Dr Jeniri Amir

‘Bear in mind that countries that have the best road networks in the world have governments that had made significant investments in their countries’ infrastructure.’

– World Economic Forum report

With a population of 1.3 billion and the second largest economy in the world since 2011, China builds 10,000 kilometres of road every year. It now has over 130,000km of highways, the most in the world.

In terms of total distance of road networks, paved and unpaved, the United States tops the list in the world with 6,853,024km. Malaysia is ranked 36 out of 222 countries with 144,403km of roads and 1,821km of expressways.

Among the things I love to see whenever I travel overseas are the road systems. So I was impressed by what I saw in China, South Korea, Japan, United Arab Emirates, and Singapore.

The most recent Global Competitiveness Report on the quality of roads as posted by the World Economic Forum stated that the United Arab Emirates had the best roads with a total score of 6.4, while Mauritania was ranked last with a score of 2 points.

The length and quality of roads and highways in Sarawak have been steadily improving since construction began in 1965 after Sarawak became a member of the federation of Malaysia. Besides the 1,077-km Pan Borneo Highway (Sarawak’s First Trunk Road), the state also plans to construct the Second Trunk Road (STR).

The total length of all roads in Sarawak is approximately 51,312km comprising 30,361km of state roads, 1,541km of federal roads and 19,411km of logging roads.

The STR has been criticised by PSB president Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh. The former finance minister wants Sarawak to shelve or cancel the proposed RM6-billion project and channel the fund to more pressing rural development projects.

“We are now constructing the federal-funded Pan Borneo Highway and we are also in the process of implementing the state-funded Coastal Road Network (CRN). A further trunk road — the Second Trunk Road — is therefore really redundant, serving little purpose,” he said recently.

This was echoed by PSB Youth chief Dr Johnical Rayong who has maintained that the proposed STR was redundant and would not fully serve the needs of the state’s rural folk.

He said he supported Wong’s statement as doing away with the project would enable the state government to save RM6 billion which could be diverted to other important rural development projects.

“Is the Second Trunk Road more important than our fellow Sarawakians who do not have clean water, electricity or roads?” Rayong asked.

Is STR really redundant and would serve little purpose as claimed by Wong? Is he for real in saying that? I can’t fathom what was on his mind when he uttered the statement because it simply defies logic and common sense.

Surely Wong has seen roads in developed and underdeveloped countries. Does he want Sarawak’s coastal areas to be underdeveloped and marginalised? His justifications are simply erroneous and illogical.

Former United States President Barrack Obama believes in investing in infrastructure because facilities such as roads and bridges are developmental catalysts.

Roads not only facilitate travel and make it safe, but also have spill-over effects on areas that they cut through.

In fact, roads make crucial contributions to regional and socio-economic development. For these reasons, coastal roads envisioned by the chief minister are important public assets that will bring long term benefits to the state and its people.

Roads open up more lands and directly increase their value. In a nutshell, the Second Trunk Road can and will stimulate the economic development of the state’s coastal areas.

For a state that is as big as Malaya, it’s a daunting task to build roads in Sarawak due to its challenging topography and scattered population. But they must be built no matter what for the sake of people and the future development of the state.

With these justifications and perspectives, I am puzzled and baffled by a political leader who is out of sync with the mainstream school of thought in as far as the importance of building roads is concerned.

Bear in mind that countries that have the best road networks in the world have governments that had made significant investments in their countries’ infrastructure.

Since time immemorial, humans have always created paths and improved existing roads to hasten the movements of people and goods.

Modern societies have managed to improve the accessibility within and between regions through vast networks of roads. They have improved road construction materials such asphalt and concrete, and techniques have also become more advanced.

But in Wong we have a political leader who seems to have an anti-development mentality, which is odd because it is against the aspirations of the rural people as a whole.

We have to be clear about what we want to attain for Sarawak, and we want our political leaders to have the vision and commitment to turn Sarawak into a modern, developed, progressive and prosperous state. In this, I believe Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg has all the right attributes. He’s right in wanting to build the STR which is now being criticised by his former second finance minister.

In fact, the Coastal Road Network and the STR costing a total of RM11 billion are among the mega projects that he announced soon after he became the chief minister in 2017. He said the two projects which are ongoing will be completed within five to six years.

The Coastal Road Network will link Kuching with Samarahan, Betong, Mukah, Sarikei, Sibu, Bintulu and Miri. It will open up vast rural areas for agriculture and other economic development for the benefit of villages, longhouses and rural towns.

“Roads are the arteries through which the economic blood flows. By linking producers to markets, workers to jobs, students to schools, and the sick to hospitals, roads are vital to any development agenda,” the World Economic Forum stated.

We have to be practical. Roads and bridges have to be constructed now in rural and coastal areas. And we cannot wait until 2030 or 2050 because by then the cost will be ten times more expensive. So why delay if you can afford to build them now.

If the Chief Minister had to follow Wong’s logic, Sarawak and its coastal people won’t have any chance to see such projects in their life time. Wong’s justifications and reasons are therefore regressive and obsolete. We can’t afford to wait because time is of the essence.

Wong, I believe, is aware of the fact that it is important to connect the various parts of Sarawak especially the coastal and rural areas in order for us to progress.

Pragmatic and far-sighted steps taken by Abang Johari with his commitment to build coastal roads from the south to the north of Sarawak, in addition to the STR, should be lauded and appreciated although it is indeed a tall order. The more roads Sarawak has the better.