The Way Forward

Abang Johari takes a look at the past year, shows his vision for the future

EMBRACING HERITAGE: Abang Johari performs the dragon-boat’s eye-dotting ceremony to mark the official opening of Sarawak Regatta 2017 at Kuching Waterfront, in this file photo. — Photo by Tan Song Wei

TODAY marks the first anniversary of Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg taking over as Chief Minister of Sarawak. In an interview with The Borneo Post, the leader who will turn 68 this Aug 4, reviews his initiatives over the past 12 months and outlines his plans going forward.

Abang Johari, who was born in Limbang, is the youngest son of Tun Abang Openg Abang Sapiee – the first Yang Di-Pertua Negeri Sarawak – and Toh Puan Masniah Abdulrahman.

He is married to Datin Patinggi Dato Juma’ani Tuanku Bujang and they are blessed with two children, Abang Abdillah Izzarim and Dayang Norjihan.

In addition to him being a chief minister, Abang Johari is also the president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) which is the state’s backbone Barisan Nasional (BN) party.

He is the assemblyman for Satok.


When you take stock of what have done in the past year, what comes to your mind first?

Abang Johari: First of all, I have continued with the policies of the late Tok Nan (Pehin Sri Adenan Satem). Along the way, I have to adjust certain policies based on what we want to do towards achieving a developed state status in 2030.

The basic policies of Tok Nan are:

•    Trying to get back our state’s rights that have been eroded – that I will continue.

•    I will also continue his policies of not having any more large-scale oil palm plantations, and also to monitor the timber industry, particularly logging.

Actually, the formation of the policies was collective because I was his (Adenan’s) deputy and in the party (PBB), we worked together — meaning, what Tok Nan had done, was a combined policy with him as the leader.


What direction have you set for the state’s economic growth?

In terms of economic policy, I have to adjust it based on the vision of the state achieving its developed status by 2030.

On the average, our GDP growth is only about four per cent; to achieve high-income status, based on the estimate by our economic expert, we must achieve about six per cent growth per year — meaning, we need to have additional two-per cent growth.

In order to achieve that, I have to formulate a new economic model to attract investments – by making Sarawak a suitable place to do business.

How do you plan to achieve that goal?

We have to use technology to trigger our economic development towards the future. We have no option but to embrace technology; this has to be done and used in all sector, including agriculture. For that to happen, we have to upgrade our basic digital infrastructure which I have announced (an allocation of RM1 billion). That will change the whole landscape of our economy.

We have to look into the whole ‘Digital Ecosystem’ – besides technology, we have to train our people, to get them prepared to master technology. That is the digital ecosystem that I have announced and as a result, we have new law – the Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) passed by the State Legislative Assembly (DUN).

We have to establish the enabler for us to implement policies that I have decided. That was done in the first year.


A major step that you took in your first year was the setting up of Development Bank of Sarawak (DBOS). Few eyebrows were raised over this – could you reiterate your rationale behind its establishment?

This is a new approach altogether, where strategic industries will be financed by the bank and industries with economic returns will be supported. The bank is commercial in nature – you give loan and they pay you back.

Since we own the bank, we can strategise our industry, including the oil and gas and also our public infrastructure – meaning you increase your public spending. That will definitely trigger construction industry over a longer period, especially toward 2030 because it is about 12 more years. These infrastructure projects will trigger more economic activities in construction.


What about the services industry in Sarawak?

The service industry must be enhanced. That is where technology will come in for us to promote our services sector. It must not be confined to tourism alone, but also for other related activities like healthcare.

When construction, services and the enablers are there, then the whole economy would move if they were to be developed in tandem.


Another sector that you have made bold plans for is public transportation. You appear to be sticking your neck out by mooting the setting up of Light Rapid Transit (LRT) system in the state. Why do you think this is necessary?

Public transportation must be upgraded. That is why I go for LRT; and I have our own business model for us to provide LRT for the Kuching -Serian sector.

This will take time. The implementation (to construct LRT) will take at least 10 years.

We are not using the Kuala Lumpur model — our landscape is totally different from it. In short, there will be a lot of public spending as well as private sector spending, which will trigger our economy. I hope that would produce six-per cent GDP growth per year.

These are all long-term projects. Once you have the basic amenities, we could attract investments to come over to Sarawak.

ONE SARAWAK: St Thomas’ Cathedral parishioner Natalie Kong takes a wefie with (from left) Abang Johari, the Right Revd Danald Jute – Bishop of the Anglican Church of Sarawak and Brunei, and Sub-Deacon Denis Soon during the Bishop’s Christmas open house in Kuching. — Photo by Tan Song Wei

Among your achievements in your first year in office, which one stands out for you?

One major thing that I have achieved is (taking over) Bakun (hydroelectricity power dam) — Bakun is now ours.

This is a game-changer as with Bakun, power is absolutely managed by us. That is very important prerequisite for us to move forward.


Bakun is the largest body of freshwater in the nation; does the state have any plan to harness its potential and that of other man-made lakes across the state as sources of water supply?

In this coming year, I have requested the State Planning Unit (SPU) to look at the long-term strategy to provide water to the urban and rural areas throughout Sarawak.

