THE past week marked the third anniversary of the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem’s death, barely a year after winning a decisive personal mandate as Sarawak chief minister. Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Abang Openg inherited that mandate two days later.
Over half way through that mandate, and with speculation rife of a snap state election later in the year, Abang Johari thus marked his own third year in power with some fanfare. Since his assumption into the chief ministership, Abang Johari has been regularly publicising state development projects, each often running into hundreds of millions of ringgit, under his expansive and ambitious development blueprint.
Earlier on, he had announced a billion ringgit in a bid to digitise the entire state. Billions more are being awarded to complete a coastal highway project. A sizeable portion of such funds did not come from the usual annual state budget tabled and approved by the State Legislative Assembly.
Neither were they from the state reserves accumulated over the years. How then did the chief minister do it?
The Development Bank of Sarawak (DBoS) was set up under Abang Johari’s watch. As concerns mount over the state’s finances (including, memorably, by Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng last year when he warned the state may go bankrupt in a few years at the rate it was burning through cash), Abang Johari has finally taken some pain to explain how DBoS operates in aid of the state’s development plans.
“It is funding our basic infrastructure… especially roads,” the chief minister explained to the media, as well as projects under three state rural development agencies.
Abang Johari took care to rubbish the notion that the state reserves directly underwrote the loans the state government took from DBoS.
The loans were issued out of the bank’s normal statutory lending reserve based on deposits the state government and its agencies and companies made into the bank, he said.
The chief minister also drew on the examples of post-war Germany and Japan, and the more recent case of Singapore, as inspiration for him taking the DBoS route to developing the state “to provide alternative funding to strategic long-term projects, and these projects are basic infrastructure that will transform our targeted area”.
Except that it is not clear if these “strategic long-term projects” were arrived at after detailed analyses and feasibility studies done professionally or recommended by independent outside development experts.
Without any transparency, the suspicion will be that the projects were mostly rushed through and front-loaded based more on the short-term political considerations of the government of the day.
Abang Johari probably also let on more than he intended when he expressed some bewilderment over the federal government’s rural development policy under the Rural Development Ministry.
“For instance, their rural electrification programme, their policy is only to provide the cable to the last pole, but not to the house. I don’t know why it had to be so, but now we are funding our own Rural Electrification Scheme, as well as water supply, including connecting rural homes and longhouses to the main grid,” the chief minister elaborated.
There is, for sure, much to be said for state-federal cooperation and coordination to take on the mammoth challenge of bringing development to rural Sarawak, a state almost the size of the entire Peninsular Malaysia but with about a tenth of the population spread over rather unforgiving terrain.
If only money grows on the trees, which still cover most of Sarawak!
It is unclear if Abang Johari’s apparent dig at federal rural development policy expressed sincere bewilderment or was a calculated and unfortunate political statement.
A desire to bring development into the state’s far-flung rural settlements naturally tugs at the heartstrings when promised on the political stump.
But a more convincing case ought to be made public that the many lumpy development projects rolled out these two to three years make good economic sense.
Even if all these projects, particularly the rural ones, were achievable in our lifetime, not just within the current and next election cycle, are they practical or affordable?
How much is all this tied with any credible state development master plan, including the vital component of equally massive human-capital investments to equip rural mindsets for the demands of modern development?
How much are investments made (apparently on commercial-loans basis) ultimately recoverable?
The scale of the challenge, not just mere ambition, boggles the mind.
The writer views developments in
the nation, region and wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak