2020, a Covid-19 year; comparatively a good year for Sarawak nonetheless

The year 2020 comes to an end.

By Lian Cheng and Karen Bong

2020 is the year where Covid-19 virus emerged to rule the world. It was a year of disaster where the virus left behind a trail of devastation in many nations and took lives at its will.  

Every nation including the state of Sarawak took a beating with the loss of human lives and economic meltdown .  In general, there is no doubt that the pandemic had cast a dark shadow across the Land of the Hornbills. However, with the vigilance and watchfulness of Sarawak Disaster Management Committee (SDMC) and the collective understanding of Sarawakians and their co-operation, Sarawak has been able to weather the storm, in comparison with other parts of the world. 

Amid the pandemic where many economies had collapsed, Sarawak has been able to get back on its feet in good time due to the wisdom of Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg who took advantage of the political instability of the federal government and managed to rake in RM3 billion from oil and gas revenue, apart from other commercial benefits from Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas).

Despite the Covid-19 onslaught where all Sarawakians were forced to stay home to keep safe, there were still some notable events that happened in 2020, some of which we still can recall and recollect with a sigh and a heavy heart.


The Sheraton Move, the Change of Government

On Feb 23, 2020, some major political parties in Malaysia were found to be holding their respective “secret” meetings at different locations.  In Sheraton Hotel of Petaling Jaya, a meeting purportedly called by PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali was also in session.  It was a significant meeting as it later triggered a series of political upheavals that led to the change of the federal government. Due to the crucial part it played in bringing down the ruling government of the time, the meeting was dubbed as the “Sheraton Move”, an event that will surely be recorded in the annals of the country’s history.

By the time the press broke the news concerning the “Sheraton Move”, rumours were rife that a new ruling coalition would be formed to replace Pakatan Harapan (PH) where Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PKR faction led by its president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would be left out.

That evening, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, UMNO’s president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) president Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg and Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal as well as Azmin sought audience before the King.  The main agenda on the table was to form a new coalition that would administer Malaysia with Bersatu chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad continuing as Prime Minister.

The next day on Feb 24, Anwar’s faction within PKR, DAP and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) met Dr Mahathir to seek clarification on the Sheraton Move but the latter denied any involvement.  By this time, Azmin’s faction within PKR was sacked and the 11 of them declared an independent bloc.  

Following the chain of events, Dr Mahathir declared his resignations as Prime Minister and chairman of Bersatu, leading to the dissolution of parliament automatically.  He however, was appointed by the King as the interim Prime Minister.  

Meanwhile, Muhyiddin announced Bersatu had pulled out of PH.  With Bersatu out of PH and Azmin’s faction quitting PKR, PH lost its majority and the government.

Between Feb 25 and 26, the King interviewed all the 221 MPs (except Dr Mahathir) to ascertain their support for the two prime minister candidates – Dr Mahathir or Anwar.  After the interview, it was found that there were 90 MPs for Anwar, 131 MPs for Dr Mahathir, including 18 GPS MPs from Sarawak. The result however, was not convincing enough for the King to make a final decision.

File photo – Abang Johari (right) greets Sultan Abdullah to give him a warm welcome upon arrival at the Kuching International Airport. Photo credit: Unit Komunikasi Awam Sarawak

On Feb 27, quoting the King, Dr Mahathir announced in a press conference that there was no distinct majority for anyone of them to be elected the prime minister, and that a special session of parliament would be held on Mar 2 to settle the impasse. He did not discount the possibility of a snap election.

On Feb 28, after a special Conference of Rulers meeting, the King decided to meet all party leaders with the hope to come out with a convincing decision to solve the political impasse.  

On the same day, however, there was a twist of events. A total of 26 Bersatu MPs, 11 MPs from Azmin’s faction, 60 MPs from UMNO and the MPs of PAS, MCA and MIC unexpectedly came forth to express their support for Muhyiddin to be the next premier.  

The next day on Feb 29, GPS issued a statement, lending its support to the new ruling coalition – Perikatan Nasional, not as partner but as a friendly party.

By this time, the fight for premiership had shifted from between Dr Mahathir and Anwar to Dr Mahathir and Muhyiddin.  The sudden shift opened the door for horse-trading and “party hopping”. Many MPs took the opportunity to switch camps.  

