Sandakan traders suffering from economic slump

The seaside Pasar Umum Sandakan looks like a ghost town on most days.

KOTA KINABALU: Sandakan has long been known for its fresh seafood and other cheap street fare, but even that reputation has lately not been drawing enough business to the city, at least according to two vendors of grilled fish.

The two, who operate at different locations in the city, told FMT many businessmen were finding it more and more difficult to earn a decent living. They said the hard times seemed to have set in about a year ago.

Jainuddin Yusuf, who owns Restoran Ikan Bakar Sederhana and has been plying his trade for 20 years at Pasar Sim-Sim, said business had been so slow for him that he wouldn’t be surprised if it came to a halt soon. “I’m just counting the days,” he said.

“I notice that people have less buying power now. They’re just not buying anymore.”

His restaurant has a branch in Bandar IJM and another in Bandar Utama. Both places are suburbs of Sandakan and both branches began business a few years ago.

Jainuddin in front of his stall at Pasar Sim-Sim.

Jainuddin acknowledged that price increases were one reason for the reduction in the number of customers, but he said a steady increase in the cost of raw materials had forced many businesses to raise their prices.

The other grilled fish seller, Jiflee Dandan, spoke of “the unstable prices of raw materials” and said this made it hard for businessmen like him to set their prices.

But Jiflee, who operates a stall at Pasar Umum Sandakan, reckoned that the “main problem” confronting traders like him was increased competition in an already saturated market.

“We have to compete for customers whose numbers are decreasing while the number of businesses keeps increasing,” he said.

Jainuddin said he hoped the government could do something about the increased cost of doing business and “maybe help to get more people to come to Sandakan so businesses can thrive once more”.

Sandakan, Sabah’s second largest city, was the administrative centre of British North Borneo and once thrived as the most important port town in the state. It was nicknamed Little Hong Kong due to its large Chinese presence.

It was said to be more prosperous than even Kuala Lumpur and Singapore before the Japanese occupation.

Film makers frequently descended into Sandakan to shoot their movies because of the scenic downtown view and businessmen from Hong Kong and the Philippines flocked in to conduct their trades.

However, during World War II, the town was completely razed by the Japanese.

It has failed to reclaim its glory after the war despite various efforts at resurrection.

For a long time, development was slow to come because of its distance from the new capital, Kota Kinabalu, and the lack of transport options. Many residents chose to uproot themselves to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Over the years, the state government has managed to transform Sandakan into an important gateway to the state’s eco-tourism industry, but locals claim they do not benefit from the industry as much as the government would have liked.

Businessmen like Jainuddin and Jiflee are praying for more people to come and sample Sandakan’s famous seafood products rather than directly head for the jungles from the airport.

Jiflee said business was good until just a few years ago.

He said traders used to get raw materials at costs lower than the market prices and their customers were many because the prices of goods everywhere were still low.

He refused to be drawn into political talk in light of the upcoming Sandakan by-election, but said he hoped the government could help rejuvenate the old part of the city by organising activities near the Harbour Mall to attract visitors.

He could not remember the last time the government or the private sector organised anything there.