KUCHING: In most parts of Malaysia, travelling from one state to another is a straightforward affair that typically entails driving on a highway for a couple of hours. This, however, is not the case in East Malaysia.
Journeys that take up to 20 hours are common as people brave trunk roads filled with dangerous potholes. To make matters worse, amenities such as fuel stations are sometimes located far away from one another.
There is also the issue of going through Brunei's immigration for four times just to make a one-way journey to a neighbouring state.
For more than 50 years, the people of Sarawak and Sabah have been promised a Pan-Borneo Highway to enhance connectivity between the two states.
The mega project, which stretches for a total of 2,083 kilometers for the Malaysian section, is part of the longer Trans-Borneo Highway connecting the East Malaysian states with Brunei and Indonesia’s Kalimantan.
Talk of the Pan-Borneo project materialising has gathered steam after Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said last month that the federal government is committed to complete the highway.
He reportedly said an ongoing cost rationalisation exercise for the Pan-Borneo project would provide a basis for other projects, including the Trans-Borneo Highway.
There have been suggestions that the Trans-Borneo Highway will serve East Kalimantan, where the new Indonesian capital is located.
While local politicians in Sarawak say the Pan-Borneo highway is a game-changer in terms of spurring development, those on the ground are sceptical.
In particular, Sarawakians are concerned over whether the mega project will result in a loss of autonomy for the state, given the impression that the federal government has hitherto not regarded East Malaysia as an equal partner.
WILL THE NEW HIGHWAY SPUR DEVELOPMENT?
Despite being a part of Malaysia since 1963, large parts of both Sarawak and Sabah remain underdeveloped.
From lacking basic facilities such as clean water and electricity to having to make do with trunk roads and dilapidated schools, many east Malaysians travel a long way to access amenities such hospitals and government offices.
Mr Ahkim Sarok, a councillor of Padawan Municipal Council told CNA that with the highway in place, more areas would be accessible and opened up for development. "There will be greater mobility as travel time and cost will be reduced significantly," he said.
“For example, it used to take 19 hours to travel from Sematan to Miri but with Pan-Borneo, the travel time will be reduced by half. All these will have a multiplier effect on the state economy,” he said.
Ms Shirley Pui Siak Lan, another councillor of Padawan Municipal Council, added that roads would be a game-changer, especially for those living in remote areas.
“This is especially true for people who live in the more remote areas, because they would, upon the completion of the highway get to places a lot faster than what they do now, and this would be especially helpful during emergency situations,” she said.
While the councillors were sanguine, rural Sarawakians were more sceptical.
Mr Jefri Jay, a businessman from Song district said the politicians perhaps did not see the bigger picture.
“It can go two ways, one is that we may grow with them, but the other could be that we get left behind while the developed areas continue developing,” he said.
“We have been a part of Malaysia for so long and the highway project also has been going on for about that long, still so many parts of Sarawak remain undeveloped,” he said.
“What is the assurance that when they do build the highways they are going to develop the areas around it?”
He added that already, the government is struggling to secure funds to complete the highway. Even when the highway is completed, the state would still need to attract outside investors to develop the areas surrounding the highway, he said.
“I am not being greedy or arrogant or closed-minded ... We still do not have proper road systems and hospitals and you want me to believe that the federal government that comes here only during the election would do something about it?”
A fisherman from Lundu who did not want to be named also said there was no guarantee that the highway would benefit Sarawakians
“We have lived all these years being accustomed to this lifestyle. We have been made to ‘adjust’ and ‘make do’.
“Even if they do develop the interior areas successfully, following the (construction of the) highway, I still do not think it would be done to the pace and preference of the people,” he said.
Asked to elaborate, he said if the government needs to acquire land for development, there is no guarantee that people will be adequately compensated.
“You just see the Penang land reclamation issue. I am not from the peninsula but even I know that this was an issue and a lot of them there were unhappy about the situation, but the federal government is just doing what it wants,” he said, referring to a mega-project in Penang to construct three new islands.
WORKS MINISTER PLEDGES TO SPEED UP PROJECT
Of the entire stretch of highway running through Malaysia, 1,077km is in Sarawak and the Works Ministry has said that it would take over the project in the state from contractor Lebuhraya Borneo Utara (LBU).
Earlier this month, federal Works Minister Baru Bian reportedly pledged to speed up the payment process for work package contractors once they take over the Pan-Borneo Highway project from LBU in Feb 2020.
He noted that the 10 main contractors for the 11 work packages were facing an average three-month delay in payment, with the unpaid sums ranging from RM50 million (US$12 million) to RM70 million.
Last month, the minister was reported as saying by the Star that the new highway would eventually result in complete connectivity between Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan.
"Under the previous Pan-Borneo Highway alignment, it meant going in and out of Brunei eight times, which means your passport is stamped eight times."
"Being a Sarawakian from a remote area, I proposed that the highways connect to the hinterlands of Sarawak along the border of Sabah and Kalimantan, connecting villages such as Ba' Kelalan, Bario, Long Semadoh, Long Luping, Long Sukang, and Lawas to Temburong and towns like Merapok and Sipitang in Sabah.”
It has been reported that the Pan-Borneo Highway is expected to be completed by 2023 for the Sarawakian section and by 2025 for the Sabahan section, with the overall cost of around RM27 billion.
CONCERNS OVER STATE AUTONOMY
Some have said that there is a downside to connectivity.
“More connectivity, means more money. More money means the federal government will find a way to step in and take control,” said a hotel manager in Kuching who only wanted to be known as Ergeneyo.
“If I were to look at it from the perspective of my job, (the highway is) great! Once the highway is completed, more tourists will come. More Sabahans can also come easily, we will have more guests and the hotel industry will flourish,” he said.
“But as a Sarawakian, I have a bad feeling that the federal government would exploit the situation somehow and at the end of the day, they would take the decision-making role, maybe even forcing our state leaders to give up the state autonomy,” said Ergenyo who is from the interiors of Bau in Sarawak.
Ms Pui, the councillor, stated that concerns over autonomy have been overplayed.
“As long as Sarawak maintains autonomy on immigration, it should not be a problem. In fact, so long as the immigration autonomy remains with the state, developers or investors or anyone can come in and it will be okay,” she said.
Similarly, Mr Ahkim said only small groups have so far expressed concern.
“Most people in the state want the development to be at par with West Malaysian states. On maintaining autonomy, especially on immigration, I would think that it would not be an issue despite Sarawak being an opposition state,” he said, referring to the fact that the state government is being run by Gabungan Parti Sarawak which used to be affiliated to Barisan Nasional.
There has also been some concern on the ground about the environmental impact of the project.
Commenting on this, Padawan Municipal Councillor Lo Khere Chang said it is important that the construction is mindful of the environment.
"I do believe the developers and the ministry along with the Public Works Department would look into ensuring it does minimal damage to the environment … I do hope they try their best to preserve what they can," he said.
Mr Ahkim added that there would probably be minimal damage to the environment caused by the development.
"Of course for areas with high terrains, we would see large areas being bulldozed and flattened, but in Sarawak, there are vast lands available for development.
"There are of course a few whose land have been acquired for the project and they have been affected. But they have all been well compensated and there has been little problem with those needed to be relocated for the project," he said.
Ms Pui, however, noted that damage to the environment sometimes could not be avoided.
"Actually, the Pan-Borneo Highway in most parts is being built alongside existing trunk roads and thus there is minimal rerouting or destruction of the forests.
"But in any road construction, there is bound to be some destruction of greenery and this is a price to pay for a very beneficial project for the people," she said.