WHEN I was a teenager, I assumed that Sabah’s neighbour, Kalimantan, was a dark, empty swath of jungle. For me, the Indonesian part of Borneo Island – the third largest island in the world and largest in Asia – was a heart of darkness among its neighbours Malaysia (Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan) and Brunei.
As a Sabahan, I thought that Kota Kinabalu had a bigger population than Pontianak. I presumed the capital of West Kalimantan province was an ulu (underdeveloped) town on the equator.
Later, in the early 2000s, I found out that Pontianak had five or six times the population of my hometown.
Looking at the geography of Kalimantan might help us to understand that in terms of size, it dwarfs us in many ways: Sarawak, at 124,449sq km, is the largest state in Malaysia and Sabah, at 74,398sq km, is the second largest. Both Borneon states are larger than Peninsular Malaysia, which is 131,587sq km.
Kalimantan, which consists of five provinces, makes up 73% of Borneo while Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan make up 26% and Brunei, 1%. At 544,150.07sq km, Kalimantan is bigger than the whole of Malaysia (330,434sq km).
The longest river in Malaysia is the Rajang in Sarawak at 565km, followed by the Kinabatangan in Sabah at 560km. However, those two rivers are only the fourth and fifth longest in Borneo.
The top three are in Kalimantan: Kapuas in West Kalimantan is 1,000km long, Mahakam in East Kalimantan is 900km long and Barito in South Kalimantan is 900km long.
I make it a point to know my state’s neighbours in Borneo by visiting Sarawak, Labuan, Brunei and Kalimantan. I’ve travelled to several towns in Kalimantan such as Pontianak, Balikpapan, Sama-rinda, Tarakan, Nunukan and Pulau Sebatik (an island shared by Malaysia and Indonesia, facing Sabah’s Tawau town).
My first trip into Kalimantan was via a 10-hour, 322km bus ride from Kuching to Pontianak in 2001.
The city was tense at the time as there had been a bloody ethnic clash between indigenous Dayaks and local Malays and immigrants from the island of Madura off Java. The Dayaks and Malays were trying to drive the Madurese immigrants out of Kalimantan.
If you Googled “ethnic violence Kalimantan”, you would find images of Dayak warriors proudly holding up the heads of their enemies.
My trip to Balikpapan in 2017 was an eye-opener.
The Balikpapan airport is more sophisticated than the Kota Kinabalu airport, Malaysia’s second busiest airport. Soon, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s big announcement, Balikpapan airport will bustle even more.
On Monday, Jokowi announced that East Kalimantan will be the site of his country’s new capital. The two largest cities in East Kalimantan are Balikpapan and Samarinda. Construction will start probably next year, and in three or four years, the shift from Jakarta to the new capital will start (the specific site has not been announced).
It was big news among Sabahans and Sarawakians on Facebook and WhatsApp. They wondered how the relocation of the Indonesian administrative capital to their neighbourhood would change the economic, security, political and social dynamics of Borneo.
Experts pondered the impact of the new capital on Malaysia. I think they were overly optimistic in their views.
If we are not proactive, the rising Indonesian economic giant will dwarf Sabah and Sarawak.
In fact, it has already happened.
Two years ago, I had coffee and buns in Warung Kopi Indra (better known as Warung Kopi Aseng) in Tarakan town. The wooden coffee shop is a meeting point for locals and Malaysians.
I asked a senior Indonesian civil servant whether he was in awe of Sabah’s economy. The Indonesian told me yes, about 10 years ago. But now, he said, it is the same; in fact, he added, in some ways Tarakan’s economy is better.
“A decade ago, there were about 10 foreign worker agencies in Nunukan (one of the main Indonesian entry points to Tawau in Sabah).
“Now there are only one or two. Not many Indonesians are going to Sabah, ” he said in Indonesian.
Two months later, I was back in Tarakan to attend the 2017 Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area meeting.
During the meeting, Tawau businessmen told me that their town, Sabah’s second largest, was quieter. “When you were in Tawau, did you notice that there were fewer people?” one of the businessmen asked me.
He explained that in 2007, Indonesia surpassed Malaysia in terms of palm oil production.
“There are fewer Indonesians eager to work on oil palm plantations in Sabah. They have not much reason to be in Sabah as there are oil palm plantations in Kalimantan. Also, the ringgit is no longer competitive, ” he said.
When it comes to Indonesian housemaids, Sabah and Sarawak families rue the days a decade ago when they could hire one for RM450 to RM550 a month. Now, it is almost impossible to get a maid unless you pay thousands of ringgit to process the red tape.
The days of cheap labour from Indonesia is fast fading. In fact, there is a joke making the rounds that Malaysians labourers will end up working in Indonesia in the future.
I wonder, when Indonesia starts building its estimated US$32.7bil (RM137bil) new capital in Kali-mantan, will the joke become a reality?
I learnt a lot from Society Empowerment and Economic Development of Sabah chairman Datuk Badil Zaman Fazul Rahman about how Sabah could unlock its economic potential by linking with Kalimantan.
The Sabahan believes that the “final link” to a greater Borneo market of 24 million people is a 35km semi-logging road that connects Tawau to North Kalimantan.
Badil said to expand its market, his state needed to tap into Kalimantan’s big population of 17 million people with strong purchasing power.
Sabah, he said, could leverage on SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) as Kalimantan is still not advanced in that sector. And key to entering the Kalimantan market is a road connecting Sabah to its Indonesian neighbour, he said.
In a classic case of capacity sharing, Badil said an SME entrepreneur could obtain pisang kepok from North Kalimantan and process it in a Sabahan-owned factory in a special economic zone on the Serudong-Simanggaris border.
“If we could produce high-quality banana chips, we could then sell them at a premium price in attractive packaging to the world. It could be called a Borneo product, ” he said.
In June 2017, the then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan announced that the Malaysian government was planning to build a new border town by building a road to connect Serudong in Tawau with North Kalimantan. He said he had proposed this to the Cabinet and the Sabah government, and they had given good feedback.
That was two years ago.
Sadly, Badil died of a heart attack last year. With his death and the change of government, the road – the missing link in the Borneo highway loop connecting Kalimantan, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei – remains an elusive dream.
Two years ago, Badil told me that Sabah had to leverage its superior international schools, banks and factories to attract Indonesian investment.
“If we wait too long to build that road, we will lose our edge as Kalimantan would catch up, ” he said while we were checking in for our flight from Tawau to Kota Kinabalu.
He pointed at the Styrofoam boxes filled with seafood which were flown to Kuala Lumpur.
“They are from Tarakan, which is closer to Tawau airport than the Balikpapan airport. But once Tarakan operates international flights or Jokowi builds an airport in Pulau Sebatik, they won’t use Tawau airport. That will be a loss of economic opportunity for our people, ” he said.
From the positive knee-jerk statements from some of our politicians when asked about the new Indonesian capital, I sense that they have not yet realised that our Borneon neighbour has awakened from its economic slumber.
While some of our politicians are still sleeping – and probably dreaming of who will be the eighth PM or having nightmares over sex videos, Zakir Naik and khat – Kalimantan is rising.
Watch out. We might become its poor neighbour.