Friday 25 April 2014

A Tale of Two Cities in Malaysia

Chance would have it I am spending a few days in Kota Kinabalu this week with my wive who, has some Dept of Education business to do in the Capital.  As I linger around the hotel, this has given me the opportunity to reflect on the stark differences between this place and the second largest city in Sabah and former capital where I live - Sandakan. 

Both cities started their life roughly the same time nearing the end of the 19th century.  Sandakan flourished quickly due to its deep harbour and access to natural resources such as rainforest hard wood. In fact it is said there were more millionaires at that time living in Sandakan than anywhere else in Asia and the wealth of the area meant it had a wire service to London and paved roads even before Hong Kong and Singapore.

Kota Kinabalu or Jesselton as it was known then, developed less spectacularly as a trading post in rubber, rattan, honey and wax. Both places were run by the British North Borneo Company in the colony known as North Borneo. World War 2 and the Japanese occupation saw both towns almost completely destroyed. By the war's end, the North Borneo company handed over the colony to the British who in turn moved the Capital to Jesselton.  Independence in the early 1960’s Jesselton got its new name and maintained its status as the state's capital.

From the lookout,  Kota Kinabalu

So what's changed in the last 60 years? In short, a lot.

Sabah is the poorest state of the 13 states of the Malaysian federation despite supplying 30% of Malaysian's palm oil and large reserves of hydrocarbons.  There are numerous reasons for this, which I won't go into here.

The rebuilding started soon after the war where the centre of both cities developed slowly replacing the mostly wooden structures that had been destroyed during the war into concrete shutter shops. 

A lot of Kota Kinabalu's commercial centre was built on reclaimed land from the sea  and being the capital of the New State of Sabah, it developed with better quality and more extensive infrastructure.  Most of Sabah's commerce is conducted here to the long term detriment of Sandakan.

Moving forward to the present. Kota Kinabalu is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with a population around the half million mark. It is the only place you can arrive in the state from overseas therefore a bulk of the tourist trade stay in the local area. Mount Kinabalu is only a 2-hour drive and there are many beaches and islands with world class  facilities.

Sandakan, on the other hand, is much more limited.  They do have some islands off the coast but these generally have received mixed reviews due to management issues.  If tourists do venture to this part of the East coast, it's for the orang utan sanctuary in Sepilok, 30 kilometres west of Sandakan or the Kinabatangan River. There is accommodation in both these places, so many visitors never reach Sandakan proper.

Where Kota Kinabalu is vibrant Sandakan is not. The population is a little less than KK but the town lacks sophistication in its makeup and infrastructure.  The centre of KK has street appeal and variety whereas Sandakan is drab and predictable. Basic services, the Internet, electricity and water break down on a frequent basis.  A lot of this of course is to do with wealth. Sandakan is a poor place. A large proportion of the town's population are illegal immigrants.  Unofficial figures estimate the illegals as high as 600,000 within Sabah. The Philippines and Indonesia are very close and due to historical reasons the borders are extremely porous. These people have taken over the old centre of the city and the immediate surrounding area and consequently there is little desire for developers to spend their money, so the area is  in a gradual state of decay. ( in some cases not so gradual) Developers in general have concentrated their efforts in establishing new infrastructure projects in the outlying suburban areas. This gives the overall impression of a disjoined city looking for its lost past. Having said all this there are plans afoot to establish a new centre 3 kilometres along the coast in an area called Sim Sim, though this does not solve the issue with the old town centre.

Traffic is a problem in both cities, but the quality of roads are much higher in KK. The national highway between Sandakan and KK is a potholed mess, consequently a 300 kilometre journey takes up to 6 hours. 

In general, cleanliness is better in KK. Litter and garbage disposal is a problem in both, but Sandakan is a far dirtier place. The rat population is enormous due to inefficient collection of refuse and the dumping of cooking waste down the open drains that flow directly into the sea. This is not to say there are not people here that are concerned about the state of the environment and try hard to make an impact, but in generally they are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. KK does a far better job at maintaining the immediate environment though litter in the surrounding sea continues to be an issue.   

Having choices is what most people want. KK wins hands down in that criteria. The restaurants and cafes cater for a more diverse segment of society. If you look hard enough you can find food and beverages that will please most.   Sandakan at best has only a handful of places that would come close to catering for a discerning connoisseur. 

So, there you have it my impressions of the two. The crown for most liveable place is firmly on the head of KK city. Sandakan’s glory days of the early 20th century are well and truly gone, but who knows the Phoenix may in one day rise from the ashes again. 

Historical Sandakan before and after World War 2

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