Miri, the ‘Oil Town’ Malaysia left behind

The first oil well in Sarawak was drilled here in 1910 and led to the town’s initial development by Royal Dutch Shell and became an administrative centre in 1929.

During the Second World War, the Japanese came here for its oil. The fighting and air raids left much of it destroyed.

The presence of the oil industry, of course, ensured that Miri town was rebuilt.

To those who have not been here, Miri being an oil town might conjure up some elements of a place overflowing with wealth, magnificent infrastructure and plentiful of everything for all its citizens.

But alas sadly it is not so.

I am not saying it’s bad. I was born here and in fact, it’s a wonderful city for its people, great place to bring up a family and a relatively safe place.

Miri City went through a spurt of development when it was working towards its city status. It was declared the 10th city in Malaysia and granted this status in 2005.

Our local leaders at that time led by Tan Sri Dr George Chan Hong Nam oversaw various projects to achieve this city status.

One such important project was the setting up of Curtin University, which has provided a lot of opportunities for its people and it is now celebrating its 20 years in Miri.

A new indoor and an outdoor stadium was built, a great public library, public parks and various other infrastructure works. All these have been beneficial to its people.

But what of its future?

It has been 13 years since we achieved city status and there are murmurings among its citizens that nothing much seems to have been done.

Putrajaya’s neglect of Sarawak over the years has of course been obvious. But many here feel that Miri City has been particularly left out and considering it has an abundance of oil, this is not logical.

I am sure and would completely agree that many parts of Sarawak also need special attention, particularly our interior regions.

However, it is hard to give answers to the question of why so little of the billions of ringgit that the oil from under the city generated has not seen its way back here in terms of development.

We all, of course, understand that the revenue is to be shared throughout the country.

But surely there should be some benefits flowing back to make it stand out as an exceptional place.

There are still many unfortunate people living as squatters just a stone’s throw away from the Petronas headquarters in Miri, Lutong.

Where is the first class public hospital with all the specialists? Where is the exceptional public infrastructure, the business support systems with good seamless logistics network and various other facilities?

The downturn in the oil and gas sectors has not done Miri any good either with the loss of jobs and impact on the livelihood of people due to the consequent negative multiplier effect. 

Coupled with the slowdown in the timber sector at the same time, there is a sentiment that inaction on the part of the government will lead to a longer-term loss of confidence.

There have of course been plans to turn Miri City into a vibrant “Resort City”. This will partly ensure the widening of its economic base.

It looks like the Sarawak government has to step in to take the lead to bring Miri City to the next level.

That is why the recent visit to Miri City by our Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Johari Tun Openg brought some welcome news.

Johari said that the government will invest in the upgrading of tourism-related facilities in Miri.

The investing of some of the five percent oil royalty and some of the five percent sales tax from petroleum products will go a long way to make Miri City vibrant and strong for the long term.

It will also be good if a specific action and initiative plan for Miri is developed. The economic base of Miri City and its surrounding region need to be further diversified.

This will give the people of Miri a clear picture of the vision the Sarawak government has for the city and the types of facilities and projects that will be implemented.

These types of city-centric initiatives will also give confidence to the business community to enable them to plan and invest for the future.

The Chief Minister had also announced that Miri will have a new city hall. This project starting soon would be a good kick-start towards turning the tide in favour of Miri City.

Additional initiatives would go a long way to dispel any lack of interest or perception that Miri City is being treated as a stepchild.

It would indeed be unfortunate that the place where oil was first discovered, the very oil that has saved Malaysia many a time during economic crises is just left to gradually wither away. 

Oil will surely run out one day and investing in the early diversification needs to take place soon.

There is nothing wrong with the expectations of the approximately 300,000 people here that additional attention ought to be given to Miri City due to all the wealth generated by the oil.

It is time to get moving to ensure that Miri City really does move towards being a sustainable and vibrant city for future generations.

If Putrajaya cannot deliver after pillaging the oil, then the people of Miri City can only look to the Sarawak government to step in and fill the void.