The GE14 on May 9, 2018 has resulted in a change of leadership at the Federal Government and in the States of Kedah, Perak, Pulau Pinang, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johore, Terengganu, Kelantan and Sabah. Sarawak parties in the current Government won 19 out of the 31 parliamentary seats in GE14, which gives the State a majority of 61%.

Sarawak, which held its State Election in May 2016, only took part in the parliamentary election. Then the parties in the Government namely PBB, SUPP, PRS and PDP contested under the Barisan Nasional tickets and won 19 out of the 31 parliamentary seats they contested.

The Chairman of Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, at 93, was sworn in as the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia, for the second time. He served as the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia for 22 years in the 80s and 90s.

As Sarawak’s prime agenda is to safeguard its interest and rights as enshrined in Malaysian Constitution and Malaysia Agreement 1963, the State Government must work closely with the new Federal Government under the premiership of Tun Dr Mathathir Mohamad in the interests of the people and the State of Sarawak.

Chief Minister, Datuk Patinggi (Dr) Abang Johari Tun Openg, who is also the Minister for Finance and Economic Planning, and Minister for Urban Development and Natural Resources, in his winding speech during the debate on the opening speech of the Governor of Sarawak in the just-concluded sitting of the State Legislative Assembly, said Sarawak Government will develop good working relationships with Pakatan Harapan–led Federal Government in Putrajaya.

The State Government will hold constant engagements and dialogues to convince the new Federal Government that what it is trying to accomplish at the national level can also be achieved by the Sarawak Government at the State level.

Sarawak will be influenced by the National policies concerning the Federal budget namely the allocation of funds for development, education and healthcare, order and security, the interest and the exchange rate, the bank lending policy and many others. 

Abang Johari says the experience within the context of the national coalition parties such as Barisan Nasional has taught Sarawak that local parties have no complete freedom to speak for the State as they are obliged to observe the decisions by the Barisan National coalition whip. This negates the freedom to act on Sarawak interests.

He says the State Government, with the strategic interests of Sarawak in mind, has decided to position itself in a neutral and friendly way to Pakatan Harapan Government in Putrajaya by leaving Barisan Nasional and forming Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), which allows it to work closely with the Federal Government, especially on development and economic programs so that the well-being of Sarawakians can be taken care of.

He says GPS will not be the old Barisan Nasional encased in new skin. GPS is patriotic Sarawak parties regrouping and adjusting to the new paradigm that is being set by the Pakatan Harapan Government. GPS is about being dynamic and versatile.

He says resources and legislation, those relating to petroleum have great economic and emotional appeal to the people. This issue has been simmering in the hearts of Sarawakians since 1974 when the Petroleum Development Act was first promulgated in Parliament. For the record, this august House has never endorsed that PDA 1974.

Restore rights as enshrined in MA63

He says the State government’s goal is to restore Sarawak the rights that are enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 – the international treaty between Sarawak, Sabah, Singapore and Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia, which puts Sarawak as an equal partner with Malaya and Sabah.  Among them are the rights of Sarawak to own legislations, including those that were enacted before the formation of the Federation.

The Sarawak Oil Mining Ordinance of 1958, which remains in force today, gives Sarawak full regulatory authority over all persons and companies involved in the operations of the oil and gas industry in Sarawak.

Petronas applied to the Federal Court to seek a declaration that Sarawak Oil Mining Ordinance 1958 was already repealed implicitly by the Petroleum Development Act. Sarawak is glad that this application to seek the declaration in the Federal Court was rejected by the Federal Court on June 22, 2018.

Abang Johari says Sarawak is proceeding to enforce the Oil Mining Ordinance 1958 and the Gas Distribution Ordinance 2016 effective July 1, 2018 through Sarawak Minerals and Management Authority or SMMA of Petroleum Sarawak Bhd or PETROS.

He says Sarawak Government, with the Gas Distribution Ordinance, will work closely with the Federal Ministry of Domestic Trade, Co-operatives and Consumerism and Petronas regarding the distribution of natural gas to consumers in Sarawak. The provisions for enforcement are tightened by Oil Mining (Amendment) Bill 2018 passed in the State Legislative Assembly on July 10, 2018.

Hopefully, Petronas can understand that Sarawak Government is reasonable and business friendly; it expects Petronas to be friendly and co-operative too. After all, Pakatan Harapan, in its GE14 manifesto, promised to deliver to Sarawak a petroleum royalty of 20%, up from 5%. This indicates that the Pakatan Harapan Federal Government favors Sarawak in its dealings, at the very least, in regard to petroleum.

Abang Johari says the financial reserves of Sarawak, which are partly accumulated from petroleum revenue, are being accumulated for the purpose of safeguarding Sarawak. The State has to protect these reserves, by ensuring that they are being put into productive investments.

He says the State government is very careful in spending the reserves. Any investment to be undertaken has to go through very stringent process and due diligence; only if the investment is proven viable then the State government will commit the funds. 

He says the State government under his leadership will not rush into spending reserves without any proper justification to ensure that the reserves are spent for the benefit of Sarawak and the future generations. Instead, it takes care of the economy as the next most important consideration after politics. In economics, there are always two aspects that cannot be ignored and they are development and growth.

Huge landmass

He says development in Sarawak has been very challenging because of the huge landmass and many small and scattered villages in remote parts, now numbering some 5,000 villages as the result of evolution of traditional communities in Sarawak. Each community would find means of living by a small river tributary, which they could call their own.

He says many villages would gather and hunt in nearby forests and plant whatever they could in surrounding areas mostly by shifting cultivation in order to retain the fertility of the soil. Over time, these basic cultivation procedures and way of life form an intricate part of the culture as their traditional form of survival.

Inevitably they will also have to deal more with issues concerning capital, precision farming, exports, business models and logistics. Hence, there is a need for a great leap forward among communities in the hinterland to the modern world.

Abang Johari says the Federal development allocations might be sufficient for social projects but was clearly not sufficient to develop a landmass, which is 38% that of the Malaysia total landmass. This accounts for the relative lack of basic infrastructure and the current backwardness in the development of the rural communities.

He requests the new Federal Government to consider increasing the development allocations to Sarawak by at least four times to  allow the State to speedily upgrade rural infrastructure namely roads, drinking water, electricity and the internet, schools and medical clinics and agricultural and economic programs.

In this regards, he hopes the new Federal Works Minister Baru Bian will help to ensure that Sarawak, his home State, be given proper and due allocations for development and infrastructure works.

Abang Johari says since becoming the Chief Minister on January 2017, he has travelled the length and breadth of Sarawak and visited more than 187 locations in the rural areas. He is saddened to see that so much work still needs to be done in trying to solve the problems being faced by the people in their daily lives.

He pledges, as he is in the position to have an overall view, to be fully committed to ensure that the people should no longer be deprived of their basic needs and have the opportunity to lead a better and more prosperous life.

He says many areas in Sarawak are still in need of treated water to necessitate the State government to rationalize the mechanics and models of water project funding and implementation.

Reimbursable loans

The projects, in the past, used to be funded through reimbursable loans from the Federal Government, if they had the funds very often the funds would be disbursed at the end of the year, which made planning and implementation almost impossible. If they had no funds, there would be no projects for water supply for Sarawak; the State was totally at the mercy of the Federal system.

Hence, the State Government has decided to fund all water projects, just like electricity supply. An immediate allocation of RM2.0 billion has been set aside to solve all water stressed areas, which must be completed the latest by next year. 

Abang Johari says he will personally monitor the implementation and progress of these projects through ground visits. He has also approved building of roads and bridges and other projects with the total costs of about RM5.1 billion during his walkabout since taking over as the Chief Minister of Sarawak.

He says it was with great honor to Sarawak that the Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad visited Kuching and the Sarawak Government only just last Sunday, so soon after resuming his premiership role.

The Prime Minister was impressed by the progress that Sarawak has made throughout all parts of the State all these years in many ways. He saw Kuching as a well-planned city but this time with many more cars on roads.

The Prime Minister noted that Sarawak has a lot of potential for development and growth and has been able to attract many investors including big foreign investors. The pace of development of Sarawak can dictated by the way the natural resources as assets of Sarawak will be used.

Capitalize on many rivers

The Prime Minister said Sarawak should capitalize on many rivers, which can be made to become an economic power engine of growth in terms of riverine transportation, power generation and source of water supply. The focus on the development of natural resources such as rivers and land also means the need to take care of the environment.

Abang Johari says he will continue to capitalize on every avenue to increase the State’s revenue to meet the cost of the development agenda. He has a formula, which he will announce at the end of the year, to increase the State revenue.

He has introduced several innovative ideas since assuming his present office on 13 January 2017, to try to put the State economy in a better paradigm. Foremost is the application of the digital technology as an enabler to a new dimension of the economy, namely the Digital Economy, which is the very foundation around which the lives of millennial and modern people revolve.

He says Sarawak must be in the digital world in order to tap the significant market of the millennial. For this reason, the State government has been pushing for a more comprehensive and adequate network coverage within Sarawak.

One of the many elements that are needed to create new structures of the economy is the development of the digital technology, which is one of the best in the world.  However, for the time being, Sarawak has to be content with the application of existing digital technology.

The application of digital technology in traditional sectors would still be dictated by the experts in the respective non-digital industries, which still need proper business models in order to ensure that the projects are commercially viable.

Abang Johari says agriculture, which is related to rural development, and the rural economy is not the same thing. For example, modern agriculture does not depend very much on ordinary farmers to work as it depends on modern technology to drive production efficiency. They can be operated out of major industrial parks, rather than in small villages in remote areas.

He says modern farming is precision farming and dependent on agriculture and digital technology to work; it is more agriculture than digital. Most agriculture in the rural economy is subsistence farming, they are far away from the nearest markets and remoteness does not allow for commercial viability.

He says it will be a mistake to think of expanding small operations with surplus to sell in the market. But today agriculture is being developed even on an industrial scale in the rural areas.

The large plantations are not farming but industrial complex that utilizes land as the platform for production. But plantations, which involve investments for opening them up, are far better activity than logging.   

Therefore, the rural economy can be developed by encouraging investment across all sectors namely in agriculture and service industries with the proper management of natural environment. This can be made possible by the advent of the digital technology and connectivity to the rest of the world.

No more new timber licenses

Abang Johari says the State Government has stopped the issuance of new timber licenses as vast tracts of the forests have already been logged and very difficult to restore. There will be no more new palm oil plantation licenses except for NCR land. Efforts will be continued to fight against illegal loggings.

He says they are not just stealing timber in areas, which are not licensed to them, but intruding into forest reserve areas. If unchecked, they may have no more forest reserves of any kind, fully protected or otherwise. Efforts must be made to protect forests to retain any of the indigenous virgin jungle.

A total of 60% of the population is in urban centers that must also be given jobs and business opportunities. Some of them are poor and facing shortage of affordable housing and having low incomes to pay for the housing mortgages.

The people in urban centers also have talents, which can be developed to ensure the sustained growth of the economy. The rural urban migration is real, where young people from the villages all flock to the towns and cities attracted by the

bright light to look for better opportunities.

Competitiveness can be improved by building the critical mass of people with talents so that they can form sufficient numbers to support the economic viability of public infrastructure projects, chief of which is the public transport system.

Good public transport system

Abang Johari believes a well-planned public transport system can reduce the cost of living in a city and good public transport system forms the foundation for the expansion of the city in terms of commercial and residential property development.

This has in fact become the major job function of city councils as they compete to attract more young talents from everywhere to live in the city, which must have a good public transport system comprising an assortment of transportation system like the Bus Rapid Transit, Light Rail Transit, private cars, taxis and cyclists.

He says the pace of development of public transportation depends on the growth of urban population and the need for affordable housing. Hence, efforts must be made to get the numbers and business models right to ensure that the project is at least economically viable.

Admittedly, there is constant and growing transportation problem especially between Kuching and Samarahan. Hence, efforts must be made to plan ahead on public transport infrastructure to avoid seeing urban centers growing in a divisively manner. A proper planned Kuching City can become a major area of opportunities for young Sarawakians.

Abang Johari says the Government has been introducing many initiatives to spearhead new directions for the economy. At this juncture, it is critical for the private sector to get fully involved in the drive to promote the growth of the economy.

While politicians and civil servants can provide the direction and framework for the development of the economy, the private sectors with their capital and manpower must be prepared to do all the hard work to get things moving. The key to the prosperity of Sarawak is the involvement of local entrepreneurs in projects planning and implementation in the process of development.

He says the State Government will step up efforts to promote entrepreneurship among Sarawakians, regardless of ethnic origins, in continuing with efforts to close the economic gaps between urban and rural communities and work together to accelerate the pace of development towards the year 2030 within the framework of Sarawak Agenda. 

He says the implementation of State development projects and policies would not have been achieved without the efficient roles of the State Civil Service at all levels. In this regards, special mention must be made of the Enforcement and Security personnel for keeping peace and security so that the people can live in peace and harmony

among them. This exemplary action can be seen clearly from the peaceful conduct of the GE14.

Admittedly, the people are living in a different environment and political landscape that require them to work harder to deliver basic infrastructure and facilities to the rural communities.

They must also work harder to create investment and employment opportunities for the people in urban centers

The State Government will work closely with the new Federal Government, which promises to be fair and efficient. In this regards, the State Government will consider providing allocation under Minor Rural Projects (MRP) to individual PH members, as a reciprocal allocation should the Federal Government provide similar allocation to GPS members.

Abang Johari says the formation of Gabungan Parti Sarawak is forge new alliances for the people to work closely together in the interests of Sarawak and for the benefits of all Sarawakians.

Sarawak Government will also allocate a ceiling of RM1 million for each GPS ADUN for their respective constituencies to implement Program Baik Pulih Rumah under Program Perumahan Rakyat Termiskin (PPRT) in 2018.

Most of all, efforts will continue to be made to improve policies and to run the government institutions professionally so that the economy is capable of creating good jobs, especially for the brightest and best among the Rakyat.