The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.

— Harvey S. Firestone, American businessman

So, the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP) announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob came and went.

Like the other Malaysia Plans before this, it is ambitious to say the least with lofty goals on how to move the nation forward especially following the setback brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The four target indicators put forth by the federal government are:

  • Growth of the country’s Growth Domestic Product (GDP) between 4.5 percent and 5.5 percent per annum with the 2021-2025 period;
  • Average household income of about RM10,000 monthly in 2025;
  • To reduce the GDP per capita gap between central region and Sabah (reduce to 1:2.5) as well as between central region and Sarawak (reduce to 1:1.2) by the year 2025; and
  • Reduce Green House Gas (GHG) intensity emissions to a total 45 percent of the country’s GDP in 2030 based on intensity emission in 2005, in line with the Paris Agreement 2015.

Of course, to the layperson especially in Sarawak, what is more appealing is the plan to multiply the growth in Sabah and Sarawak as well as other less developed states.

The premier assured his commitment to resolve the claims of Sarawak and Sabah according to the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), including the needs for basic facilities, electric and gas regulation, digitalisation and safety.

While this was welcomed by Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg, the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) chairman noted that the planning for economic development has to be on a region-to-region basis.

This, he said was in tandem with the spirit of the MA63, where its signatories were Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah along with Singapore.

I think it is apt that the federal government goes back to the drawing board in terms of its planning for development in the East Malaysian states.

Time and time again, during Malaysia Plans, many projects were planned, funded, approved but their implementation, or rather the urgency for it, leaves something to be desired.

It raises a poignant question — why is this so? Why is it after all these years and federal funding, fulfilling the basic necessities of Sabah and Sarawak is always a challenge?

I think the top-down approach that is practised for donkey years should be put to one side, in favour of a bottom-up approach. Engage the local community and ask them — what is that is lacking?

This was the very principle introduced by Abang Johari when he took office with the formation of the Upper Rajang Development Agency (Urda) catering to the state’s central region.

This spawned other regional development agencies such as Northern Region Development Agency (NRDA), Highland Development Agency (HDA) and Integrated Regional Samarahan Development Agency (Irsda).

It is the job of these agencies in the development-stressed area to expedite the development and get the people equipped with the much-needed facilities and amenities.

While the state government has been rather loose with its purse strings of years in pursuing total development in Sarawak, it is incumbent on the federal government to also play their roles.

Developing Sarawak is also part of the federal government’s responsibility and while funds have been forthcoming, especially under the current federal administration, there is a need for strategic development.

Ismail Sabri in alluding to the MA63 when speaking of development has said the right things and proved he isn’t tone deaf when it comes to the needs of Sarawak and Sabah.

It is hoped that with the proposed constitutional amendment in Parliament to restore the status of Sarawak and Sabah along with the study on the formula of special grants to the two states, the benefits of it can be enjoyed by those on the ground.

For the federal government, bar during Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) time, Sarawak has been its loyal supporter and while there is growing frustration in Putrajaya from Sarawakians, the leaders have continued to work for the betterment of the state.

While Sarawak by the looks of it, can do without Putrajaya’s assistance, the idea of a federation is for the states and federal government to work in tandem with each other.

In a prosperous Malaysia, its partners in the federation — Sabah and Sarawak — should reap the benefits of the partnership.

A good start to this is to review the development strategy in Sarawak and Sabah on a region-to-region basis as well as according to the needs and challenges unique to both states.