Abang Jo: Defender of Sarawak’s rights


During the Malaysia Day celebration, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg sent out a familiar message – Sarawak joined as an equal partner with the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia as stated by the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), the terms of which must be honoured by all binding partners.

Abang Johari first narrated the major historical factors which led to Sarawak joining the other three entities to form Malaysia – considered a necessary measure amid the invasion of communism into the region.

He moved on to the second factor – the fervent hope that Sarawak may be as developed as Malaya. He then went on to explain the unique form of “federalism” enshrined by the MA63 where “non-centralisation of power” was one of the key elements.

“In my view, the most important of these common elements (of federalism) are: a written Constitution which outlines power-sharing terms amongst the Federal and State Governments, and non-centralization, which provides a system for enforcement of constitutional terms through diffusion of power.”

Abang Johari (seated) signing the Malaysia Day 2019 signature book witnessed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (second right), Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Panglima Mohd Shafie Apdal (left), Deputu Chief Minister Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hasan (third left) and Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo (right).

He continued that while there may be disagreements over the interpretation of the federal and state constitutions or laws passed which exceeded constitutional powers, it was his hope to see that the ongoing negotiations “will see no losers, and more importantly, no derogation of constitutional rights, special safeguards and status accorded to the States of Sabah and Sarawak as agreed by the nation’s founding fathers and embedded 56 years ago in the Federal Constitution”.

His message that day was clear – there was non-centralisation of power from the very beginning of the formation of Malaysia, and Sarawak hoped that its deteriorated constitutional and special safeguards under MA63 and the federal constitution would be returned.

It was obvious that Abang Johari was putting Sarawak’s official stand on record for Prime Minister Dr Tun Mahathir Mohamad who was there – that Sarawak would not give up the fight to regain its eroded rights and there would be no compromise or turning back. It left nobody in doubt of Abang Johari’s will to fight for Sarawak.

It was a strong message, not only in its content, but also the demeanour in which he delivered the message – cool, calm and controlled, where conviction and an unflinching iron will permeated every word.

A diplomatic approach

Despite repeatedly declaring his intention to fight to the end, there are assertions that Abang Johari has not been aggressive enough, especially with regards to his refusal to entertain a unilateral declaration of independence, a quite popular call to this date.

Of course, Abang Johari could choose the easy way out by giving support to the call to garner popularity. He did not; he chose to do the right thing even if that decision may hurt his popularity.

As chief minister, he must abide by the law. Whatever demands Sarawak makes, he must make sure that they are lawful and constitutional. While there are those who reject the diplomatic approach, there are also others who understand that his fighting style is firm, consistent and persistent.

One of them is former magistrate Rita Insol, who believes that Abang Johari’s diplomatic approach is the right way forward.

Rita Insol

Rita, who also helped form Dayak Oil Palm Planters Association (DOPPA) and Sarawak Dayak Iban Ladies Association (which she headed for 17 years) said Abang Johari has been very much aware of the “traps” and the “don’ts” in the fight for Sarawak, and that he would not hesitate to take legal action when the situation required it.

“Abang Jo employs a diplomatic approach to reclaiming Sarawak rights under MA63, through negotiations instead of outright confrontation.

“Nonetheless he is not beyond taking legal action in enforcing Sarawak rights, as evident from the institution of the legal action against Petronas over the latter’s refusal to pay sales tax on oil and gas mined from Sarawak. The suit against Petronas demonstrates that Abang Jo, seemingly soft, is actually firm and steadfast,” she told DayakDaily.

Learn from the Hong Kong experience

Shankar Ram Asnani

Prominent senior local lawyer Shankar Ram Asnani shared the same view as Rita.

“Let us all sit back and think, can any responsible and well-informed chief minister take reckless action by declaring independence unitarily? Abang Johari can’t do it, regardless of whether he is for or against self-determination. We are a civilised society. He has to take into consideration the historical development of Malaysia, MA63, the present standing of Sarawak within Malaysia, the rule of law, the Federal and Sarawak Constitutions.

