'Stop pouring money down the rivers'
John Teo 

SARAWAK Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing recently reiterated the state government’s commitment to building up its ports. Masing who is also Minister of Infrastructure Development and Transportation, noted that Sarawak has two deep-sea ports only – the federally developed Bintulu Port and the nearby Samalaju Port which Bintulu Port jointly developed with the state government.

All the state’s other ports, such as Miri Port, Rajang Port, Tanjung Manis Port and Senari Port in Kuching are inland, riverine ports.

“For Sarawak to achieve a high-income state by the year 2030, it has to achieve a target growth of 6% per annum.

“Thus, with the decline in growth registered at the port, it would not be able to contribute effectively towards achieving the vision of becoming a high-income state in 2030,” says Masing.

He was referring specifically to Miri Port which reported a 7% fall in cargo throughput last year.

A huge part of the problem with Miri Port is siltation around the shallow access channel at the Kuala Baram river mouth.

This limits its access to ships of only three metres draft during high tide.

As with all other riverine ports, regular and expensive dredging of the river mouths is required for ready and safe shipping access.

The related question is who should pay for such costly and regular dredging?

Kuching Port created a predictable ruckus when it imposed a fee on port users as a way to defray the cost of dredging works.

The fee created a negative chain reaction since it increased costs to port users and makes riverine ports even less attractive and less competitive.


Why build Miri Port?

Those using Kuching Port may have little choice but to cough up. But since Bintulu is close to Miri, Miri Port’s dwindling throughput may be a function of shipping companies opting to use Bintulu to unload cargo destined for Miri.

This also raises uncomfortable questions as to why the state government had seen it necessary to commit hundreds of millions in ringgit to build Miri Port in the first place.

Did it not foresee the problems and challenges now confronting this particular port?

As the state’s overall logistics picture will likely change dramatically once the Pan Borneo Highway is completed, it naturally faces awkward questions as to what to make of its numerous riverine ports serving relatively small populations and limited hinterlands, and which are hugely expensive to keep serviceable.

Are the state’s inefficient and uncompetitive riverine ports not more of a drag rather than a facilitator of its grand economic plans?

If so, what needs to be done and does the state government have the political will to take tough but necessary decisions on their fate?

Action on a rationalisation of port operations in the state should ideally be taken sooner rather than later.

Postponing difficult decisions will only mean continuing with the long-term futility of pouring huge and endless sums of money literally down the river.

Priority ought to be given to building a new deep-sea port for Kuching, possibly at Tanjong Po, to serve the entire southern region of the state, as far as possibly Sibu and having the Bintulu and Samalaju Ports serve the northern region.

Some of the existing riverine ports may then be utilised as feeder ports while the rest should, in all likelihood, be closed entirely.

The other huge handicap confronting Sarawak’s riverine ports is the fact that they are open largely to deliver imports, with precious little exports taking place.

That much is clear as almost a year after the controversial lifting of the cabotage policy on in-country shipping in Sabah and Sarawak – supposedly aimed at reducing prices of goods in both states by lowering shipping costs – prices of goods have generally gone up.

As if Sarawak’s host of riverine ports and the associated headaches going along with them is not enough of a state problem, there are ambitious plans to further upgrade infrastructure.

This includes completing the network of coastal roads and a third state highway to complement the Pan-Borneo Highway that’s being constructed.

The contract has also been awarded for another major airport in central Sarawak, in Mukah, which, when completed, is likely to compete head-on with Sibu Airport.


Wrong strategy

The thinking going into all this major infrastructure upgrading must be that by building it, investors and businesses will follow.

But as things stand, the state’s demographics are working against it as the lifting of the shipping cabotage clearly indicates.

Sarawak’s physical size means expensive infrastructural investments have to be spread across the entire state based more on political rather than sound economic rationalisations, with little to no consideration as to whether the population concentration in any given locality justifies it.

Without the population density to support major infrastructural investment, what may appear on the surface as an economic boon may very quickly turn into a burden.

The case of Miri Port, located in the state’s second city, illustrates this. Like it or not, the burden will ultimately be borne by Sarawakians in the future.

It is easy for state politicians to publicly argue that Sarawak wants to be on par economically and in terms of infrastructure with Peninsular Malaysia. But they conveniently forget that the peninsula has some 10 times the population of Sarawak concentrated into roughly the same physical size!

Consider also that China is building highways and high-speed rail networks in largely virgin lands in its interior.

But China has a conscious overall plan to populate its vast interior and spread economic development there in hopes of reducing the over-concentration of people and economic activities around coastal cities.

Unless Sarawak can also think of a plan to increase its overall population density, its infrastructure ambitions may only result in spreading already sparse populations more evenly across much of the state’s landmass.

This renders the need for economic scale even more of a challenge further down the road.

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 278.