IT is the fifth day of Hari Raya and Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg has been making a round of visits to open houses in the morning. But the Sarawak Chief Minister remains full of energy when he meets The Star at his residence in Petra Jaya, Kuching, later that afternoon.
He is relaxed and jovial as he settles into an armchair for an hour-long interview.
Abang Johari, who was sworn in on Jan 13, speaks candidly about taking over from the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, the policies he has introduced to transform the state’s economy, his dream for Sarawak and whether the state Barisan Nasional will field direct candidates in the coming general election to prevent seat squabbling between the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) and its splinter group United People’s Party (UPP).
You became Chief Minister when Tan Sri Adenan Satem passed away unexpectedly. How difficult was it to take over in such circumstances?
I was in Adenan’s Cabinet as deputy chief minister and I was all along with him when we faced the (state) election (last year), which we won handsomely with a big majority. After the election, Adenan did his part to fulfil what had been promised in the election, including to pursue Sarawak’s rights within the Federation of Malaysia and launch people-centric policies. Unfortunately, Adenan’s health was deteriorating during that period. We thought he could recover after he took a vacation in Australia but when he came back we noticed that he had not really recovered fully. He sought treatment at our own Heart Centre and I went to see him one day before he died. I didn’t expect him to pass away after that but God is great, he loved Adenan more. He passed away on Jan 11 and that was the time when I took over as endorsed by my party PBB as well as our friends in Barisan Nasional.
Under those circumstances, of course you feel that there’s a lot of hard work to be done. I was also thinking how to fulfil the promises we made in the election. But thank God I was one of those who planned the election manifesto and I knew what I was going to do. Those were the circumstances around my appointment, but I took it as a challenge.
How has becoming Chief Minister changed your life?
Not really, because I’ve been in public office for the past 30 over years. The difference is that the decisions are all yours now. Previously, I referred to our former chief ministers and was given opportunities to serve in a lot of ministries. The only difference now is that I have to decide myself for the future of Sarawak.
In terms of lifestyle it’s the same. You are focused on your job, you have to identify the direction of the state and you must be people-centric.
Do your wife and family see you differently now?
My wife and family have become used to it. You know, I became a member of the state assembly at the age of 30 and continuously after the 1983 election, I’ve been a member of the state Cabinet.
They can understand that my time is not much their time, it’s also public time. I think they are prepared for that, though my daughter and son both complained that I did not spend much time with them. But what I do to compensate is to have family time together when we go for holidays, so that keeps us together.
Why did you decide to enter politics?
I was involved with my kampung’s development committee. There was a party called Pajar which affected the unity of my kampung people, especially the development committee. So that’s why I came in, trying to unite the people.
Then I went to the PBB youth conference and in 1978 they elected me as the PBB youth vice-president. In 1981 Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub spotted me and asked me to become a candidate in Satok.
I declined because I was still young and my son was only three years old, so I wanted to spend my time with my family. I asked him to pick my brother instead. But the late Tun Rahman said no, so that’s how I came in as a candidate in 1981.
No regrets. After all, once you have decided you might as well focus on the decision you have made.
When you first entered politics, did it ever cross your mind that one day you would become Chief Minister?
Not at all. In the Youth wing I was there to help the young. I became the vice-president of PBB in 1985. After we won the 1987 election, I became the first minister of industrial development and I was there for almost 12 years, building up the new ministry. In other words I just served. To be the Chief Minister, that is secondary.
When Tun Taib (Mahmud) retired (in 2014), I told him, you just choose anybody among us to be Chief Minister and I will support him. As you know, he chose Adenan and we supported him. But as I said, the circumstances were there, you are fated to take over from Adenan, so you take over.
How would you describe your political style?
To me it’s natural, there’s no specific style. Maybe it’s because of my family background, we are used to serving the people. My father used to serve the people. During the colonial days, positions like district officer and Resident were usually reserved for the orang putih but my father was one of the few locals who got this high position. Later he became Governor. To me it’s nothing new, it’s natural.
Would you say Adenan has influenced you in how you do your job as Chief Minister?
