Kudat Town

Continuing on from my last post, the closest settlement of any size to the Tip of Borneo is Kudat, a town of modest charms.

Old wooden shophouses in Kudat Town
Old wooden shophouses in Kudat Town

Difficult to imagine, but this place was once the capital of North Borneo, indeed the first capital, established in 1881. K.G. Tregonning, in his book Under Chartered Company Rule writes of Kudat:

Great hopes were held of it … These high hopes did not eventuate…A small town grew there, but it was always a sleepy hollow and in 1883 (the capital) moved to bustling Sandakan.

Sleepy hollow is probably still a fair description. There are signs of life around the fish and vegetable market but otherwise this town remains pretty sleep-inducing (but maybe I’m being unfair).

Kudat Clocktower
Kudat Clocktower

One of the reasons why Kudat and the surrounding area never took off under British North Borneo (Chartered) Company (BNBCC) rule was due to a lack of workers. The indigenous Rungus people were far too smart to take on the back-breaking hard labour that the British had in mind. BNBCC tried importing Hakka workers from southern China and offered them free passage, tools and plots of land. This was partly successful and many went on to establish coconut and other plantations but others preferred to open shops.

Chinese Temple in Kudat
Chinese Temple in Kudat

Less well-remembered these days were attempts by the British to bring in Filipino workers and, in 1892, Philippine national hero Jose Rizal visited Sandakan to discuss establishing a Filipino rice-growing colony in Borneo of some 5,000 families. Due to opposition from the Spanish authorities in Manila and other reasons this proposal never came to fruition.

Jollibee Logo on Malaysian Fishing Boat
This Jollibee logo on a Malaysian fishing boat in Kudat is evidence of Filipino influence.

Rizal’s scheme might have failed but today Filipinos are in Sabah in vast numbers – between 800,000 and 1.4 million depending on whom you listen to. Many of these are undocumented (illegal) migrants who arrived by short boat trips from the southernmost Philippine islands which are only a stone’s throw away.

Aerial view of one of Sabah's many water villages, many of which are home to undocumented migrants.
Aerial view of one of Sabah’s many water villages, many of which are home to undocumented migrants. This one is in Kudat town.

Many of these illegals have settled in water villages (ramshackle huts on stilts above the sea) which cling to the coasts of Sabah like iron filings to a magnet.

I digress. What other attractions are there in Kudat which I can tell you about?

Town centre, Kudat
Town centre, Kudat

There is a golf club said to be oldest in Borneo, there’s a clock tower, a fish market and the Esplanade where seafood restaurants attract the locals in the evening.

View of fishing boats at Kudat Esplanade
View of fishing boats at Kudat Esplanade

On the outskirts of town is the airport, built on the old airfield which was constructed by the Japanese during WWII using forced labour from Java and locally. The airfield was heavily bombed by the Americans towards the end of the war.

Kudat Airport
A sleepy airport for a sleepy town. It is served by MAS Wings flights from Kota Kinabalu.

About 11km north of Kudat town is Bak Bak beach. It is not great for sand but has some interesting rock formations to explore.

Bak Bak Beach, Kudat
Bak Bak Beach, Kudat

Kudat Town is nice and peaceful and the people are friendly but if I were to return to this corner of Malaysia again I would concentrate on the Tip of Borneo and Simpang Mengayau beach.

Bak Bak Beach, Kudat
Bak Bak Beach on a weekday.

North Borneo – What a Way to Run a Country!

Stamp Showing Location Of British North Borneo

North Borneo (now the Malaysian state of Sabah) was, by the 1940s, the last country in the world to be still run by a private company – the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company.

Over the centuries there have been many examples of companies administering territories, the most famous of which was the Honourable East India Company which ruled vast swathes of India until the British Government took over responsibility in 1858 following the Indian Mutiny.

Other examples were the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie which ran the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the British South Africa Company (Rhodesia and Zambia), the Portuguese Companhia de Mocambique and the German New Guinea Company.

Some of the chartered companies were very exploitative, interested only in generating profits by any means including slavery (English Royal African Company) and the opium trade (East India Company).

Others, such as the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company (BNBCC), were more benevolent towards their subjects and were careful to retain the goodwill and cooperation of the local population on whom the company’s survival depended.

British North Borneo Bank Note

In the mid 19th century, when Western nations were scrambling to acquire more colonies, North Borneo was still a blank on the map, nominally owned by the Sultan of Brunei although the Sultan of Sulu controlled part of it.

An American adventurer managed to hoodwink the Sultan of Brunei into ceding North Borneo to him in return for the promise of certain payments. There followed an attempt to establish an American colony. When that failed, the cession papers changed hands and the territory could easily have ended up as a German, Austrian or Italian colony, all of whom were sniffing around at the time. Instead the BNBCC was formed in 1881 to administer the territory of North Borneo over which it had acquired sovereign rights.

