Thursday, December 8

Up, close and personal with the Chief Minister

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Tan Sri Datuk Amar Adenan Satem

A GRAND event it was – meeting the Chief Minister.

Yet, in its true essence, 400 participants from a cross section of the Chinese community throughout Sarawak had an up, close and personal encounter with the chief executive of the state.

Indeed, most of them, especially the group of young professionals, had a very insightful and memorable first ever meeting with the man at the helm of the state government – Tan Sri Datuk Amar Adenan Satem.

Here is the most talked about man in town – from his unequivocal declaration that Sarawakians can worship and use the word ‘Allah’ freely, and a fellowship over meals with the opposition leaders to the grant of RM1 million in medical assistance for the late opposition leader Wong Ho Leng – and later paying his last respects to Ho Leng – all these seem to run counter to the traditions of the BN government but Adenan is walking his talk of being the Chief Minister for all.

The meeting opened with a video clip put together by the organisers in a span of one week – from script to audio and making of the actual footage.

It was a representation of the general sentiments of the Chinese community. Many of the participants were in tears – or close to tears – at the openness accorded them in voicing their grievances, predicaments and aspirations while articulating their case for equal opportunities as the way to peace, harmony and unity in their beloved Fairland Sarawak.

One of the contributors to the video presentation said: “Many tears were shed and emotions shared – that’s the impetus of the video.”

Whatever is true, whatever edifies, builds and gives hope…

You are not pendatang. Maybe your great great grandfathers were. But after two to three generations, you are Malaysian citizens residing in Sarawak. So let’s not forget that. You are my fellow citizens of Malaysia. So janganlah cakap pendatang itu, pendatang ini as if you are from Bangladesh. Let us make it clear you are not pendatang, not after three or four generations, and the contributions you have made to the Malaysian economy. The Chinese community have been the workforce of the Malaysian economy. I hope it is very clear.
— Tan Sri Datuk Amar Adenan Satem, Chief Minister

HE always surprises – with his actions and words.

It was no different when Chief Minister Tan Sri Datuk Amar Adenan Satem held a heart-to-heart meeting with the Chinese community on Thursday.

After the presentation of the video clip and a break-the-ice banter with the participants, he sprung into action, taking over the microphone to address the issues raised.

His initial foray into the newspaper world (after leaving school) had enabled him to get his messages across in a well structured and clear manner that the ordinary man in the street can understand. In a journalistic way, his statements were well-substantiated with good and relevant referencing.

Above all, he lives up to the principles of responsible journalism, imparting assurances that were truthful, edifying and offering hope.

Here thesundaypost picked some of the central issues raised and addressed at the meeting.

For Richard Wee, chairman of the management committee of Kuching Chung Hua Middle School Nos. 1, 3 and 4, it was Christmas come early.

He was the first to take the floor, voicing out the problems faced by Chinese independent schools.

Wee said: “On education, we appeal to Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem to consider positively for the state government to provide annual financial grant to the Chinese independent schools.  Such financial aid has been given in the states of Sabah, Selangor, Kelantan, Perak, Johore, Penang and Malacca.

“This matter was brought up during our dialogue with Tun Pehin Sri (Abdul Taib Mahmud) in December 2010 who had agreed to allocate 2,000 hectares of land to the Sarawak Private Chinese Secondary Schools Charitable Trust Board. The land is intended to generate income for subsidising the deficit of all our 14 schools throughout the state.

“However, after our survey of the land, it is estimated that it will at least take more than 10 years before our Board is able to derive any commercial value from the land as it is situated between Sungai Silat/Sungai Palutan/Sungai Agan, Miri – a remote area close to the Indonesian border and there is currently no road access to the place.

“Moreover, a sum of over RM1.4 million is now being imposed upon us as the land premium to be paid to the government for the land.

“We are now faced with the land that has been allocated to us but from which we are unable to derive any immediate commercial returns to assist our schools. Besides, we are now burdened with a premium of RM1.4 million which we are finding it extremely difficult to raise.

“Hence, we wish to appeal to YAB Tan Sri to reconsider the form of assistance which the state government has agreed to provide us.

