When we think of Sarawak, we would usually think of a state that is under development but is somewhat kept at an arm’s length by the central government of Malaysia. It is also the largest State in Malaysia with a population of 2.8 million people, comprising of more than 30 ethnic groups.
Sarawak is a beautiful and bountiful land with plenty of natural resources that is full of opportunities, lying in wait for someone with the vision and drive to develop it. The person to do it? YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Abang Openg, the Premier of Sarawak. International Business Review flew to Sarawak for an exclusive with Abang Jo as he is fondly called, and we are proud to bring you his vision for the growth of Sarawak, its potentials and his aspirations to transform Sarawak into a developed state by 2030.
Carrying the Torch
YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari did not expect to helm the role so quickly as the 5th Chief Minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Adenan Satem was only three years into his term. Having won his seat again through the 2017 elections, Tan Sri Adenan Satem was expected to have a long-lasting hold on the position. As fate would have it, the late Chief Minister passed away unexpectedly following a tragic heart attack, leaving the seat empty.
After a graceful period of mourning, it was decided that the then Deputy Chief Minister, YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari was to be appointed as Sarawak’s 6th Chief Minister. He reveals that his objective was to continue the grand plans for Sarawak that were drawn up by his previous two predecessors, which include their fight to reclaim Sarawak’s rights such as the control of its oil production.
“My predecessor, Tan Sri Adenan Satem, and I shared the same vision, we see a modernised and developed Sarawak.” But to get there, it is key for Sarawak to recover its long-eroded rights conveyed to it under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).”
For context, this contract formed the basis of the Malaysia we know today. The agreement was signed by the United Kingdom, the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak. The Premier explained that reclaiming these rights would help get rid of the bureaucracy that has been preventing Sarawak from implementing projects and developments as it sees fit.
“There are two schools of thought in this country, one is the unitary state where all legislative powers are vested in the central government. The other is the federal state where legislative powers are divided between the central and state governments. Of course, we work together with the Federal government, but it must be within the context of a federation because that is how Malaysia was formed. So for Malaysia to move forward, it must do so as one to respect the constitutional arrangement,” he states firmly,
A Global Mindset
The Premier emphasises that inclusiveness is vital when building a successful State.
“We are a multi-racial, multi-religious society and respect must be earned, not commanded. It is the foundation for us to move forward in unity, harmony and fairness. If you want to be a global player, your character and mindset have to be global, and our command of a universal language must be up to mark,” he explains.
As such, he believes that Bahasa Malaysia and English should continue to have co-equal status in Sarawak, while the uptake of indigenous languages should also be encouraged.
“Whether you like or not, the reality is that you need the speech advantage in order to
do business in the markets you want. Bahasa Malaysia for the local market, English and even Mandarin for the international market. A great command in these universal languages is key in business,” the Premier explains.
Additionally, YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari reveals that Sarawak is adapting to global economic
powerhouses such as China. “One way we are doing this is by recognising the Unified
Examination Certificate (UEC), which is a pre-university exam that is taken by students of
Chinese independent high schools in Malaysia. Presently, there are 60 such schools registered in Malaysia. However, Sarawak is the only State that recognises the UEC, even though it is accepted by many prestigious universities around the world. Both the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem and I decided it would be to the best interest of Sarawak to ensure our workforce get the best education, because if our people are the best, our economy is strong,” the Premier affirms.
Playing Their Role
Sarawak under the YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari’s leadership is focused on the future, and one
aim is to preserve the environment through renewable energy. With Sarawak’s wealth in
natural resources, the Premier explains it has the capacity to do so. Five of its dams are
turned towards the production of hydrogen for renewable energy. The Premier is a passionate advocate of combating climate change and he believes hydrogen will play a key role for Sarawak in mitigating its carbon emissions.
“I was invited to give a talk on green energy by the Tokyo Metropolitan government. When I was there, I had a meeting with some of the largest companies in Japan, including Sumitomo, which has produced a new technology to produce hydrogen. Water molecules are split into hydrogen and oxygen using methyl clorohexane (MCH) so that the process is accelerated compared to previous methodologies, which greatly reduces the cost of production. We will work with them on this very new technology, producing and exporting to them, while chalking up carbon credits in the process for our carbon sink,” the Premier affirms.
The Premier insists that Sarawak will be at the forefront for renewable energy, thus ensuring a very ESG friendly ecosystem in Sarawak that will attract global investors. Its economy will be in tune with the green energy economies of the future. The State is also pursuing other forms of renewable energy, such as microalgae for biofuel and advanced wind turbines for wind power.
“We have a huge land mass, a population of 2.8 million, and an abundance of natural resources. Combine that with new technology and we are fortifying ourselves in every possible way – future proofing ourselves the best way we can,” explains YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari.
