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(Formerly, Tawao)
Other transcription(s)
 • Jawi تاواو
 • Chinese 斗湖
Tawau town centre.
Tawau town centre.
Official seal of Tawau(Formerly, Tawao)
Location of Tawau in Sabah
Location of Tawau in Sabah
Tawau(Formerly, Tawao) is located in Malaysia
Tawau(Formerly, Tawao)
(Formerly, Tawao)
Tawau is located in Malaysia
Coordinates: 4°15′30″N 117°53′40″E / 4.25833°N 117.89444°E / 4.25833; 117.89444Coordinates: 4°15′30″N 117°53′40″E / 4.25833°N 117.89444°E / 4.25833; 117.89444
Country  Malaysia
State  Sabah
Division Tawau
Founded 1893
Settled by BNBC 1898
 • Council President Ismail Mayakob
 • Total 6,125 km2 (2,365 sq mi)
Population (2010)
 • Total 397,673
 • Density 65/km2 (170/sq mi)
Time zone MST (UTC+8)
 • Summer (DST) Not observed (UTC)
Postcode 91000
Area code(s) 089
Website www.mpt.sabah.gov.my

Tawau (Malaysian pronunciation: [ˈta wau], Jawi: تاواو‎, Chinese: 斗湖; pinyin: Dǒu Hú) formerly known as Tawao, is the third-largest town in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu City and Sandakan, on the south-eastern coast of Borneo in Malaysia. It is located on the east coast of the island in the administrative centre of Tawau Division which is surrounded by the Sulu Sea in the east, the Celebes Sea to the south at Cowie Bay[note 1] and shares a border with East Kalimantan (now North Kalimantan). The town has an estimated population of 113,809,[1] while the whole municipalities area has a total population of 397,673.[1][note 2]


Although the name of Tawao already on a nautical chart from 1857,[2] yet there is prior to 1879 with no clear evidence for a settlement. Even the Dutch after the founding of the East India Company had establish a trading post in Borneo, no significant activities of the Dutch on the east coast were first recorded.[3] But it changed in 1846, when Netherlands had a treaty with the Sultan of Bulungan, who assured them to control in this area.[3] When the Dutch began to operate in 1867, the Sultan married his son to the daughter of the Sultan of Tarakan, which the Dutch sphere of influence finally reached the region around Tawao. The north are the Dutch area but now overlapped with an area claimed for the Sultan of Sulu.[3]

A conflict with the British after that was inevitable, as in 1878 the Sultan of Sulu put the southern boundary of his land sold to the Baron von Overbeck until the Sibuco River.[4] To settle the border dispute, the British North Borneo Chartered Company negotiated in the 1880s with the Dutch definition of a boundary between their conferred by the Sultan of Sulu area and the area that the Dutch claimed on the basis of agreement with the Sultan of Bulungan.[3] On 20 January 1891, a final agreement was reached on a line along 4° 10' north latitude - on the central division of the Sebatik Island.[3][note 3]

In the early 1890s, only about 200 people lived in the settlement with most of them are immigrants from Bulungan in Kalimantan and some from Tawi-Tawi who had fled from the Dutch and Spanish rule.[5] The settlement was then called "Tawao" and become "Tawau". Majority who flee from the Dutch colonisation are still negotiating in trade with the Dutch.[5] In 1893, a British vessel S.S. Normanhurst sailed into Tawau for the first time with a full cargo of trade items and in 1898, the British build a settlement which later grew rapidly when the British North Borneo Company sponsored the migration of Chinese to Tawau.[6][7] On 16 December 1941, the Japanese invasion of Borneo began. After the first landing in Miri, the Japanese moved along the coastline of Borneo from the oil fields of Kuching and moving towards Jesselton, while in Tawau life continued as normal. However on 24 January 1942, the Japanese were sighted off Batu Tinagat. The district officer Cole Adams and his assistant expecting the attacker at the shipyard and were arrested on the spot.[note 4]

Japanese civilians and soldiers prior to their embarkation to Jesselton, the bell tower can be seen behind.

