“UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL” – Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg has reiterated this many times, in reflection of today’s Sarawak Day celebration. He opined that Sarawakians must not let anything or anyone divide them, and that rather than seek differences among themselves, they should find similarities which, if used properly, would enable everyone in Sarawak to lead better lives. Four years after July 22 was gazetted by the state government under the stewardship of then Chief Minister, the late Pehin Sri Adenan Satem, his successor Abang Johari said the spirit of mutual respect among all remained paramount. “That should be the way, Adenan thought the same and I myself felt the same way,” he said. In an exclusive interview with New Sarawak Tribune and its sister daily Suara Sarawak, Abang Johari speaks his mind. Below is the full excerpt from the interview by NAZMI SUHAIMI.
New Sarawak Tribune (NST): What does the Sarawak Day celebration mean to you?
Abang Johari: July 22, 1963 is a special day for Sarawak in which on that day, we formed a government ruled by Sarawakians themselves. The late Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan became Chief Minister and the state Cabinet comprised Sarawakian members, including our current Head of State, Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.
Before we formed Malaysia, we already have our own government despite the Governor then being a Briton — Alexander Waddell. The executive power is given to Sarawakians. That is the significance of July 22, following that we became a partner in the forming of a Malaysian federation on Sept 16, 1963.
What are the changes we can see after four years of celebrating Sarawak Day?
The impact after four years is what we see under Tok Nan (Adenan) where he mentioned the importance of Sarawak’s rights under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), which was based on the Cobbold Commission and the provisions under the Federal Constitution.
From that day onwards, we have been structurally reclaiming our rights which have been eroded in our governing of the state be it being done intentionally or unintentionally, but more importantly is we instil the awareness in Sarawakians that while we need to develop our state, we need to take into account the matters that are agreed under MA63.
As a successor to Adenan, I have continued the efforts diligently, with care and without encroaching the sovereignty of the federal country. But to restore the rights that should have been ours, for me, the last four years have given us some inspiration to restore Sarawak’s position as one of the regions in Malaysia, aside from Sabah and Malaya.
Are you satisfied with the progress made over the last four years?
The work is far from done because there are a lot more matters linked to Article 112D under the Federal Constitution where the federal government has to give a special allocation to Sarawak despite an amount of RM36 million given before this.
I have disputed the formula to this allocation as the formula was not made clear and there has to be a formula for the allocation.
If the nation’s finances are good, there should be a formula for Sarawak, if it is not good then there must be a formula for that as well as there should not be a fixed amount.
Are you confident that this can be resolved under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government led by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin?
It would depend on the negotiations with them as we are not greedy, what we want is a right formula for us to arrive at a certain amount — when the country is doing well, and when it is not well.
We are willing to get less of that amount, depending on the economic situation and the financial position, it is not fair to give a fixed amount if the economy is good as there is no fairness in terms of the distribution. Whether I am satisfied with the progress, I think not yet as it is yet to be settled.
What about the representation of Sarawak and Sabah in Parliament?
We feel that we had one-third representation from Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore back then and when Singapore left, the percentage has become smaller. Sarawak as well as Sabah need to retain its one-third representation of the 222 MPs. If we don’t have one-third, the distribution of power is leaning heavily to Malaya.
We know that the Federal Constitution can be amended with two-thirds majority and if they (Malaya) have more than two-thirds, they can amend the Federal Constitution unilaterally, this is one of the matters that we have to discuss with the federal government.
We ask that the matter on Article 112 be resolved and the one-third representation is restored and this will be discussed with the Sabah and Sarawak Affairs Ministry formed by the federal government.
What is your greatest achievement in restoring Sarawak’s rights?
The first is gaining control of the Bakun Dam in my first year as Chief Minister. Bakun is ours and while it was first developed by the federal government, I discussed that I want to retake Bakun, which we did at a reasonable price.
With it, we have the control over our own energy through hydropower. With that, three years ago, we have started to sell our power to Kalimantan and now we are developing our electricity for the state.
Second is our involvement in oil and gas matters, even during the election, Pakatan Harapan said it promised to give 20 percent oil and gas royalty. This was not fulfilled.
Under the Federal Constitution, it said we can’t claim more than 10 percent royalty, so we have to be practical and with the power under our Sales Tax Ordinance, we have imposed a five percent State Sales Tax (SST) despite dissenting views from Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas). With that, it is light at the end of the tunnel for us.
How different are PH and PN in listening to our demands?
PN is attentive to our demands and during PH’s reign, there was a committee under the MA63 Steering Committee chaired by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in which I was one of the members. The negotiations then can be described as not smooth sailing, when the federal government changed, it was disbanded.
However, PN formed a special ministry for Sabah and Sarawak Affairs to look into the review of MA63 and I see that with regard to Petronas, we have a two-way negotiation that is rationale and a win-win to the state. In other words, the reception has been better from the federal government’s side.
How can we make Sarawakians feel prouder of Sarawak?
Sarawak has become the envy of many as National Unity Minister Datuk Halimah Mohd Sadique, who visited us recently, said they were impressed with the management of inter-ethnic relationship. This is to the extent that they wanted to present the concept of Unit for Other Religions (Unifor), which is used in Sarawak, to the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong.
Secondly is when Communication and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah visited us, they acknowledge our digitalisation plan. They said that we already have a masterplan on our hands in terms of our social and economy on the use of technology. The minister asked that a representative from the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) be put on the Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) board so that when the two work together, the economic transformation in terms of technology can be expedited.
How does Sarawak First fit into Sarawak Day?
It’s simple. Sarawakians must be united and use whatever strength we have to improve the socioeconomic status of Sarawakians. Of course, the federal government has to also acknowledge certain areas that they can help us — the moment that we are strong, financially and economically, the axis will shift, that is normal and then once our economic status is strong, everyone will benefit. In other words, we have to be strong, we must be united. If Sarawak is strong, it will play its part in nation building.
What does the theme of Sarawak Day – Sarawak Cemerlang–mean?
It means that the whole society enjoys economic success and poverty is less, people are busy with development, the culture is still there — all of this is part of the whole ecosystem, once we are there (successful in our economy), others will acknowledge it.
Why is 2030 the target for Sarawak to be a developed state?
Because three years ago, I have given emphasis on basic infrastructure. You cannot not focus on it, we can’t let people go without basic amenities such as water, roads and electricity. All of these will transform rural areas and we will have Sarawakians with raw talent, because we have met a lot of Sarawakians outside who are successful. When we asked them to return and serve Sarawak, they would turn down the offer as there is little opportunity for them here. That is why we go for high technology projects, IT and petrochemicals. All of these are high paying jobs because Sarawak has the talent.
Why is it crucial to bridge the urban and rural gap?
Our weakness is our lack of infrastructure and facilities. Look at Pulau Bruit, it used to be isolated, now we are building bridges at Batang Lassa from Daro to Bruit. From Bruit, we built Jambatan Paloh to Tanjung Manis meaning it is now part and parcel of the whole region and can be developed. This is a boon to the whole area, meaning farmers and fishermen will become modern, we also installed reef balls, which we are funding ourselves, costing RM70 million, from Tanjung Datu to Lawas. With that, we will enrich the fisheries and resources to help the communities.
How does Sarawak play its part in nation building in the context of Sarawak Day?
We are celebrating Sarawak Day because we are proud of being Sarawakians and we have something that is different from the rest. That something will enrich the whole country. If Sarawak is not doing well, Malaysia will too. If Sarawak is not then Malaysia has a problem area. From my observation in the last 40 years in public office, we need to have a plan.
When I was Tourism Minister, I tried to turn tourism around. Although there is some success in our efforts, I will leave that for the public to assess. When I was Housing Minister, I did the same thing and transformed Sibu Jaya. Now the area is the most vibrant part of Sibu. What this means is that when you have issues, you have to study and turn it around.
Speaking on development, how would we fund all these projects?
When people say Sarawak is both rich and poor at the same time, we need to analyse why we are poor. This is because the income of rural dwellers has not increased and the reason for this is the lack of infrastructure to allow them to get better incomes because of no connectivity.
When I became Chief Minister, the late Adenan already planned for a coastal road to be built. I just continued his plan. But the question now is funding. I have to find a way to fund it as this project is not cheap, but I can guarantee you that we can do it and it will not affect our reserves.
Secondly, there is a certain royalty that we can improve on, so this year I have increased the water royalty rate, this is from 1 sen to 2.5 sen, this will give a substantial revenue to our coffers. It is also good that our energy company, Sarawak Energy, is collecting revenue. If they are making profit, more money will be paid in taxes.
How should the people play their roles to ensure that your aspirations are achieved?
They need to have self-confidence. If they don’t have that then they will give up halfway. We must believe that we can do it. We have 10 more years to reach 2030. One of the discussions in the Sarawak Economic Action Council (SEAC) recently was raised by Datuk Idris Jala, who is a member of SEAC. He said Sarawak needed to grow at eight per cent Gross Domestic Product (GDP). I feel that is possible and I think we can get eight percent GDP.
The first reason is that in post – Covid-19, our projects are already running, our businesses are on. Secondly is we inject funds into our development. With that, we can improve on our existing six per cent GDP. Thirdly is our unity. Political stability must be there, if not, then it would not give confidence to the investors.
When you said that you are Chief Minister for all races, what does that mean?
It means that in Sarawak, the people must have one vision where we focus our resources on one goal, which is to develop Sarawak so it can be an example to others. Secondly is to play our role in nation building. That is our ultimate objective.
What advice can we offer our Malaya counterparts in fostering national unity?
If there is mutual respect in the group, I’m sure that we will reach a meeting point that will be accepted by the group. I told the minister (National Unity Minister) that we have a lot of mixed marriages.
For instance, when an Iban marries a Chinese, the Iban has to go through with the Chinese tea ceremony. When a Chinese marries a Malay, then the Chinese needs to attend the akad nikah (solemnisation) ceremony. So, in other words, there is mutual respect among the community and we observe the sensitivities of others. She (National Unity Minister) acknowledged this.
Sarawak Day will be held digitally. Does this put a damper on the mood?
Sarawak Day will be held in Miri. The committee has decided that the event will be broadcast digitally because we can’t have crowds due to Covid-19. The same goes with the upcoming Malaysia Day celebration so this online platform has become more important.
My message for the people is to maintain our unity and I have high hopes for Sarawakians. Sarawak will be there by 2030 but it can only be done if we work hard and work together. Through digital economy and information technology, we can improve on our capacities.