Borneo – A future gem of Asia-Pacific


AS the third-largest island on earth, Borneo has its own unique advantages, including geographic location, natural resources, climate, and cultures.

This column will share on possible ways to further develop Borneo into a well-balanced and mutually-complemented community with the hope of opening up more sophisticated discussions on, for example, coming up with a model that may potentially be adopted by other developing economic entities.

If asked what paradise would look like, all might answer differently. However, if told there is a place rich in natural resources, renowned for diverse landscapes, notable for distinct cultures and friendly people, insusceptible to extreme weather and immune to natural disasters, most people would say that Borneo is an ideal place to stay and live.

With an area of nearly 750,000 square km (about twice that of Germany and over triple that of the United Kingdom),

Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Strategically located at the geographic centre of Maritime Southeast Asia, the island is surrounded by the Philippines, Indonesian archipelago, and the Indochina peninsula, and further by major economies such as China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and India.
From 1941 to 1945, Borneo was occupied by Japanese forces. A significantly large number of the local population lost their lives, including all the Malay Sultans of Kalimantan in the Pontianak incidents. During this period, the Dayaks, receiving

assistance from the Allied Z Special Unit, engaged in guerrilla warfare against the occupying forces, mainly in Kapit Division.

After the Fall of Singapore in 1942, thousands of British and Australian prisoners were sent to camps in Borneo. At one of the worst sites around Sandakan, only six of some 2,500 survived. The Japanese forces were defeated by the Allies in 1945.
Today, Borneo is more harmoniously shared by Brunei and Malaysia in the north, and Indonesia in the south.

The population consists mainly of the Dayak community, Malays, Banjar, Chinese, and Kadazandusun. Most of the approximately 20 million inhabitants live in coastal cities and towns, including Samarinda, Banjarmasin, Balikpapan and Pontianak in Indonesia; Kuching, Miri, Kota Kinabalu, Tawau and Sandakan in Malaysia; and Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei.

Primarily mountainous and antipodal to an area of Amazon rainforest, Borneo has been extensively covered by rainforest historically. Due to heavy logging, dense areas of rainforest have been reduced.

Deforestation has been further accelerated by, for instance, mining and the widespread development of oil palm plantations.

Although protection laws are in effect, in the

absence of sufficient alternative economic development, illegal logging has become an irresistible lure as a way of life for some local communities. Satellite studies show that some 56 per cent of protected lowland tropical rainforests in Kalimantan (an area almost the size of Belgium) were cut down between 1985 and 2001 to supply global tropical timber demand, half of which comes from Borneo.

The effects of deforestation are multi-dimensional.

For example, without the maintenance of sufficiently large blocks of interconnected forest, hundreds of species could potentially become extinct, particularly large mammals such as orangutans and elephants.

Also, around 14 out of 20 major rivers originate from the Heart of Borneo. Maintaining the forests is thus critical to ensure sufficient water supply and to support ecological and economic stability in the lowlands.

According to WWF projections, if the deforestation continues at its current rate, the island would be severely affected by climate change through, for instance, the increased risk of floods and forest fires, which would bring threats or damage to human health, agricultural yields, and infrastructure.
It has been recognised that the Asia-Pacific will be among the fastest growing regions in coming decades. Thus, there is opportunity for Borneo to establish more sustainable development and for the respective governments to work collaboratively to convert the island into a well-balanced and mutually-complemented community.

To protect the tropical rainforests, the coastal cities could be further developed. There would be about 20 cities with a population of half to one million each. Depending on their traditions and advantages, each city could focus more on developing its own prioritised industries, in particular manufacturing and services, to avoid possible redundancy with others.

Hence, there would, for instance, be a regional financial centre, one or two ports among the busiest in Asia-Pacific, and one or two Silicon Valleys of Borneo. Also, each city could have two or more research-oriented universities, to consistently bring dynamism and innovation to the community.

A high-speed inter-city train system could be constructed so that passengers could travel conveniently and efficiently within a few hours from one end of the island to the other. The system would be linked directly to a centred international airport, serving as a main air hub and gateway to surrounding Southeast Asian countries as well as beyond, such as Australia and the Pacific Islands.

An administrative centre could be set up in the airport area to conveniently provide services such as visa application to most countries for both residents and passengers at one stop. Due to the strategic location of the island and multicultural traditions, the centre could become the central Southeast-Asian city like Brussels, Geneva, or Vienna.

To further boost tourism, a pass system for all national parks on the island could be introduced.

As in the case of Singapore, which came with tighter constraints but has achieved first world status within decades, Borneo would be expected to become one of the most ideal places with sufficient sustainability in the whole world for people to stop, visit, and stay.
Associate Professor Changyong Zhang is a lecturer of finance and banking at Curtin Malaysia’s Faculty of Business.