Gearing up Kuching for digital economy
John Teo 

Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg spoke at some length in the recent State Assembly sitting about his broad vision for Kuching’s growth and development. If his plans for a digital Sarawak are to take off, much will depend on how the state capital is primed to make the plans work.

As Abang Johari accurately noted: “For Kuching to be vibrant, it must be economically viable. We expect the population of Kuching to grow to 1.2 million in the next 10 to 15 years so that we can have even a better critical mass.”

“Indeed, there is a lot we can do to make Kuching City and the Greater Kuching area into a liveable urban conurbation. We must also densify our city centre to attract young talents who are happy to live in compact housing packed with modern amenities. Kuching should no longer just belong to Kuching people. It should play host to the whole world,” the chief minister elaborated.

Abang Johari also took the opportunity to further justify his idea to build a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system in Kuching. The idea he mooted earlier in the year had faced scepticism from some quarters, specifically as to whether Kuching has already developed sufficient population critical mass to make the expense involved in developing the LRT system economically viable.


Larger scheme of things

The chief minister explained: “We, therefore, cannot see the development of the LRT in isolation but as a trigger to a larger scheme of things. The LRT can be one central piece in a larger fit whereby the overall result of the entire scheme is a net gain for the city, even in financial terms when all the related elements are taken into consideration.

“The ultimate purpose is to minimise economic opportunity costs without too much expectation for its return on investment because we expect a lot of future spin-offs from that infrastructure development ... if we cannot achieve viability, we have to ensure economic feasibility where social benefits are greater than financial costs.”

The state government’s plan for urban growth and development in Kuching, in particular, and especially via the route of leapfrogging into the digital economy necessarily requires looking holistically at ensuring not only that the virtual infrastructure is in place but also that the existing physical infrastructure keeps pace.

An efficient and seamless urban transport system in Kuching may be integral to such an overall scheme of things but is only one component. It may be argued that an even more immediate priority ought to be to crystallise a plan that sees the realisation of an integrated logistics hub in Kuching. It means that land, sea/river and air transport links in and around Kuching will have to be further upgraded, expanded and integrated if e-commerce is to really take off and thrive.

Towards that end, realising greater air connectivity between Kuching and regional cities becomes not just a tourism-related imperative alone. Goods and people will have to be more efficiently moved in and out of Sarawak directly to foreign cities and markets and not rely too much on the inconvenience and added costs of other hubs such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Kota Kinabalu.


Priority for air-cargo, budget carrier terminal

An air-cargo terminal that possibly combines as a budget air passenger terminal for Kuching may thus be a far more urgent, even strategic, priority that the state government must look into developing, with the appropriate economic incentives thrown in to attract airlines to develop routes out of it.

As the chief minister would have it, Kuching did indeed play host to the world for several days in the last full week of November when some 2,500 people congregated in the Sarawak capital for the 13th World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF). Previous host cities had been such world or national capitals as London and Jakarta. It is the first time such a major international event was hosted in a state capital or as WIEF chairman Tun Musa Hitam described it at the opening of the forum on Nov 21, “a quaint city”.

While being called quaint may well be regarded as an appealing compliment with more than a ring of truth to it when applied to Kuching, one suspects the chief minister and many in the city and the state are far from content to have their city forever be just remembered as possessed of some old-world charms.

The decision for the state government to throw its full support behind hosting the WIEF in Kuching suggests there is an aspiration to see the state capital be on par with the greatest metropolises around the world in terms of being a crossroads of ideas, talents, commerce and learning.


Shed insular outlook

That aspiration is by no means easy to achieve and will certainly not happen overnight. The state government will have to come up with a multi-prong roadmap to realise it and to have in place clear short-term, medium-term and long-term plans and strategies to make it all happen.

There has to be some realisation as well that the popular mindset in Sarawak needs to adapt and change. An exciting and truly open global city cannot happen unless an insular and parochial outlook is discarded. Unfortunately, the state authorities are not leading in this regard.

A clear example has to do with a lack of an open and accepting culture towards foreigners and foreign talents. In the most recent State Assembly sitting, the opposition took to task the state for sitting on its hands and taking no action on long-standing applications for permanent residency (PR) and not providing any reasons as to whether such applications are accepted or rejected. Many such applications are from spouses of Sarawakians who have fulfilled the various requirements for PR or even citizenship.

There is a limit to how much and how fast Kuching can grow organically given the state’s overall population and even the chief minister’s forecast of 1.2 million residents in the city in 10 to 15 years appears wildly optimistic as it means a doubling of the current population in that timeframe.

The state government will need to be proactive in attracting foreign talents and making it easy and transparent for them to be able to stay and work locally.   

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 261.