Muhyiddin (kanan) ketika sesi menghadap Yang Dipertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah di Istana Negara. Sumber foto: Istana Negara

With Peninsular Malaysian politicians split into two distinctive camps, the 18 GPS MPs who emerged as a strong united pack became the kingmaker.  On Mar 1, 2020, riding on  the support of GPS, Muhyiddin was sworn in as the eighth prime minister of Malaysia.  Nine days after, he announced the new cabinet.

On another battle field, Malaysia detected its first case of Covid-19 on Jan 25. By this time, there was already an outbreak of local cluster linked to Tablighi Jamaat religious gathering held at Sri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur.  

As the prime minister, Muhyiddin issued a three-month-long Movement Control Order (MCO) as a counter measure to curb the pandemic starting Mar 18. Incidentally, the pandemic had slowed down political manoeuvring to quite a considerable degree and had given time for Muhyiddin to consolidate his power in Putrajaya.

On May 18, a parliament convened with only the King’s speech to denote the opening of the new session.  Political dust had settled with the whole nation focussing on its fight against Covid-19.  To many except perhaps Anwar, Muhyiddin is here to stay, be it a backdoor government or otherwise.

The Season of Froggy jumping

Have you heard of the Frog Song?  The lyrics are here below:

What an entertaining party
In the tall grass by the lake
All the frogs have come together
Drinking juice and eating cake

Mister Toad is good at drumming
And his wife plays the trombone
There’s a lovely little tadpole
Who prefers to dance alone

From the darkness of the rushbed
Comes a limping big old hound
All the froggies at the party
Scatter, hopping all around

La, la, tee-dee dee-dee dum
Ribbit, ribbit, tee-dee dee-dee dum
La, la, tee-dee dee-dee dum
Ribbit, ribbit, tee-dee dee-dee dum
La, la, tee-dee dee-dee dum
Ribbit, ribbit, tee-dee dee-dee dum
La, la, tee-dee dee-dee dum
Ribbit, ribbit, tee-dee dee-dee dum

The week between Feb 23 to Feb 29 was the season of froggy jumping, including the MPs from Sarawak.

Selangau MP Baru Bian, who was former PKR Sarawak chief had always been in Azmin’s camp.  He was one of the 10 MPs who moved out of PKR with Azmin.  While Azmin stayed put, Baru at the eleventh hour switched camps and signed the statutory declaration to support Dr Mahathir as the prime minister.  After the change of government, Baru became an independent.  On May 30, describing himself as a “smart frog”, Baru announced joining Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) and together with him was Batu Lintang assemblyman See Chee How.

Baru (left) and See (right) holding PSB’s flag to officially announced that they are joining PSB witnessed by Wong (centre).

Other former PKR Sarawak top leaders such as Saratok MP Ali Biju and Puncak Borneo MP Willie Mongin chose to stay on with Azmin and later joined Bersatu en bloc under Azmin’s leadership.  Both were appointed deputy ministers in the new cabinet.

Meanwhile, Lubok Antu MP Jugah Muyang, who won the seat as an independent but later joined PKR Sarawak, decided to leave the party and resumed his former status as an independent MP.  Despite Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) aggressive courting, Jugah stayed put as the only independent MP from Sarawak.

Following the exodus of leaders and members from PKR Sarawak, Julau MP Larry Sng whose allegiance was always with Anwar assumed PKR Sarawak leadership.  

On Sarawak’s soil, PSB deputy president Datuk Dr Jerip Susil, dropped a bombshell on July 11, by announcing his resignation from PSB. His reason being that he had confidence in GPS to bring development to rural constituencies such as his Mambong constituency. On Oct 24, Dr Jerip joined Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).  

The dark days of Covid-19

The ravages of Covid-19 have changed the world in the last 12 months with significant and enormous disruptions in every aspect of human lives.  It compelled the world to live in a new normal where strict SOPs are in place to combat its spread.

As of Dec 30 this year, Sarawak recorded 1,115 positive cases and 19 deaths. 

Among its Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah counterparts, Sarawak was first to sense the gravity of Covid-19 outbreak where SDMC took early measures by imposing temporary entry restrictions into the State to all non-residents and 14-days home quarantine was made mandatory as early as February. 

A file photo of Uggah addressing a press conference on the State Covid-19 updates. Credit: Information Department of Sarawak.

Despite the effort, Covid-19 was confirmed to have reached Sarawak’s shore on March 13 after the first three cases were recorded in Kuching, out of which two were linked to the Tabligh cluster. More cases were reported thereafter on daily basis.

On March 16, Muhyiddin announced a nationwide lockdown called the Movement Control Order (MCO) from March 18 to 31 which was later extended until April 14 with Enhanced MCO for hot spot areas and further extended until May 12. This was followed by Conditional MCO until June 9 before shifting to Recovery MCO to allow most economy to run as usual until Dec 31. 

Just a day before the MCO came into effect, Sarawak recorded the nation’s first Covid-19 death involving a 60-year-old pastor from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Kuching. Another death was reported on the same day in Johor Bahru. 

The pandemic brought the State to a standstill with public gatherings and movements prohibited, causing all religious events, sports meets, major events, social and cultural activities to be called off, delayed and cancelled. With borders closed, air travel was completely grounded. 

This great lockdown had brought much of economic activities to a halt and led to the shrinking in global economy as Sarawak was not spared from the shocks and after-shocks. Many sectors and ordinary citizens were hurt by this crisis. 

Covid-19

After its peak in April, Sarawak had managed to control and contain the outbreak to the very minimum with most days recording single-digit or zero cases until October when several clusters emerged one after another in Kuching, moving the district temporarily into the red zone.  With effective control measures, Sarawak was soon back again to experience either single digit or zero cases on daily basis. 

Today, to contain Covid-19, Sarawakians vigilantly embrace social distancing, mask wearing, rigorous hand washing, frequently use of hand sanitiser, temperature taking as well as the application of new and digital technology to keep each other connected.

Sarawak’s BKSS packages

To minimise the adverse impact of Covid-19 on Sarawak’s economy and to relieve its people from financial hardship brought about by the pandemic, the Sarawak government has rolled out at least four packages of Bantuan Khas Sarawakku Sayang (BKSS) since March with a total expenditure of RM2.55 billion to benefit all strata of the society. 

Apart from BKSS incentives, other assistance include reduced rental rates, discounted utility bills, waiver of various fees and others to support the economic sector in hopes of easing the burden of the people whose livelihoods and businesses were adversely affected by Covid-19. 

Abang Johari at a press conference after presenting the BKSS 4.0 measures today (Oct 23, 2020).

The Sarawak government also lost no time in leveraging digital technology to better handle the devastating pandemic including immigration surveillance, digital surveillance and combating fake news. 

State Sales Tax (SST) and Commercial Settlement Agreement (CSA)

Despite the threat of Covid-19 pandemic, Sarawak’s oil and gas industry made significant strides this year with the State government rolled out growth plans to advance and expand the sector that will contribute to the economic success of the state.

The Sarawak government had finally received full settlement of State Sales Tax (SST) for the year 2019 amounting RM2.957 billion from Petronas this year, following a two-year tussle with the federal government.

The payment was the result of an amicable solution reached between Petronas and the Sarawak government following a legal battle that ended up with both parties withdrawing their appeals from the court. The two parties had agreed on the management of Sarawak’s oil and gas resources where there is a considerable increase in Sarawak’s stakes in Petronas’ O&G undertakings in Sarawak, apart from the annual SST payment.

Ahmad Nizam (third right) hands over the mock cheque to Abang Johari (second left) at Wisma Bapa Malaysia today (Sept 17, 2020). Photo credit: Sarawak Public Communications Unit (Ukas)

Apart from taking up more Petronas’ stakes in Sarawak O&G, on Oct 30, Abang Johari announced that oil mining leases have been issued to Petroleum Sarawak Berhad (Petros) at two blocks –  Adong Kecil West in Miri area and Engkabang area south of Marudi. 

This, he said, signified the beginning of the Sarawak government’s efforts in exercising Sarawak’s Constitution rights to regulate oil mining under the State law to take complete control over the exploration and production of petroleum in the onshore areas. 

Petros’ role will also be strengthened in spearheading the state’s enhanced involvement in the oil and gas industry especially in the downstream sectors. This was followed by the launching of Petros red-coloured “tong gas” (gas canisters) which marked Sarawak’s entry into the domestic Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) market. Petros’ gas canisters are expected to reach homes, businesses, and industries in Kuching and Samarahan beginning 2021 and extending statewide in 2022. 

Ending the year on a good note, Sarawak secured its fair share of participation, opportunities and profit sharing in the oil and gas industry alongside Petronas following the signing of Commercial Settlement Agreement (CSA) which took place in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 7, 2020.

