New Pan Borneo Highway mega-project unnecessary?

Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has promised RM27 billion to begin construction on a 1,663km highway across Borneo, although a similar highway was completed in 2008. Journalist Joe Leong posits that rather than using tax payers’ money to built a new road, what is needed is the repair and proper maintenance of the existing Trans Borneo Highway.

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Logging road in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo courtesy of

There are always the “highs and lows” of everything, including the 2015 Budget unveiled by Datuk Seri Najib Razak in parliament on Oct 10.

The prime minister’s promise of RM27 billion “to start construction of the 1,663km Pan Borneo Highway”, for instance, could very well be perceived as one of the high points for the people in the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah.

By any yardstick, 1,663km is a long, long highway and by comparison a RM27 billion budgetary allocation is indeed a huge, huge sum for any mega project in Malaysia.

Its professed purpose is noble and good too, for, in the words of Najib, “The government is concerned and gives importance to the development and improving the welfare of the rakyat in Sabah and Sarawak in the national development agenda.”

On the surface, it is well spoken and most impressive, along with countless other “goodies” he announced in his budget speech.

But the brief announcement of allocations for the Pan Borneo Highway is very misleading, ambiguous and inconsistent with reality on the ground. For me, as a journalist who has been following this story for many years now, it raises more questions than provides answers to what actually needs to be done.

Firstly, the real need is to get the highway upgraded, finally completed and properly maintained, not “to start construction…” as the PM and finance minister stated, giving the impression that it is a new road project for the Borneo states. That is not the case at all.

The highway was in fact started as a joint project of Sarawak and Sabah right from 1963 when these two Borneo states formed the Federation of Malaysia with Malaya and Singapore. The lack of a road network system in Sarawak was said to be the main factor of the highway construction in the beginning.

The crucial section that connects Sarawak, Sabah, and Brunei is the Lawas (Sarawak)–Temburong (Brunei) stretch, that was completed in 1997, making it possible for movement of vehicles from Kuching all the way to Kota Kinabalu.

Map of northern Borneo, existing highway marked in yellow. Photo courtesy of Google Maps

Map of northern Borneo, existing highway marked in yellow. Photo courtesy of Google Maps

By the year 2002, it was reported that about 95 per cent of the highway had been completed. The Tenom-Sipitang section, in Sabah, considered then the newest segment of the highway was completed in 2006.

Then came the final section from Kalabakan in Tawau to Sepulut in Keningau, in the interior region of Sabah. However, the construction of this final 145km stretch of road between Kalabakan and Sepulut became a controversial issue. That project, costing the government RM650 million, was completed in 2008 without it being sealed as was meant to be.

Rather than holding the contractor responsible and to make good what was not fulfilled according to contract, the government decided to issue a fresh award for the upgrading of the road at another hefty sum of RM270 million – making the cost of the entire project close to a billion ringgit.

Originally scheduled to end in October last year, this upgrading project is presently coming to its final stage of completion. That brings us to the billion ringgit question.

With all stretches of the highway already completed, what is the justification for Najib, the finance minister of Malaysia, to provide another RM26 billion in the 2015 Budget “to start construction of the 1,663-km Pan-Borneo Highway”?

In the first place, he or his ministry has the length of the highway all mixed up. According to previous records, the actual length of the entire road link from Sematan in Sarawak to Serudung in Sabah is 2,083km or 1,294 miles, not inclusive of the stretch within Brunei.

So how did the Ministry of Finance now come up with the new figure of 1,663km?

The official route for the highway, known as AH150 in the Asian Highway Network,  actually begins at Miri, and it continues north towards Brunei, Limbang and Lawas in Sarawak, into Sabah via Sindumin, and onto Sipitang, Beaufort, Papar, Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Tawau and ends at Serudong on the Sabah/East Kalimantan border.

The highway, known to Pan Borneo motorists as Malaysia Federal Route 1 in Sarawak and the highway numbers of 1, 13 and 22 in Sabah, also extends southwards from Miri towards Bintulu, Sibu and Kuching, and ends at Sematan on the border with West Kalimantan province of Indonesia.

With such vast territories involved and large pockets of inhabitants along this long line of communication network, it is understandable why the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) has placed great importance to this infrastructural development project for Sabah and Sarawak.

After all, they are often referred to during election time as “the fixed deposit states” for the BN. In his 2015 Budget speech, Najib likened the Pan Borneo Highway to the North-South Highway project in Malaya that “has transformed the development from Perlis to Johor”.

What he did not say is that this Borneo highway, sometimes also known as the Trans Borneo Highway, was one of the promises made in the BN election manifesto for the 13th General Election in May 2013.

Logging road in Borneo. Photo courtesy of

Logging road in Borneo. Photo courtesy of

The manifesto, with the theme ‘A Promise of Hope’, had stated that “the construction of the 2,300km highway is expected to spearhead new growth areas, better business opportunities and enhanced communications.”

As for the RM26 billion tax payers money that the Ministry of Finance (MoF) has now allocated in the name of the Pan Borneo Highway in the 2015 Budget, it really does not make sense.

By using the Kalabakan-Sepulut project as a guide in costing, the RM26 billion is enough to finance the construction and upgrading of 3,770km of road! It is way beyond the figures of 1,663km, 2,083km or 2,300km – the various figures so far mentioned – as the entire length of the Pan Borneo Highway.

Hence, is Najib truly talking of an entirely new 1,663km-long Pan Borneo Highway  at a total cost of RM26 billion as announced on Oct 10, 2014?

If so, what is going to happen to the existing one? To be left to rot?

If not, how is he going to justify the spending of RM26 billion on a project that is almost completed?

Or could this be a clever ploy of the BN leadership to dish out handsome rewards in the form of fat road project contracts to those in these fixed deposit states who had helped BN win in the GE13?

Unfortunately, that’s not all. There is another matter of grave concern for Malaysians on Borneo, arising from Najib’s budget speech.

When speaking about the need to increase the number of Bumiputera entrepreneurs, he listed a number of initiatives to be implemented, including “expanding carve-out and compete programme through meritocracy for government and privatised projects including MRT second phase and the Pan Borneo Highway”.

Is that an official indication that the Pan Borneo Highway would become a privatised project? If so, there is a grave danger of the most dreaded word “toll” to be exported from Malaya to Sabah and Sarawak.

For, when part of a highway is constructed, upgraded and maintained as a privatised project, the company concerned reserves the right to impose “toll” on motorists using that particular stretch of the highway in order to “recover” the private funding required.

A frightful thought indeed for Malaysians on Borneo.

It is, therefore, the bounden duty of Sabah and Sarawak lawmakers from both sides of the political divide to raise these and other pertinent questions during the up-coming debate on the 2015 Budget in Parliament.

Born, brought up and started journalism career in Sarawak, Joseph Leong Sai Ho has lived and worked in Sabah since 1966. His dream and mission is to see that the voice of the peoples of these two Malaysian entities on Borneo Island is heard and heard clearly.

“Pan Borneo Highway: Questions for Najib”

By Joe Leong

October 15, 2014