THIS week must have been a hectic one for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak in Borneo. He began it in Sabah where he opened the conference of Parti Bersatu Sabah, a Barisan Nasional component party, and launched another sector of the Pan-Borneo Highway project.
The prime minister then proceeded to Kuching where he opened the 13th World Islamic Economic Forum on Tuesday before hosting Indonesian President Joko Widodo for the annual bilateral consultations between the two leaders before he was off to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam, for a similar regular consultative meeting with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on Thursday.
These were, of course, not just bilateral courtesy calls among leaders whose countries share common borders. Substantive issues were raised and others followed, with a galaxy of senior cabinet ministers from both sides usually in attendance.
National issues affecting Malaysia and Indonesia were brought up in the Najib-Joko meeting, but the fact that it was held in Sarawak put the spotlight on issues of particular concern to Sarawak and Sabah as they relate to their dealings with the Kalimantan provinces across the Malaysia-Indonesia land border.
Commercial and trade links, especially between Sarawak and West Kalimantan, have always been important and there is great scope for enhancing and expanding those links. Towards that end, it is noteworthy that both the Malaysian and Indonesian leaders have agreed to a review of the border trade agreement to be finalised immediately since trade flows across the Tebedu-Entikong border crossing have been severely impacted in the interim.
It goes without saying that healthy commercial ties between Malaysia and Indonesia are the solid basis for strong overall ties between our two countries. Malaysia also plays host to numerous Indonesian workers and Joko even addressed a group of 7,000 locally-based Indonesians while in Kuching.
Even so, the acute shortage of workers in Sarawak’s oil palm sector was highlighted in the local media on the very day Joko was in town. The easing of various restrictive practices by both countries towards the hiring of greatly needed Indonesian plantation workers is clearly a win-win proposition.
There was a time when foreign workers, particularly in the plantation sector, were treated as little more than farm hands. Attitudes are changing slowly but it must be accelerated so that foreign workers are treated as valuable human resources to be properly managed and retained.
That Sarawak is open to having more Indonesian schools for the dependents of Indonesian workers in the state is a positive development. Other positive developments included Sarawak supplying electricity across the border. With better power transmission line inter-connectivity, there is much scope for Sarawak to supply even more electricity to boost economic activities in West Kalimantan.
Inter-connectivity has been extended to collaboration in the telecommunications sector with the utilisation of undersea fibre-optic cables for high-speed broadband services in Borneo and beyond, with the inking of an agreement this week between the Sarawak-based telecommunications infrastructure company Sacofa Sdn Bhd and an Indonesian company.
The people-to-people exchanges between Sarawak and West Kalimantan, on the one hand, and between Sarawak and Brunei on the other, have always been strong, such that regular bus services now run from Pontianak, the West Kalimantan capital, to Kuching and Miri and into Brunei, all the way to Sabah. Daily air links between Pontianak and Kuching are now expanded with the opening of a new route between Pontianak and Miri.
The completion of the Pan-Borneo Highway in the years to come can only mean that distances between cities in Southeast Asia’s largest island will shrink further. It is unique in the region that an island is shared among three sovereign countries. Given its strategic position in the heart of the region and its relatively sparse population in contrast to much of of Southeast Asia, Borneo is easily one of the most exciting last frontiers for development in our region.
The potential, however, can only be more fully realised if all three countries work in concert to erase and remove, as much as possible, all barriers, either physical or commercial, so that Borneo may be seen in coming years as more of a single economic entity.
As the one country that shares common borders with both Brunei and Indonesia, Malaysia is the pivotal nation in the efforts to move in that laudable direction. We must seize this great opportunity.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak. He can be reached via [email protected]