A group photo after signing the Commercial Settlement Agreement between Sarawak government and Petronas on Dec 7, 2020. Graphic courtesy of Bernama.

The CSA will pave the way for the development of the Sarawak Gas Masterplan which will involve more participation of Sarawakian vendors. 

Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hasan emphasised that the signing of this CSA heralded the revival of onshore mining in Sarawak which was the only place in Malaysia where upstream petroleum activities were taking place. Among Sarawak’s expectations embedded in the terms of the CSA was for the Sarawak government to have a greater degree of involvement in the management of the State’s oil and gas resources both onshore and offshore. 

All these efforts were geared towards securing Sarawak’s adequate natural gas supplies that is needed to drive its industrial development agenda, including the establishment of Sarawak’s first petrochemical hub on a 1,086 acres of land in Tanjung Kidurong, Bintulu and gas processing plant to enhance the security of supply for LPG to meet the increasing demands in Sarawak. 

DayakDaily’s D’Drift and Sunday Morning with CM

Abdul Karim (front row, third from left) flags off the DayakDaily D’Drift team this morning (June 29, 2020) together with (from left) Isuzu Malaysia Sdn Bhd manager (Fleet and Vehicle Sales – East Malaysia) Andrew Law, Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii and others.

Under the sponsorship of Sarawak Tourism and Isuzu Malaysia, Dayakdaily embarked on a road trip between Jun 29 to July 8 with the aim to visit several destinations and to come out with introductory writeups on three destinations – the Silabur Caves of Serian, the Lusong Laku Waterfall of Sungai Asap and the Buda Caves of Limbang.

Silabur Caves, Lusong Laku Waterfall and Buda Caves (from left to right).

DayakDaily did not stop here.  On Sept 27, it organised an event — “A Sunday Morning with CM: Dialogue Session with Young Entrepreneurs in Sarawak” with Kuching Freelance Journalists Association (Pewarta).

The dialogue session was successful with great participation and strong engagement from some 30 young entrepreneurs and professionals from various industries in Sarawak.  This almost three-hour event was initiated to provide an avenue for these young and upcoming leaders in their own fields to engage with Abang Johari and raised issues that matter in order to steer Sarawak to greater heights. 

Among the topics which were highlighted were native status of children from mixed marriages involving natives, setting up of Data and Technology Ministry to consolidate all efforts in developing digital technology in Sarawak, current policies impacting young entreprenuers to venture in agriculture, policies to guide private developers in the right direction on the development of Kuching City, industrial hemp research, support for street arts development, and others. 

Abang Johari encourages the dialogue session participants to read “The Blockchain Revolution” by Don Tapscott.

Noble houses in the making

Despite Covid-19, Abang Johari had initiated the construction of numerous projects this year, notably the Unit for Other Religions (UNIFOR) Complex in Kuching, Wisma Melayu Sarawak in Kuching and the Federation of Orang Ulu Associations Sarawak Malaysia (FORUM)’s new headquarters in Miri, apart from the enormous funds being channeled to improve basic infrastructure in rural areas such as the building of roads and the provision of water and electricity.

The construction of the RM70 million 10-storey UNIFOR Complex on a 1.2 hectare site along Jalan Ong Tiang Swee will start next year and is expected to be completed in two years’ time. The marvellous complex, which will adopt a green concept and offering facilities such as two-floor meeting venues, a dining hall for 1,000 capacity and commercial area, will become a landmark of unity among the people of various religions in Sarawak. 

An artist impression of RM70 mil Unifor Complex

Similarly, the RM50 million Wisma Melayu Sarawak at Jalan Diplomatik in Petra Jaya, Kuching will soon be the home of Amanah Khairat Yayasan Budaya Melayu Sarawak (AKYMBS) as construction has begun and is expected to be completed in 24 months. The project is also a manifestation of the dream of the late Pehin Sri Adenan Satem to have AKYBMS own its own building. 

Wisma Melayu Sarawak … a posthumous dream come true for Late Pehin Adenan Satem.

With design concept of the Tengkolok headgear worn by the Malay, the Wisma will be a symbol of the contributions and sacrifices of the Malay community in peaceful Sarawak. It will feature a two-storey building with a basement carpark as well as other facilities such as a convention centre with 2,000 capacity, three seminar and meeting rooms, Malay culture gallery, exhibition space, office, a surau, Samarinduk recreational landscape garden and a 290-space carpark. 