The Allies began to counterattack the Japanese in mid-1944 with the bombing of Tawau. From 13 April 1945, six massive air strikes were flown to the town, which at first the target were concentrated at the port facilities. The last and most massive of the attacks were put on 1 May 1945 with nineteen B-24 bombers bombing Tawau until it completely razed to the ground.[8] After an unconditional surrender of the 37th Japanese Army under Lieutenant General Masao Baba in mid-September, 1,100 Australian soldiers in Sandakan under the command of Lt. Col. JA England marched to a Japanese bases in Tawau with 2,900 Japanese soldiers of the 370th battalion under the Major Sugasaki Moriyuki were subsequently become prisoners of war and transferred to Jesselton.[9][10]

An aerial view of Tawau town in 1947.

At the end of the war, the town was largely destroyed by bombing and fire. The only undestroyed remnant of the pre-war period is the bell tower of Tawau. Tawau quickly recovered from the devastation of the bombing. Although almost all the shops were destroyed in the town, report by The British North Borneo Annual Report in 1947 wrote that "the pre-war economy was largely made towards the end of 1947". Already in the first six months after the end of war, 170 shops and business houses were rebuilt by the British, and from 1 July 1947, subsidies for the purchase of rice and flour were hired.[11]

Indonesian Confrontation[edit]

The Tawau Konfrontasi Memorial.

Due to the exposed location near the border with Indonesia, Tawau also become the main point of the conflict. As preparation, Gurkhas were stationed in the town with other units such as the "British No. 2 Special Boat Section" under Captain DW Mitchell.[12][13] Australian Class Destroyer escort were also stationed in the Cowie Bay with a squadron of combat aircraft type F-86 Sabre flew daily from Labuan and coming over Tawau.

In October 1963, Indonesia moved their first battalion of the Korps Komando Operasi (KKO) from Surabaya to Sebatik and opened several training camps near the border in eastern Kalimantan (now North Kalimantan).[12][14] Between 1 October until 16 December 1963, there were at least seven shootings along the border, which results three Indonesians were killed. On 7 December, an Indonesian bomber plane Tupolev Tu-16 flew over Tawau bays and bombed Tawau twice.[15]

In Mid-December 1963, the Indonesian has sent a commando unit consisting of 128 volunteers and 35 regular soldiers to this area.[13] The aim of the operation was at first want to take Kalabakan and then invade Tawau and Sandakan.[13] On 29 December, the unit faced in a camp to a units from the 3rd Royal Malay Regiment.[13] They managed to throw several grenades into the sleeping quarters on these totally unprepared soldiers.[13] This attack results eight soldiers killed and another 19 wounded.[12] Armed police did eventually push away the attackers after a two-hour battle to the north.[12] At the end of January 1965, was imposed on Tawau a night time curfew to prevent the attackers made contact with about 16,000 Indonesians living in Tawau and at the end of February, 96 of the 128 men from the Indonesian sides were killed or captured, 20 of them which retreat to Indonesia were successful while 12 were still on the run.[12]

The next major attacks on Tawau remained but the situation remains tense in Tawau in 1964 when a group of eight Indonesians were detained while trying to poison the water supply of the town and on 12 May 1964 there was a bomb attempt to the Kong Fah cinema.[16][17] While in August 1965, an unknown assailants made an attempt to blow up a high-tension electricity pylon and in September, a logging truck was blown up by a land mine.[18] On 28 June 1965, an attempted of regular invasion by the Indonesian troops to eastern Sebatik was already been repulsed with a heavy bombing by an Australian destroyer, HMAS Yarra (DE 45).[19][20] After the end of Konfrontasi on 12 August 1966, it took until December of that year, to be fully stopped in Tawau.[21]


Tawau Municipal Council building.

There are two Members of Parliament (MPs) representing the two parliamentary constituencies in the district: Tawau (P.190) and Kalabakan (P.191).[22]

Local authority[edit]

The town is administered by the Tawau Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Tawau). The current President of Tawau Municipal Council is Datuk Ismail Mayakob.[23] The area under the jurisdiction of the Tawau District covers the town area (2,510 hectares), half-town area (3,075 hectares), rural areas (568,515 hectares) and sea areas (38,406 hectares).[24]


Shoplots at Sabindo Square.

