2018 sees GPS ruling Sarawak with Sarawak-centric policies

Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Openg winding up his speech at the Sarawak State Assembly July 18, 2018. — Picture by Sulok Tawie
Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Openg winding up his speech at the Sarawak State Assembly July 18, 2018. — Picture by Sulok Tawie

KUCHING, Dec 28 ― Like in the rest of the country, 2018 proved to be a “transition period” for Sarawak in the aftermath of the 14th general election (GE14) on May 9.

The defeat of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government at the federal level by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition also saw the ruling state BN quitting the federal BN to form the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and pledging to undertake Sarawak-centric policies.

The registration of GPS, which comprises the four Sarawak-based political parties of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB); Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP); Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) and Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), was approved by the Registrar of Societies (RoS) on November 19.

Yet, despite being regarded as PH-friendly, the GPS-ruled state government is often at loggerheads with the federal side on development policies, wanting full autonomy in the delivery and implementation of projects and policies.

Due to differences in political ideologies, there is bound to be a conflict of interest, a somewhat “love-and-hate” relationship between the state and federal governments, especially with Sarawak's ongoing demand to have its special rights and position restored as enshrined under the Federal Constitution and Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).

That desire was brought home when Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg reiterated on the need to defend Sarawak's rights in determining its fate during his winding-up speech for his portfolio in the State Legislative Assembly on November 14.

“What we are not happy about is the nature of our current relationship which we feel has deviated from the original spirit of the agreement to form Malaysia as encapsulated in the MA63.

“We wish for a real dialogue and resolution of our discontent,” Abang Johari, who is also GPS chairman, said candidly, adding that the interests of Sarawak were at stake.

Quite understandably, the entry of peninsula-based political parties, including the launch of the Sarawak Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) in Bintulu on December 1 by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has rattled GPS, with PRS president Tan Sri Dr James Masing reportedly saying that it was a “political ploy to take control of Sarawak's gas and oil for good”. 

So far, the state government has set up a 14-member Consultative Committee, with representatives from the GPS, DAP and PKR, to provide a platform to present Sarawak's submissions on the MA63 by the Steering Committee formed by the federal government to review and streamline the matter.

While the GPS may be accused by its political opponents of playing up the regionalism sentiment, it is undeniable that such demands for a devolution of power and petroleum royalty are close to the hearts of most Sarawakians.

In all probability, with the state election, due in 2021, in mind, Abang Johari as State Finance Minister has presented a state budget of RM11.9 billion for next year, the biggest in the history of Sarawak so far from its own resources.

Without relying too much on the federal government, Sarawak has also decided to impose a five per cent sales tax on petroleum products, namely crude oil; natural gas; chemical-based fertilisers and gas to liquid products, from January 1 next year as a new source of revenue and alternative funding.

And to the state’s credit, a Federal Court decision in its favour on June 22 paved the way for it to enforce state laws in regulating upstream activities under the Sarawak Oil Mining Ordinance 1958 (OMO) from July 1.

The national oil and gas company, Petronas, was denied leave to commence a legal challenge against the Sarawak government and was required to comply with the OMO and to have the requisite licences or leases by July 1.

Echoing the sentiments of the people, Abang Johari said Sarawak contributed significantly to the national economic growth and the federal government coffers and it was only fair that the federal government provide a more equitable allocation to the state.

Yet, not wanting to dwell on too much rhetoric, he also said that the people are happy to be in Malaysia but wanted to enjoy a better quality of life, on par with their compatriots in the more developed states. ― Bernama