Sibu-Kapit Road III: The end of the express boat industry?

Kenyalang Portraits

This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

By Lian Cheng and Ling Hui

WHILE the folks of Kapit and its hinterland including Baleh and Pelagus are obviously bathing in bliss over the new road connecting Sibu and Kapit, express boat operators, on the other hand, are drowning in sorrow.

The air felt heavy in the evening when the Sarawak 3rd, 6th and 7th Express Boats Association president Lau Hieng Choon and several other express boat owners met up with DayakDaily at a restaurant at Sungai Merah, Sibu recently.

Lau (second left) and members of the Sarawak 3rd, 6th and 7th Express Boats Association.

“There is a Foochow saying that goes ‘When there is a road, don’t take the vessel’. So we are doomed, there is no way for us to survive, we will all have to close down,” said Lau who was clearly not planning to put up a fight.

Lau who is already 72-years-old may be ready to give it up, but other younger operators are not. They are still hoping for a way out, or at least a win-win situation that would allow them to survive the expected plunge in revenue following the completion of the Sibu-Kapit road. Historically, geographically and economic-wise, the express boat industry has been a vital and undeniable part of the lives of many who live along the Rajang Basin over the last five decades and its significant impact should not be dismissed with a shrug.

Written in history

Towns and settlements along the Batang Rajang have grown and thrived in cadence with the expansion of the lumber and timber industry in the region. While in other parts of Sarawak, improved road connectivity has for the last decade weakened reliance on express boat services, Kapit which is situated about 160 km away Sibu was the exception until recently.

This is because for roads to be built, they often have to pass through native customary rights (NCR) land and mountainous terrain. Without considerable political will and financial resources, it is indeed an impossible task.

Up until the Sibu-Kapit Road was recently opened for use, Kapit residents travelled on the 100 miles of connected river ways to get around, whether as passengers or to transport goods, especially logs, in the early days.

In the 50s and 60s, it took between six to eight hours on a “motor chalo” — a type of large wooden boat commonly used by timber companies to transport goods. To meet the residents’ needs to travel, the motor chalo was later modified to ferry passengers. The design was simple — a longish wooden vessel with a bridge, a spacious hall where the sides are turned into sitting spaces, and the large space in the centre to carry goods. The engine was placed at the far end of the vessel.

For a long time, the noisy motor chalo dominated the Batang Rajang. They were indeed the Kings of the Rajang, alongside the crocodiles.

With the rise of the shipbuilding industry in Sungai Bidut in Sibu, the constant need to upgrade engines and the interior due to competition, gave rise to the express boats that ply the Batang Rajang today. Over the last five decades of being the public transport of choice (sometimes the only choice) for riverine communities, express boats have become a distinctive feature of the Central Region in Sarawak.

In the 80s, the express boat industry reached its height. According to Lau, there were more than 100 express boats plying Sarawak’s rivers then. It was during this time that the association had more than 100 members. Over time, with more roads built to link large urban areas with small towns, and small towns with interior settlements, the network of express boat routes across Sarawak slowly diminished. The process and impact has been so gradual that not many people have noticed, except perhaps those who have suffered its brunt.

Sarawak 3rd, 6th and 7th Express Boats Association president Lau Hieng Choon.

Lau is an old-timer who has been around the block, having been in the industry since he was 17 until now. He has witnessed its rise and heyday and perhaps will also see its demise, which appears to be certain if nothing is done to help sustain it.

Today, he estimates there are only about 50 express boats left, and his association’s membership has dwindled to about 30.

Widespread apathy

Express boat operator Wong Chee Kai is among those who have been put out of business by better road connectivity. He witnessed the sun fall on the industry in Baram, Bintulu and Miri, where many of his peers were forced to cease operations after towns and settlements were connected by roads.

“These areas were adversely affected earlier than us. The operators just ceased operations. Presently, only those plying the Batang Rajang are still in operation. The Batang Rajang still has the biggest fleet. But the operators now are facing the biggest challenge ever with the opening of the Sibu-Kapit Road. Failure to overcome it will bring the industry to an end.

“When we ceased operations due to road connectivity, no one knew, no one cared. Silently, we just disappeared. Some of our express boats were left to rot by the wharfs while other were sold — some locally, other overseas — depending on how resourceful the express boat owners were,” said Wong, who used to ply his trade on the Sibu-Tanjung Manis route.

For the Sibu-Tanjung Manis route, Wong collected RM10 per pax. For a one-way trip from Sibu to Tanjung Manis, the fuel needed would be about 200 litres, which meant RM370 or RM380 in terms of fuel expense. This excludes the cost for maintenance and workers’ salary.

“For me to survive, I needed at least 40 passengers per trip. And there were not many after Sibu was linked to Tanjung Manis by road, which takes only a 45-minute drive. So I had no choice but to cease operation,” said Wong.

Substantial investment

Wong’s fate is something that Nen Tak Huang, the vice-treasurer of the Sarawak 3rd, 6th and 7th Express Boats Association is trying to avoid at all cost. Nen’s fleet plies the route between Kapit to Sibu, and with the opening of the Sibu-Kapit Road, he is already feeling the impact.

On the day of our meeting, his express boat scheduled to depart at 8am from Kapit for Sibu carried only 10 passengers. The return trip in the afternoon only saw eight passengers. For a trip from Kapit to Sibu or vice versa, a passenger is charged RM25 for economy class, RM30 for business class and RM35 for super deluxe class.

Every such trip made with underutilised capacity incurs a hefty loss of about RM1,000 for Nen. These sleek and streamlined express boats are known to be fast and furious but that comes with a price. They easily consume about 1,200 litres of fuel on a return trip between Sibu to Kapit.

“An express boat can take about 100 passengers each time. To cover the cost of fuel, we need to have a 70 per cent capacity to make a profit. At the rate things are going where every trip we make means a loss of RM1,000, it will not take us much time to decide to cease operating,” said Nen.

The express boat business is not as lucrative as many outsiders imagine. First of all, the cost of purchasing an express boat ranges between RM800,000 to RM 1 million.

Express boats docked at the Sibu Wharf.

“People imagine that we are making a lot of money. Actually, we are not. First of all, we have to inject the big capital of buying the express boat. And for this capital that we spend, we collect it back little by little through collecting RM25 per passenger each time, each trip. It means we have to make many trips just to make back the RM800,000 to RM1 million which we have invested,” said Wong.

Then there’s fuel taking up a large chunk of operation cost and that has always been the biggest issue for operators. In 2005, the government stepped in to give fuel subsidies to express boat operators, where diesel price was fixed at RM1.878 per litre. When fuel price rose beyond this point, the government subsidised the difference. However, this time round, express boat operators are facing a much bigger challenge with fuel subsidies not being enough to see them through.

Express boat owners also faced their biggest competition in ‘van sapu’ (passenger vans for hire) which are already lurking in Kapit town. ‘Van sapu’ ride charges are cheaper and passengers can be sent to the doorstep of their longhouses, something that express boat operators can never do.

“A ‘van sapu’ is much cheaper to acquire, so they can afford to charge their passengers RM10 or RM15 per trip. In no time, they will earn back what they have invested. But we can’t, because our capital is just too huge and the fuel consumption is just too big,” said Wong.

‘Van sapu’ may have the disadvantage of being hot and uncomfortable, but express boat operators also know that in no time, long-distance buses or coaches which offer the same comforts as the express boat will enter the picture. At their wit’s end, the express boat operators’ only hope lies with the government, and a letter was recently sent to the Transport Ministry to request for a dialogue to hear them out.

“The government has been helping the bus industry; we hope it will extend the same help to us. After all, not all the settlements along the Batang Rajang are reachable by spur roads,” said Nen.

Uncertain future

No one should question what benefits road connectivity can bring to a community and road connectivity is a basic right that any government should provide. No one should therefore question the Sibu-Kapit Road, a road which the people of Kapit and in surrounding settlements have been looking forward to for the last five decades.

Perhaps, the only question which remains is, what about the express boat industry which has been an integral part of the lives of many who were born and grew up in the Central Region? Should the industry be left to fend for itself and die a natural death or should the government intervene so that those living along the Batang Rajang whose settlements have yet to be connected with spur roads may continue to be able to go to Sibu or other towns using the river?

From a heritage perspective, should the government continue to help to preserve the distinctive sight of express boats racing along the mighty Rajang River, as part of Sarawak’s heritage? These are questions that can only be answered by the governments, both federal and Sarawak.

This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

— DayakDaily