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On the road: Professor Richard Schatz (left) in the Sarawak highlands in 2007 with former students (and married couple) Wong Hie Eng and Bob Baru Langub

Photo courtesy of Bob Baru Langub

Faculty Focus
Back to Sarawak
by Richard Schatz
Professor of Economics

In fall 2005, Rich Schatz received a Fulbright fellowship to allow him to spend a semester teaching and researching in East Timor, the newly independent country nestled within the Indonesian archipelago. Political unrest got in the way of those plans but allowed Schatz to revisit Sarawak, in the Malaysian portion of the island of Borneo, where he'd been one of just three faculty members to open a new school in 1966. Schatz tells the story of his journey below.

By summer of 2006, political unrest in East Timor forced Fulbright to suspend its activities there, and Fulbright invited me to consider another location in Asia for my spring 2007 fellowship. This was an easy choice: I asked to be sent to the Borneo state of Sarawak, in the eastern part of Malaysia, where I had served for three years as a Peace Corps teacher in the '60s.

Familiar faces: Schatz at the Lawas School reunion with 50 former students.

In early January, I landed in Kuching, Sarawak, the state capital and a city about the size of Spokane. Kuching, like the rest of Malaysia, has prospered over the past four decades, and had become a much larger and more cosmopolitan city than the quaint river town I remembered. I joined the faculty of the University of Malaysia in Sarawak just in time to begin teaching a course in international economics to a group of 90 students. UNIMAS has a huge new campus cut out of the tropical jungle some 20 miles north of Kuching. The campus is set among streams, ponds and lush forest.

Within a few days of my arrival, I had tracked down a young faculty member who was from Lawas, the small district town 500 miles north of Kuching to which the Peace Corps had sent me in 1966; there, I had been one of just three faculty members as we opened the first secondary school in Sarawak's farthest-north district. The professor I'd tracked down immediately got on her "hand phone," and within minutes she'd made contact with two of the students who had been in the first class I taught in Lawas in 1966. One of the students is now the headmaster of the Lawas Government Secondary School.

Some weeks later, I flew north to Lawas, and on the night of Feb. 10, 2007, the first-ever reunion of the Lawas School students of 1966-68 took place at a local restaurant. Fifty of my former students joined the reunion, including 18 of the 37 students who were in the school's first class

Just starting out
(top): Schatz (seated at right) in a 1966 photo with two Malaysian teachers and their original class of 37 students at Lawas Government Secondary School.

Batter up!: Lawas' first girls' school softball team with Coach Schatz (far left), in 1966.

The Lawas School served students from villages as far as 120 miles away, with access only by foot on rough mountain trails. Most of the students were boarders in the school dormitories, and at the end of each term, they walked home. During one of those term breaks, I walked home with my students the 120 miles to Ba Kelalan, a mountain plateau village of Christian Lun Bawang people. After the February reunion, one of those original Ba Kelalan students, Bob Baru Langub (now a respected dentist), took me back up to the village, this time by four-wheel-drive truck over rough logging roads, and I met residents, including parents, who remembered me from my original visit 40 years earlier. In Ba Kelalan itself, Dr. Bob, his wife, Wong Hie Eng (another of the original Lawas students), and I stayed with the mother of Judson Sakai Tagal. Judson was my best student in a teaching career that has spanned 40 years and five countries. He had often hung out after school at my apartment, borrowing old Time magazines and other reading materials. He eventually earned a scholarship to medical school in Kuala Lumpur, returned to practice medicine in Sarawak and became a senior leader of his church. By the late 1990s, he had become a member of the state parliament, then a deputy minister for environment and a fearless campaigner for the protection of Sarawak's endangered tropical forests. Then, in 2004, on a forest-survey trip, his helicopter went down and he, along with the others on board, died In March 2007, I had dinner with Judson's wife and two of his four children. The oldest is now practicing medicine in Kuching; the next two, both daughters, are studying in the U.S. – one at Harvard and the other at Yale.

In a remarkable sense, the lives of these two former Lawas students and first cousins, Bob and Judson, symbolize the social and economic development of Sarawak and Malaysia over the past 40 years. And it was the transformation of the Sarawak economy that was the subject of my research in Sarawak. In my final weeks in the country, I presented a paper, "Structural Transformation and Rural Development in the Malaysian State of Sarawak, 1963-2006," at a public lecture at the Sarawak State Museum. The museum journal will soon publish the paper. The person who introduced me at that lecture was the museum director and my former Lawas student, Sanib Said; in the audience were a number of former students who are themselves now prominent private- or public-sector officials.

In February 2008, Schatz was awarded a grant by the Council of Christian Colleges & Universities to return to Sarawak this spring to do an oral-history research project based on interviews with about 25 of the
37 students who were enrolled at the Lawas
School in 1966.

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