Adenan Satem’s Fight for Sarawak

First published in theSun here, on 19 January 2017

THE passing of Sarawak chief minister, the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, last week sent political reverberations across the country.

Whither Sarawak in the next general election, many asked?

How exactly has he altered the political dynamics of a state that has hitherto been considered the proverbial “fixed deposit” for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional?

Was he really all that reformist as many purported him to be?

During his short tenure of almost three years, he brought with him a breath of fresh air. His predecessor, now state governor Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, had been chief minister for 33 years, making him the longest serving chief minister in Malaysia.

Taib had been embroiled in accusations of political corruption and cronyism, particularly that related to deforestation.

In contrast, I recall Adenan taking on a Global Witness representative – the international NGO that produced a documentary uncovering how Taib and family by-passed Malaysian law to sell off Sarawak’s land – confidently on stage at the International Anti-Corruption Convention (IACC) in 2015, stating in no uncertain terms that his leadership would be different; one defined by transparency and cooperation with civil society.

Sure enough, he would go on to meet several high-profile anti-corruption activists to discuss how to work together.

But perhaps the biggest and most significant contribution Adenan made to Sarawak lies in his demands for greater state autonomy.

When, as a result of Petronas’s restructuring in Sarawak, 13 experienced staff members were retrenched, politicians from both sides of the divide called for the preservation of Petronas jobs for Sarawakians.

The angst was mainly targeted at peninsula-based Malaysians taking high-ranking positions that would otherwise have been reserved for locals – not the most ideal in terms of national unity across borders.

But recall that Sarawakians have long felt betrayed by the original commitment to be treated as partners, alongside Sabah, and equal to the peninsula as three separate entities under the Malaysia Agreement 1963, not merely as one of the 13 states.

Adenan emerged as a victor of sorts in August 2016, when he marched to Putrajaya and had a face-to-face negotiation with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak and Petronas, at which a seven-point list of claims were presented, all of which were reportedly agreed to.

First, that a Sarawakian should be appointed on Petronas’s board of directors.

Second, that the then 192 vacant posts would be advertised in local papers and filled by Sarawakians.

Third, that Petronas would provide up to 50 places for Sarawakians to do undergraduate studies at University Technology Petronas.

Fourth, that Petronas would intensify technical training and enrol more Sarawakians in their training centres.

Fifth, that Petronas would support two petrochemical industries in the state.

Sixth, that the federal government would consider the Sarawak government’s intention to participate in Production Sharing Contracts (PSCs), and finally seventh, that Petronas would agree to recruit more Sarawakians from the non-executive to management levels.

This was a rare occasion in which a chief minister from a Barisan component party was negotiating with the Barisan head in rather opposition-like behaviour. In fact, one might argue that the entire push for greater autonomy presented a strange, unprecedented relationship within the political players in the state.

Here, we were presented with both the state government (led by Barisan Sarawak-based parties PBB and SUPP) and the opposition parties (led by DAP) united in their demands for more safeguards to protect local Sarawakian employment in Petronas.

In fact, the second big demand emerging from Adenan’s office was to increase the oil royalty from 5% to 20%, which ironically enough started off as a motion originally tabled by a DAP state assemblyman, but amended to include more development grants from the federal government and then subsequently tabled by a Barisan assemblyman.

The resolution was approved back in May 2014, just two months after Adenan took over office, in an unusual act of unanimous cooperation between parties from both sides. Such bilateral voting towards a common cause has almost never taken place in any other state, much less federal Parliament.

In another effort to negotiate for greater oil rights for Sarawak, Adenan announced in the June 2016 state assembly meeting that the state would develop a new regulatory framework with regard to territorial sea boundaries, alluding to his rejection of the Territorial Sea Act 2012 (TSA).

Once again, this has received backing from both the Barisan and opposition parties in Sarawak.

It is a complex issue, but in short: The TSA reduces the breadth limit of Sarawak and Sabah’s territorial waters – including their rights to fisheries, mineral resources and tourism sites – to three nautical miles from their coastlines.

The contention is that first, territorial sea is defined as 12 nautical miles for all other parts of Malaysia, whereas it is three nautical miles for Sabah and Sarawak, and for the purposes of oil and gas (which would also include Kelantan and Terengganu).

Second, it is argued that the TSA could in fact be unconstitutional, since any law altering the boundaries first requires the consent of that state via the state legislature, which, in this case, did not happen.

This is an important point of law, since it would determine how much of the revenues from minerals found offshore would eventually accrue to the state governments.

There are those who consider his demands for autonomy to be a nuisance, and an attempt to cause intentional friction for friction’s sake. In fact, it should also be said that the state government must be held equally responsible for how it manages its existing resources and not lay the entire blame on the federal government. Indeed, accountability and checks and balance are imperative.

However, in memory of the late Adenan, it is worth quoting his words in toto here, that in fact, “The state has no intention of wanting to weaken the Federation of Malaysia, as it is only claiming its rights enshrined under the Federal Constitution, (the) Malaysia Agreement 1963, the Malaysia Act, the Inter-Governmental Reports and Recommendations and the Cobbold Commision Report.

In fact, the willingness of the prime minister to negotiate with Sarawak in an effort to devolve power and return the autonomy powers of Sarawak, which has been eroded all this while, has enlivened the spirit of Sarawak to ensure Malaysia continues to remain strong” (2016 National Day Celebration).

Those are bold, strong words. But the fact that he needed to say them again 53 years after the formation of Malaysia in 1963 says something about how our Sarawak and Sabah neighbours feel.

Among the 18 points that were agreed to as conditions when Sarawak helped to form Malaysia were that there should be no state religion, English should be an official language, and that no withdrawal of any special safeguard to Sarawak should be made by the central government without concurrence by the Sarawak state government. Nothing new here – he was merely reiterating old points.

Adenan’s leadership has been characterised by a healthy assertion for decentralisation; let us not forget Malaysia is a federalist nation after all. However, whether or not this push for decentralisation continues is very much dependent on Datuk Abang Johari Abang Openg, the newly appointed chief minister.

He has in the past spoken publicly about Sarawakian autonomy, but we shall see if he keeps to his word and Adenan’s legacy.


In memory of the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, chief minister of Sarawak (1944 – 2017).

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