Malaysia's trade minister Darell Leiking keen to draw economic growth to his turf in East Malaysia

Malaysia's trade minister Darell Leiking plans to drum up business for two East Malaysia states through the East Asean Growth Area.
Malaysia's trade minister Darell Leiking plans to drum up business for two East Malaysia states through the East Asean Growth Area.ST PHOTO: TRINNA LEONG

KUALA LUMPUR - Darell Leiking, a Malaysian federal minister from Sabah is keen to use his International Trade and Industry portfolio to drum up business for the two East Malaysia states that often complained about being sidelined by central government.

One way he plans to do this is by pushing a 24-year-old subregional economic cooperation, using his trip this week to Jakarta to meet officials to discuss the East Asean Growth Area, or BIMP-EAGA.

"I'll be going to Jakarta, this is an opportunity to talk about East Malaysia and that (economic) belt," he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

Mr Leiking, 47, is one of four East Malaysia politicians appointed as full ministers in the Mahathir Mohamad administration.

The BIMP-EAGA, which stands for Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines - East Asia Growth Area, was launched in 1994 during the first prime ministership of Tun Mahathir.

The economic initiative is meant to accelerate economic growth in Brunei, and the periphery regions of the other three countries - Indonesia's Kalimantan province, southern Phillipines and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

The BIMP-EAGA plan has its ups and downs over the last two decades, but is not seen today as a priority in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur or Manila.

This is partly due to business worries over lack of connectivity in the area, with companies placing transport and logistics costs among its top concerns in operations, according to a 2017 report on business perceptions by the Asian Development Bank.

The minister wants to change this view by pushing Malaysia's three-month old government to take notice of East Malaysia.

"A lot of things allocated to Sabah, Sarawak were out of necessity rather than obligation. I hope this new federal government led by Pakatan Harapan would not look at us as handout states but giving it because it's their obligation," he told The Straits Times.

"We deserve development because you can see how vast the disparity is in Sabah, Sarawak".

Among Malaysia's 13 states, Sabah and Sarawak placed 13th and 11th respectively in terms of incidence of poverty among , according to a 2012 finding by Department of Statistics. Kelantan was at Number 12 that year.

Gross domestic product (GDP) growth has been flat for Sarawak since 2014 while in Sabah, it fluctuated but increased overall.

Sabah's GDP grew by 8.2 per cent last year and Sarawak's by 4.7 per cent, compared to a 5.9 per cent expansion for the whole of Malaysia.

Citing the example of difficulty in getting loans by local businesses in these states, Mr Leiking believes that largely stems from the lack of understanding towards the area and its people.

"How can you compare Kuala Lumpur and (Sabah's capital) Kota Kinabalu? It's two different worlds," he adds, "I would like these huge banks to allow its state executives make decisions".

Mr Leiking moots the idea of a state bank for Sabah, that isn't focused on merchants alone.

"We have to relook into where our own local needs can be attended to by people who understand the ground," he says, adding: "We need to restart Sabah's economy".

ltrinna@sph.com.sg