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By Muhammad Ammar Shafiq Hamzah
KUCHING, June 24 (Bernama) -- Save for a few bumpy stretches, the 750-km drive from Kuching to Miri was smooth.
The three days of driving, with night stops in Sibu and Bintulu, unveiled the sheer vastness of Sarawak. I would have passed through eight states if I had driven that distance – from Perlis to Johor – in Peninsular Malaysia!
I must say that the almost-completed Pan Borneo Highway in Sarawak did not disappoint.
Slowly, but surely, Sarawak is realising a decades-old dream.
The state’s first phase of the Pan Borneo Highway of over 2,000 kilometres across the northern length of Borneo Island is approaching full completion.
The highway snakes through forests and across rivers.
Occasionally, one passes by the ‘Rumah Panjang’, the traditional longhouses, of the indigenous people of Sarawak.
At some stretches where the highway merges with the existing roads, traffic can be busy. At others, one gets the feeling that one is alone, with just nature for company.
Although still under construction, the condition of the highway is relatively good and in some stretches, one can confidently cruise smoothly like the cars in commercial promotions on TV.
Some stretches are bumpy, where a pickup truck would have done better.
The announcement in 2015 of the start of construction for the Sarawak phase of the Pan Borneo Highway, an idea hatched in the 1960s, was greeted with joy by Sarawakians.
For them, it was a dream about to come to fruition. It was more than a highway connecting all the communities along the route. It would be a trigger for many economic spinoffs.
A change of federal government in 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic caused a delay. Phase One of the project, costing RM16.117 billion, was to have been completed in 2021. Now it is 85 per cent complete.
Senior Works Minister Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof is confident that 20 of the 25 sections in the first phase of the Sarawak Pan Borneo Highway, spanning 786 kilometres from Telok Melano to Miri, are expected to be fully completed this year.
The remaining five sections, namely Bukit Begunan, Spaoh, Lambir, Tatau and Sarikei, are expected to be ready in April next year, he told reporters recently. Phase Two of the Pan Borneo Highway, from Limbang to Lawas, is expected to be ready by 2028.
Fadillah said the contractors of these five sections of the highway are facing several issues, including a shortage of manpower and a higher cost of construction materials following the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the pandemic hit, many workers returned to their countries of origin, leaving the contractors to manage with only 70 per cent of their original workforce, he explained.
“Apart from that, the supply of raw materials such as stones and sand has been affected by the closure of quarries and mines. The higher costs of diesel and steel are also having an impact,” he said.
John Lee Chin Seng, the project advisor of Musyati Sdn Bhd, one of the contractors, said higher palm oil prices had drawn away workers from the construction sector to the plantation sector.
He said the labour shortage had delayed the company’s project but he is optimistic the job can be completed.
“Our strategy now is to utilise all our manpower and finish those parts of the project that involve much traffic flow so as to avoid congestion. Once we are settled with these junctions, we will concentrate on the other parts of the project,” he said.
Acknowledging the problem, the Ministry of Works has given its commitment to assisting the struggling contractors. Discussions are ongoing with the Ministry of Finance to find the best solution to address the rising cost of construction materials.
Besides, the government has also approved some 14,000 applications to recruit migrant construction workers. This is expected to help several delayed construction projects, including the Pan Borneo Highway.
Although yet to be fully completed, the Pan Borneo Highway is already having a positive impact as is visible along the 786-km highway from Telok Melano to Miri. Economic activities are thriving, connecting cities with the rural areas and communities.
For Sarawakians, the highway is not just a road of asphalt, aggregates and sand but a dream to be realised, even if it has to be achieved brick by brick.
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