Business leaders in BIMP-EAGA are calling for better connectivity within the subregion in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which has widely disrupted travel across the subregion.
Carl Moosom, chairman of the BIMP-EAGA Business Council (BEBC) Sabah, said a review of the land, air, and sea transport deals signed between 2007 and 2009 is now needed “to reflect the new normal and recovery agenda” of member countries. In an interview, he warned that COVID-19 threatens the progress made in improving connectivity in the subregion.
Samuel Matunog, president of ICT Davao, Inc., remarked that transport connectivity is still a challenge for BIMP-EAGA. “It’s very hard to get to many provinces in Kalimantan, in Sulawesi, in Maluku, and also in Brunei Darussalam and Sarawak,” he said at the LiveX webinar in June. “They have so many products there, so much we can exchange, but it’s very hard to buy and sell and deliver.”
At the same webinar, Sarimah Latiff, president of Brunei Darussalam business coaching company Suhbe Co., echoed the sentiment, noting COVID-19 has worsened the situation. “With the pandemic, our airlines have not been able to fly in and out… That’s a big challenge,” she noted.
Connectivity is key to BIMP-EAGA’s mission, which is to spur economic growth in poor and remote areas of the subregion. The transport deals paved the way for airlines and shipping operators to establish new routes that connect key destinations.
“These are all positive signs of BIMP-EAGA flourishing in terms of connectivity,” Moosom said.
At their 12th meeting last year, BIMP-EAGA transport ministers noted progress in the implementation of priority infrastructure projects that made the subregion better integrated.
Even during the pandemic, efforts to improve connectivity continue. The Philippines’ Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) is allowing domestic ships to ply BIMP-EAGA routes to boost trade with the subregion. Marina will issue special permits for the temporary deployment of these ships for international trade and enter designated gateway ports in the subregion.
Moosom is also working to restart talks with counterparts and other stakeholders in the Philippines and Indonesia to establish sea routes between Sulawesi and Sandakan and between Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, and Sandakan. The talks stalled because of the pandemic.
“We are very hopeful we can still establish connectivity between these areas,” he said, especially the Sulawesi–Sandakan shipping route with potential investors reaffirming their interest in recent talks.
Moosom is also pushing for BIMP-EAGA to promote Sabah as the transshipment hub for the subregion, thus, establish it as a major maritime route.
Sabah has eight ports: Kudat Port, Sapangar Bay Oil Terminal, Sapangar Bay Con-tainer Port, Kota Kinabalu Port, Sandakan Port, Lahad Datu Port, Kunak Port, and Tawau Port.
Moosom said BEBC Sabah also continues to support initiatives to establish Sapangar Bay Container Port as a BIMP-EAGA hub. Sapangar Bay is midway between the northern market of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and ASEAN and the southern part of Borneo, so it can give BIMP-EAGA better access to the large PRC market. “It’s only logical geographically and logistically that Sapangar Bay becomes a hub to allow more shipping routes within this area,” he said.