Tawau is located at the south-east coast of Sabah surround by the Sulu Sea in the east, Celebes Sea to the south and shares a border with East Kalimantan (now North Kalimantan).[24][25][26] The town is located approximately 1,904 kilometres from the Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur while only 540 kilometres from the capital of Sabah.[27] The main town area can be divided into three sections, such as Sabindo, Fajar and Tawau Lama (Old Tawau).[28] Sabindo is a plaza, Fajar is a commercial area while Tawau Lama is the original part of Tawau. Almost 70% of Tawau area has been identified as high hills and mountainous.[29]


Tawau has a tropical rainforest climate under the Köppen climate classification. The climate is relatively hot and wet with average shade temperature about 26 °C (79 °F), with 29 °C (84 °F) at noon and falling to around 23 °C (73 °F) at night. The town sees precipitation throughout the year, with a tendency for November, December and January to be the wettest months, and February and March become the driest months. Tawau mean rainfall varies from 1800 mm to 2500 mm.[30][31]

Climate data for Tawau (2011)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 32
Average low °C (°F) 22
Precipitation mm (inches) 122
Source: Weatherbase[32]


Ethnicity and religion[edit]

Al-Kauthar Mosque, the largest mosque in Sabah.[33]
The Holy Trinity Church, a Catholic church in Tawau.
Pu Zhao Temple, a Buddhist lodge temple in Tawau.

The Malaysian Census 2010 Report indicates that the whole town municipalities area has a total population of 397,673.[1][note 2] The town's population today is a mixture of many different races and ethnicities. Non-Malaysian citizens form the majority of the town population with 164,729 people followed by other Bumiputras (134,456), Chinese (40,061), Bajau (30,558), Malays (11,683), Kadazandusun (6,436), Murut (2,764), Indian (833) and others (6,153).[1]

The non-Malaysian citizens are mostly coming from Indonesia.[34] While the Chinese like other places in Sabah, are mostly Hakkas who has arrived since the British period and has their original settlements around Apas Road on which during the time the area was an agricultural field.[35][36] The Bajau and Malays are majority Muslims, Kadazandusuns and Muruts are mainly practice Christianity with some of them had become Muslim while the Chinese are mainly Buddhists and some Christians. Other small number of Hindus, Sikhs, Animists, and secularists also exist around the town.

The large group of non-citizens are majority Muslims and there is also a numbers of Christian Indonesian mainly from the Florenese and Timorese ethnics who has arrived since as early as the 1950s.[37][38] A small numbers of Pakistanis also can be found scattered throughout the town with most of them work as a shop or restaurant owners. Majority of the non-citizen work and live at the plantation sectors with some of the migrant workers have been naturalised as a Malaysian citizens, however there are still many who living without proper documentation as illegal immigrants in the town with their own illegal settlement.[34][37]


Like the national language, the people of Tawau mainly speak Malay, with a distinct Sabahan creole.[39] The Malay language here are different from the Malay language in the west coast which resembles Brunei Malay.[40] In Tawau, the language had been influenced by the Indonesian language which are brought by the Buginese, Florenese and Timorese.[34] As Tawau also been dominated by the Hakka Chinese, Hakka language also been widely spoken and for the east coast Bajau, their language has a similarities with the Sama language in the Philippines and also borrowed many words from the Suluk language which are different from the west coast Bajau who had been influence by the Malayic languages of Brunei Malay.[41][42]


A truck carrying timbers.

Currently, there are 40 timber-processing plants together with a number of sawmills and the Tawau Port has become the main export and import gateway for timber especially from North Kalimantan.[43][44] In 1993, a barter trade was formalised between East Kalimantan (now North Kalimantan) and Sabah with the creation of Tawau Barter Trade Association (BATS). The association handled the cash-based trade of raw materials from Indonesia, but in recent years has put a strong focus on timber industry.[43] Other than timber, the exports since the British period have traditionally been spices, cocoa and tobacco.[45] Birds' nests also harvested at Baturong, Sengarung, Tepadung and Madai Caves by the Ida'an community as part of the Tawau economy sources.[46][47] For the cocoa industry, Tawau is one of the top cocoa producers in Malaysia and even in the world together with Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia.[48] The town also retained its position as a cocoa capital for both in Sabah and Malaysia.[49] The cocoa is mostly concentrated in the interior north of the town while palm oil are most concentrated along the roads to Merotai up to Brantian and along the roads to Semporna and Kunak.[29] Both cocoa and the palm oil are part of the agriculture sector and has become the main income generator for the town.[50][51]

Agriculture as the main economic source for Tawau.