Meanwhile, the new headquarters for FORUM on a two-hectare land at Jalan Pujut Padang Kerbau in Miri is also underway and expected to be completed in 18 months by May 2022. It will house nine member associations of FORUM. The RM25 million building will incorporate the cultural values and arts of the Orang Ulu community with facilities and spaces for indoor and outdoor activities, exhibition, sales, a gallery, a multipurpose hall, a resource centre and general office in the first phase. 

An artiste impression of Forum’s new headquarters which will incorporate the Orang Ulu culture and arts in its design

With another iconic landmark soon to emerge in Miri, FORUM aims to promote the centre as one of the main tourist attractions in the city like an Orang Uly cultural village. 

The Long-awaiting Sibu-Kapit Road 

On Oct 4, Abang Johari led a motorcycle convoy from Sibu to Kapit. It was made possible following the partial completion of the Ngemah-Temalat road, the missing link between Sibu and Kapit.

Abang Johari (front row, third left) and other dignitaries giving their thumbs-up at the event in Kapit today (Oct 4, 2020). Also seen are (front row, from left) Wilson Nyabong, Nanta, Masing, Abdul Karim and Jefferson. Standing behind (from right) are Juanda and Liwan.

Needless to say, the partial completion of the long-awaited road connecting Sibu and Kapit brought pure joy and relief to the people of Kapit as well as the longhouse folks residing further upstream in Baleh, Pelagus, right up to Belaga town, the last major upriver settlement along the mighty Batang Rajang.

For the first time in history, Kapit, a vibrant upriver timber town that previously was only physically linked to the outside world through riverine transport, is now physically connected by road to Sibu, the largest and busiest commercial hub in the Rajang Basin.

Following the roaring 100-motorcycle convoy to Kapit, Sarawak Public Works Department (Sarawak JKR) on Oct 8, 2020 announced that the Kanowit-Kapit Road would be opened fully to the public except for the Ngemah-Temalat stretch, which would only be opened later on a specific schedule as parts of it are still under construction. Officially, this stretch will only be completed by December 2020.

For over 50 years, Kapit was only accessible by express boats, a journey that takes about four hours from Sibu.  Today, with the road that connects Kapit to other places, people can commute to and fro from Sibu within two and a half hours.  The road, however, also marks the possible end of the express boat industry which has been providing public transport for the riverine folks.

Express boats docked at the Sibu Wharf.

Yan Xi’s murderer sentenced to hanging

On March 3, 2018 at 4.30pm, a villager on his way home from fishing had the scare of his life when he spotted a human head on the banks of Sungai Batang Lupar, Jalan Skait Lama, Sri Aman. The villager who believed that it was a head of a woman, immediately alerted the police.

The next day, Sri Aman District Police Chief DSP Othman Sulaiman confirmed that it was indeed the severed head of a woman whose identity was unknown and initiated an investigation.

The police looked into missing person reports filed in Sri Aman and the districts within its vicinity, with the hope that their Jane Doe was one of them, but no such reports had been lodged.

On March 6, Sarawak CID chief Datuk Dev Kumar confirmed that the victim was confirmed was Chinese national, Yan Xi, 31.  Soon after, her husband Wong Zing Haw, 42, was arrested after conflicting statements were given to the police during the investigation on March 5.

Wong, a pharmacist by training and a businessman was married to Yan since 2011 and the couple had two children. On Mar 16, 2018, he was charged with Yan’s murder which took place between Feb 25 to March 3. The charge under Section 302 of the Penal Code provides for a death sentence upon conviction.

Seen is the accused escorted by police officers.

Finally, after a trial of three long years, the High Court in Sri Aman convicted Wong over Yan’s murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. Judge Azhahari Kamal Ramli ruled that the prosecution had successfully proved the case beyond reasonable doubt and convicted the accused as charged.

As of today, Yan Xi’s body has yet to be recovered.

Looking forward

Marching into 2021, with the promise of a Covid-19 vaccine on its way to the people of the world, Sarawak foresees the passing of the dark days plagued by viruses and the coming of a new dawn. 

How will Sarawak fare in the new year of 2021?  No one can tell.  The fact however, remains that the development of Sarawak cannot lie on a person or a team.  It is thus the duty of all its people to make our Fairland Sarawak great and prosperous.  How will Sarawak fare in 2021?  The answer lies with all of us! — DayakDaily