THE last time an Indonesian president visited Kuching was back in 2003. That time, Megawati Sukarnoputri was in town when a good part of Sarawak was in the throes of the annual haze from large-scale open burning across the border in Kalimantan.
Not much had changed from the time when President Sukarno’s daughter herself became president and when his long-serving successor, President Suharto, occupied Jakarta’s Istana Merdeka whence he issued, in the late 1990s, a formal apology for the great health distress and other affliction caused to people by the haze across much of the region.
This, despite the fact that two post-reformasi presidents had already preceded Megawati.
Not much also happened on the haze front in the decade when Megawati’s successor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was in power, adding to the simmering resentment felt across the region over Indonesia’s rather cavalier efforts towards containing the serious environmental problem.
But when President Joko Widodo lands in Kuching again later next month for a regular summit with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the first thing the Indonesian president’s official host should probably do is to extend the heartfelt appreciation of many in Sarawak (as well as others in the rest of Malaysia) for the first haze-free year in decades!
Joko, or Jokowi to most Indonesians, came into office after a hard-fought election, with huge expectations that the former furniture trader will really shake up Indonesian politics and change things for the better.
The far-flung archipelago being what it is, popular expectations are sooner or later going to be met with reality, and it seems no different for an Indonesian president who came into office with such a groundswell of goodwill, both domestically and internationally.
But a haze-free 2017 is by no means just a fluke of nature. When haze first occurred under Jokowi’s watch, he typically swung into action, personally going on-site to understand how it happened and what needed to be done to stop it for good.
He promised later to lick the scourge in three years and has delivered in good time.
Of course, the Indonesian president was not just acting the bit of international statesman when he promised and delivered on action to combat the haze, something that even Asean — with its perhaps inevitable rule by committee enforced even by a regional treaty on transboundary haze — has found elusive.
What Jokowi had brought to the table was the requisite political will to solve a problem decades in the making, and damaging not just to his country’s international reputation, but most of all, to the health and wellbeing of ordinary Indonesians in its provinces most badly affected by the annually-recurring smog.
Haze aside, Jokowi had also visited Entikong, the only international land border crossing that Indonesia shares with Tebedu in Sarawak, aside from another it shares with Timor Leste.
The once provincial trader that is Jokowi must have been particularly keen on how to turn the promise of the border crossing as a thriving trading outpost into full reality. The promise has, thus far, mostly been unrealised and, one suspects, mostly owing to bureaucratic foot-dragging on the Indonesian side.
Truly free trade ultimately benefits people wherever and whenever it is allowed to develop, unhindered by needlessly onerous rules which are little more than reflections of the protectionist impulses of local officials.
As with the haze problem, Jokowi may chalk up another feather on his cap quite easily by brushing aside local naysayers and turning the Entikong-Tebedu border checkpoint into a free-trade zone, even on an experimental period of say, a decade.
The Sarawak-West Kalimantan border may be largely an invisible and imaginary line, but its economic consequences for people living on either side are stark.
A clear example shows up at Telok Melano in Sematan, on the western-most tip of Borneo where Sarawak and West Kalimanan meet, and the new Pan-Borneo Highway begins.
It is one of the few locations in Sarawak that boasts crystal-clear seas and promises to be even more of a tourism draw than it is now, once easy road accessibility to Kuching becomes reality. Buyers are snatching up land there, reportedly at RM70,000 per acre or more.
Just across the Indonesian side from Telok Melano, being touted as “Bali II” and with a road being built right up to the Sarawak border, similar prime beach-fronting lands are also up for grabs, but for just a third of what they fetch on the Sarawak side.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak