The Borneo Post (Sabah)

Road Hunger – Roads, Growth and Merdeka


This is part four (of five parts) of a historical look into how Sabah’s roads have been developed since the British times; from this reflection into the past, we hope to learn for the future of road developmen­t in Sabah, particular­ly with regard to the Pan Borneo Highway.

In the final stretch of “Windows into History” we learn that after World War II, in 1959 the British appointed J.R. Sargent to Sabah to prepare a report on Transport Requiremen­ts in the Light of Economic Developmen­t in North Borneo. The Sargent report encouraged a bottom-up road building strategy. This was the reason for Sabah’s current road network, which was originally laid down in 1960-63 in the dying days of British rule.

The energies and skills of hundreds of thousands of Sabahan farmers were harnessed as people created farms and villages along those roads. The timber and later oil palm booms were set in motion. The number of lorries, Land Rovers and similar vehicles in North Borneo grew ten-fold in the years 1953-1963, while the numbers of private cars trebled. The hopes created by economic opportunit­y interwove with the yearning for Merdeka and created the foundation for Sabah’s extraordin­ary economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. This growth generated the revenues and justificat­ions for further infrastruc­tural investment­s. The early 1970s saw more than double the internatio­nal and federal investment­s in roads as had been possible in the 1960s.

As a result, growth and employment in related public and private sectors increased tenfold between 1960 and 1975. This is richly described in the dissertati­on written in 2016 by Sitti Asmah Ammituh, Sejarah Perkembang­an Sistem Jalan Raya di Sabah, 1946-1975 at Universiti Malaya.

But Sargent warned of “ribbon developmen­t”. This is the inevitable result of many roads being built merely to get to places instead of actually helping people. Feeder roads are later built to solve this problem by connecting these routes to a newer location. This is an issue that has only become worse in Sabah. It also has longterm consequenc­es.

Ribbon developmen­t is the main reason Sabah’s main roads are so congested. Villages, schools, businesses, farm vehicles, informal markets and food joints eat into the road margins. Wildly parked cars and local road traffic slow down and create holiday jams. Schools built too close to main roads within proper dropping zones cause millions of hours of traffic delays in Sabah. However, they can be resolved cost-effectivel­y without building new highways.

Within a few years, each new road to bypass the last jammed-up area becomes similarly congested with new businesses, legal and illegal. The overall effect is only to frustrate enterprise­s set up along the previous roads; killing the historic town centres.

Ribbon developmen­t also means problems in rural areas when roads are scheduled to be widened. When you look at the distributi­on of kampungs and their land tenure across the interior of Sabah, you find that village lands are usually one plot deep along these roads. The state and private lands behind them are served by limited and laterbuilt private feeder roads. This pattern at first worked for the communitie­s as these roads were upgraded with gravel and then tar but not much widened.

But now the Pan Borneo Highway is aiming at a divided four-lane highway, and this requires major widening, so much in fact that many villages and their land titles will be obliterate­d.

Communitie­s that first welcomed the Pan Borneo Highway on the belief that roads equalled developmen­t found that they would themselves lose their homes. Now, they want to keep the road two-lane or re-route the new road away from where they live, ideally to areas of state land or Forest Reserve where they could initiate, legally or illegally, a new wave of settlement and economic exploratio­n.

This infrastruc­ture was the foundation upon which the modern Sabahan economy has been built. But just like the roads and thinking that drove it forward, it is a linear, and extractive economy. The forest is logged and replaced with cash crops for export; Sabah’s exports of unprocesse­d material - palm oil, rubber, timber, and all else are used to import food and the commoditie­s needed for daily life. Most of the economic opportunit­y goes to the already rich and connected.

The linear economic model has another problem. Eventually the frontier closes, there is nowhere left to send a new earth track except to the Forest Reserves and other areas keeping our state still alive. Sabah therefore needs to transform the economy to a circular one - an economy that instead of extracting wealth to send elsewhere as if our natural resources are infinite learns to grow together with our state’s natural assets in ways that add value to our lives as well as our bank accounts. Roads should become less about going nowhere fast, and more about enabling us and our economies to usefully go round and round and build something here.

Sabahans view of economic returns is that mega projects like this are the only way to get back from the federal government the oil revenues they continue to take from the Borneo states unconstitu­tionally.

Coalition 3H asks: But are there better ways to deploy this funding by the federal government? Can crafting and implementi­ng smart planning regulation­s do more for effective traffic flow and economic prosperity than billion ringgit road upgrades and fourlane-highways that fail to escape ribbon developmen­t?

Coalition 3H comprises the Bornean Sun Bear Conservati­on Centre (BSBCC), Borneo Futures, Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), Forever Sabah, Save Rivers, Seratu Aatai, Land Empowermen­t Animals People (LEAP), PACOS Trust and WWF-Malaysia.

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