Adenan replied:

“If you are not happy with the land we gave you because it is very far away near the Indonesian border, you can give it back and in return, go look for state land in urban and sub-urban areas which we can deal with in due time.

“You can record what I have said today. Today June 26 at about 4.10 pm, put it in your diary, this is what Adenan said. Put that in record whether I tunai saya punya janji.”

Wee who is also the president of Kuching Hokkien Association raised his second issue:

“It is always everyone’s wish and aspiration to have a complete sense of security in their land and home which they call their own – be it Chinese, Malay, Dayak or any other ethnic groups.

“The state government in the recent past had amended the land policy regarding conversion, sub-division and renewal which have created much discontentment and unhappiness among the people.

“This policy has created so much problem and confusion to the public and it was capitalised fully by the opposition parties and became one of the major factors for BN losing most of the urban seats in the state.

“One of the most contentious issues that stands out is the tenure of the land title. Landowners of freehold or 999-year lease land, seeking for conversion, sub-division or amalgamation, found their land being reduced to either 99 or 60-year lease.

“This is a very unfair policy to all the landowners and we could not find any logical rationale nor any convincing reasons for our government to make such a change in our land policy.”

The Chief Minister replied:

“I am thinking of the idea of AVTC – Arbitration for Valuation of Titled Condition – sub-division of land. I know about land being turned from perpetuity to 99 years – that is 999 to 99 etc.

“I am thinking of the idea that if the land is originally perpetuity, it will be perpetuity. If it’s 999, it will be 999. It’s only fair to have a more liberal policy on land.

“But please don’t ask me to allow the Chinese to buy native land.  No, I cannot do that.  I will be in trouble. But I am looking at the idea of perpetuity to perpetuity – 999 to 999, 99 to 99. I think it’s only fair.”

Addressing in a convincing manner the issues on religion, hudud law, job opportunities and the place of Chinese community in the country, the Chief Minister said:

“Many of you are Christians. As far as Sarawak is concerned, we don’t care about this Allah issue.

“I have said it repeatedly – it’s no problem in Sarawak and nobody is going to seize your Bibles.

But if the federal government and some other governments choose to do so, that’s their business.

“But religion is a state matter. What is happening in Se-langor need not be followed here in Sarawak. We have no law that prohibits the propagation of other religions among Muslims.

“As a Muslim, I would like to see hudud being imposed. But I also realise it’s not practical.

“For instance, a Chinese and a Malay Muslim are found guilty of theft – the Chinese will be jailed for six months and will get out of jail with two hands. The Muslim will have his hand cut off and after that, for the rest of his life, he will live with only one hand.

“Which one do you want – six months or no hand?  So it’s not suitable for our circumstances. But don’t worry about such a thing.

“I have told the opposition not to continue harping on this issue. I have made it very clear we in Sarawak are very tolerant people. We respect each other’s religion. The constitution says the official religion of Malaysia is Islam but the others are free to practise their religions without any hindrance. That means you are free to exercise your religious rights and I have no right to tell you how you practise your religion.

“There are many things West Malaysians can learn us. And what’s going on in semenanjung now is that the extremists, racists and religious bigots are having their field day. One day, while these things are going on, there will be polarization among the races. Then, there will be trouble. But if there is trouble, it will not be in Sarawak.

“May 13 is a distant thunder on the other side of the hill. It will not happen here. So ladies and gentlemen, let us live in peace as we have lived in peace for so many years.”

On citizenship of the Chinese, Adenan said:

“You are not pendatang. Maybe your great great grandfathers were. But after two to three generations, you are Malaysian citizens residing in Sarawak. So let’s not forget that. You are my fellow citizens of Malaysia. So janganlah cakap pendatang itu, pendatang ini as if you are from Bangladesh. Let us make it clear you are not pendatang, not after three or four generations, and the contributions you have made to the Malaysian economy. The Chinese community have been the workforce of the Malaysian economy. I hope it is very clear.”

