Off The Cuff - Pan Borneo Highway at last

03 Apr 2015 / 19:21 H.

    THE one striking contrast in the landscapes between Peninsular Malaysia with Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island across the South China Sea is the super highways on the mainland.
    In Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state almost the size of Peninsular Malaysia, river transport is still the main mode of travel while in Sabah it is less so where accessiblity is better with the railway service.
    People from the two states never fail to be amazed by the mainland’s world-class highways that enable seemless travel across the peninsula and how far behind their states are on this score.
    If there’s one thing that they envy or are even jealous about their fellow Malaysians over here, it is this stark difference.
    It’s also worth mentioning here the ubiquitous flyovers that act as traffic dispersal in cities and towns on this side of the country while such a facility is rare even in the state capitals of Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.
    While people across the peninsula travel fairly comfortably between one state and another via the North-South Expressway or better known as PLUS Highway with its superb rest and recreation bays, only the adventurous would dare to travel from Sarawak to Sabah or vice versa, with the combined land area one-and-a-half times that of the mainland.
    The two states are linked by a single-carriageway trunk road network, partly sealed and the rest unsealed, with a back-breaking journey time lasting the entire day.
    But the light is beginning to shine at the end of a long, long tunnel with the launch by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak on Monday of the first phase of the Pan Borneo Highway.
    Najib aptly describes it as the game changer that will transform the largely rural-based states and significantly boost their economic growth.
    One newspaper likens the project to “ending a 50-year long wait”.
    The entire project to be built at a cost of RM27 billion involves the construction and upgrading of some 1,663km of roads in the two states, with 936km in Sarawak and 727km in Sabah and when fully completed by 2023 will somewhat “dwarf” the 772km PLUS Highway spanning seven states in the peninsula. It connects Sematan near the Indonesian border right up to Serudong in Sabah.
    Najib must have launched thousands of projects in his almost four decades in public office, but it could be seen from his body language that turning this particular one into reality gives him the biggest satisfaction.
    In one stroke, Najib has kept a bold promise he made in the 2013 general election manifesto to connect Sabah and Sarawak with a world-class highway, something his predecessors dared not do given the sheer magnitude of such an instrastructure and certainly the huge costs involved.
    By the same token, it’s also the most expensive election promise in the nation’s history and seen to be coming to reality just two years down the road.
    As he put it at the launch near Bintulu: “So, my presence here today shows that I have kept that promise. The (Sarawak portion) of Pan Borneo Highway will not only be a catalyst but will bring big changes to Sarawak.”
    Imagine the ease in travelling times that will be drastically cut for people in the two states that will bring them even closer but more importantly, the boost in rural economy where people could quite easily bring their agricultural and handicraft produce to the market place including to the R&R terminals.
    Works Minister Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof told me that negotiations and detailing of the Sabah portion of the project are still ongoing.
    Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem, known for his dry sense of humour, said at the launch: “At present, it takes ‘two years’ for a person to reach Miri from Sematan by foot and 19 hours by car. When the highway is ready, driving time will only be 12 hours.”
    Fadillah, himself a Sarawakian, is excited about the tremendous socio-economic prospects it would open up, especially the market access of local products and job opportunities.
    “Based on World Bank studies, every one million spent on infrastructure projects, the multiplier effect is three times,” he said.
    The project when operational is also expected to significantly reduce the cost of living in the rural areas where goods and services are priced higher than elsewhere in Malaysia and being kept affordable only due to huge government subsidies exclusively for the two states.
    The mode of construction of the Pan Borneo Highway is also an innovation.
    Fadillah told me that it would be constructed using a public-private concept under which the private sector would bear the risks of its implementation pertaining to design, construction, operations and maintenance.
    The government via a joint-committee comprising federal and state agencies will monitor the implementation and the construction company will only be paid upon completion of the respective phases as per the agreement.
    “I am proud the prime minister has honoured his election promise and proud to see the close ties and working relationship of the state and federal (governments) and happy to be part of the team to realise this project for the people of Sarawak,” said the works minister.
    “We are thankful to the federal government for all the support in making this project a reality.”
    One of Fadillah’s predecessors, Tan Sri Leo Moggie, who was works minister from 1989 to 1995, was jubilant that the Pan Borneo Highway was becoming a reality at long last.
    Moggie, who also hails from Sarawak, told me that during his tenure, the priority was on sealing the trunk roads between the two states and building bridges across rivers.
    And to top it up, Najib announced a bonus for the people of Sabah and Sarawak – unlike in the peninsula, the Pan Borneo Highway will be toll-free!
    Now it’s the road users over at the mainland who will be envious and even jealous of their fellow Malaysians in Borneo.

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