TAUSUG trader Bairolla Ajir from Jolo, Sulu, has built a comfortable life for herself selling ripe Philippine mangoes for the past 18 years.
Anzhar Muhali of Siasi, Sulu, on the other hand, has found his niche as a tailor, while Heife Airane has found her fortune in selling cosmetics and whitening products over the past 20 years.
They are just a few of the estimated 100,000 Filipinos, the majority from Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan, who now call Sandakan, a town in the north Bornean state of Sabah, their home.
The proximity and cultural link between the southern islands of the Philippines and Sandakan, Sabah, resulted in brisk trade between the two communities that has continued to flourish centuries after the first goods were exchanged.
That trade entered a new phase in 1994 with the formation of the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area.
BIMP-Eaga was set up to encourage trade, tourism and investments among the four countries, and one offshoot was the start of shipping services between the southern islands of the Philippines and Sandakan.
Every Monday and Thursday, about 100 passengers from Zamboanga, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu board a Weesam boat for the 12-hour trip to Sandakan, Malaysia, bringing with them hopes of better employment and trade opportunities.
Almost at the same time, another boat operated by Aleson Shipping Co. leaves the port of Zamboanga for Sandakan, filled with passengers and traders with their cargo of mostly personal care and food products that are increasingly in demand in neighboring Malaysia.
It was not too long ago when travel and trade between Zamboanga, Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Malaysia were restricted to undocumented crossings of wooden hull boats, putting the passengers and their cargo at constant risk of harassment and even incarceration because of lack of proper travel documents.
As such, trade and travel were limited and the full potential was never unleashed.
Good business sense
The creation of BIMP-Eaga and its promise of prosperity eventually made investing in a shipping line between the two countries good business sense, according to Aleson vice president Feliciano A. Tan Jr.
Tan says in an interview that the shipping line resulted from a trip that his brother made to Malaysia in 1994 when BIMP-Eaga had just been formed.
His brother was part of the official delegation sent to Malaysia and he came home fired up with the idea of providing a shipping service.
"We were encouraged to support the trade links. We did, and the first trip to Sandakan was made in October 1994," Tan says.
He says the first trip was encouraging because he felt that Aleson contributed to putting Zamboanga on the map because it was now doing direct and legal trips to Malaysia, making it a truly international port.
The 51-year-old Hji. Wahab A. Amil, chairman and president of SRN Fast Seacrafts Inc., on the other hand, saw the trade potential between Zamboanga and Malaysia as early as 1976 when he engaged in barter trade.
Trade was easy because of the religious and cultural affinity between the people of Zamboanga and Malaysia, particularly in Sabah and Sandakan, which were closer to Mindanao than the Philippines' capital of Metro Manila.
"You trade in Sabah the same as you would in Zamboanga," Wahab says in an interview.
Realizing that the growing Filipino community will be a good market for a transport service, Wahab established a line between Zamboanga and Sandakan in 2001.
His fast craft passenger ships are made in Malaysia and they are the only ones that make regular stops through Bongao, Tawi-Tawi and Jolo, Sulu.
Wahab says he concentrated on a passenger service because many Filipinos from the islands regularly go to Malaysia to visit their relatives or to find work for themselves, mostly in the construction and factory sites.
Since there is no visa requirement, they can regularly go in and out of Malaysia provided they stay for a maximum of 15 days. Some just go back for a week and then go back for another two weeks.
"They find a lot of employment opportunities in Malaysia because it is a richer country and it is usually their relatives who encourage them to go and work with them," Wahab says.
Aleson's Tan and SRN's Wahab both say that the low travel tax between the two countries as part of the BIMP-Eaga agreements was a big help to their operations.
BIMP-Eaga is being strengthened with help from the German Technical Cooperation.
Because it only cost the passengers P200 in travel tax to travel to Malaysia, it was easier for them to frequently board a ship and sail for Malaysia.
Wahab says that when the travel tax was just at P200, his ships would carry more than 100 people per trip. Tan made the same estimate for his ship.
Operations soured last year when the travel tax skyrocketed to P2,600 because the memorandum of agreement putting the travel tax at just P200 expired.
Ticket sales quickly dropped and Wahab says the Weesum ships were suddenly just bringing less than 50 passengers a trip.
Aleson ships were no better, but they had to make the trip even if there were just a few passengers and a few kilos of cargo on board because it was a commitment.
"The travel tax was just too much. The passengers cannot afford it, because remember they are going to Malaysia for work. Only a few go there for purely trade," Wahab says.
Travel tax restored
Fortunately, the old travel tax rate was restored in August and the shipping companies are optimistic that passenger take-up will soon increase and maybe even surpass previous numbers.
Tan says the traffic would also receive a big boost if more of the locals would secure passports.
This explains the continuing popularity of the wooden hull ships, locally known as kumpits, for the operators of these ships do not require paperwork.
"Government can help them get the necessary paperwork for them to get their passports. With that, they can easily go to Malaysia for work and trade," he says.
Wahab, on the other hand, has high hopes for trade.
He says the increasing travel between the Philippines and Malaysia has made a number of Malaysian businessmen interested in the prospects of doing business in the country.
He says a group has recently arrived and was exploring the possibility of bringing in local goods to Malaysia, which augurs well for the local entrepreneurs.
Wahab says Malaysians are interested in local cosmetics, particularly whitening products, that are cheaper to manufacture here than in Malaysia. He himself is the distributor in Malaysia of RDL Cosmetics.
There are also big buyers of local snack foods, like chips and saltine crackers, and fresh mangoes.
Filipinos, on the other hand, usually bring home laundry soap, bath soap, milk and instant noodles from Malaysia.
Tan says trade could go up several notches if local manufacturers will seriously look at developing products that will find a ready market in Malaysia.
With the passenger and trade routes already in place, it is just a matter of looking for the right products to fit the market, especially with the BIMP-Eaga firmly established.
And then, the centuries-old trade between the two countries will enter yet another productive phase.