April 13, 2016
On Chief Minister of Sarawak, Adenan Satem
by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
It is fair to say that when Adenan Satem stepped into Taib Mahmud’s shoes as Chief Minister of Sarawak, few expected him to be more than a stopgap for the emergence of more ambitious and pushy younger politicians in Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the dominant party in the state.
The fact that Taib had also not relinquished power but was moving into the position of Governor seemed to indicate that the state’s post- colonial “White Rajah” would be pulling the strings; and that Adenan, besides being a temporary leader, would also serve as a door mat.
Add to this the concern over Adenan’s health, especially following his heart surgery three years ago and most analysts were initially predicting little or no change in the status quo with regard to the East Malaysian state in its relations with an UMNO dominated federal government, or the way in which the state’s interests have been ravaged by the widely perceived kleptocratic rule of the previous state government.
However, now into his third year as Chief Minister, even his staunchest political enemies are conceding that Adenan has been a big change from Taib.
An array of policy reforms from restrictions in timber concession licences to abandonment of the controversial Baram Dam project, recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate for admission in the state’s public universities and civil service, and reassurance on protecting the state’s autonomy and upholding the legitimate interests of minority communities against an intrusive federal government dominated by UMNO’s racial and religious concerns has helped Adenan bolster his growing reputation as being his own man and not Taib’s or anyone else’s poodle.
Through his friendship with Prime Minister Najib Razak, and as a result possibly of the Prime Minister’s weakened position following the 1MDB scandal, he has also successfully negotiated for a larger quantum of the federal government’s development budget to be directed to rural infrastructure and rural development projects in the state.
Most analysts are now agreed that BN will win the coming state election with the only question being the margin of victory. The key factor is not simply Adenan’s ability to play the Sarawak nationalism card while leveraging on his personal popularity (according to recent polls, up from 74% in July 2015 to 84% in January 2016) and the downplaying, if not constraint, of his predecessor’s role in the state’s political economy.
There is also a less than cohesive opposition, still apparently in disagreement and disarray over seat allocation, despite the late hour before polling day. And given that most of the eleven newly created state seats have been carved out from government-dominated constituencies, it will be an uphill battle for Pakatan’s rural based parties of PKR and Amanah.
Most observers are pointing to an overwhelming victory for Adenan, with the only setback likely to come from the state’s urban constituencies where the DAP is expected to continue drawing strong support from predominantly Chinese voters. Still, expectations are high within the Barisan affiliated urban parties that they will be able to make inroads into DAP’s support as a result of populist measures such as the recent reduction of assessment tax and the abolition of land quit rents.
Adenan’s Place in the History Books
What will happen next after the likely big election victory for Adenan is what Sarawakians as well as Malaysians from the Peninsula will be most concerned about.
Will Adenan use what literally is his new lease of life simply only to engrave his name in the history books as a chief minister who wanted, and was able, to win the polls on his own merit – he had noted that he owed his current position and mandate from the former chief minister Taib.
Will he be content to be remembered as a state-based Johnny-come-lately reformer who, for much of his time in public service, was part of a system which has been condemned as a epicentre of corruption, displacement of indigenous peoples, abuse of human rights and regionally significant deforestation?
Will he be satisfied with a reputation tainted by his relationship with the Taib family which according to a series of leaked US embassy cables published in August 2011 was”widely thought to extract a percentage from most major commercial contracts – including those for logging – awarded in the state (Sarawak)” and his association with the former Chief Minister whose main claim to fame is his fabulous unaccounted for wealth, much of it located abroad, and reputed to run into many billions of ringgit?
Or can he be the catalyst to more sustained change and reform both for Sarawak and the larger federation?
Two factors work to his advantage: First, Sarawak is not the typical Malaysian Malay or Chinese or Muslim dominated state. Indigenous non-Muslim Bumiputra make up the majority of the population. Malays and Chinese make up 23 and 24 percent of the state’s population. Christianity makes up the largest religion in Sarawak. Sarawak is the only state with a Christian majority.
Second, issues of local autonomy especially in economy, education and religion resonate strongly among all communities, especially with the more urbanized and highly educated. The sentiment that Sarawak has been badly treated by Putrajaya is a widely shared one especially among the young who resent what they perceive as the re-colonization of their state by federal officials pushing the Putrajaya pro-Malay, pro-Muslim line.
In taking up cudgels on behalf of Sarawakians with his new mandate, Adenan has the opportunity to right the Barisan ship which has sailed dangerously off course, away from the liberal, progressive, open and democratic society, and clean and accountable government promised by the early leaders of the Alliance party.