Fri, 19 Jul 2024


Of Harimau-Garuda collaboration
Published on: Sunday, June 12, 2022
By: Chun Sheng Goh and Bernard Ng
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Borderland is a land of complexity. Before the establishment and expansion of the British North Borneo Company in the late 19th century, the Tawau District was under the influence of sultanates in the region, i.e., Brunei, Sulu, and Bulungan in Kalimantan. In a map published by the British North Borneo Company in 1888, the territory under its control covered the entire Sebatik Island as well as Nunukan Island. The land borders were later fine-tuned several times after the Anglo-Dutch treaty was signed in 1891, with Sebatik Island politically dissected into two parts and Nunukan Island transferred to Kalimantan. This had changed the fate of the local people for generations, as the territorial arrangement was subsequently adopted by Malaysia and Indonesia after gaining independence from the colonists. 

Sebatik Island was one of the crucial battlefields during Konfrontasi. On 28th June 1965, the Indonesian force entered the eastern part of the island and attempted to launch an attack on the Royal Malay Regiment’s camp in Tawau. However, the operation was not successful due to the resistance on the Malaysian side. An Australian frigate Yarra was also called upon to bombard the aggressors. The older generation in Sebatik Island still could recall the sound of gunfire and cannon fire. Interestingly, in the following decades, no fence, walls, or immigration office were ever built to demarcate the border on the island except some concrete piles were placed as indications.

The status of the maritime border, however, remains not completely resolved until today, as reflected in the recent territorial disputes between Malaysia and Indonesia over Ligitan, Sipadan, and Ambalat in the Celebes Sea. In 2002, Kuala Lumpur successfully claimed the ownership of Sipadan Island and Ligitan Island at the International Court of Justice. Three years later, Indonesia claimed that Malaysia had violated Indonesian sovereignty when the Malaysian state oil company, Petronas, granted a concession for oil and gas exploration in the Ambalat block, a sea region near Sipadan and Ligitan. Fortunately, both countries have been sticking to diplomatic solutions to address the territorial disputes.

Cross-border flows of goods and people

The Sabah-Kalimantan border has been known to be porous and permeable. The illegal timber trade across the border in the 1990s is a remarkable example. Illegal logging was rampant in Kalimantan two decades ago - it was estimated that about US$ 600 million was stolen every year. The majority of the illegally logged timber was smuggled to Malaysia. In 2001-2002, about 2 million cubic metre of illegal timber were smuggled from Kalimantan into Sabah, mostly transported from the port of Tarakan via sea route with all kinds of vessels. A few years later, as the international demand gradually shifted to legal woods, the smuggling activities declined rapidly. 

Until today, the existence of an informal, grey economy in the borderland remains an open secret. Many in Kalimantan rely on various subsidised and thus lower-priced basic goods from Sabah. A prominent example is the smuggling of Malaysian-subsidised liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). LPG gas cylinder is one of the highest subsidised items transported illegally to Indonesia via the Sebatik island and other sea routes. Especially during the festive season, skippers are willing to take risks to intense demands in Indonesia. 

Furthermore, the growing demand for cheap labour forces on oil palm plantations in Sabah has attracted many Indonesians, including a large group of undocumented migrants from the Kalimantan borderland since the 1970s. Some have stayed and built their families in Malaysia. Unfortunately, many of their children lack documents and became ‘stateless’ as their parents failed to register the marriage. Despite the complexities, both governments have been cooperating closely since 2008 to provide Indonesian-orientated education to these children. As of 2019, the education institutes include 232 community learning centres with 14,213 students.

In the early 2000s, as Malaysia tightened its control over Indonesian workers in the country, a large number of immigrants were deported. The East Kalimantan’s governor responded with a proposal to establish 1 million ha of oil palm along the Sabah-Kalimantan border (at that time the North Kalimantan province was still part of East Kalimantan). The idea was to have this ‘oil palm belt’ as a buffer zone against smuggling activities as well as to create jobs for Indonesian workers returning from Sabah. The plan was never realised despite the land being cleared and timber being extracted. Instead, the deported workers – estimated to be 300,000 – were given lands elsewhere away from the border. However, oil palm expansion continued to happen in the north-eastern borderland of the Nunukan District, reaching 140,000 ha by 2020.

Transboundary tourism in the borderland is another interesting aspect to examine the relationship between both countries. For example, as the Krayan Highlands is only easily accessible by ground transport through Malaysia, the eco-tourism may have benefited Malaysia more than Indonesia. There was an interesting saying among the Krayan people, ‘Garuda in our hearts, Tiger in our bellies’ (di dada ada Garuda, di perut ada Harimau) where Garuda and Tiger represent Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively. Given the rich tourism resources in the borderland, developing transboundary tourism packages that benefit both sides could be something worth further exploration.

Cross-border collaboration

While fruitful cross-border collaboration to take advantage of continuity and diversity is yet to be seen, a significant shift is probably underway. The borderland is regaining new attention due to the relocation of the Indonesian capital to Kalimantan. There are multiple cooperation possibilities for Malaysia and Indonesia in developing regional value chains in the borderland, through platforms like the ‘Sabah-North Kalimantan Border Economic Area Programme’ under the framework of the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). 

Various economic opportunities are being explored to shift the development trajectory from primary to secondary and tertiary sectors. Particularly, establishing high value-added palm-based bio-economies and sustainable eco-tourism are deemed the key strategies. Especially in the borderland, both countries may leverage the distinctiveness due to different stages of growth to complement each other in terms of the labour force, infrastructure, investment, resource supply, and demand.

In the near future, technological breakthroughs along the digital revolution may open new doors for greater regional cooperation. For example, the implementation of ‘smart’ border crossing systems with online visa processing and pre-departure checking using mobile apps, as well as real-time data sharing between countries and AI-driven data analytics, will greatly enlarge states’ control and surveillance capacities. How Harimau and Garuda can form a larger ecosystem that supports each other’s growth targets in the coming years, with the borderland as the frontier in focus, would be interesting to observe.

* 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 Center. 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. 


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