In 2019, Sarawak leapfrogged Johor to become the State with the third highest GDP in the country and in 2021 it became the State with the 3rd highest GDP per capita in the country. Why is this the case? Strategic planning.
“How have we grown so much? By identifying the sectors with the most potential returns putting our best minds to it,” the Premier reveals.
“The economy of the future should be based on renewable energy. One of these areas is hydrogen. All you need is plenty of water and with Sarawak’s five dams, there’s plenty of resources for it. That’s we concentrate on the production of hydrogen.“
– YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari
Tun Abang Openg,
The Premier of Sarawak
This strategic mindset has also resulted in Sarawak putting its resources towards futureproofing itself through digitalisation.“In my mind, the future lies with digitalisation. This is why the Sarawak Digital Economy Strategy 2018-2022 was launched.”
Today, Sarawak is seeing the results from its labour. The Premier went on to reveal that Sarawak is set to become a player in the semiconductor industry, having recently launch the Sarawak Microelectronic Design Semiconductor (SMD Semiconductor) through its partnership with Melexis Technologies, a Belgian based, global player in the industry.
Going with the theme of optimising the strengths of Sarawak, the other on its list is the workforce. To ensure that Sarawak become an attractive state for talent.
“We have a lot of talent here in Sarawak. Sarawakians from all over the world are now coming back home to help build the State because our economy and industries are opening up and providing a multitude of opportunities. This gives us immense motivation to keep pushing forward with our strategies to ensure that there are plenty of high income, high technology jobs and industries to attract the best human capital,” he reveals.
Sarawak also invests heavily on ensuring food security, and Singapore has become a key customer of Sarawakian food. The State has also set up the Sarawak Trade Office Singapore (STATOS) on the island nation to interact with the Singaporean business community. Today, Singaporean entities welcome Sarawak to deal with them in agribusiness because Sarawak has the means to produce top quality products.
Securing Its Purse
During the previous State elections in 2021, which saw YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari lead his
Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS – Sarawak Parties Alliance) coalition to win 76 out of 82 seats, he promised to establish a Sarawak sovereign wealth fund.
“I was in the government for 40 years. Before, I became the Chief Minister, Sarawak’s highest revenue was 6 billion. However, over the past four years, our revenue has been at RM10 billion per annum, as I have diversified the State’s income into multiple revenue streams and this is part of it,” YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari reveals.
And now he is gearing up to fulfil that promise. He reveals that he aims to introduce the Fund in the next State Legislative Assembly sitting, having spent time studying Singapore’s and Norway’s respective sovereign funds. He also attended the Sovereign Fund Forum in London to gain better understanding on the topic in order to ensure that Sarawak reaps the most benefits from this move.
He hopes that with the establishment of a Sarawak sovereign wealth fund, Sarawak
would be able to provide Sarawakians with the opportunity to enjoy free tertiary education in the long run. The Premier explaines that he is keen to emulate Norway and Germany
in particular, as these countries provide their citizens with free tertiary education.
What makes the State stand-out is its people’s famous tolerance and acceptance of diversity, as mutual respect is the basis of being Sarawakian, YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari explains.
“I remember in my former constituency of Satok, there was a wedding where the bride
was Chinese and the groom was Malay. Parents from each side made the effort to respect the customs of one another, and even wore each other’s traditional clothes,” he mentions
Sarawak is the role model for other states and even the world in its promotion of racial and religious harmony. The Premier assured that this had always been the case in Sarawak and
it celebrates and supports all religious houses equally. Sarawak is the only state in Malaysia
to have established an organisation, the Unit for Other Religious (UNIFOR) that is actively
working towards this purpose.
According to YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari, the Sarawak government also contributes
greatly to the upkeep of houses of worship in the State. “Just this year, I believe we gave
around RM60 to RM70 million in assistance,” the Premier says with a big smile.
More to Come Sarawakians!
Having seen the back of the pandemic, YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari reveals that
Sarawak will be following his Post COVID-19 Development Strategy 2030 (PCDS 2030),
which aims to modernise and transform Sarawak into a developed state and double
the size of its economy.
The first phase of the PCDS 2030 will focus on improving the State’s infrastructure such
as bridges, roads, electricity supply and telecommunications network, while its second
phase will concentrate on enhancing the talent and skills of Sarawakians. The Premier makes it clear that this vision must be well defined and clear that Sarawak is still committed to the concept of Malaysia, because if Sarawak is strong, so is Malaysia.
“Sarawak must focus on improving itself first to improve the livelihoods of the people that
live in Sarawak, then through that strength can Sarawak contribute more to Malaysia.”
The Premier is re-engineering Sarawak to be the brightest jewel in the region.
Seeing how passionately he speaks of Sarawak, his plans to develop the state,
International Business Review is convinced that YAB Tan Sri Abang Johari
will succeed brilliantly.