Sandakan town was used to be called the Little Hong Kong of South East Asia as it was inhabited by mostly migrants from Hong Kong. It was the richest, the busiest town, the capital of British North Borneo until Jesselton was declared as the new capital in 1946.
I was 7 years old when my dad who works at Telekom Malaysia was transferred there from Kota Kinabalu. Sandakan became my hometown until I was 18 years before we moved to Tenom. Recently, I went back to Sandakan for a work trip, and I was really surprised to see its development. High stories condominiums, new buildings, new roads and some developed business and leisure centres. But, the old town centres, buildings and premises all the way to Bandar Leila is like a Ghost Town.
I remembered when I was young, the town centres was one of the busiest town in Sabah back in the 90's. The streets were bustling with crowds of so many races, and the shops was mostly operated by the Chinese. When I did get a chance to drive through the town, I was really surprised to notice that most of the shops has already closed down, and you can hardly see any Chinese walking down the streets. At around 4pm, the streets that usually thronged with people going to Wisma Sandakan and to the market is practically empty.
I drove through Bandar Leila to Batu Sapi for a tender briefing, most of the buildings has been closed down or empty, only a few workshops is still operating. Apartments and the other old buildings has not been maintained and seems like not a single soul is living in it. Simply to say, the old Sandakan town all the way to Bandar Leila looks like a scene of a dead town in the TV Series, The Walking Dead.
I couldn't help but to ask my old friends who are still residing in Sandakan about the condition of the town. When we were young, we loves to "lepak" or loitering around the town until 8pm or 9pm, and then took the last bus to go home. There was nothing to be scared or afraid of, and the shops and restaurants opens at least until 10pm. Then my friend told me the 2 main things that prevent people from going to the town centre.
● Scared of the Abu Sayyaf abduction.
● High parking space tickets.
It all started in May 2015, when 2 people was abducted for ransom by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group from a very popular restaurant, about 3km from Sandakan town. They came by boat, armed with rifles and guns, abducted their victims and then sped off to the nearest Philipine's island about 30mins boat ride. Once the ransom was paid, the lady was returned safely, but unfortunately the man was murdered. Since the incident, people living near the area and along the road going to the town started to flee (mostly Chinese). Busines, premises and houses are sold, and they move further inland away from the sea, some even migrated to Kota Kinabalu or Kuala Lumpur.
The conditions became worst when the Sandakan City Council implemented the parking coupon. Residents found it too expensive and soon lesser and lesser people are going to the town. They rather go to Bandar Kim Fung and the other newly developed business centres where it is much more safer and has free parkings. It is such a shame and a waste to see most of the shops that was established since the 50's and the 60's has to close down just because customers are getting less. I saw a building where I used to shop for my clothings is now closed. The entrance is tightly shut with roller shutters and the glass windows are smashed. It is a sad sight.
Remembering back all those good memories of the Sandakan town almost makes me in tears. I just can't believe that the town that I used to love, deteriorated so much and became such a scary place to be. I hope someday, someone will be able to rejuvenate it back just like during its glory days. At the moment, unfortunately, the Sandakan town is no more the Little Hong Kong of Southeast Asia.