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It’s wrong of Abang Johari to suspend oil royalty talks

 | May 27, 2017

Does he serve the people of Sarawak or the people in Putrajaya?

COMMENT

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The Sarawak Chief Minister, Abang Johari Openg, appears to be a little confused. He doesn’t seem to know that he serves the people of Sarawak, not the people in Putrajaya.

Last Monday, he said he would suspend negotiations for a 20% increase in oil royalty for his state. Pointing to the low price of oil, he said conditions for the talks were not favourable.

Abang Johari must be pretending that he doesn’t know the federal government well enough. To Putrajaya, no time is ever a good time to discuss increasing the oil royalty. With Sabah and Sarawak known for being Barisan Nasional’s fixed deposits for votes, Putrajaya will always find an excuse for such talks to falter.

Abang Johari owes it to Sarawakians to insist on continuing with the talks, whether the price of crude oil falls or rises. At worst, he could propose a clause to cover excessive price drops or increases.

He should need no reminder that in the decades when oil prices were high, Putrajaya never once offered to raise the oil royalty.

No thinking person was impressed when Abang Johari dismissed suggestions that he was abandoning former CM Adenan Satem’s pursuit of a royalty increase from 5% to 20%.

Whether it is for 20% or 95%, the talks should continue. Otherwise, Sarawakians will think Abang Johari is bending to the wishes of Putrajaya.

A Sarawakian accountant and keen observer of Sarawak politics said, “If anecdotal evidence is to be believed, Putrajaya is in big trouble. The 1MDB saga has created a serious dent in the nation’s finances. Foreign investors are more keen to pour money into projects in neighbouring nations. Moreover, the rising religious tensions in Malaysia are not helping.

“The treasury’s coffers are low, and Putrajaya depends on revenue from Sarawak oil to survive. With an election looming, the cost of running an election – but more importantly of ensuring a victory – is projected to be the highest it has ever been in Malaysian history.”

Sarawak is naturally rich. It is blessed with an abundance of oil, natural gas and other minerals as well as timber and other riches from its tropical forests. Despite this, it is the second poorest state in Malaysia, Sabah being the poorest.

Abang Johari has some hard questions to answer as the public struggles with the rising cost of living, as rural people are driven out of their ancestral lands to make way for dams and oil palm plantations, and as employers hire migrant workers in preference to the more expensive local workforce.

Why should the people of Sarawak suffer for Putrajaya’s mismanagement of the nation? The people of Sarawak deserve a fair share of their oil wealth. Their state deserves to be treated as an equal partner in Malaysia.

Abang Johari should remember that he serves Sarawakians first. He must insist on a resumption of the oil royalty talks.

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

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