“If Abang Johari were to go with the popular demand to declare independence, Sarawak will be heading for trouble. This will give all the excuses for the federal government to completely take over Sarawak as it is within the federal government’s constitutional rights to declare emergency on Sarawak and clamp down on Sarawak with sheer military might.

“Once that happens, Sarawakians’ lives would be thrown into chaos where business activities, freedom of speech, development and even education will be disrupted. Look at Hong Kong. We must learn from the Hong Kong experience,” Shankar cautioned.

He opined that fighting for Sarawak rights needs much more than just passion. It required diplomacy, wisdom, well-informed counsel and the support of all Sarawakians.

An ingenious idea

Lawyer Jonathan Chai shared Shankar’s view that all Sarawakians needed to back Abang Johari in his struggle to regain Sarawak’s lost rights.

Jonathan Chai

“We don’t know how far could we go in this process of devolution of autonomy, but one thing is for sure, we will stay united and rally behind our state government, hang in there as long as it needs until our rights are reclaimed and our special position within the federation is restored,” said Chai.

Chai further praised Abang Johari for the “brilliant idea” of 5 per cent State Sales Tax on petroleum and its products.

“The Chief Minister has literally woken us up; to our surprise, we actually have our rights to levy sales tax on petroleum and its products.

“With the introduction of the sales tax on petroleum-related exports in 2019, he has enlarged our revenue base and strengthened budgetary performance.

“These ‘previously untapped’ incomes would now enable us to implement many more projects especially the development of infrastructure in the rural areas,” said Chai, who is also the president of the Association of the Boards of Management of Aided Chinese Primary Schools in Kuching, Samarahan and Serian Division.

Let Anak Sarawak do it together

Meanwhile lawyer George Young Si-Ricord Junior agreed with Shankar and Chai that Abang Johari should not be left alone to fight the difficult fight.

George Young Si-Ricord Junior

“I think all Sarawakians – regardless of political affiliations – would prefer to see our rights under MA63 reinstated and what is rightly ours be returned to us, especially an exclusive autonomous right to govern Sarawak, it’s economy, border security, ports, territorial waters, etc.

“Our current chief minister is tasked with this very heavy responsibility to make right all the wrongs within the purview of MA63. He must not be left alone to take on the burden of this task. All Anak Sarawak must stand behind him and support this imperative quest,” said George, who is also Habitat for Indigenous and Urban Program founder cum chairman.

Moving forward, George proposed that a senior management consultant be set up to address the issues of Sarawak’s rights under MA63.

“In my humble opinion, I propose our chief minister appoints a senior Management Consultant to facilitate a forum involving Anak Sarawak from all walks of life to deliberate and determine the right decision or path that we should take to address the subject issues. Thereafter, a written report is to be submitted to the chief minister for approval and implementation. I will be most willing to lend my support on this,” said George.

Abang Johari took over from the late Chief Minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem, fondly called “Tok Nan”, on Jan 13, 2017.  Since helming Sarawak, Abang Johari has come up with 81 initiatives.

The 81 initiatives encompass various aspects of building up Sarawak, such as regaining Sarawak’s lost rights, leapfrogging the state’s digital and technological development as well as revenue re-engineering, injecting funds to boost infrastructure in rural areas, fair religious and racial policies and many others.

In a meet-the-media session held on Jan 13, 2020 on his third anniversary as Chief Minister, he highlighted the initiatives close to his heart, with regaining Sarawak’s rights being the very first initiative he mentioned.

Perhaps one of the strongest statements he ever made on this initiative was at his winding-up speech at the Sarawak Legislative Assembly on Nov 17, 2017.

“We in Sarawak continue to exert our right under MA63 because if we don’t look after ourselves, nobody else will.  Sarawakians have been too trusting.  Now Sarawakians are even more vigilant, because many of our native sons and daughters are highly educated who can read and write and are aware of what is going on.

“We do not want wool to be pulled over our eyes.  We can see clearly now.  We will do due diligence in all our agreements.  We are exerting our rights under MA63 because we want to safeguard our economic interests for the present and future generations of Sarawakians.” —DayakDaily