“What Lies Ahead for Sarawak with Adenan Satem’s passing?” a Commentary by Lee Hock Guan and Lee Poh Onn

2017/3, 12 January 2017

Sarawak’s very popular, his approval rating was 85 percent, Chief Minister Adenan Satem, passed away at 1.24pm on Wednesday just nearly two weeks shy of his 73rd birthday after suffering a cardiac arrest. Adenan was the first Malay politician to hold the Chief Minister post after he replaced long serving Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, a Melanau, on 1 March 2014; the latter served as Chief Minister for 33 years. In addition, Adenan also replaced Taib Mahmud as the President of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the largest Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition partner in Sarawak.

A decisive role has always been played by the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia’s general elections by delivering the bulk of their parliamentary seats to the ruling coalition BN. In the 2013 elections, the BN won 22 of the 25 parliamentary seats in Sabah and 25 of the 31 seats in Sarawak which together made up a third of the total seats BN won. UMNO still does not have a political presence in Sarawak, and this practise of keeping UMNO out of the state was maintained in no uncertain terms by Adenan. Indeed, in the Sarawak state elections last year Adenan led BN to a resounding victory especially helping to win back a noticeable percentage of the Chinese votes which previously voted for the opposition in 2013.

The BN’s resounding state elections victory is in no small part due to the deft skills of Adenan Satem. Shortly after he became the Chief Minister, Adenan introduced the “Anak Sarawak” policies which declared that all Sarawakians are equal, Bumiputera (non-Malays or Muslims) should not be classified as “Lain Lain” and that Sarawakian Chinese are not “pendatang”. He also initiated the return of Sarawak’s administrative authority through a 13-point devolution of powers agreement with Putrajaya. The demand for greater autonomy includes the “borneo-ization” i.e. staffing state civil services, and PETRONAS, with Sarawakians; reinstating English as an official language of the state; re-negotiate with Putrajaya over PETRONAS and oil royalty; and so on.

Besides demanding greater autonomy for the state, the Adenan administration also implemented a series of very popular policies. Tariff electricity rates have also been reduced, bridge tolls have been removed, GST on municipal council services removed, funding for rural development increased to bridge the gap between the urban and rural areas, embargo on timber and plantation licences introduces, and religious freedom promoted. For the Chinese community, his administration praised the contributions of Chinese schools and announced the recognition the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) in the state.
It is widely expected that policies introduced by Adenan will more or less remain the same.  Sarawak push for autonomy will also remain as this is very much in the minds of Sarawakians, and has become more or less a “state policy”, where Adenan has been working closely with Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari. Also the state’s stand to oppose the controversial private member’s Bill to strengthen the Syariah Courts is likely to remain; the Sarawak BN would not like to be seen as reneging on a position that they have not been supporting. Adenan also worked with a team that is likely to seek for continuity in policies. Importantly, with Taib Mahmud still in the background, state policies are likely to be balanced and in-check. However, there is one discontinuity in a sense; there may be no immediate new leader strong, visible, and vocal enough to face the government in Putrajaya.

Lee Hock Guan and Lee Poh Onn are ISEAS Senior Fellows. Lee Hock Guan is also the Co-coordinator of Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.