KUCHING― With Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud as Sarawak governor, the selection of the next chief minister of Malaysia’s largest state will be far from cut-and-dried, political observers said.
The three pundits agreed that Taib, who served as chief minister for 33 long years before relinquishing the reins in 2014, still exerts much influence in Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the lynchpin of the state Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition where the country’s largest political party, Umno, is absent.
“In politics, you don’t normally follow principle,” Professor Dr Dimbab Ngidang, a retired professor of Development Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), told Malay Mail Online.
He added that by right, the next most senior person should take over once the leader vacates his position or dies in office.
However, Sarawak has three deputy chief ministers: Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas, Datuk Abang Johari Openg and Tan Sri James Masing.
And both Uggah and Abang Johari are in PBB, the party that swept the most number of seats in the state legislative assembly and traditionally where the chief minister is from.
Tan Sri Adenan Satem’s unexpected death from heart failure Wednesday, just eight months after he led the BN to its biggest victory in the state election, has left a large hole in Sarawak’s leadership.
Dimbab feels Abang Johari as PBB deputy president, being the next senior member after Adenan, should take over as chief minister.
Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, agreed with Dimbab, but said Taib may choose someone else.
“Taib may have a final say [in the choice of chief minister],” he told Malay Mail Online.
He added that it is not necessary that the governor will choose either Abang Johari or PBB senior vice-president Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hasan who is also Sarawak’s second minister of resource management and environment.
“The main criteria [to be the chief minister] is [that the person must be] a Sarawak nationalist who will pursue full autonomy and stop Umno from entering Sarawak,” Chin said.
He also noted that Abang Johari has been painted as being an Umno man in Sarawak, but pooh-poohed the notion, saying PBB Youth chief Datuk Fadillah Yusuf who is also federal works minister is more pro-Umno and Putrajaya.
“Despite what others may say, I am of the opinion that Abang Johari is a Sarawak nationalist,” Chin said.
He pointed out that Adenan had left behind as his legacy his party’s sweep of 45 state seats out of the 72 won by BN from the total 82 in the May 7, 2016 Sarawak election, and his push for decentralisation by championing Sarawak rights.
“He will be widely seen as the last of his generation Malay gentleman politician who truly believes in Sarawakians being an identity that crosses the ethnic barrier.
“He was always Sarawakian first and foremost,” Chin said.
Native customary rights (NCR) land lawyer Paul Raja said the choice to succeed Adenan is still “wide open”.
“The top contenders are Abang Johari and Uggah Embas, but I see Awang Tengah as the dark horse in this PBB political game,” he said, claiming that there was much political power play within the party now.
“We cannot deny that PBB leaders will consult Taib in picking Adenan’s successor,” he said, adding that the governor has vast experience in politics.
But he hoped that Uggah, being a Dayak leader in PBB, will be picked as the successor.
“It is true that our first and second ministers were Dayaks, but they were not given the opportunity to develop Sarawak.
“The first chief minister spent more of his time fighting to protect Sarawak’s rights being taken over by the federal government,” Raja said of Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan.
In contrast, he claimed the second chief minister Datuk Tawie Sli was too weak to face the federal government due to his lack of formal education.
Whatever is the case, Raja said, the person picked to be the next chief minister must continue the policies that Adenan has yet to implement.
“He should meet the Dayak community leaders and intellectual groups which Adenan said he wanted to have after New Year’s holidays,” Raja said.
He added that the meeting was supposed to be on NCR land issues that the late chief minister had promised to resolve with the Dayak community.