Indonesia and Malaysia’s Tunnel to Nowhere

The Indonesian and Malaysian governments are jointly proposing to spend RMB15 billion (US$4.5 billion) to build 17.5 km tunnel that could well be a passageway to nowhere by two governments that can hardly afford it

Plans, still in the development stage, have been mooted to construct the tunnel to link the small Indonesian island of Karimun in the Sumatran province of Riau with Kukup, a Malaysian fishing town located 69 km away from Johor Bahru, the capital of Johor.

On the Malaysian side, Kukup makes a certain amount of sense. Although it is a small fishing town, it is in fact a strategic site as other major cities including Johor Bahru, Melaka, Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Singapore are not too far away and are served with relatively good highway connections that link them to Kukup.

However, on the Indonesian side Pulau Karimun, with Tanjung Balai as its largest town, is not similarly strategic as its population is only around 175,000. Tanjung Balai is neither a major city nor a tourist destination and is distant from other main Indonesian cities like Jakarta, Semarang, Pekanbaru, Medan, Palembang and Padang. It isn’t served with a good network of expressways or bridges connecting it with these other cities.

The proposed plan would only be practically viable if it connects Kukup with another major city or cities in Indonesia, particularly Jakarta – more than 1,000km away while Medan, Sumatra’s largest, is situated approximately 700kms away from Pulau Karimun.

The Johor-Riau Link Following criticisms against a wildly expensive Strait of Malacca Bridge, the tunnel plan has been put forward as a more viable option to link Malaysia and Indonesia. Unlike the Strait of Malacca Bridge, estimated to cost around RM44.3 billion, this project is said to be more cost-effective and viable.

Construction would take to five years and would be the first undersea link to connect two countries in the region. The tunnel is not a stand-alone link as it would be complemented by a number of proposed bridges connecting Pulau Karimun and the islands in the Riau province all the way to Kuala Kampar on the island of Sumatra that would stretch as far as 69 km.

The construction wouldn’t disrupt the traffic flow of transiting vessels in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore which at the moment accommodates more than 70,000 vessel movements per year. This tunnel would facilitate economic growth of both Malaysia and Indonesia as the Riau province does not only possess large oil and natural gas reserves, it is also home to the biggest palm oil plantations in Indonesia, some of which are owned by Malaysian companies.

It is not entirely clear whether the proposed undersea link is a railway or a road tunnel. However, given that the Malaysian railroad network does not cover Kukup and that rail service is not available in Pulau Karimun, the 17.5km link may likely be in the form of a road tunnel.

A Tunnel Without a Destination? The construction of this tunnel may spark a number of controversial issues, the biggest of which is whether it could really foster any economic benefit. Would the level of cost involved in constructing the tunnel be justified by subsequent usage? The cost would result in high debt liabilities for both Malaysia and Indonesia which would be passed on to tunnel users in higher tolls.

In contrast to the Channel Tunnel in Europe or the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line in Japan, both Malaysia and Indonesia are developing states and do not enjoy the relatively high standards of living of Europe or Japan. Malaysia is already saddled with a fiscal debt approaching 55 percent of GDP. If the toll imposed on the tunnel is too expensive, the public at large may refrain from using it and may revert to using ferries and boats to cross the Strait of Malacca.

It is an acceptable fact that the tunnel may appear to be a viable inter-country link. However, unless both the Malaysian and Indonesian authorities could provide efficient security surveillance, driving across the tunnel may seem to dangerous. If there is not much vehicle traffic, drivers may likely then be exposed to hijacking and other criminal activities. The substantial length would make it difficult for the authorities to maintain the safety and security of drivers.

Furthermore, like as has occurred in the UK, the Johor-Riau link may also be utilised by asylum seekers or illegal immigrants to enter Malaysia or Indonesia hence, jeopardising the territorial integrity of both nations.

Flying: Better Option With the emergence of many budget airlines like Air Asia, Sriwijaya Air and Batik Air in the region that provide affordable flight services, flying is likely to be the preferred method of transportation. It is in fact more practical for Indonesians that reside in Jakarta or other parts of Java, wishing to come to Malaysia to fly directly to Kuala Lumpur instead of driving a long way to Sumatra to catch a ferry to Pulau Karimun, and only then use the tunnel to reach Malaysia. For Malaysians that intend to go to Sumatra or Java, flying would be the preferred option over using the proposed tunnel as it is a cheaper mode of transportation and not as time consuming.

The Johor-Riau Link is an ambitious project that mighttransform the economic scenario of both Johor and Riau. However, taking these considerations into account, having a tunnel connection between Kukup and Pulau Karimun is not likely to boost economic growth between the two nations. Unless highways in Sumatra are being upgraded providing a bridge link between Sumatra and Pulau Karimun, this proposed tunnel may not be able to serve its purpose as a connector of two major countries in Southeast Asia, ultimately serving as a tunnel without destination.

(Mohd Hazmi bin Mohd Rusli is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and an associate fellow at the Institute of Oceanography and Environment, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu.)