Business people from BIMP-EAGA countries want to see air and sea links go back to normal and faster internet connectivity to ensure business recovery as governments prepare to inoculate their populations against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
BIMP-EAGA has long made it a priority to establish air, sea, land, and internet connectivity within the subregion to spur development in remote and less developed areas of four ASEAN countries: Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Hoping for a better year
While there is no end in sight yet for the pandemic, representatives from BIMP-EAGA businesses say there is a need for more initiatives to improve connectivity to improve the chances of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to recover from COVID-19 shocks.
Foo Ngee Kee, founding president of the SME Association of Sabah, is calling for enhanced trade, better air, sea and land connectivity, and improved investment incentives as well as lower tariffs to promote investments and trade in the subregion. He warns that without such initiatives, 2021 will be not much different from 2020. “The assumption is that the impact due to the pandemic in 2021 is more or less the same as in 2020. If the control of the pandemic is better in 2021, then the results for 2021 will be better than 2020.”
For Carl Moosom, chairman of the BIMP-EAGA Business Council (BEBC) Sabah, improving the mobility of goods and people within the subregion is critical for the subregion. BEBC is the body that represents the private sector in BIMP-EAGA.
Moosom notes that mobility and connectivity had taken a hit over the past year because of the pandemic. He cites the decision of Philippine Airlines (PAL) to cancel plans to start flights between Zamboanga City and Kota Kinabalu in March last year when many governments started to impose lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus.
“We were looking forward to this connection because it was reported that majority of immigrants or Filipinos residing in Sabah are from Zamboanga. We thought the connectivity would actually complement and be beneficial not only to BIMP-EAGA but to stakeholders,” he says. PAL communicated to the BEBC it would proceed with the plan once the virus is contained.
Plans to connect Palawan and Sabah through a roll-on/roll-off (RoRo) shipping service was also put off in the wake of the pandemic. The proponents are now hesitant to proceed, says Moosom. BEBC Sabah is in talks with another potential shipping operator who could step in. He adds that the RoRo project has the backing of both BEBC Sabah and Palawan Governor Jose Alvarez. “We made a commitment to develop trade exchanges between Southern Palawan as well as Northern Sabah. Because of this we have been working so hard and both sides have actually committed to build a new jetty. It will be a waste if this is not continued.”
A boost to trade and tourism
Cipriano Barroma, chairman emeritus of the Palawan Economic Development Council and country director of BEBC Palawan, also considers the RoRo project among priorities for the coming year.
He says both the council and BEBC Palawan are pushing for the sea link to boost trade and tourism. “Palawan has so many things to offer to tourists. We have islands, beaches, the famous Puerto Princesa Underground River, Tubbataha Reefs. We want to promote these tourist attractions to tourists from Sabah.”
Establishing a sea link is also key to establishing trade between Sabah and Palawan, he adds. It will also give Palawan access to Brunei Darussalam via Muara, which is an hour away from Labuan via ferry, Barroma adds.
Palawan is also in dire need of better internet connection, Barroma says. He notes poor connection in places just 3 kilometers from the town proper.
In remarks made during the installation of new officers of the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry last month, Malou Monteverde, the new president, says the chamber is looking forward to the resumption of trade cooperation under BIMP-EAGA. She says the chamber hopes to reactivate subregional trade through increased linkages between business sectors in the subregion.