The quality of water for public consumption is very important and cannot be compromised. For the first phase, we want to do water grid from Batang Ai dam all the way to Tanjong Manis. Along the way, you can distribute it to the villages affected by water supply issues like those in Kabong, Pusa and Simunjan. In the past, there was no proper planning on water distribution. Even in Kuching itself, you got no data on pipes.

At the moment, there is no inventory of water distribution. In another word, we need to have ‘grid’ and water pipe mapping as data so that we would know where the pipes are. If something happen, you know already that it is in your data.

This is what we are going to do.

I have to do all these on another business model. There will be revenues generated for us from the upgrading works on these water infrastructures. It must be carried out on loan basis and they can pay back the loans from the revenues – the water rate and sale of water.

At the moment, non-revenue water due to pipe leakage is RM100 million per year. The leakage loss in revenue is too big. To me, you have to have capital expenditure that would mitigate this loss and this (money saved from) the loss would be able to cover the capital expenditure. Let us do the first phase.

After that, we have Baleh, Murum and Bakun — we source water from these dams for the surrounding areas. That is our long-term plan.

Water from the dams is a good idea but our law stipulates that there should be no human activities within the 8km radius from the water intake – at the moment, this regulation is not being adhered to. Take Bengoh Dam, for example – it is extensively used by the locals, despite being a reservoir dam.

That is why I have in mind to establish what you called the ‘Lake Authority’, to have a law to regulate (matters pertaining to) man-made lakes.

At the moment, there is none.  We cannot afford to have a compromised water source. One classic example is in Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme in Belaga – it (the water source) is from the river but there is development surrounding it; the quality of water will be affected.

For a dam, you can do zoning. Bengoh is a reservoir but at the moment, there is no law to regulate man-made lakes. This is for the future — I have just passed one year.

Water, to me, in the next 10 to 20 years would be as valuable as oil. It can be developed as fuel.


That is interesting — how do you turn water into fuel?

Hydrogen – water can be developed as a source of energy. Water, you must remember, is H20 (a molecule of one oxygen bonded to two hydrogen atoms). You extract the hydrogen from water. There is a proven process — I have seen it done either by alkaline process or electrolysis.

That hydrogen is very precious and according to scientists, it can be used to substitute nuclear. If that’s the case, we could export hydrogen because we have heavy rainfall. That is the future.


Sarawak’s greatest asset is land. Now that the issuance of concessions for timber and oil palm plantations are frozen, is the state going to be more aggressive into agriculture diversification?

Yes. Yes. That’s why I go for digital (farming). I go for Agropark Policy.

Under Agropark, we rent the land to any entrepreneur in agriculture (agropreneur). We do not want them to be given land as the land can change hands, from one to another, for the other purpose.


Perhaps the state should place a caveat on the land rented out?

That is right. That is why what we do Agropark – we rent it to the companies. When you rent it, the land does not belong to you. The purpose of the land is agriculture – you start agriculture. If you don’t, we would terminate the agreement.

In the past, what happened was when we gave the land, they didn’t do it. They just used the land as landbank and then, they would sell it.

This also involved NCR (native customary rights) land and Malay NCR land. When you don’t give them the land, they go against the government. When you give them the land, they sell it.

That is why we use agropark – let them work hard and be serious in agriculture.

After five years, why not? We may give it to you.

To produce food, you don’t need big land. Fertigation is there, greenhouse is there – what you need is digital infrastructure because you will be using sensors and artificial intelligence, all are controlled by the sensors. They will only need 50 to 100 acres.


Your big plans for state development — what are your platforms to achieve them?

My platform is the DBOS, the Internet, Petros (Petroleum Sarawak Bhd) and Sarawak rights – this takes time based on what we got from London — some of them, we cannot disclose. The opposition want me to disclose, it can be a trap. We cannot disclose it yet. We are still in the middle of a negotiation. They must understand.  The main objective is to get Sarawak to be developed as a high-income economy by 2030.


It has been reported that some oil and gas industry players are already trying to work with Petros. What is your position on their efforts?

This is still very premature. This is still part of our negotiations with Kuala Lumpur on Sarawak rights. I cannot reveal too much. There are already some inroads that we have gotten from Petronas, but we have to handle (things) properly because the idea of Petros is very much tied up to the information that we got from London. I can’t really reveal because it involved legislation. But definitely, Petros will become a key player.


How would you sum up your first year as Chief Minister of Sarawak?

What I did in my first year after taking over from Tok Nan was to continue his policies. He had done his part. His policies are very people-centric, very popular among the people. I do not want to be too popular because my policies will be based on reality.

At the moment, my policies involve basic economy policy. If you give too many (concessions) but when your revenue is not enough, you would be facing problem. Our services expenditure is very high.

Local governments have no revenue — the state government has to give revenues to the local governments.

I must have good coffers in order to give to the ‘rakyat’ (people). I’m thinking on how to get revenues — believe me, I think I can do it. The question is basic management of economy, but at the same time you must also have good business model without depleting our reserves.

We must use our reserves. The policies must be correct and financial management must be correct as well.

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