Adenan walks the talk

Adenan Satem

The no-frills and no-nonsense style of Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem has surprised those who thought they knew everything about him.

Joceline Tan, The Star

EVERYONE thought they knew Tan Sri Adenan Satem inside out. The Sarawak Chief Minister has been around so long that they thought they knew everything there was to know about him.

But he has continued to surprise everyone, making headline news almost every day in the Sarawak newspapers with his war on illegal logging and corruption.

Onlookers are still trying to absorb the fact that the top leader is talking so openly about these issues and seems sincere in wanting to tackle them. Stuff like that used to be the domain of the Opposition.

Adenan’s approach has been a hot topic for Sarawak’s chattering class.

A few days ago, he said that legislation for heavier penalties on illegal logging would be tabled at the next state legislative assembly.

This had come on the heels of the owners of the six biggest timber companies in the state signing an integrity pledge in front of the MACC.

These logging tycoons are billionaires whose business interests dominate the state economy and it was quite a coup for the Chief Minister to get them to make a public commitment. Of course, the question now is whether they put it into action.

Adenan’s policy pledge to direct more development for rural areas has also made people sit up.

“It will be a big step forward if he sees it through. About 50% of the population are rural. If you neglect the rural areas, you are neglecting half the people,” said Unimas political scientist Dr Faisal Syam Hazis.

At the budget session last month, journalists had their eye on more than just the budget.

A Chinese newspaper went to town with the fact that there was no red carpet for Adenan when he arrived for the assembly sitting. Apparently, it was on the instruction “from upstairs”, that is, the Chief Minister’s office.

Outwardly, it was another of Adenan’s gestures towards reducing protocol. But the subtext is that he is sending the signal that he is not into the frills of powers and that he wants to narrow the gap between political leaders and the people.

He is probably aware how power comes from the people but often goes into the head of some politicians, making them so big-headed that they cannot think straight.

“The general consensus about him is, so far so good. He’s building his own image, pressing the right buttons,” said Khaw Veon Szu, a former think-tank head and now a practising lawyer.

For instance, said Khaw, the Chief Minister has taken a resolute stand on issues that Sarawakians feel strongly about.

He has reassured them that Sarawak will not ban Bibles with the “Allah” term and that hudud law has no place in the state’s multi-cultural society.

“He has said many times that Sarawak is different from the rest of Malaysia. I find that interesting because you won’t find any other CM or MB saying something like that,” said Khaw.

Recently, Adenan announced a reduction in electricity tariffs effective next year.

These are issues that the Opposition have been riding on but he has pulled the rug from under the feet of the opposition parties.

Adenan, said Khaw, has obviously done his homework on what Sarawakians are unhappy about and he has methodologically tackled them one by one.

His allocation of some RM3mil a year for Chinese independent schools was targeted at softening the Chinese heart. Likewise the funds allocated to the family of DAP leader Wong Ho Leng who died after a long struggle with brain cancer.

“I’m not sure whether all this will translate into votes. Some are still sceptical, they’re waiting to see whether he can carry it out. You’ve got to remember that the fight against corruption is also about fighting the system. It cannot change overnight,” said a Kuching-based journalist.

It has not gone unnoticed that his state cabinet colleagues have been watching rather than adding value to what he is trying to do. They seem unsure of what to make of it. Tackling corruption so openly is not something they are used to.

But citizen watch groups and environmental NGOs, said the journalist, have applauded him for taking on the illegal loggers. It is a big syndicate game, not everyone is sure that he will win the war but they like the fact that he is trying.

“It’s still too early but if you are talking about public perception, he is gaining some ground,” said Dr Faisal.

However, said Dr Faisal, Adenan’s stands on issues like the use of the “Allah” term, hudud law and state-federal ties are no different from during the time of his predecessor and now the Governor Tun Taib Mahmud.

“Taib was very firm on these issues. The only difference now is that Adenan is more aggressive in approach. If he really wants to come out of Taib’s shadow, he should tackle the mega projects. There are 12 dams in the pipeline, there’s a lot of unhappiness. He has yet to address that,” said Dr Faisal.

The indigenous people’ claim over Native Customary Rights or NCR land is another thorn in the side of the state government.

Most politicians would know by now that being compared to one’s predecessor can sometimes turn out to be a dance with danger.

But there is no denying it, Adenan and Taib are two completely different personalities although they are from the same era, went to the same school in Kuching and then the same university in Adelaide. Adenan was also previously married to Taib’s younger sister.

It is said that Adenan is one of a handful of state leaders who are on first names basis with Taib – for the rest it is Pehin Sri, if you don’t mind. And, by the way, Taib is the one and only Pehin Sri in Sarawak, the highest honour in the state.

Adenan has an intellectual side and is obviously well-read, which is more than can be said for the average politician.

Despite the stern and rather dour demeanour, he is actually witty and his speeches are definitely more than just going through the motions.

When speaking to civil servants recently, he told them not to give him excuses like not having enough manpower.

“I don’t want any more passing the buck because in the end, the buck stops here (pointing to himself). I cannot say the buck stops elsewhere because I’ve got no upstairs to blame,” he said.

And, as the above journalist discovered, there is also a sentimental side to him.

He was the guest of honour at a function in Muara Tuang, the state seat that launched his political career back in 1978.

As he stood on stage, he said: “I am on the verge of tears, seeing all my old friends who are here and also those no longer here. This was where I first entered politics. Who could have foreseen someone like me becoming the CM?”

The event also involved people from Samarahan where Taib’s own political career had begun and Adenan also paid tribute to the man who had put him up there.

Datuk Abang Karim Tun Openg let the cat out of the bag during the Sarawak Chamber of Commerce and Industry annual dinner recently when he told the audience that he and Adenan used to play in a band known as Vagabonds during the 60s. Adenan was the lead singer and Vagabonds used to perform at village functions.

Both men came from the same kampung and their fathers were government servants. Abang Karim’s late father was a district officer at a time when the post was dominated by British officers and he went on to become the first Governor of Sarawak.

Adenan’s father ended his career as a senior customs officer but the son is now the Chief Minister.

The bigger irony though is that Abang Karim’s younger brother, Datuk Abang Johari, and Adenan were seen as rivals for the Chief Minister post.

“No hard feelings between us at all, we were boyhood friends,” said Abang Karim.

That evening, the two former “band boys” relived the good old days – Abang Karim sang an Malay song Aryati, and Adenan sang an Elvis ballad Can’t Help Falling In Love.

“Adenan is not so formal. I wouldn’t have dared to do any singing if it was Taib,” Abang Karim admitted.

Taib is still a factor in Sarawak’s politics largely because almost everything in the state goes back to his era. He is a sort of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad figure in Sarawak, except that he is not needling his successor all the time and he does not have a blog to talk about everything under the sun.

Taib has been quite decorous in his role as Governor. He knows precisely what is expected of him and seems to be hands-off on politics – outwardly at least.

There had been talk that Adenan is there to warm the seat and that Taib’s real preference had been the more pliable Datuk Awang Tengah Ali Hassan. Taib is said to have deferred appointing Awang Tengah because he felt that people could not accept the younger man.

But if people could not accept him now, they are unlikely to accept him in the near future. And, as some have suggested, the Opposition would “eat up Awang Tengah for breakfast”.

“From the way Adenan is going, I would think he is here to stay,” said Dr Faisal.

Seat-warmers would not be doing what Adenan has been doing.

Adenan, said Khaw, has passed the first test with flying colours.

But bigger tests lie ahead.