On job opportunities, he explained:

“Employment opportunity, unfortunately, I have no answer to that. Seriously, if I have an answer, I will tell you. But I have none. I don’t want to lie to you – there isn’t any answer. If we can make employment in Sarawak more profitable than Singapore or Johore, maybe they will stay. But if they choose to go away and find jobs somewhere else, you cannot blame them – it’s their livelihood. I have no solution to that except to say with SCORE, we will be creating thousands of jobs for professionals and technicians. It will take sometime but we have laid the foundation.

“I have visited Press Metal one or two months ago – they are employing 1,200 people – engineers, technicians etc. More than 800 are Sarawakians. And they are well-paid with a minimum salary of RM1,200.

“And when other investors come in, we will insist they employ as many locals as possible.

“We need the solution to provide more jobs as we know more and more young people are leaving schools and entering the job market. So we must make the accommodation. I am sorry I might not have fully satisfied you with my answers but there are truthful answers. I have no solution to fully resolve this problem.

“There is a bias to the advantage of the bumiputera. Yes, that’s true and that has to be corrected. Not only that, in the police and the army as well. So we have to do something about it.

That’s all I can say. If I am a general in the army, I may be able to do something more than that. So we have to do something so that there will be some semblance of equality in the civil service.

Adenan who also helms  Yayasan Sarawak, made a notable revelation:

“As chairman of Yayasan Sarawak, we used to favour the bumiputeras – which is as it should be because they cannot have scholarships and so on. I have changed that policy to in-clude everybody. With regard to universities, you look at Swinburne and Curtin – the majority of the students are Chinese. We don’t mind that because the bumi can go to public universities.

“In Swinburne, about 90 per cent of the students are Chinese.  We don’t mind that as you know the Chinese schools are having Bumi students. It’s education we are talking about, not race. I know some Chinese schools where almost all the students are bumi and their mandarin and arithmetic are fantastic.”

Others who presented their cases at the meeting were Dr Thomas Moh, lecturer from Sibu; Keith Chin, practising lawyer from Miri; Pamaca Liu Thian Leong, president of Association of Boards of managing of Chinese Primary Schools of Kuching/Samaraan Kuching; Amy Tiong, senior admin officer from Sibu; Pemanca Frederick Wong (Sarikei);  James Yii (Miri); Lucas Lau, busiess executive (Sibu); Lester (Miri); Tan Joo Fu, chairman of Teochew Association (Sri Aman); Temenggong Lu Kim Yong; Bruce Chai (Miri) and Yong Kai (Miri).

Many issues – big or small, statewide or localised – raised were addressed there and then at the meeting that turned out to be an enlightening two-way communication.

Many  present were touched, uplifted and redirected.

Looking at the man – a journalist-turned-statesman who likes to claim he is the most handsome among the five Chief Ministers – and the direct and truthful way he deals with issues that affect the people of the state, we are humbled, reduced and restored.

Education: The predicament of a parent

Who would not want to share the sentiments — so poignantly captured and eloquently delivered in the video as a voice of maturity amidst the subtle, soft and haunting music of the most celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma — as follows:

After spending so much on overseas education for my children, it is my fervent hope, as a Chinese parent, that they return to work in Sarawak – and live near us, if not with us.

I sent my children to study overseas not by choice. It was the last resort. Their applications to do courses for which they were best suited as per their academic results were turned down by the local universities.

What else could a parent in my position have done but to spend my hard earned life savings on sending my children abroad for tertiary education so that they may have a head-start in life?

But that’s not the end of the story. Despite graduating from recognised universities from abroad, they still failed to get jobs that commensurate with their qualifications in the civil service on their return to Sarawak.

Even with their majors in disciplines such as engineering and chemistry, they still had very little job choices. With nowhere to turn, they had to take the heart-breaking decision of leaving their loved ones behind in search of so-called greener pastures elsewhere.

All my life, I have understood the importance of working with the ruling government. My father, a Chinese immigrant, was allowed to stay here and he has since made Sarawak his home.

I was born here and to me, there is no other place to call home other than Sarawak and Malaysia. I have enjoyed the good years where the Chinese were given equal opportunities in the civil service, education, businesses and politics.

