Another Gawai and Kaamatan has come and gone, once again well celebrated in Sarawak and Sabah, respectively.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to be in Sarawak during Gawai. It was wonderful. The people were friendly and welcoming, and food and drink were generously served. The whole atmosphere was electric.
I thought then that this was how Malaysia ought to be.
I commend our Prime Minister for being in both Sabah and Sarawak to attend the celebrations. His approach to unity is to lead by example, and he has shown once again how attentive and caring he is towards Sabahans and Sarawakians.
How I wish many more from the peninsula will make the effort to join in these unique East Malaysian festivals.
I doubt many people from this side of the great sea even know what Gawai or Kaamatan is all about. Are they familiar with the greeting of “Gayu guru gerai nyamai”? Perhaps, readers should look it up.
We call ourselves Malaysians and talk a lot about unity, integration and assimilation. Yet, we hardly understand each other’s culture, tradition and heritage.
Our school system does not create students who are inquisitive about our own country. We should encourage them to travel, see and appreciate the many beautiful places and fascinating cultures we have. We must encourage them to thirst for more than just academic knowledge.
One such way is to participate in each other’s festivities. That is one way to build on our famous tagline, ‘Unity in Diversity’.
So, what is it that prevents us from doing that? Could it be that we are logistically separated? If that is the main hindrance, should we not try to close the logistic gap?
We read recently that air fares to Sabah and Sarawak have become prohibitive. Yet, why are we limiting ourselves solely to air connectivity?
Why can’t we also be linked by sea?
Indonesia is much more scattered than we are, with so many islands separated from one another. Yet, they do not seem to have connectivity issues.
Almost all the islands are linked by roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) ferries and by air. They have built airports and ferry terminals across their island nation. Ro-ro ferries operate to bring their people closer together. It is a much cheaper means of transportation compared to air travel.
This benefits not only passenger travel but allows goods to be transported and distributed more easily. In fact, the ro-ro ferry has a capacity roughly ten times the size of a B737 aircraft.
Indonesia, despite its many islands, has managed to keep their inter-island logistics costs low, allowing the distribution of consumer goods to every nook and corner of the country.
So, how is it we are struggling to link people and goods between the Malayan peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak?
The truth is, we are not focused on bringing our regions closer together through regular, high capacity and high frequency modes of transportation, such as the ro-ro ferry service. Instead, we keep harping on air links.
Sarawak itself has a well-developed maritime industry, especially in the areas of shipbuilding and repairs.
We will be able to develop this industry further by building more passenger and vehicular ro-ro ferries to cross at the shortest routes between Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak.
By now, we should be operating a large fleet of ro-ro ferries which can carry even cars and lorries from the Kuantan port, across the South China Sea to Kuching, Sibu and Bintulu.
The ports are already there. All we need to do is to run vessels that can accommodate passengers and vehicles at regular intervals.
Surely, we have sufficient cargo to transport across to Sarawak and Sabah to make full use of such a service.
There would be no need to ship every single container to Sarawak via Singapore, as we do now. Likewise, the ports in Kuching and Bintulu do not have to tranship their containers back to the peninsula via Singapore.
Why are we being dictated by shipping companies that operate to and from Singapore? Why can’t our own shipping companies offer direct shipping services between two or more Malaysian ports?
There are two ports in Johor – Pasir Gudang and Tanjung Langsat – that can also offer direct shipping services to Kuching and Bintulu, and even to Kota Kinabalu.
Once established, we can grow services to other ports in Sabah as well as to Labuan.
Lower logistics costs
Sabahan importers presently bear the brunt of having to pay high shipping and logistics costs as everything they receive is transhipped in Singapore.
Unlike islands in Indonesia or the Philippines, which are served by their own passenger and freight ferries, Malaysia does not have shipping links between West and East Malaysia.
Passenger and freight ferries can be combined into one vessel as commonly found in Indonesia and the Philippines.
New maritime linkages will definitely lower passenger fares and the logistics costs of transporting goods to and from Sabah and Sarawak. This will in turn lower the price of consumer goods in East Malaysia while expanding the market for products made on both sides of the sea.
Our search for true national unity must be reflected in concrete actions taken to create real links between Malaysians, especially between the three regions that form this beloved and great nation.
The present unity government is best placed to make this a reality. I sincerely hope they will give serious thought to this proposal.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.