BIMP-EAGA needs key infrastructure, better connectivity, and improved investment climate to recover from the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, said the head of the BIMP-EAGA Business Council (BEBC).
During a recent meeting of BIMP-EAGA’s senior officials, BEBC Chairman Pengiran Haji Haris bin Haji Duraman said, “BEBC, as a representative of the private sector, has identified a few challenges and is recommending solutions to better promote trade, tourism, and investment.”
As with the rest of the world, BIMP-EAGA economies have slowed due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. According to BIMP-EAGA data, the subregion’s combined gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 3.5% in 2020 as the pandemic rattled economies. Before the pandemic, the subregion posted a 6.9% growth in GDP.
Total trade in goods fell by 11.4% to $95.3 billion last year from $107.6 billion because of weaker demand. Tourism also dropped, with arrivals plunging 76.0%, while tourism receipts declined by 79.1% to $6.2 billion in 2020 from $29.7 billion in 2019.
Trade and investment
Haris noted the need to accelerate the setup of the Palawan–Sabah–Labuan–Brunei Economic Corridor, which can also boost cross-border trade, tourism, and economic growth post pandemic.
BIMP-EAGA already has two economic corridors, where key priority infrastructure projects are concentrated. The economic corridors are envisioned to link production with supply chains and provide opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises.
The West Borneo Economic Corridor covers four routes: Pontianak–Kuching, Kuching–Bandar Seri Begawan, Bandar Seri Begawan–Kota Kinabalu, and Muara–Labuan, while the Greater Sulu–Sulawesi Corridor covers North Sulawesi in Indonesia, Sabah in Malaysia, and Mindanao and Palawan in the Philippines.
Haris also called for a unified Customs, Immigration, Quarantine, and Security (CIQS) systems, which are simple and practical, to benefit both the government and the private sector.
He proposed the following projects for Palawan in the Philippines: a 50-hectare resort, with commercial, residential and leisure facilities; a 70-hectare agro-agri tourism project in El Nido, and a 1,200-square-meter agro-agri trading center.
He said BEBC Sabah is proposing a free economic zone at the new border city between Sabah and North Kalimantan in Indonesia to ease the transport of goods by land and boost trade.
Recently, BEBC Sabah and BEBC Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao jointly urged Malaysia and Philippine authorities to put in place policies to facilitate seamless trade.
To ensure food supply chains are not disrupted, Haris called for measures to improve transport connectivity across the subregion. His report noted how the pandemic has severely disrupted sea and air connectivity across the subregion.
He noted the need for a unified policy framework for maritime sea link connectivity in the subregion and urged governments to support the Sandakan–Zamboanga route, which has been operating for 25 years, but was suspended for the past year due to the pandemic.
He also urged countries to facilitate the proposed Kudat–Buliluyan sea route between Palawan and Sabah. The plan has been hampered by an international maritime regulation that prohibits wooden vessels sailing in international waters. He urged BIMP-EAGA authorities to help the operator serve the route.
Haris also called on governments to allow non-conventional sized ships, or wooden vessels weighing less than 5,000 tonnes, to resume plying the Labuan–Mindanao route as the service is key to transporting rice, sugar, and other goods, and help traders recover from the pandemic.
He urged governments to support the revival of the Davao–General Santos–Bitung sea route established by Reefer Express Line Filipinas, Inc. The shipping operator was forced to halt operations because the route was not profitable.
As for air routes, he said the business council is working with governments and airlines to revive BIMP-EAGA air links, particularly the Zamboanga–Sandakan, Manado–Kota Kinabalu, Tawau–Makassar, Kota Kinabalu–Puerto Princesa, and Brunei–Balik Papan and/or Pontianak routes.
In terms of infrastructure, Haris urged authorities to look at developing power projects for Palawan, including sourcing power from the Bakun hydroelectric plant in Sarawak, via Kudat, Malaysia.
BIMP-EAGA also needs to improve infrastructure to boost farm output, including irrigation canals, he said. This will also support the council’s proposal for a food manufacturing hub and agro-park in Brunei Darussalam.
Haris said businessmen in Indonesia and the Philippines are keen to collaborate in the production of rice, fertilizer, fast-growing Paulownia elongata trees, napier grass as alternative animal feeds, as well as chrysanthemum, cashew, mango, cacao, coconut, Tungkat Ali, and bird’s nest.
The council also proposed the upgrade of the Kudat Airport in Sabah.
For internet connectivity, Haris proposed setting up an internet satellite base transmission in the subregion. A report from global consultancy Roland Berger noted that it is difficult to build telecommunication towers and lines in archipelagic nations like Indonesia and the Philippines, making satellite-based internet as a more viable option.
Haris said BEBC is keen to continue to promote sustainable and responsible joint tourism initiatives with stakeholders post-pandemic. He urged countries to pursue the following:
– Develop Kota Kinabalu as a fly and cruise hub
– Develop Labuan as one of the ports of call for the BIMP-EAGA cruise tourism vessels
– Develop Palawan as a premier eco-friendly tourist destination through community-based eco-tourism projects
– Support tours that entail flying tourists from Palawan to Kota Kinabalu,
getting them to Labuan and Brunei by sea, then back to Kota Kinabalu by land via – Sarawak
– Work with the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to connect Zamboanga and Palawan in the Philippines with Kudat, Sabah, and Labuan in Malaysia, and, if possible, Muara in Brunei. This will help boost trade and tourism, as well as spur the economies of the three BIMP-EAGA member countries.
“BEBC, as a representative of the private sector, is eager to assist and act as a growth engine in the revitalization of the battered economy. We hope that governments will serve as enablers and facilitators of this growth,” said Haris.
“We hope that the implementation of these projects and the consideration of policies will improve interconnectivity, facilitate cross-border movement of vehicles, people, and trade, all while adhering to strict protocols and not jeopardizing national security and people’s health.”
THE BRUNEIAN | BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN