One of the key pillars of Vision 2035, the long-term blueprint for the future of Brunei Darussalam, is to encourage investment in downstream industries as well as in economic clusters beyond the oil and gas industry To support this ambitious plan, the state is working to boost the country's transport system and thus allow a more effective transfer of raw materials and goods, while also developing the country as a cargo transit hub for the region.
Transport infrastructure was made one of the priorities of Brunei Darussalam's 9th National Development Plan (NDP), which covers the five-year period from 2007 to 2012. Under the latest NDP, 7.5% of the total budget of $6.5bn was allocated to the construction or upgrading of road, aviation and maritime facilities, a percentage only exceeded by the funding to be provided for the national housing programme, information and communication technology, and education.
A further $200m, the budget for the development of the integrated container port, export processing zone and manufacturing hub at Pulau Muara Besar (PMB), could be added to the figure set aside in the NDP for transport infrastructure.
PMB is a long-term project of the Brunei Economic Development Board (BEDB), the state's leading agency for promoting investment, growth and diversification of the national economy. Located on a 955-ha island, which will be expanded to 2000 ha through land reclamation, PMB is to be developed in a series of stages, the first being dredging of a 16-metre deep channel that would allow large vessels access to the port basin. This will be followed by the construction of a 660-metre long quay with cargo-handling facilities that will give a minimum capacity of 800,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) per year.
Later stages of the project will see the length of the port's quays extended to 5000 metres, with additional cargo-handling equipment to match, and a further deepening of the entrance channel and basin to a depth of 20 metres.
The Surbana consortium of Singapore has been contracted to prepare the master plan for the port, with tenders for major infrastructure contracts scheduled to be called in mid-2010 and awarded in November 2010. With a total planned budget of $1.5bn, of which $300m is for the first stages, the PMB development is one of the largest projects ever undertaken in the country.
The new port will replace the existing Muara Container Terminal (MCT), which has the capacity to handle 220,000 TEUs a year, as Brunei Darussalam's main cargo-handling facility. In late May, Philippines-based firm International Container Terminal Services Inc. (ICTSI) formally took over the running of MCT, having been awarded a four-year contract to operate and maintain the port in October 2008. Under its contract, ICITSI will also be involved in the design process for PMB and will operate the port when completed.
While the MCT will no longer be Brunei Darussalam's premier maritime facility, it is expected to still serve as the sultanate's main port for dry and bulk cargo handling, no small matter for a country that has to import up to 80% of its food requirements. There may also be a greater emphasis on passenger services, in line with Brunei Darussalam's plans to expand its tourism industry. In 2008, the port at Muara hosted 20 cruise ships, carrying some 16,000 passengers, figures officials project will double this year.
When announcing the initial agreements with Surbana and ICTSI in mid October, Timothy Ong, the acting chairman of the BEDB, said the objective of the project was to develop PMB as the leading port in Borneo and the Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia Malaysia the Philippines -East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) region.
"The PMB project will transform the Muara area and expected to generate economic benefits and opportunities to the people of Muara and Brunei Darussalam as a whole. We believe there is no reason why the country, with its resources and strategic location, should have the smallest port on the island of Borneo," he said.
Brunei Darussalam's existing port is a long way from being the largest maritime cargo handling facility on the island of Borneo, with the MCT coming a distant third behind the port of Sepangar in Malaysia's Sabah state, which has an annual capacity of 500,000 TEU containers, and Sarawak's Bintulu Port, which can shift 400,000 containers a year.
While the new PMB facility will easily eclipse the other Borneo ports, it will still be dwarfed by the nearby port of Singapore, the largest and busiest container and transshipment harbour in the world with the capacity to handle more than 23m TEUs a year. Singapore is also a major port of call for ships taking on supplies of oil and consumables, another role Brunei Darussalam hopes the PMB will fulfill when operational.
It may prove to be hard for the country to wrest a substantial amount of trade away from the well-established ports of Singapore, and few believe that PMB could become the main trans-shipment hub in the region. However, with carefully managed investments and skillful operations it could attract any overflow from its neighbour as well as becoming the leading port of Borneo and the immediate catchment area.