Malaysia could easily be the top maritime nation in southeast Asia. It is surrounded by sea on both sides, including the two Borneo states.
But for that to happen, it must equip itself with the right mix of maritime ports, equipment, facilities and policies. Strategic location alone is not sufficient to generate demand.
As a maritime nation, Malaysia has not taken enough bold, strategic decisions to realise this potential.
There are so many different sectors in port facilities, shipping and logistics that it could have latched onto. So far, it has not made much inroad into any of these sectors.
We are up there for container shipping but still a long way away from becoming the region’s number one in container traffic. And despite being an oil-producing nation, our involvement in servicing the sector has been patchy and fragmented.
Shipping is not all about containers or oil and gas only. There are other sectors which are equally lucrative and industrially sustainable, and if planned and shaped correctly, could become a big economic driver and generate high-income activities.
The little island down south is also surrounded by seafront. It has taken full advantage of its location, and has focused on planning and infrastructure building. It is more successful in the maritime sector and related industries.
We having more natural resources, more land, more people and more funds, yet Singapore dominates in every sub-sector of the lucrative maritime economy: from port services to ship repair, oil and gas refining and distribution, down to cruise line services, ship handling and husbandry, warehousing and international logistics and related services.
As a small maritime nation, Singapore has become even more viable during the time of economic crisis, while others suffer.
So where did we go wrong? What is it that we didn’t do right? Or have we failed to take up the challenge?
A case in point is related to the cruise market. Not having an international-class cruise port with internationally-required facilities is definitely one of them.
This is a missing link that has put Malaysia off the radar for many international cruise ship operators, who are interested in this region.
Having an international-class home port could have propelled Malaysia into a leading destination as far as cruise operation is concerned.
However, one could argue that there are cruise vessels calling at a few Malaysian ports at the moment.
Ports such as Langkawi, Penang and Port Klang are notable for this. But we have to note that these calls are made on a transit basis, as part of a sailing rotation. The port calls are also seasonal and have not reached an all-year-round type of operation like those in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.
A transit call is different from a home port call, where cruise vessels would operate on a more dedicated rotation and passenger embarkation and disembarkation would become a prominent feature. Basically, a homeport is where a cruise starts or ends.
In such an arrangement, passengers fly in and stay prior to going on a cruise. A reverse will happen on the return leg. This is where Malaysia is missing on the economic pie from the cruise market.
There are tremendous opportunities for airlines, airports, hotels, transport operators, tour agents and F&B owners to benefit from having such a strategic plan.
It is about time the privatised ports in the country initiated and invested in such a venture, with strong support from the government.
Malaysia offers many interesting local destinations which could be organised to support this strategic plan. Apart from Kuala Lumpur, there are many other unique destinations that can support this fly-cruise strategy in order to make it a success.
The key to this plan is to build a home port, close enough to an international airport.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.