One man’s Milo is another’s ‘oleh-oleh’

Pasar Sebengkok in Tarakan town, North Kalimantan.
Pasar Sebengkok in Tarakan town, North Kalimantan. PHOTO: AGIL MURTHALA

(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - When Javanese Agil Murthala visited Tarakan island in North Kalimantan in 2014, a friend gave him a variety of must-buy oleh-oleh (gifts or souvenirs, the Indonesian equivalent of the Malaysian term buah tangan) – locally produced salted fish and Malaysian-made Milo.

His 30-something friend, Sukma, gave him the Milo because he believed that Indonesian visitors should try Malaysian products, imported mostly from Tawau.

Located on the east coast of Sabah, Tawau is a 40-minute plane ride or a four-hour boat ride from Tarakan island.

“Everything from Malaysia – like Apollo chocolate layer cake, Milo and Summer soap – is special,” said Agil, who now works as a doctor in Pertamedika Hospital in Tarakan town.

Back in Jakarta, proud that he got oleh-oleh from Malaysia, the Javanese invited friends to try the Milo out. It was more delicious than the Indo­nesian-made variety – thicker and with richer cocoa flavour.

To get an idea of how popular Malaysian oleh-oleh are, the 28-year-old doctor took me to Pasar Sebengkok in Tarakan town

Agil says Tarakan is well-known among Indonesians as a destination for buying Malaysian products.

Pasar Sebengkok is where visitors buy oleh-oleh. The market is a collection of warung (shops) where 90 per cent of the merchandise is from Tawau.

One of the shops is Toko Haris. Displayed prominently in the shop are household brands like Milo, Apollo, Nespray, KitKat, Nestum, King Cup sardines and Maggi Mee.

The most popular items, according to Yeti, the 37-year-old sister to Toko Haris’ Bugis owner, are Milo and Apollo cakes.

“The cake is popular because it is lagi kental (thicker) than those in Indonesia,” she said.

Agil chipped in: “Once you’ve eaten one, you will eat another until you realise that you’ve finished the entire box.”

Some of the Malaysian products, according to Yeti, were more expensive than local brands.

For example, a kilogram of Indonesian-made Milo sold in supermarkets in Tarakan is 60,000 Rupiah (S$6), whereas Malaysian-made Milo of the same weight is 70,000 rupiah (S$7).

Despite the 10,000 rupiah (S$1) difference, many locals buy the Malaysian-made Milo instead.

“The difference between some Indonesian and Malaysian products is quality,” said Yeti.

Some Malaysian products are popular because they are also cheaper as well as of better quality.

Compare Pertamina and Petronas liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Pertamina’s blue 12kg LPG cylinder costs 220,000 rupiah (S$22) while Petronas’s yellow 14kg cylinder is 290,000 rupiah (S$29).

Many Indonesians living in areas close to Tawau, like Nunukan (next to the Kalimantan/Sabah border), Pulau Sebatik (an island Malaysia and Indonesia share) and Tarakan, prefer the Petronas LPG because it lasts half a month longer than Pertamina’s product.

LPG dealers find it faster and cheaper to buy cooking gas from nearby Tawau than from faraway Surabaya via Balikpapan (where they have to pay twice the port charges).

“The Petronas LPG is better. The colour of the flame is also bluer compared to Pertamina’s,” said Pristiawan Bayuaji, a 40-year-old bank manager who previously lived in Tarakan.

The demand for Milo, Apollo and Petronas LPG indicate that Indo­nesians have confidence in Malay­sian products, said Chinese Chamber of Commerce Tawau executive adviser Lo Su Fui.

“They prefer our products because of their quality,” he said during a chat in his hometown Tawau.

Tawau is the gateway to the Northern part of Kalimantan, which is 73 per cent of Borneo, the third largest island in the world. It is also the gateway for Indonesians to the east coast of Sabah.

North Kalimantan would rather trade with Tawau, according to Lo, because of the favourable distance.

The Indonesian side of Pulau Sebatik is 16km from Tawau while Surabaya (where Indonesia’s second busiest port is located) is 1,385km.

“Tawau is in a prominent position,” said the businessman.

Indonesians have confidence in services such as education, banking and medical facilities in Tawau, the second largest town in Sabah.

There is a specialist hospital in town that caters to Indonesians.

“Indonesians across the border think that we have better medical facilities than in their hometown,” he said.

Another example is education.Parents from Kalimantan send their children to schools and a college run by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce Tawau, said Lo.

They feel Malaysian private schools offer a better quality of education, he said.

“We don’t have an international school in Tarakan, so some parents send their children to schools in Tawau,” said Taufek Made, a 35-year-old Bugis who prepares students for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) in Tarakan town.

“Jakarta and Singapore are too far, while Tawau is nearby.

“The parents also have Malaysian relatives living in Tawau to take care of their children.”

Lo said some Indonesians buy a house in Tawau so that their wife, relative or maid can take care of the kids.

The historical and trade links between North Kalimantan and the east coast of Sabah bring harmonious border prosperity for the communities from both sides of Borneo.

The border communities complement each other. It is unique, unlike other borders where the communities compete against each other.

Borneo communities can raise their Milo glasses to that. Of course, Malaysian-made.