Dawn of a new era

ON January 13, 2017 Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg became the sixth Chief Minister of Sarawak and the leader of Malaysia’s largest state.

Having studied at both St Thomas and St Joseph’s in Kuching, the soft-spoken Abang Jo, as he is fondly called, was never one to crave for power, let alone fame and fortune.

So, when he found himself in the limelight, he took on the challenge with gallantry and great humility.

There was no fanfare for the sixth president of the PBB — Sarawak’s strongest and one of the nation’s most stable political parties — when he was chosen to be chief executive by Governor Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.

More so because he replaced his old friend and political compatriot Tan Sri Adenan Satem who had passed away two days earlier.

Born in the remote Limbang town in the North on August 4, 1950, he was the son of a Malay noble Tun Abang Openg Abang Sapiee and Toh Puan Dayang Masniah of Kuching.

On his return to Kuching, Abang Jo, who was the youngest of 10 siblings, received his early education at Merpati Jepang Primary School in Kuching.

After completing his upper secondary education at St Joseph’s, Abang Jo studied in the United Kingdom before returning to Sarawak to work in the Malaysian Airlines.

It was at this point of his life that Abang Jo began to develop his political grassroots in Satok which is the hub of the political intelligentsia of Kuching.

Abang Jo’s rise to the helm was not through chance and circumstance, but fate.

It was no coincidence that his father Tun Openg — a descendant of Sir James Brooke’s most trusted Malay loyalist of Datuk Patinggi Abang Ali — was handpicked to be Sarawak’s Governor when Sarawak became part of Malaysia on September 16, 1963.

And it was destiny that Sarawak’s current Governor Tun Taib was among the first six Cabinet members whom he swore in on Sarawak Day on July 22, 1963.

As a 66-year-old Chief Minister, Abang Jo who had 35 years as a Cabinet member was well prepared for the task ahead.

He knew it was going to be an uphill task but a noble one placed on his shoulders.

But Abang Jo had never been a man to shirk his responsibilities and since he became the assemblyman for Satok in 1983, he took on every assignment meticulously and with dedication.

Unlike former chief ministers Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub, Taib and Adenan who had established the foundations of a stable Sarawak, the new chief minister had been tasked with building a greater Sarawak.

It was Taib who spotted the PBB Youth leader’s talent when he started grooming a group of potential leaders when he became Chief Minister of Sarawak on March 18, 1981.

Initially, Abang Jo was appointed assistant minister of regional and community development until 1987 after which he became minister of industrial development.

The approachable minister was also given the minister of Penan affairs portfolio at the height of the anti-blockades in the Baram in the 1980s.

Abang Jo made a name for himself during the Ming Court Affair in 1987 when he and Adenan excelled in their constituencies by winning massive majorities.

The Opposition coalition called Permas was led by former chief minister and uncle of Taib, Tun Adul Rahman Yakub who had the support of former PBB members who were fiercely loyal to the latter.

It was called the “Ming Court” election because the opposition was said to have paid a “million ringgit” per person to join the rebels at the Kuala Lumpur hotel.

However, Abang Jo was among the few who resisted the temptation to receive a bribe for his support and being a loyal PBB member he stayed with Taib till the end.

It was a close fight — the BN coalition won the day with 28 seats while the Permas coalition secured 20.

Abang Jo rose to become minister of housing and during his term endeared himself to the ordinary citizens who sought affordable homes.

In the last election in May 2016 led by Adenan, Sarawak BN won 72 of the 82 seats — PKR’s share was three while DAP secured seven.

But as fate would have it, Abang Jo was chosen to helm Sarawak after Adenan’s demise, and given the chance to take Sarawak to greater heights.

The past four years have been a political roller coaster journey for the Sarawak coalition having been a component of the Barisan Nasional government coalition which lost the May 7, 2018 federal elections.

It was no easy task for Abang Jo to stay on course and steer PB and its coalition members — Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP) and the Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) — through the stormy political waters.