Badge of British North Borneo

When you think about it, running a country as a profit making enterprise is not a bad economic model:

  • A company cannot waste money on armies and wars, since that would be the fastest way of destroying shareholder value. (Having said that, the East India Company of course did have its own armies and fought many wars but that was not the case in Borneo).
  • A company has every incentive to keep its expenses low. North Borneo was run by a tiny cadre of dedicated British administrators whose living conditions were quite basic and salaries were by no means generous.
  • A company has to keep its books balanced and avoid building up huge long term deficits. Pity that countries like UK are not subject to the same fiscal discipline!
Photo showing the damage caused to Sandakan by Allied bombing in 1945.
Photo showing the damage caused to Sandakan by Allied bombing in 1945.

The disadvantage of having a country run by a company was that BNBCC simply did not have the financial resources either to fully develop the territory or to ensure its survival in the case of a catastrophic event. That catastrophe for North Borneo was World War Two. Not only did the Company lose all its revenue during the Japanese occupation (1942-45) but its senior staff and their families were all imprisoned and subject to terrible treatment and some perished. The Japanese wrecked the economy and stripped Borneo of anything of value. In a final blow both Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) and Sandakan were reduced to ashes by allied bombing in the dying months of the war (with hindsight, was that really necessary?).

When the war ended BNBCC surveyed the ruins of their territory and realised that they did not have the resources needed to put North Borneo back on its feet so they had to seek help from the British Government. North Borneo was run as a British Crown Colony for a while until it joined with Malaya and Sarawak to form Malaysia in 1963.

British North Borneo Orang Utan Stamp

Trees, Tigers and Too Many Kids–One Is Enough

The famous author Agnes Newton Keith, who wrote Land Below the Wind and other books about her life in Sandakan, was married to Harry Keith, Conservator of Forests for North Borneo (now Sabah, Malaysia).

A huge log being placed on a railroad car at B...
A huge log being placed on a railroad car at Batottan, British North Borneo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Harry was a dedicated official and passionate about the need to sustainably manage North Borneo’s forest reserves. The British North Borneo (Chartered) Company, which was running the territory at the time, derived the bulk of its income from the sale of logging permits. No doubt Borneo’s vast forestry reserves seemed inexhaustible but even as early as the 1940s, Harry could see that continued rampant logging activity was not sustainable.

Despite his best efforts however you would have to conclude that he and his successors ultimately failed in their role as conservators of forests because Sabah today is pretty much logged-out.

How can that be you might ask? Isn’t it true that 48.8% of Sabah’s total land area (7,362,000 ha) is classified as Forest Reserve? That is true but of that total, only 342,216 ha (4.6% of Sabah’s total land area) is classed as Protection Area in which logging is not permitted. A further 90,386 ha (1.22%) is considered as Virgin Jungle Forest where logging is strictly prohibited but in practice illegal logging has taken place.  The majority of the Forest Reserve is categorized as Production Forest and can be, and has been,  ‘selectively logged’ under licence.

This WWF graphic illustrates what is happening all over Borneo. (Sabah is in the top right corner.)


When Harry Keith retired in 1950, North Borneo’s forest cover was still fairly intact but by the 1980s logging was at its peak and Sabah was exporting 12 million cubic metres of timber per year, much of it to Japan to be turned into plywood and disposable chopsticks. Presumably  the remains are now lying rotting in Japanese landfills. An ignoble end to once mighty trees!

Some trees have fared better. It is said that logs from Sandakan were used in the construction of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.


By the early 2000s, Sabah’s timber exports had dwindled significantly mainly due to depletion of forests and Japanese and other lumber trading firms had moved on to new sources like Papua New Guinea.

I do not wish to sound too gloomy. Forests can recover. If all humans left Sabah tomorrow the jungle would return to its former glory in 250 years or so. But that is too long a time horizon for businesses to consider and as for politicians, they know that future generations do not have a vote so who cares if their world is wrecked?

As for the future of wild animals, I’m afraid I am very pessimistic. They are doomed. Already they are virtually extinct outside of zoos and wildlife parks, not just in Borneo but all over the developing world. The only creatures which can thrive in today’s overcrowded world are rats, cockroaches, flies and ants.

WWF Logo

Organizations like WWF are wasting their time. The battle for pandas, tigers, elephants, rhinos and the like is lost. Instead WWF should turn its attention to tackling the source of this and so many other problems, and that is global over-population. This is a glaring issue but no governments, apart from China’s, seem willing to do anything about it. On the contrary, many countries are actively encouraging their citizens to have more children.

In my view the United Nations should set a target to half the world’s population over the next 100 years or so. Every country should adopt a One is Enough child policy and use a combination of incentives and deterrents to achieve it such as:

  • removal of child benefits
  • free or subsidised schooling for first child only
  • lower income tax for those couples with only one child or no children

Ok, I admit I am being hypocritical here as I have three children but I have only recently become convinced that having a smaller world population would solve so many of the problems facing the planet. I’ll encourage my children to have one or less kids.