Like in Sandakan, people in Tawau have always relied on the sea for their sustenance. Every day, hundreds of deep sea trawlers and tuckboats can be seen at the Cowie Bay. In the sea also where the barter trade economy been used.[33] The Tawau marine zone are one of Sabah four marine zones, with the other been in Sandakan, Kudat and the west coast.[52] A great variety of high-grade fishes and all kinds of crustaceans were found in abundance in the sea and waterways around Tawau.[6] Prawn farming has become largest sea economic source for the district. The oldest and largest prawn farm were located on this area together with six frozen shrimp processing plants.[53][54]



The Tawau Public Works Department, who manages all roads in Tawau.

All the internal roads linking different parts of the town are generally state roads constructed and maintained by the state's Public Works Department. All road in Tawau were undergoing maintenance and major upgrade including the increasing of more parking lots.[55] Most major internal roads are dual-carriageways. The only highway routes from Tawau are:[56]

Public transportation[edit]

Regular bus services can be found operating in the town along with taxis. There are three types of bus terminals in the town such as long-distance, short-distance and local stations. The long-distance serves destinations to Lahad Datu, Sandakan, Telupid, Ranau, Simpang Sapi, Kundasang, Kota Kinabalu, Sipitang, Beaufort, Papar and Simpang Ranau,[57] while the short-distance serves destinations only to Sandakan and Semporna.[58]


The new Tawau Airport.

Tawau Airport (TA) (ICAO Code : WBKW) provides flights linking the town to other domestic destinations. Local destinations for the airport including Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Kuala Lumpur and many others. It is also one of the destinations for MASWings, which serves flights to other smaller towns or rural areas in East Malaysia. The only international flight by MASWings are to Juwata International Airport in Tarakan, Indonesia. Before the current airport opened in 2001, there is one more airport which are now known as the Old Tawau Airport situated at the Jalan Utara. The airport was opened in 1968 and used for only small aircraft, such as the Fokker 50.[59] However, a tragedy that happened twice in 1995 and one in 2001 has make the old airport been closed.[60]


There is a daily ferry service from northeastern Kalimantan to the town sea port.[61] The route also have always been used illegally for smuggling subsidies goods from the town to certain parts in Indonesia especially to southern Sebatik by the Indonesian smugglers due to this area are much more dependent on Tawau.[62][63] Many Indonesian near the international border choose to seek a medical treatment in the town which is much more cheaper and has a better facilities compared to other towns in the Indonesian sides.[63]

Other utilities[edit]

Courts of law and legal enforcement[edit]

The Tawau Court.

The Tawau court complex is located along Jalan Dunlop.[64] It contains the High Court, Sessions Court, and the Magistrate Court.[65] Another court for the Sharia law, is located at Jalan Abaca.[66]

The district police headquarters is located at Jalan Tanjung Batu,[67] while other police station can be found throughout the district such as in Wallace Bay, Bombalai, Bergosong, Kalabakan, Seri Indah and in LTB Tawau.[68] Police substations (Pondok Polis) are found in Tass Bt. 17, Apas Parit, Merotai, Quin Hill, Balung Kokos, Titingan, Kinabutan and Burmas areas,[68] and the Tawau Prison is located in the town centre.[69]


There are one public hospital, four public health clinics, three child and mother health clinics, seven village clinics, one mobile clinic and two 1Malaysia clinics in Tawau.[70][71] The Tawau Hospital, which is located along Jalan Tanjung Batu, is the main hospital in Tawau and becomes the important attractions for patients from Semporna, Lahad Datu and Kunak including from Sandakan and other Indonesian patients near the border area.[63][72][73] The hospital has undergoing a major modern changed since 1990.[73]


Universiti Teknologi MARA campus in Tawau.
A teacher training institute campus.

There are many government or state schools in and around the town. Among the secondary schools are Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Kinabutan, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Jalan Apas, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Kabota, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Pasir Putih, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Titingan, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Tawau, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Tawau II, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Jambatan Putih, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Kuhara, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Abaka, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Holy Trinity, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan St. Patrick, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan St. Ursula, Sekolah Menengah Islamiah Tawau and Sekolah Menengah Teknik Tawau.[74][75] Two private schools also available in the town, the Sabah Chinese High School (Sekolah Tinggi Cina Sabah) and Vision Secondary School (Sekolah Menengah Visi). Tawau has two of the only three A-Level education centres in the state of Sabah - the Institute of Science and Management (ISM) and Maktab Rendah Sains Mara Tawau.[76][77] A teacher training college campus such as the Institut Pendidikan Guru Tawau (Tawau Teacher Training Institute) can be found in the town.