In trying to solve the decades-long and still ongoing MA63 impasse whereby Sarawak’s oil and gas rights are at stake, Abang Jo has passed with flying colours.

On June 12, 2018 the State BN coalition was renamed Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) or simply “The Sarawak Coalition” with the “magical” hornbill as its logo.

In February 2020, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin did the unexpected when 95-year-old Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir stepped down over the succession issue.

It was an opportune move because two of the Pakatan Harapan contenders for the post of Prime Minister involved Muhyiddin and Datuk Anwar Ibrahim, a long-suffering political stalwart for two decades who was promised the post by Dr Mahathir.

Forming a new coalition called Perikatan Nasional (PN) of simply “The National Coalition”, Muhyiddin invited disgruntled politicians to join.

Even as the PN government was still in shock, GPS surprised everyone by joining Muhyiddin whose members included Umno which was the backbone of former BN coalition.

It was a big shock for PH who had treated Sarawak like the proverbial anak tiri (stepson) after they won the May 2018 election in a “tit for tat” reaction proving Abang Jo was not one to be pushed around!

In March 2020 Sarawak decided to align themselves with the Perikatan Nasional (PN) and was rewarded when the Muhyiddin government gave 10 MPs federal Cabinet positions.

Four of the full Cabinet ministers, Datuk Fadillah Yusof, Datuk Sri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, Datuk Sri Nancy Shukri and Datuk Alex Nanta Linggi, came from PBB.

Apart from Ali Biju and Willie Mongin who were PKR members who had “jumped ship” to join Muhyiddin, the remaining deputy ministers were Datuk Henry Sum Agong, Datuk Aaron Dagang, Datuk Hanifah Taib and Hasbi Habibullah.

Despite the hiccups caused by ambitious political dissidents who will try to wrest power from the “new man in town” in the coming state election, Abang Jo has managed to dispel talk that the GPS machinery is weak.

Sarawak’s 12th state election must be held on or before August 7, 2021 and 82 seats will be up for grabs.

Abang Jo’s men are ready and raring to go but the Covid-19 pandemic had dampened the enthusiasm of not only the contesting parties but also the electorate.

Even though this is the first time Abang Jo will be leading GPS into a contest as chief minister, with at least five separate opposition parties trying their luck, he should have no serious problem.

The DAP which won 10 seats in the last state election in 2016, should be able to hold on to the seats but could suffer some losses.

Sarawak DAP lost some ground after caustic remarks were made in the media pertaining to the GPS leadership and the view that when they (DAP) were in the government, they failed to persuade Kuala Lumpur to give Sarawak a better deal.

SUPP president Datuk Seri Dr Sim Kui Hian will be most happy to topple DAP leader Chong Chieng Jen, a former MP, who has irked GPS with his remark that Sarawak was going “bankrupt” because of overspending.

Similarly, PKR Sarawak was dealt a blow in May last year when former federal Cabinet minister Baru Bian and party colleague lawyer See Chee How of Batu Lintang, left to join PSB.

PKR’s new Sarawak leader Julau MP Larry Sng, a young millionaire, is poised to win a seat because of his popularity in the Iban heartland.

Former SUPP top gun and former state finance minister Datuk Wong Soon Koh’s Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) could be the biggest winner.

Together with Baru and See, Wong and the incumbents — Dr John Nicol Rayong, lawyer Voon Lee Shan’s Parti Bumi Kenyalang (PBK), Sarawak People’s Aspiration Party (Aspirasi) and Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak Baru (PBDS Baru) could be the biggest losers.

Voon who contested under the opposition DAP 10 years ago, is the president of PBK, which was formed in 2013.

Together with two other opposition parties — the cash-strapped regulars PBK, Aspirasi and PBDS Baru, may not be able gain ground against the richer candidates. 

Come what may, political warlords are just waiting for a Battle Royale.