPN Panaga, RPN Lorong Tengah and Kg Pekan Seria.
“Many of these (grassroots) posts have been vacant for years – Lorong 3 had to do without an official village head for a decade.
“It can't be that people are completely unaware, it is just that people, who are qualified, are not stepping up to the plate. And the most likely truth is that they are just not interested,” he said.
Requirements such as government approval before exiting the country are viewed as restrictive by some, he said and the responsibility to distribute welfare and pension too big for those who “would prefer to quietly retire”.
To make matters worse, he added that the advent of social media has brought “unfair judgement and scrutiny” to MPKs and village heads through regular viral posts and disparaging comments left by residents and the public who are “very quick” to pass judgement on village heads before establishing facts.
Belait District representative to the Legislative Council and Mumong Village Head Yang Berhormat Hj Mohd Yusof Dulamin said many still view community leader positions as unimportant and always busied by petty requests.
“There are many with the qualifications, ability and seniority needed to take these posts, but they don't think being village head is important or worth the trouble.
“So the hope lies among those who have had extensive experience in working or dealing with MPKs/MPMs, seen the value it can bring, and have a goal and vision to lead and represent the community,” he said.
Hj Mohd Yusof oversees a village population three times the size recommended by MoHA.
The district's other Legislative Council representative and village head of Lumut 1, YB Hj Mohd Shafiee Ahmad, said the lack of interest was a call to action for the authorities to study the reason behind the apathy.
With a maximum salary of $4,240 for village heads with qualifications of a National Diploma and above, YB Hj Mohd Shafiee does not think the solution is to throw more money at the post.
“It has been going on long enough for them (authorities) to do a post-mortem to see why there is no interest.
“While the decision to run for village head or join an MPK is ultimately up to the resident – we as a society cannot accept the situation just as it is without trying to study and change it, or the long-term future of rezoning and the village head will be in doubt ,” he added.
The Brunei Times