While for tertiary educations, there are Tawau Community College and GIATMARA Tawau. Two universities such as the Universiti Teknologi MARA and Open University Malaysia has a campus here.

The Tawau Regional Library, one of the three regional libraries in Sabah.


The Tawau Regional Library is located in the town and is one of three regional libraries in Sabah, the other in Keningau and Sandakan. All these libraries are operated by the Sabah State Library department.[78] Other libraries or private libraries can be found in schools, colleges, or universities.[70]

Culture and leisure[edit]

Attractions and recreation spots[edit]

The Bell Tower (left) with the Public Service Memorial (right).
A monument in the Tawau Japanese War Memorial.


A cultural festival known as the Tawau Festival were celebrated once a year in the town and has been known as a potential tourism icon for Malaysia.[79]


There are four historical attraction in town. The main attraction is the Tawau Bell Tower, located at the Tawau Town Field, it was build by the Japanese in 1921 shortly after the World War I to mark the close allied relations between Japan and Great Britain.[6] Other historical attractions including the Japanese War Cemetery, Confrontation Memorial, the Public Service Memorial and the Twin Town Memorial. As Tawau are one of the top cocoa producers in Malaysia, a cocoa museum known as the Teck Guan Cocoa Museum also become one of the important historical attraction for the town since the museum been founded in the 1970s by Datuk Seri Panglima Hong Teck Guan.[80] In the museum, varieties of cocoa products from chocolate jam to hot cocoa beverages can be purchased by visitors.[81]

Leisure and conservation areas[edit]

A number of leisure spots and conserved areas available around Tawau. The Tawau Hills National Park has picnic areas, a vast camping site, and cabins. It is located 24 kilometres (15 miles) from Tawau town, the park can be accessible by a road transport. Another nature attraction is the Bukit Gemok (or known as Fat Hill), located about 11 km (7 mi) from the town. It is about 428 meter above sea level and is part of the Bukit Gemok Forest Reserve covering 4.45 square kilometres (1.72 sq mi). In 1984, the area has been declared as a forest reserve. While Tawau Harbour are used as a transit point to other islands near the town, such as to Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking and many other islands. The harbour also been used to go to some Indonesia's islands such as the southern Sebatik, Tarakan and Nunukan.


Sabindo Plaza, the first shopping centre in Tawau.

The main shopping area in Tawau is the Eastern Plaza located at Mile 1 on Jalan Kuhara. Build in 2005, it was completed in 2008 and opened in May 2009. The complex provided with a 3 levels of car parking facilities for 476 covered parking bays in addition to 49 surface parking bays.[82][83] Another shopping destination is located on the town centre, the Sabindo Plaza which was opened since January 1999 is known as the first shopping centre in Tawau.[84] Apart from that, a market is located along Jalan Dunlop.[85] The Tawau Tanjung Market was established in 1999, since that it has been equipped with 6,000 stalls and known as the largest indoor market in Malaysia.[86][87]


The Tawau Sport Complex.

A sport complex with a badminton, tennis, volleyball and basketball courts including two stadiums for hockey and football were available on the town.[88] In 2014, a National Sports Institute (ISN) has been planned to be set up in Tawau, which would become the third sports satellite centre for Sabah once it is finished in 2015.[89] Furthermore, a border-sports activities has been proposed to be held annually between the town and Nunukan in Indonesia.[90]

Notable peoples[edit]


International relations[edit]

At present, only Indonesia has a consulate in Tawau.[91]

Twin towns[edit]

Tawau currently has two twin towns:


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  1. ^ Cowie Bay in the early 19th century was known as Kalabakong Bay. It is also known as Sibuco Bay.
  2. ^ a b In addition to the official figures of the 2010 Census there have been a large number of illegal immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines over decades. (Goodlet, page 248 and page 299)
  3. ^ The final contractual commit this limit was indeed confirmed in 1912 by the joint boundary commission, and on 17 February 1913 by Dutch and British negotiators.
  4. ^ Cole Adams spent 44 months in Japanese POW camps - first on the Berhala Island in Sandakan, later in Batu Lintang camp near Kuching - and died on the day of his liberation by the 9th Division of the Australian armed forces in September 1945.

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