Adenan had his own style, but we have some common approaches because we come from the same kampung. When he became Chief Minister, Adenan focused more on how to help the people and ease their burden, particularly the cost of living. That’s why he abolished tolls, reduced ferry charges to RM1, reduced the electricity tariff and so on. I continue with this policy of trying to reduce the cost of living but I have my own approach. Adenan’s background was legal but mine is in economics and business. I try to find new means not only to reduce the cost of living but to increase income levels. That’s why I introduce new policies which I hope in the long run will give an avenue for people to use their talents and whatever resources we have to increase their income through good employment opportunities.
So the new policies that you’ve announced, such as the digital economy and Development Bank of Sarawak, are part of long-term planning for Sarawak?
Yes, exactly. The first week I became CM, I told the State Secretary that I want to introduce a new way for us to manage our economy, that is through digital economy. With technology, the market is yours. I introduce the digital economy in order to match production and the market. That’s why we must introduce high-speed IT infrastructure.
The second part will be to train your human capital, meaning the population must be IT-savvy. To do that we have to upgrade our basic infrastructure including water supply and power, and education.
That’s where the idea of the Development Bank of Sarawak comes in. In my first month, I met the Prime Minister and requested his approval to give us a licence to establish our own development bank. That bank is very important to provide capital for us to move forward. We do not want to rely so much on our reserves but we have our own bank which will provide capital. We can capitalise some of our reserves and the bank will give loans at interest which it can recover. That will trigger economic development in the state.
You set up a state Education Ministry to look into rebuilding dilapidated schools using state funds and claiming back later from the Federal Government. Has the state identified the schools and the cost?
Based on the Education Department’s report, we have over 1,400 dilapidated schools, out of which 960 are quite critical. The worst are 400-plus schools that have to be rebuilt. That is why I formed this ministry to tackle the infrastructure part. We have a lot of schools with low enrolment which we are reviewing. We may as well centralise them into one boarding school. If we can group these schools, we may only need to rebuild about 200 schools instead of all the 400 dilapidated schools. I suggested to the Prime Minister that we rebuild the schools using the money from our bank, but then you pay us back. This will allow us to provide good schools for our people.
What is your dream for Sarawak and its future?
I’m going to Estonia next month, a small country with a population of 1.3 million. Now Estonia is highly digitalised and is exporting its goods to Europe, including the services sector, healthcare and manufacturing.
Sarawak has a small population of 2.7 million. We are able to interact with our neighbours, including India and China. That is our market. I hope Sarawak can be like Estonia, providing services, goods and exports of quality to a three-billion-strong market. That is my wish. Everybody will have the opportunity to improve themselves through our basic strategic economic policy. Sarawak has everything; it is a matter of how we manage it. We have the technology, the know-how and people who are willing to work hard. We also have a civil service who is willing to change.
How is the preparation for the next general election coming along?
We just won our state election under Adenan, so I still have time. We will prepare for the parliamentary election. We don’t have any signal yet from Datuk Seri Najib (Tun Razak) but of course for any election, we must prepare.
Will there be any issue with fielding Barisan Nasional direct candidates?
It depends, we will see how it goes. There are some indications that the Chinese want (SUPP and UPP) to be back into one. The community leaders have been talking about this and it is up to the politicians to respond. I do not want to force them, let them assess it and study the needs of the community leaders.
There are indications that the parties have expressed willingness to reconcile but it is normal that in this process, there are groups who may not want it, so it depends on the top leadership. This process will take time but I have the feeling that the leaders of both parties want to have a common front. To me, in the long run they will be united for the sake of the Chinese.
Maybe fielding direct candidates will be a last resort if the feuding parties cannot come to a solution.
I can’t say now. For all you know, we may not have direct candidates. Based on my own experience, there must be a willingness to compromise. Myself, I compromised when we chose our state leadership (to succeed Taib). That time I was the deputy president (of PBB). If I were the kind of person who only talked about my personal interests, surely I would not be happy. But instead, I told Tun Taib to choose and I would support that, so the party was okay. We cannot be too obsessive. That’s why I think it’s just a matter of time for the two parties to reach a compromise.
The situation is also similar for SPDP (Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party) and (splinter party) Teras. I don’t know if they are talking among themselves to find a solution because I don’t want to interfere. But as Sarawak Barisan Nasional chairman, I would like them to have a compromise for the long-term interest of everyone.
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