Devolution and the Rise of Sarawak’s Adenan Satem
M. Bakri Musa
Do not anticipate any positive change in Malaysia coming from the center, not from the current corrupt and incompetent UMNO leadership. Instead expect it from the periphery, in particular Sarawak’s Chief Minister Adenan Setam.
This rise of the periphery is a worldwide phenomenon. Witness the successes of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Brexit referendum. Devolution there is a backlash against globalization; with Malaysia, a weak and distracted center.
Adenan’s rise is facilitated both by his political prowess as well as Najib’s precarious position. Najib is inept in dealing with state leaders other than those from UMNO. With those from UMNO, Najib could bribe or bully his way.
A measure of Najib’s lack of sensitivity to matters Sarawak is that not a single university has a Department of Iban Studies. Petronas, which gets the bulk of its oil from Sarawak, does not even have one Board Director or senior manager who is from the state. Now Adenan has imposed a moratorium on work permits for West Malaysians in Petronas. It is significant that he spared non-Malaysians.
Unlike his predecessor the crude and greedy Taib Mahmud who exploited his leverage to enrich himself, Adenan uses his to extract greater autonomy for Sarawak. He acts as if he already has that, declaring English to be on par with Malay in schools and the state’s administration, in defiance of federal policies. The surprise is the silence of UMNO chauvinists and Malay language nationalists. That can only happen with specific directives from Najib.
Adenan has banned UMNO from Sarawak; there is no legal basis for that. Again, no challenge from Najib. If UMNO were to defy that, Adenan would quit the ruling coalition and Najib would fall. Note Adenan’s ease in castrating UMNO jantans. Not a peep of protest from them. They bear and grin, as instructed.
Sarawak (and also Sabah) already enjoys considerable autonomy on immigration. West Malaysians need a passport to enter. Adenan exploited that to maximal effect in the last state election, denying entry to opposition MPs from West Malaysia, a slap to Parliament’s prestige. Again, the surprise was the silence of the Speaker, an UMNO man, to this unprecedented affront to his institution.
Adenan could act with impunity as his party is critical to Barisan. Through that he controls Najib. To Najib, Sarawak is his “fixed deposit.” That euphemism cannot hide the political reality. Without Adenan’s party, Najib and UMNO would topple. Right now it is to Adenan’s (and Sarawak’s) advantage to stay with the ruling coalition. Najib will do everything to ensure that; his survival depends on it.
Autonomy is meaningless without changes in federal tax laws, a formidable obstacle. The federal government has near-exclusive taxing authority. Only minor items like land taxes are under state control. The oil royalty-sharing formula heavily favors the central government. Even if Sarawak could re-negotiate that, it is no windfall, what with the declining oil price. Despite its massive rain forest with its valuable hardwood, Sarawak still cannot forgo massive federal transfer payments.
One way to circumvent the tax hurdle would be to execute a secular zakat maneuver. Zakat is a religious tax based on assets, not income, and is under state jurisdiction, albeit applicable only to Muslims and is voluntary. It could be made mandatory and extended to all, non-Muslims included. Both moves would enthrall the Islamists.
Zakat contributions are federal tax credits, not deductions. That provides a neat way to circumvent federal income tax.
Sarawakians have minimal fondness for the federal government. They could be persuaded to pay zakat (and its secular equivalent for non-Muslims) instead of income tax as the benefits would accrue to them, as the money stays in Sarawak. Sarawakians would not be paying both, rather diverting income tax to zakat.
Adenan has adopted an excellent negotiating strategy with Najib by creating momentum with the easily-agreed upon and costless items like increasing the number of Sarawakians in Petronas and having one on its Board of Directors.
With Najib’s current weakness, Sarawak could drive a hard bargain for greater autonomy, including independent taxing power, to the point of being a virtual sovereign state. Once that happens, Sabah would be next in line to demand similar status. Sabah UMNO leaders would not dare defy the demands of their members no matter how much Najib bribes those leaders. From there, others. Johor sultan already stirs noises for Bangsa Johor and threatens secession. Kelantan wants its hudud. Najib supporting that ill-advised initiative could come back to haunt him.
Once the unravelling begins, it is unstoppable. The prospect of a chief minister being on par with the prime minister is a giddy one to ambitious state politicians. Remember, the federation is of recent vintage. The old Malaya was set up only in 1948; Malaysia, even more recent.
Consider the impact of autonomy on national policies like education and special privileges. Even with the current restrictions, note the ease with which the opposition DAP terminated special privileges for Malay contractors in Penang. Selangor under Pakatan’s Khalid Ibrahim annihilated a whole class of UMNO rent seekers, and saw his predecessor, that dentist character, jailed for corruption.
Even if Najib were to balk at Adenan’s demands, what’s to stop Adenan from asking his party members in Parliament to submit a private member’s bill, a la PAS Hadi’s hudud, seeking greater autonomy and taxing authority for Sarawak? If Adenan were to do that, then watch both Najib and the opposition compete to accommodate Adenan in an epic lu tolong gua, gua tolong lu battle. He would be holding Parliament–and Malaysia–to ransom.
I support the principle that a government closest to the people governs best. There are pitfalls, however.
Sarawak shares a long unguarded border with Indonesia. Most of Borneo is Indonesia; Sarawak being part of Malaysia is an anomaly. It would not take much for the Indonesians to overwhelm Sarawak. If not for the British, they would have during konfrontasi. Besides, Jokowi is everything that Najib is not: honest, effective and charismatic.
As for Sabah, Filipino pirates can enter it with impunity, and Philippines is resurrecting her claim. Another complicating mix, traditional kinship ties between Sabah and Southern Philippines.
Adenan envies tiny independent Brunei. The lesson there is not the Brunei of today but earlier. In 1962 one A. M. Azahari toppled the sultan. If not for the British Gurkhas, the sultan would have remained a refugee in Singapore. The son of Azahari may yet arise. This time there will be no Gurkhas.
As for Johor, it wasn’t too long ago that its sultan treated the state as his private property and gave away a strategic and valuable part of it (Singapore). It would be the supreme irony if his descendant were to repeat the folly.
Those aside, I see great potential for Sarawak under Adenan Satem. He may be the transforming leader Malaysia needs while remaining within the ruling coalition. Today that coalition is Barisan. Tomorrow who knows. If Adenan plays his card well, that would be good for him, Sarawak, and most of all, Malaysia.