Those productive years have made my family and I what we are today. We have not forgotten this – that’s why I am still a BN supporter despite the majority swing to the opposition by the Chinese community.

At home, my children and I sometimes talk about politics, and despite trying to tell them what I have gone through, it’s difficult to convince them the government has been fair to the Chinese community after their unpleasant experience of not only having their university applications rejected but also the untold difficulties they faced in trying a get a job with the government.

Where politics is concerned, there is a general gap between my children and myself. But is it really a general gap, I sometimes wonder?  Or is it a bad experience that has led to a change of perspective?

The Chinese were fairly treated in the old days when there was trust, confidence and understanding among all the communities.

My Malay friends would sit with me in coffeeshops where they would have nasi lemak while my Dayak friends and I had our kolo mee and a cup of kopi O.

We may tease each other about our weaknesses – Chinese being money-faced, Dayak being quick-tempered and Malay being overly laid-back. None of us would get personal as we were able to laugh at ourselves.

We were truly like brothers and sisters back then. Some of our Malay or Dayak neighbours might even be closer to us than our own siblings because they were the ones who would come to our aid first when we needed it.

My Malay and Dayak friends and I are still like my brothers and sisters because we still live side by side and constantly look out for each other. But we have been made very conscious of our ethnicity. While we sit together, there are now topics we dare not touch – or at least try to avoid.

Now, as Chinese, our children are working in the private sector while the children of my Malay friends are government servants. For the children of my Dayak friends, they are everywhere.

My deep concern is the trust, built over the years between my Dayak and Malay friends will fade.

One day, when that trust fades into oblivion, there is nothing left as the pillars to support the harmony and peace we have been enjoying all these years.

That would spell the end of 1Malaysia concept. How sad!

Harmony, unity via equal opportunity

The foregoing sentiments were further reinforced in the video clip with the theme Equal opportunity – the way to harmony and unity.

First, equal job opportunities in the civil service. It is estimated for every 10 civil servants, only one is Chinese. It has been said the Chinese are generally not interested in serving the government but in reality, they are hampered by the so-called racial quota for go-vernment servant posts, especially at the federal level.

In 2011, only two per cent of the workforce in the Prime Mi-nister’s Department was Chinese. On top that, it is no secret the Chinese community are discouraged from applying for work in civil service because of constantly being bypassed for promotion and not recognised for their service on merit.

By and large, those having to seek employment in the private instead of public sector, carry with them a racial awareness, marked by racial division in workforce in our otherwise harmonious com-munities.

Equal opportunity in education

In the Chinese community, it is also an open secret that many parents sell their land and only spend enough to keep a roof above their heads so that they can send their children overseas – a result of the admission quota system which denies many deserving Chinese students places in local universities.

Apart from losing out to the quota system, others have to send their children for studies abroad because the quality of our tertiary education has been steadily declining, so much so that many local graduates are now losing out in the fiercely competitive job market.

At the moment, only University Malaya is still within the top 200 in the global ranking – but even so, its position is dropping year after. It was 156 in 2012 and 167 in 2013 September.

We owe it to our children and future generations to secure their future well-being and competitiveness in the global community with an education system attuned to the realities and demands of the present world.

Sustaining Chinese independent schools

With the education quota system, unequal job opportunities in the public sector, the lack of an education programme to meet the needs and standards of the world at large as well as the needs to preserve the cultural diversities among us, the Chinese community have no choice but to persist in sustaining their independent schools to ensure their children have some opportunity for rightful education and a secure livelihood.

Currently, non-Chinese primary school students make up 27 per cent of the total student population in Chinese schools statewide. In fact, out of the 68,900 primary school students in Sarawak, 19,100 are non-Chinese.

At the secondary level, there are 14 independent Chinese schools in the state, accommodating 7,316 students in 2013 – and the num-ber is growing.

The average monthly pay of the teaching and non-teaching staff of these independent Chinese schools is only RM2,700 and they are also contributing towards the education of our children.

The funding – or lack of it for the Chinese schools – has become a burden to the parents and the Chinese communities.

