The journey of a thousand miles


The proposed Trans Borneo Railway line spanning across Borneo.

I REFER to the proposal to construct a Trans Borneo Railway (Bernama / The Borneo Post, April 2, 2024).

I had no inkling which country had initiated the proposal until a few days ago. My source in Kalimantan Selatan told me that it was someone from Brunei.

I must say that whoever first thought of the railway must have taken into consideration the enormous financial, political and social implications, if the project were to take off at all and be sustainable in the long run.

You are building a high-speed rail network over the territories of three sovereign nations with differing systems of government.

It’s not impossible to accomplish the project – if there’s the will to build it, but there must be the collective will of three countries in good terms with one another.

More to the point, there has to be convincing assurance that they would stay on good terms for the foreseeable future.

A union of sovereign states

Are there enough of them who are farsighted to ‘move mountains’, literally?

May I suggest the name for the Union, the Union of Brunei, Republic of Indonesia and Malaysia (BIM), or The Bornesian Union (BU)?

To avoid many of the initial physical and legal technicalities related to the construction of the railway, would it be better for the three countries to form themselves into a union, first, and the railway, later?

That would be putting the horse where it belongs, before the cart. The railway will pass through land occupied by people. The land has to be acquired and the people affected to be evacuated and resettled in some new areas.

New settlements will have to be developed with basic facilities. All these will take time to plan and to execute on the ground.

The railway belongs to the Union, and the three countries will be the shareholders of the project.

Our Prime Minister and the newly-elected President of the Republic of Indonesia recently met in Kuala Lumpur. I am wondering if they had the time to talk about the Trans Borneo Railway project in their recent discussion ‘to strengthen Malaysia-Indonesia ties’.

A leaf from EU book

A union of sovereign states must have a constitution of its own for the proper regulation of its affairs. It would be crucial that the management of the railway must be independent, or free from direct bureaucratic influence or ‘interference’ of any government of the day.

The form of government of Malaysia and of Indonesia is susceptible to abrupt changes due to the vagaries of politics. Brunei is the only country run by an absolute monarch, so no problem there?

For a start, we may look at the European Union (EU) for some tips. How does one construct a loose economic union?

Better still, it is for the advocates of the union to produce a model to forestall the criticism of being a copycat of the concept of the West.

Whatever the version of the tie-up, the railway project would require the union acting as an entity, like a body corporate, through a tripartite agreement between the union members.

Each country retains their respective individualities – including the retention of the use of individual currencies.

Feasibility study

A gigantic project like the high-speed railway requires a thorough feasibility study in all aspects – the ‘seen and the unseen factors’.

According to the Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke, there will indeed be a feasibility study and this will take some nine months to complete.

Incidentally, this statement gives the impression that a lot of work on the railway project has been done behind the scenes already. By implication, Malaysia has been entrusted with the job of selecting the company or companies to undertake the feasibility study.

However, as ordinary Malaysians, we are wondering where the funding for the study would come from.

From Malaysia?

What if, for whatever reason(s), the project will not prove to be viable? Worse still, if it will turn into a white elephant?

Precious Malaysian money will be wasted, won’t it?

Initially, I dismissed the proposal as an April Fool’s Day joke, because the mention of the proposal appeared in print the day after April 1.

However, on second thought, it would be a great venture in terms of physical development in Borneo. It would benefit millions of people along the route of the railway.

It would open up land areas for agricultural development, to name the obvious benefit. Just make sure the native land rights will not be eroded in the process!

I am beginning to get excited myself over the prospects of seeing the day when I would be on board a train from somewhere in Kuching to Samarinda.

Why Samarinda?

I was in the Sarawak delegation to the Asean Land Settlement Conference held in Solo, Surakarta in 1989, and I decided to join the post-conference tour to East Kalimantan.

After a hectic few days in Solo, we were thoroughly exhausted by the time we reached Samarinda. I did not see very much of the town that time, so I’m eager to go there again.

By train, no less!

A piece of the pie

I am referring to the press statement of April 2, 2024, made by the Malaysian Minister of Transport, Anthony Loke. The minister had advised that ‘all parties to be cautious about any announcements by private companies regarding major projects, adding that any major projects are only considered valid if the government announces them’; pointing out that ‘If they (private company from Brunei) say they want to build a railway track in Sabah and Sarawak, they certainly need approval from the Malaysian government as well as the governments of Sabah and Sarawak; and adding ‘so far there has been no such approval and we have never negotiated with the company’.

Already I notice that there are local firms that are lining up for contract jobs to build the railway line. Some people cannot wait to get a piece of the pie.

My idea about the ‘Union of States’ for the purpose of the railway project sounds crazy, but read between the lines; it is worth thinking about if you could part with the handphone for a second.

Haven’t you heard of the saying: ‘There is method in madness’? The strongest objection to the project may come from the environmentalists who want to keep Borneo’s rainforests for carbon storage in order to reduce the impact of climate change.

In the course of the feasibility study, this may be a constraint.

But that is another problem. We will cross the bridge when we come to it.

The Trans Borneo Railway would be the first step of the journey of a thousand miles.