Making oil money in northern Borneo

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The town of Bintulu in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo may be fairly small but its significance lies away from the shoreline. A relatively high proportion of its 200,000 or so inhabitants are expatriates working in the oil and gas sector which has given Bintulu the nickname of Oil Town. After the Second World War it came under British colonial rule until 1963 when it was integrated to become part of Malaysia and in the 1970s huge reserves of natural gas were discovered off the coast. Since then this sector of the economy has grown markedly and development of the deep water port area continues apace. Petronas, Malaysia’s chief oil company, has the world’s largest liquefied natural gas plant here and Shell has a huge distilling plant – the world’s first gas to liquid plant.

Bintulu market

Bintulu market

Away from the port area, though, the town seems a tad stuck in the past. The shiny malls of Kota Kinabalu have yet to make it to Bintulu and the few shopping centres which do exist have a very ‘local’ feel to them. Choice of restaurants is pretty poor and there is only one hotel which could be considered suitable for the fastidious businessperson.  However, as always in this part of the world, the locals are warm and friendly. This doesn’t disguise the fact that the place is quite dull though so it’s a good job the Borneo jungle is only a couple of hours away for exploration (see my previous post – ‘le singe est dans l’arbre’).

A short flight from Bintulu is the country of Brunei, sandwiched between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Alas, the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan, is not that much more thrilling than Bintulu.

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Brunei's capital

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Brunei’s capital

Brunei is known to many around the world because of the wealth of its sultan, once the richest man in the world before the Silicon Valley money-makers and Middle Eastern sheiks got in on the act. 90% of its GDP is derived from the oil and gas industry and, rather topically, in 2011 it was one of only two countries in the world with its public debt at 0% of its GDP. Independent from the British since 1984, the country is rather surprisingly ranked 5th globally by the IMF in terms of GDP at purchasing power parity per capita. I say surprisingly because the capital doesn’t seem to be particularly wealthy. It’s by no means poor but from what I’ve seen I’d rather be living in Kota Kinabalu if I liked spending my time in shopping malls. Bandar Seri Begawan is rather small and there are clearly pockets of society which are not seeing the oil and gas wealth. Everyone seems happy enough though.

One of my taxi drivers was a particularly happy chappy and, although he spent several of his formative years living in Southampton in the UK, he took pride in banging on about the great Manchester United. Football talk and a taxi drivers all around the world seem to go hand in hand and I always get the same reaction when I tell them I’m a Crystal Palace fan – “Haha divizhun too, divizhun too” along with a mocking smile!

Offerings from Bandar's local market

Offerings from Bandar’s local market

With Brunei being a Muslim country it is no surprise that you can’t purchase alcohol anywhere but what has come as a surprise is their detestation of smoking. Smoking is often very common in Muslim countries but here it’s almost impossible to buy cigarettes, let alone find a place where they’ll let you smoke too. So with that in mind I’m off to find a place I can – the elusive nation of Myanmar which is slowly coming back on to the world’s radar.

About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (
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2 Responses to Making oil money in northern Borneo

  1. Carl Reserve says:

    Admittedly, you are right about Bintulu Mark. Part of the problem lies in the state politics – which put too much emphasis on luring investors rather than travellers. Investors they don’t care if Bintulu has ‘shiny malls like KK’ – all they care is there enough ‘the damn dams’ to keep their smelters, plants running.’

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