Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk


Mt. Kinabalu’s Clipped Ear

I purchased this postcard in 2009 after completing my hike up Gunung Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain. It shows part of the route used by most climbers and the various peaks at the summit.

The profile of the mountain has altered slightly since this photo was taken. The magnitude 6.0 earthquake which occurred on 5th June last year caused one of the Donkey’s Ears to partially break off (the one on the left, I think).

You might recall that this quake, which caused 18 fatalities, was blamed, by followers of local beliefs, on a group of western tourists who unwisely stripped off at the summit, thereby angering the mountain spirits.

A more scientific cause of the earthquake would be Sabah’s proximity to seismically active plate boundaries.

Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk

Malaysia is not normally associated with earthquakes. West Malaysia is seismically stable although vulnerable to the affects of large earthquakes in Sumatra.

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The Indian Ocean plate is pushing under Sumatra, in the direction of Malaysia, at the rate of about 7cm per year. Large earthquakes occur periodically in Sumatra and have been known to cause buildings to shake in KL and Johor Bahru. Meanwhile the Philippine plate is moving westwards, towards Malaysia, at a velocity of around 8cm per year.


Sabah is classified as a moderately active area, seismically. The map above shows the location of earthquakes around Sabah in recent years. There have been 16 incidents in the past 20 years, mostly in the 4-5 magnitude range..  The biggest one ever recorded was a 6.2 magnitude quake in Lahad Datu in 1976.

Mt. Kinabalu’s 6.0 magnitude was not huge in earthquake terms but the energy released was still the TNT equivalent of 15 kilotons, similar to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Very frightening for the people who were stuck on the mountain at the time.

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This graphic helps put these events in perspective.

Mt. Kinabalu was closed to climbers for six months following the earthquake due to damage to the trails and facilities. It was reopened in December 2015 although the number of permitted climbers has been restricted to 120 per day. That will probably improve the experience – it was a little too crowded at the top when we went.



Tindakon Dazang Beach Longhouse, Kudat, Sabah

On the return leg of my trip to the Tip of Borneo I turned off the main highway in search of that perfect beach.

After a bumpy ride on a gravel track which tested my rented Honda Jazz I ended up at Tindakon Dazang Beach.

Tindakon Dazang Beach

For the adventurous traveller who wants to get away from it all and does not mind roughing it, accommodation is available in a longhouse built by the indigenous Rungus people.

Rungus Longhouse at Tindakon Dazang Beach

Individual rooms open up into a communal hall running the full length of the longhouse. Toilet and shower facilities are found in a separate concrete block nearby.

Entrance to the longhouse

This is the entrance to the longhouse with sleeping rooms on the right and the common hall on the left. Room rates and meals are, as you would imagine, very reasonably priced and for large groups they can arrange for traditional music and dancing to be performed by the Rungus tribe.

Restaurant at Tindakon Dazang Beach Longhouse

The resort’s restaurant is built on stilts above a lake.

Beach at Tindakon Dazang

As for the beach, it is not bad at all. The sand is soft and clean while the sea is thick with vivid green seaweed. This might be off-putting for some but people who pay a fortune for seaweed beauty treatments can come here instead and get the same results for free.

The longhouse has a Facebook page for anybody wishing to make a booking or enquire about rates.

Long Drive to the Tip of Borneo

Tip of Borneo Map

I was in Sabah last month to explore some more places in Malaysian Borneo. I wanted to visit the Tip of Borneo, the northern-most point of the island of Borneo, and the most northerly point of Malaysia, excluding some outlying islands.

It is located just over 200km from Kota Kinabalu airport from where I rented a car. Here are some of the points of interest I found along the way.

Rumah Terbalik

The first stop-off was to see Rumah Terbalik, the upside down house near the small town of Tamparuli.

Rumah Terbalik, Tamparuli, Sabah
Rumah Terbalik, Tamparuli, Sabah

You might wonder why anyone would go to the expense of building an upside down house and not even be able to live in it. There are actually quite a few of them in the world (Germany, Austria, Poland among other places). There’s even another one in Malaysia, in Melaka, which I guess I should go and see one of these days.

