A look at Sabah one year after state poll that triggered Malaysia’s third Covid-19 wave

Hajiji has kept the peace both internally and externally, from internal spats and power tussles for positions from within the nine component parties of the GRS, and even has a cordial relationship with the Opposition. — Bernama pic
Hajiji has kept the peace both internally and externally, from internal spats and power tussles for positions from within the nine component parties of the GRS, and even has a cordial relationship with the Opposition. — Bernama pic

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KOTA KINABALU, Sept 29 — In the year that the hastily-formed Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) has governed the state, the country has grappled with the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic that was made worse by the state election that put the fledgling coalition into power.

Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor has had to deal with the high number of Covid-19 cases and various lockdowns here, giving his state Cabinet little chance to shine while testing his leadership over various issues.

Political observers agree he has had to navigate troubled waters but has largely come through his first year unscathed courtesy of his amiable and unassuming character.

“He has not really had any controversies. I think people will also be hard-pressed to find any real faults, but at the same time, there are also no big achievements.

“To be fair, this is not a good time to be making big decisions as it is to be making sound decisions, and in that respect, he has done the job more than adequately,” said Universiti Teknologi Mara political analyst Tony Paridi Bagang.

Hajiji has avoided scandal, choosing to stay on cruise control and staying out of public disputes.

“Due to the timing, things like big scale projects and foreign investments are not forthcoming now, and many other plans have to be put on hold. So there have been little opportunities for him or the Cabinet to perform,” said Bagang.

Political stability

Hajiji, who is also Sabah Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) chairman, was not a household name when he was appointed chief minister, but his neutral disposition and amiable character made him the best choice to helm the state when federal forces were in disagreement immediately following the election results.

Seen as a “Mr Nice Guy” due to this persona, Hajiji has maintained political stability throughout the year, in contrast to the persistent turmoil at the federal level.

He had a rocky start with his Umno counterpart, Datuk Bung Moktar Radin, which saw an almost public tantrum over which ministry he would hold, but Bung has repeatedly said he will continue to work with PPBM and the state government despite the row that led to a change in the federal government.

Hajiji has kept the peace both internally and externally, from internal spats and power tussles for positions from within the nine component parties of the GRS, and even has a cordial relationship with the Opposition, keeping all criticisms professional and above the belt.

The state Cabinet generally keeps the same narrative, and toes the line amidst any potential controversies.

“He has managed to juggle the many demands of the various components, appointing positions where necessary, and placating where needed. I don’t think he has angered anyone or caused any big controversies, and no one has spoken bad against him,” said Bagang of Hajiji.

Unlike both the previous state and federal government’s reign that were marred by infighting, Hajiji’s one year has had relatively few issues.

Amicable relations with the Opposition

Hajiji gained some credit when he recently announced a one-off RM7.3 million Sentuhan Kasih assistance to all 73 Sabah state constituencies, including the 30 held by the Opposition.

He has also agreed with Moyog assemblyman Datuk Darrel Leiking from the Opposition during the recent state assembly sitting that the state will reject the Territorial Sea Act 2012, one of the main points of contention with the federal government that limits its power over the continental shelf from three nautical miles to 12 among other things.

Hajiji indicated his willingness to work with the Opposition to resolve it and other outstanding matters of the Malaysian Agreement 1963.

He also maintained the ban on export of logs from Sabah that was put in place by his predecessor and Warisan president Datuk Shafie Apdal, a move which was seen as controversial but generally well received.

Under Hajiji, deputy GRS chairman Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun who is also second state finance minister, has also made conciliatory and respectful remarks towards the Opposition, calling DAP Youth leader Ginger Phoong his “younger brother” and has even made overtures towards a previously hostile Parti Bersatu Sabah, a move that was respectfully received.

The state leaders finally appeared to reach an accord that working together would be more beneficial to the people.

Oil and gas rights

Arguably the most tangible result under Hajiji so far was compelling national petroleum company, Petronas, to pay the state sales tax it accrued in Sabah.

Sales tax on petroleum products, estimated at RM1.25 billion this year, is among the state’s main revenue sources.

The previous Warisan Plus government gazetted the sales tax in 2018, and began its enforcement in April 2020, but only eight out of the nine oil and gas companies in Sabah had started paying this tax.

Petronas finally agreed to the payment officially on December 15, 2020, eight months after its implementation, after then prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin intervened, and Hajiji credited the state’s relations with the then Perikatan National federal government for this.

Hajiji had touted his close relationship with Muhyiddin then as a promising foundation for state and federal ties, and continued this trend with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaacob who recently visited Sabah for Malaysia Day.

Sabah has long demanded for a greater share of the profit derived from its oil and gas resources, and every state government has promised that it would negotiate better terms with the federal government. The biggest demand is increasing its royalty from the current five per cent to 20 per cent.

Hajiji is no different, having said that a commercial settlement agreement with Petronas is forthcoming, granting more say in its oil and gas industry, as well as more opportunities for investments for its own GLCs and agencies.  

Absence in Covid-19 response and SOPs

The handling of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown has attracted its fair share of criticism and praises and is likely the biggest litmus test of any government in power now.

Hajiji’s government's biggest perceived flaw was the implementation of its decisions.

“Its intention to slightly deviate from the national SOPs was well received by the state, who agree that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not effective. The state supported him in his decisions to decide on its own.

“However, the discretion often resulted in a lot of confusion for the people, particularly when it deviated and then sometimes, they are forced to make U-turns. This definitely does not look good on them,” said Bagang.

On several occasions, the state government announced changes in its SOPs, such as in June when it amended business operation hours, only to pull back within 24 hours after a public outcry.

Hajiji’s office had also announced that dine-in and limited recreation activities would be allowed, only for the federal government to disagree and reject it the next day.

“While the state did not back down on its decision, there was a long period of total confusion and uncertainty where Hajiji missed an opportunity to make a strong stand. He was widely criticised for having to fall in line with his ‘KL bosses’. They said if he cannot even decide on when the state can dine in, there is no way KL will let him have anything in the MA63,” said Bagang.

He was also conspicuously missing from the fray, leaving most of the Covid-19 matters and controversies to his party deputy and official spokesman Masidi.

Low vaccine supply

Sabah’s low online registration rate and erratic vaccination supply was blamed for being in last spot in terms of the population vaccinated.

Although this is also because of Sabah’s challenging logistics and larger population, Sabah did start out with a lower portion of vaccines which later improved but became inconsistent, leaving us behind the national average.

“Sabah had the lowest number of doses delivered per capita at 47 doses per 100 people, why is this?  It does not seem like fair distribution, when we were so much worse off. And compared to Sarawak, who are more similar to us in terms of distribution of communities and population size too,” said Bagang.

The state did not acknowledge its lag until recently but still maintains it is on track to achieve its target of 80 per cent registered adult population vaccinated by October. Though its vaccination drive is at a capacity of more than 80,000 jabs a day, it has hit a major speed bump with hardly half that coming out in the last three days.

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