When Tan Sri Adenan Satem died in January 2017 after a far-too-short stint in office as Sarawak chief minister, the outpouring of popular grief was genuine and palpable. It was all the more remarkable for the fact that the sadness transcended the state’s fractured ethnic and tribal divides.
While his keen intellect was well-known, that he was almost effortlessly able within three short years as chief minister to leave an imprint on many Sarawakians as their leader was surprising and may well be his most enduring political legacy.
Adenan’s tenure was obviously too short-lived to put much of a dent into the patronage-driven and ethnically-riven politics of nearly 45 years under his two immediate predecessors, Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud and the late Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kub.
The veneer of political stability imposed by the durable rule of Abdul Taib and his uncle, Abdul Rahman, masked the other political constant: an exceedingly difficult imperative to arrive at a modicum of popular consensus in a state that enjoys no obviously discernible electoral majority.
The racial identities of the population in Peninsular Malaysia are stark and uncomplicated in comparison to those obtaining in Sarawak. In the largest state in the federation, there are more than two dozen distinct tribal and linguistic groups.
And while the most recent four of Sarawak’s six chief ministers are Muslims who constitute only about a quarter of the state’s total population, there are clear cleavages even within such a group, mostly clearly between the more numerous Malays (who count Adenan and his successor, Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Abang Openg among them) and the Melanaus (Abdul Taib and Abdul Rahman).
The Ibans who produced the first two chief ministers hold a tenuous edge with about a third of all Sarawakians in this group. They are also riven by regional rivalries. The same applies to the Chinese who follow closely behind in terms of numbers and are a key swing factor in any contest for the state’s political leadership.
The keys to the state secretariat in Petra Jaya (Sarawak’s answer to Putrajaya) will therefore belong to the group best able to maintain cohesion, never an easy feat.
There is already evidence that Abang Johari’s ascendancy has brought some disquiet among Melanaus who have become accustomed to political pre-eminence under the long tenures of AbdulTaib and Abdul Rahman.
Abang Johari’s chief ministership has already become that much more difficult following the unexpected loss of power by Barisan Nasional (BN).
The Ibans may be forgiven for their widely shared expectation that one of their own should again be sitting in the chief minister’s chair. The growing general consensus in Sarawak seems to be that there will be everything to play for come the next state election that must be held by the first half of 2021 at the latest.
The fall of BN in the last general elections has whetted the appetite of politicians and pundits alike predicting that Gabungan Parti Sarawak (the successor to the BN that currently rules in the state) will be the most obvious next domino to fall.
Political ambition or desperation may cause surprising turns and shifting alliances in the coming months and years. Observers will naturally watch who among the crop of Iban political leaders will move ahead of the pack, going forward. Or if there will be dark horses joining the pack.
Under such fluid political circumstances, observers will also be watching how the new powers-that-be in Putrajaya and, in particular, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad play their political cards.
Those within Sarawak who wish the best for their state and well-wishers outside the state will no doubt hope that the legacy bequeathed by Adenan Satem will not just be an all-too-brief interregnum signifying what is possible and eminently desirable. It should be an enduring new politics beyond the currently fractured one based on ethnic or tribal identities and centred instead on competence and good governance.
To his credit, Abang Johari has confounded earlier fears by showing that he can be flexible when political circumstances dictate that he should. He has also recognised that the BN’s fall has much to do with issues of governance which galvanised popular agitation.
The state government has therefore given signals that it will be rolling out a series of state-funded development projects in the new year which will be awarded on a strictly transparent and open-tender basis, with an emphasis on spreading development to rural areas.
If such moves manage to capture popular imagination, Adenan Satem’s legacy may be no mirage.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.