KUCHING: After a lengthy conversation during New Sarawak Tribune’s exclusive interview with Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg, we asked him, “Datuk Patinggi, how would you want to be remembered?”.
His answer was evoking of a lifelong civil servant — that even after more than 40 years in public service, his principles remained the same, which the interest of the masses must come first.
“I have no personal stake in serving the people, what I had contributed to the state, that is for the people to assess and evaluate — be it when I am chief minister or just an ordinary minister,” he said.
He also viewed that to be a prosperous, stable and competitive state, the benefit attained by Sarawak must be shared among its people.
“The benefit must be shared for all — Sarawak for all, all for Sarawak. This is for us, this is for Sarawakians,” he said.
He also said while the state election is just around the corner, the mandate for Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) to govern is not for him, instead, it is for Sarawak.
“This mandate… is not for me. It is the mandate of the people, being the leader, I will lead. The mandate is given by the people of Sarawak to Sarawakians to lead the state towards achieving a developed state status by 2030”.
Following is the full text of the interview on Jan 8:
NST: When you first became chief minister, what was your assessment for Sarawak’s future?
Abang Johari: When I took over from the late Pehin Sri Adenan Satem, I had told myself that I will continue the efforts planned by my predecessor, as at the time, we had just won the state election and I was a member of Adenan’s team.
What we had promised in our manifesto was what we worked together on and is our development agenda. While he is gone, I had continued the efforts while making small changes along the way.
This is because, I saw throughout my experience in the Cabinet that Sarawak has a good approach and it is flushed with resources which we can add value to, so that we can develop this state especially in its rural areas.
How do you see the situation in rural Sarawak?
We see the rural dwellers, who don’t have basic facilities which I see as a priority; this is in terms of water supply, electricity as well education through conducive schools.
Another thing is infrastructure where we can link areas where there is good population density — this must be improved. Secondly is that we have a bright future which can fulfil the needs of the new generation.
To me, if we manage to produce talents but our economy is downwards, they will not be able to serve the state. That is why we can see a lot of Sarawakians who end up working outside of Sarawak.
How do you remedy this?
That is why in 2017, I had launched the digital economy policy and secondly, I had formed several strategic institutions to develop our economy, meaning from 2017 until today, we can see our planning being able to take shape.
Of course, the question then would on getting the funds, where we now enjoy some flexibility in developing what we had planned. At the same time, we can see the provisions in our Constitution that can lend an advantage to Sarawak.
This is what I have implemented, that is why we don’t have problems in terms of getting the needed funding from our resources and in the end, I had taken them (Petroliam Nasional Berhad) to court where the decision was in our favour so that we have the funding to make our dreams a reality.
What is the main challenge in realising the 2030 vision for Sarawak?
I think now, there are not many challenges, only that we need to see the response from the people, whether they are able to make a huge leap in changing our economy. When I introduced digital economy, there are many that were sceptical.
But regardless, I am confident that we must try and I believe that the people in the end will understand the concept so it is not a huge challenge.
The huge challenge is leveraging on our assets to change the economy and improve the standing of the community as digital infrastructure remains a problem. It takes time and we need to set up the facilities such as the telecommunication towers.
Finally, we need to be in tandem with the current technology. When I formed Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA), we now specialised in introducing digital economy and to understand the change, I think Sarawakians are more than capable.
We have the talent and we have improved on it; this will allow it to provide returns in terms of bringing change to our economy.
What is your aspiration for the coming years?
I think for 2017 until 2020, the principles have been laid out and from 2021 to 2025 is when we will implement what has been planned including infrastructures, roads as well water and electrical supply.
The Sarawak Alternative Rural Electrification Scheme (Sares) has been effective and looking from figures given to me, we could supply electricity to all villages and longhouses by 2023 ahead of the targeted 2025 as we have the technology.
Same goes for the water supply which we can fully implement by 2023 to 2024. If we have the foundation, the community out there is able to involve themselves in various sectors which can play a role in our economic development.
2021 will be the first year where we can implement all these projects up until 2025. Besides that, we are developing human capital, our talent development and possibly between 2025 and 2030, we can achieve what we have dreamed of.
Will the 2030 vision be achieved ahead of schedule?
To me, it is important that we remain grounded as we mustn’t be over confident, but we need to plan wisely and I see we have done so. Maybe we will achieve (the vision) earlier and just maybe, Sarawak’s economy will be the epicentre of Malaysia economy.
Meaning, if we can do this, it will be one of the attractions to the state, the investors will be confident to invest with us as they see Sarawak as a place where they can make products which are acceptable to the market as we are strategically located.
What we need now is to bridge our talent development with our approaches, we are confident, if we are able to attract investors, we will be a region in Malaysia which is able to stimulate the nation’s economy.
What is your message to the people for that vision to be achieved?
We must have political stability, if we don’t have that, the people will doubt us. Secondly, we must leverage on the expertise that is possessed by the newer generation in new fields.
Now we have a lot of ongoing development — Sarawak Metro is developing our Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART), where we have our Sarawakians returning to work with us. Same goes for Petrochem.
Next is we need to promote agriculture as it is a sector of economy which is giving huge returns. Meaning, if we have a solid economic system, Sarawakians working outside of the state will be attracted to work for the state.
In short, our economy must be modern, this will give opportunities for the youths as what they have learned is not the same to what we have learned in our generation and I see our future is bright.
After Sarawak Metro, TVS; What is your next big project for Sarawak?
Now we are thinking of implementing better connectivity in our rural areas, making it available to rural schools and our community. It is too early for me to announce it now, but I promise I will introduce it in the near future.
This will identify the places that can be equipped with WiFi and internet in the rural areas and if this happens, it (the initiative) will be expanded. This will happen in 2021 and it (better connectivity) will provide an environment where the people are connected.
TVS is also part of our efforts to provide an opportunity to those who studied in mass communications and performing arts to stimulate our arts and culture as we have the talent.
What we need is a framework or a platform to uplift our economy as in the end, politics is for the betterment of the people.
Your effort to eradicate urban and rural poverty in Sarawak?
Poverty begins with lack of education, if you are ‘poor’ in knowledge, you will remain poor. But if you educate people, the knowledge that they gain can turn their lives around.
If a community is poor and we empower them through training and education, the poverty rate can be reduced. That is why I hold to the old Chinese adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
There have been many success stories out there when the poor becomes rich because of knowledge. That is why the infrastructure is needed and we need to fund the education.
We must find funds for scholarships, with this, we can change the lives of the villagers.
So, within five or 10 years of education, their lives and those of their families can be changed.
Can we fully eradicate poverty?
There are many definitions to poverty but my argument is that you are only poor when you don’t have assets. For rural dwellers, if they have a plot of land, they must monetise it as that is our value.
The problem is you are poor because you don’t have cash. Why you don’t have cash is because the land is not being developed.
But if you have the knowledge, the lands can be developed and become an asset, this will give income to them.
Our agriculture is heading towards modernisation, if the father does not know of modern agricultural techniques, at least the children know of Internet of Things (IoT), he can then use hydroponic and fertigation to plant their crops.
We have set up Centre of Technical Excellence (Centexs) and we have seen our institution, i-CATS being elevated to a university college meaning our policy be it social, economic and political is intertwined.
What is your view on the concept of Sarawakku Sayang?
For me, the people need to see what we have in our state and how we want to develop our state, for example, how our digital economy policy fared amid Covid-19 where we turned to online.
The concept of Sarawakku Sayang is all encompassing, including our assistances as well rural and urban development.
Housing for example, our policy now is that the people can buy homes through a loan from Mutiara Mortgage where only 1 percent interest is imposed — this is not available in other states.
It is because we have the funds, we are using it to assist the people and we provide housing for the community. This is what it means — that we are care about our community.
As a leader, what was the lesson learnt from Covid-19 and to ensure Sarawak will remain safe?
I think we shouldn’t be rash in handling our problems and we must expect the unexpected when implementing the approaches which we want to implement. We must have contingency plans to our contingency plans.
I am thankful that we are prepared for the pandemic as if we know it will strike us. That is why when I took over, I thought Sarawak must be less dependent on others and stand on its own.
When the Covid-19 pandemic started, we worked to protect our people. Initially our partners at the federal level said we must follow the national policy, including quarantine but I said no to them.
This was because under the Constitution, and for Infectious Diseases, we have our own autonomy and we have the power to implement quarantine according to our local situation. That is why we are able to continue with 14 days’ quarantine.
We were the ones who decided that, not Putrajaya. We said Sarawak needs its own special quarantine and we used our power. We must prepare for the unexpected and thank God, we are able to bring the situation under control.
Sarawak’s handling of Covid-19 was praised by the Health DG, your take on this?
Well, we are trying our best and we thank them for the compliment. But until now, we are still trying to use the power in terms of handling illegal foreigners. From Jan 1 until Jan 7, there were 170 undocumented migrants.
The question is, where did all these people come from and we have also conducted Ops Benteng. I said to them (the security team at the borders) we need them to move actively to prevent illegal border crossing and we know our borders are vast.
I talked to them and they said they need assets, at the very least is the provision of motorcycles to go to the jalan tikus (rat trails).
And who is going to provide this asset? So, I said to them, Sarawak will help to provide the motorcycles when I was told they need 10 to 12 Scrambler bikes.
I also thank the people as they have been responsible and they have taken care of themselves. They have been wearing the mask as mandated and it has automatically turned into a culture. For this, I thank them.
What is your main concern leading GPS into the next state election?
We have planned for our future and now it is up to the people to evaluate what I have done and what their aspirations are for the future. God willing, under my leadership, I will remain transparent and focus on developing Sarawak.
Sticking with democratic practices, there will also be others who feel they have the right to contest in the next election but my advice to Sarawakians is for Sarawak to not end up in a limbo — the government must remain stable.
Thank God, we have helped the federal government to be stable, while we are not members of Perikatan Nasional (PN), we still support the government as the nation needs one to govern itself.
What is your view on the uncertainty surrounding Malaysia’s politics at the federal level?
While these are troubling times, I leave it to the leaders (to resolve it) but what is important is Malaysia must be a united nation and continue to look forward towards a newer Malaysian generation.
In this context, let us take care of ourselves, we must work together with our strength and what is important is for Sarawak to have a stellar administrative system and economy — that is what I hope for.
How do you rate GPS’ chances in the next polls?
For us in GPS, we are confident and we leave it to the people to decide. This is because the people want stability, and secondly are our social and economic policies that will ensure their future.
Thirdly, is the unity among the community which must be protected, especially in a diverse society comprising various ethnic groups and religions.
What does securing a new mandate mean for you?
I have no personal stake in it. As people have said before, this was Adenan’s mandate — I said, true; but I am also a member of Adenan’s team.
I also said, this mandate is not for me. It is the mandate of the people, being the leader, I will lead. The mandate is given by the people of Sarawak to Sarawakians to lead the state towards achieving a developed state status by 2030.
We can see there are signs that the people are accepting our policies. They can see how our professionals have returned to Sarawak and our economy was transformed into a modern economy in a modern era with a global setting.
How would you like to be remembered?
As I have said, there is nothing in it for me. What I have contributed to Sarawak, it is for the people to judge, whether it is my contribution as chief minister or an ordinary minister before that.
When I was the Industrial Minister, I was the first to bring in investment through Sama Jaya, at Kemena, Bintulu and in Sejingkat. When I was Housing Minister, I had transformed Sibu Jaya. After that, I was asked to be Housing and Tourism Minister.
These are among my contributions to Sarawak and to this date, I let Sarawakians be the judge.