There are some 46 Chinese primary schools needing imme-diate repairs and maintenance at a total cost of RM57 million. The federal allocation is RM6 million – only one tenth of the funds re-quired for upkeep and repair.

As for Chinese independent secondary schools, a deficit of RM12 million was recorded for 2013. The income was RM9 million with operating expenses amounting to RM21 million.

Freedom of religion

Recently, the status of freedom of religion in Malaysia has become a controversial issue.

Questions, including whether Malaysia is an Islamic or secular state, remain explosive and unresolved when it should not be an issue. But it is despite the constitutional guarantees.

These along with contentious incidents have tested the relationships between the different communities.

Yet, judging from recent events, there are individuals and groups, involved in creating such misunderstanding, who appear not to be restrained in any way.

Certain groups are also bent on implementing hudud law in the country despite the issue being considered contentious and divisive in our plural society.

We should be thankful the Sarawak government is fully aware of the damage religious intolerance and prejudice can do to the pre-vailing peace and harmony in the state and has taken steps to prevent such negativities from spreading here.

YAB and his team have time and again stressed as far as the state is concerned, there is freedom of worship.

We must continue to support all efforts to preserve and perpetuate this peaceful and cordial co-existence among the multi-racial and multi-religious communities of our beloved state. There should be no compromise on this.

Towards this end, the right to practise freedom of religion should not only be that the Chief Minister says so – rather, it must be made into law so that no Sarawakians should ever have to live in fear and paranoia again.

Equal business opportunities

In 2014, Malaysia has come full circle at the age 51 years, yet, more than ever, the country is fighting economic disparities, racial tensions, restrictions to freedom of worship and unequal opport-unities not only in education and employment in the public sector but in businesses.

There is very little doubt that the majority of Chinese (and non-bumiputras) would like the government to get rid of the New Economic Policy or NEP-style policies.

The NEP’s primary aim after the May 13 riots in 1969 was supposedly designed to eradicate poverty and help the indigenous communities catch up to the non-indigenous communities, especially the Chinese who were viewed as having a monopoly of businesses.

But in reality, the NEP was seen as having marginalised the Chinese community. Its extensive economic, educational and social benefits to the bumiputera community on the basis of ethnicity alone have apparently put a crimp in the good relationships among communities.

Even faced with such a challenge, the Chinese community have accepted that peace and stability of the country hinge on bridging the bumiputra-non-bumiputra economic disparities.

In the spirit of give and take, they have persevered and carried on with nation-building even on such an uneven playing field.

The older Chinese generation may understand this and accept their fate but the general feeling among the younger generation is that the lingering effects of NEP and other new policies of similar ilk have deprived them of the opportunities to compete on an equal footing.

NEP has not achieved its objective fully because business opportunities reserved for bumiputera have not trickled down to the grassroots.

It has instead created an economic crevice within the bumiputera community itself with a large section not benefiting from this affirmative action, hence making it necessary to prolong the NEP indefinitely.

In other words, the beneficiaries of the NEP are confined to a select few.

Start of a giant step

Many Chinese in the lower income group believe their basic needs are held back by discrimination from a government they see as only really interested in helping especially the Malay community.

As a result, the vast majority of the Chinese translate their unhappiness into votes for the opposition.

Equal opportunity and freedom of worship will mark the advent of a giant step towards narrowing the widening racial and religious rifts in our country.

Helping one community must no longer be at the expense of other communities.

Upholding Islam as our official religion should not mean curtailing the freedom of worship by other faiths.We must continue to uphold freedom of religion as sacrosanct and inviolate in accordance  with the guarantees under the Constitution.

Equal opportunity is the way to achieve all these provided we have the political will to restore the peace, harmony and trust we once enjoyed.

Credits

Organisers Chinese community leaders, Temenggong Lu Kim Yong, Temenggong Vincent Lau Lee Ming, Temenggong Lee Sie Tong
Initiated by The Ministry of Local Government & Community Development (Chinese Affairs)
Video Phyllis Wong, Francis Chan, Kenny Ee, Peter Sibon, Lian Cheng, Amelia Lau, Steve Chai and Goh Eng Soon