Sat, 20 Jul 2024


Sabah-Kalimantan borderland
Published on: Sunday, May 29, 2022
By: Chun Sheng Goh, Bernard Ng
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The new CIQ complex in Tawau
Recently, the borderland issue has been gaining attention due to the arguments surrounding the construction of the CIQ complex in Serudong, Kalabakan district. 

In March 2022, the Federal Finance Ministry decided to postpone the RM215 million project, citing “insufficient funding” as the main reason. The postponement has immediately attracted a storm of protest from the state government.

The Serudong CIQ complex held high hopes of eradicating Sabah and North Kalimantan smuggling activities, tighten the border security and reduce any unforeseen negative implications of illegal border crossing, such as containing Covid-19 infection.

Furthermore, the planned 39-km road connecting Kalabakan and Serudong may also catalyse the growth of the border town.

In the old days, the “borderland” refers to marginal territories that were not effectively managed by the sultanates/kingdoms due to difficulties in information flows. It may take days to travel between the capital and the borderland. 

However, the label “borderland” should no longer presuppose marginality, especially in modern days.

In many cases, borders were drawn through warfare and colonization, creating multiple territories by artificially splitting up a landscape that does not show any clear natural obstacles like rivers or mountains.

The current political division between Sabah and Kalimantan is a combination of both. The land border spans roughly 330 km, stretching from Long Pasia and Krayan Induk to Sebatik island with a 25-km straight borderline that split the island into two. 

In the interior, the central spine of rugged mountains vaguely forms the political boundary. Along the borderline, the population density is extremely low. Cross-border exchange is largely limited due to the largely mountainous terrains, usually limited to river transportation such as Lumbis Ogong (Nunukan) in North Kalimantan and Pensiangan in Sabah.

This part of the borderland may be truly regarded as a marginal area. 

In the coastal area, the border is relatively artificial. Naturally, there are more trade, people, and cultural flows between Sabah and North Kalimantan, both via the river, sea route, and across the land border. People living in this part of the borderland have been longstanding partners not only in economic activities but also in cultural exchange. 

Intense economic activities have in turn attracted more migration and resulted in dense populations on the border such as in Cowie Bay. 

Tawau district houses about 11pc of Sabah’s total population. On the North Kalimantan’s side, nearly 20pc of the province’s population is found in the two border islands, i.e., the Nunukan Island and the Sebatik Island. 

Sebatik island is probably one of the most interesting borderland cases in the region with the island artificially divided into two halves by a straight line.

The distribution of population across the borderland reflects its economic importance. Various economic reasons drive the growth of border towns. The closest example in the region is probably Johore Bahru, the second-largest city in Malaysia located in the southern end of Peninsula Malaysia. 

Tawau, in some way, may be regarded as a smaller version of it – nearly 1,000 passengers arrive at the town by ferries every day according to DOSM. While Sabah has long suffered from poverty, this part of the state is not among some of the poorest regions, thanks to cross-border activities. Before MCO, the sales of marine products from Indonesia to Tawau can be up to 27 tonne or 1.2 billion IDR (roughly RM 370,000) a day. 

The southeast borderland is also a major oil palm site. The three southeast districts, Tawau, Semporna, and Kunak have more than 410,000 ha of oil palm plantations, while the Nunukan District has more than 140,000 ha. 

A little further to the north is the natural deep-sea port, Lahad Datu, which houses the “Palm Oil Industry Cluster” (POIC). 

POIC was established to promote the integration of different industrial operations, adopting the concept of on-demand and pay-per-use facilities, such as purpose-fit storage and smart grid. 

It currently serves as a hub of palm oil refining and processing, aiming to further diversify its portfolio with advanced biorefineries that produce a wider range of products.

Interestingly, the southeast borderland is also famous for its tourism businesses, which have always been important income sources for the people. In 2018, the three national parks in the borderland, namely Tun Sakaran, Sipadan Island, and Tawau Hills have attracted more than 340,000 visitors. 

The activities are diversified, ranging from highly commercialised packages to rural homestay programmes. Water sports like diving and snorkelling are among the main activities. 

The growth of the borderland is intertwined with the persistent problems of illegal migration, stateless population, and border security. 

According to the 2020 census, the number of registered non-citizens in Sabah, including legal and illegal immigrants, is about 810 thousand. While there is an estimation of 50 thousand “stateless children”, there is no clear population of the “stateless adult”. 

The undocumented population imposes a heavy burden on Sabah’s limited educational, medical, and social service resources. 

Their fundamental human rights are denied due to limited access to infrastructure, labour welfare, and livelihoods. This vulnerable group is exposed to various criminal activities, such as drug smuggling, thus increasing the cost of security. 

This might be exacerbated by potential threats from organised criminal activities along the coastal borderland. 

The borderland has also attracted new attention with speculation over the potential economic opportunities brought by the relocation of Indonesia’s capital to East Kalimantan. 

Shifting the centre of power from Java toward the eastern part of the country is not only symbolic but will also incur redistribution of resources and wealth. 

This will definitely redefine the status of the entire Borneo Island, which has long been regarded as ‘a neglected island’ and ‘underdeveloped periphery’.

Observing and analysing the future development in the Sabah-Kalimantan borderland will be compelling as it offers a microcosm for observing the regional changes in the long run, especially putting it in historical, economic, social, and ecological contexts. 

It is hoped that this article sets the scene for more discussion about the sustainable development of the Sabah-North Kalimantan borderland.

- Dr. Goh Chun Sheng is currently the Programme Leader for Master in Sustainable Development Management at Sunway University. He is also an Associate of the Harvard University Asia Centre. Chun Sheng’s research interests lie within the intersection of bio-economy development and environmental restoration, with a special focus on both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo. The most recent work by Chun Sheng is a monograph on Borneo, namely ‘Transforming Borneo: From Land Exploitation to Sustainable Development’, which will be published in late 2022.

- Bernard Ng Jia Han received his master’s degree in Anthropology from the National Taiwan University and bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering from Nanyang Technological University, He is a columnist in several newspapers and magazines. Born in Klias Peninsula of the Borneo Island, his ancestry is marked by intermarriages of family members with Hakka, Japanese and Dusun origins.


- The views expressed here are the views of the writer Dr. Goh Chun Sheng, Bernard Ng and do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Express.

- If you have something to share, write to us at: [email protected]


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