Rumah Terbalik seems to be on the itinerary of many Sabah tours and draws in a steady flow of visitors paying RM10 per person (for Malaysians) and RM18 (for foreigners) so presumably it is a profitable venture. It’s quite well organised with guided tours, a gift shop and restaurant. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the house otherwise I could show you all the household items stuck to the ceiling (the owners might want to review this policy in this selfie-obsessed age).

Rumah Terbalik, Tamparuli, Sabah
Even the car and pot plants are upside down.

Tamparuli Suspension Bridge

Next I stopped to walk across the pedestrian suspension bridge crossing the Tamparuli River in this colourful market town.

Tamparuli Suspension Bridge
The pedestrian suspension bridge is on the right while the single lane road bridge is on the left.

The suspension bridge (or hanging bridge as they are called in Malaysia) is in constant use by school kids and other pedestrians. Although it sways and bounces underfoot, its structure is quite solid but you need to keep an eye out for missing planks. More precarious looking is the road bridge, just a few feet above the river level. Bridges in Sabah have a habit of being washed away in the rainy season.

Tamparuli Suspension Bridge

At the far end of the bridge is a small memorial to two British soldiers, Private JWN Hall and Driver DC Cooper who drowned here in May 1960 while trying to negotiate this bridge in a Land Rover during a flood.

Ling San Temple, Tuaran

The next settlement of any size on this road in thinly-populated Sabah is the town of Tuaran. The population here are mostly ethnic Dusans and Bajau but the sizeable Chinese community have built themselves a very fine temple with an ornate 9 storey pagoda.

Ling San Temple and Pagoda, Tuaran
Ling San Temple and Pagoda, Tuaran

According to the plaque outside, construction of the pagoda began in 1990 and was completed in 2005.

Journey to the West character at Tuaran
A character from ‘Journey to the West’ at Ling San Pagoda.

Kampung Tenghilan

In need of some water, I stopped off at the village of Tenghilan where there is a row of half-century old wooden shops of a sort seldom seen these days.

Wooden shophouses at Kg Tenghilan, Sabah
Wooden shophouses at Kg Tenghilan, Sabah

There is a small monument here with the markings 1881-1981 and a map of Sabah, appearing to commemorate a centenary. The monument is built above a small menhir which once bore a plaque but that has been removed so its significance is unknown.

Snooker match at Tenghilan, Sabah
Rustic billiard saloon at Kg. Tenghilan

Simpang Mengayau Beach

Almost at the Tip of Borneo is a magnificent white sandy beach which must be one of the best in Malaysia and a well-kept secret.

Simpang Mengayau Beach, Tip of Borneo, Kudat, Sabah
Simpang Mengayau Beach (sometimes called Kalampunian Beach), Tip of Borneo, Kudat, Sabah

As you can see from the photo, it is not too crowded. There are no lifeguards and no facilities but there are a few places to stay (Borneo Tip Beach Lodge, Tommy’s Place etc). If you want to get away from it all you should consider this gorgeous 5km long beach which is reckoned to have the best sunsets in Borneo.

Simpang Mengayau Beach, Tip of Borneo, Kudat, Sabah
Simpang Mengayau Beach seen from the Tip of Borneo.

Tip of Borneo

Finally I reached my destination.

Tip of Borneo marker
Tip of Borneo marker.

The vegetation on this windswept headland is not typical for Malaysia.

Approach to the Tip of Borneo
Path leading to the Tip of Borneo.

Some of the sheltered coves here look more like Cornwall than the Tropics.

Sheltered Cove at Tip of Borneo
Sheltered Cove at Tip of Borneo

And here, below, is the actual Tip of Borneo with the South China Sea to the left and the Sulu Sea to the right.

Tip Of Borneo
Tip Of Borneo. Visitors are asked not to go beyond the barrier for safety reasons.

In my next post, I’ll share a few more places that I covered on my Borneo trip.

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.

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