Relatively, little is known about the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in forests, especially in the tropics. We describe the Sabah Biodiversity Experiment: a large-scale, long-term field study on the island of Borneo. The project aims at understanding the relationship between tree species diversity and the functioning of lowland dipterocarp rainforest during restoration following selective logging. The experiment is planned to run for several decades (from seed to adult tree), so here we focus on introducing the project and its experimental design and on assessing initial conditions and the potential for restoration of the structure and functioning of the study system, the Malua Forest Reserve. We estimate residual impacts 22 years after selective logging by comparison with an appropriate neighbouring area of primary forest in Danum Valley of similar conditions. There was no difference in the alpha or beta species diversity of transect plots in the two forest types, probably owing to the selective nature of the logging and potential effects of competitive release. However, despite equal total stem density, forest structure differed as expected with a deficit of large trees and a surfeit of saplings in selectively logged areas. These impacts on structure have the potential to influence ecosystem functioning. In particular, above-ground biomass and carbon pools in selectively logged areas were only 60 per cent of those in the primary forest even after 22 years of recovery. Our results establish the initial conditions for the Sabah Biodiversity Experiment and confirm the potential to accelerate restoration by using enrichment planting of dipterocarps to overcome recruitment limitation. What role dipterocarp diversity plays in restoration only will become clear with long-term results.