PETALING JAYA: A prominent Sabahan businessman has called for the kind of political leadership that is reminiscent of former chief minister Harris Salleh, whom he regards as the overseer of the “golden era” of the state’s economic development.
Speaking to FMT, ex-banker John Lo said the person who becomes chief minister after the Sept 26 state election must, like Harris, know how to manage Sabah’s resources and organise its economy.
Harris was chief minister from 1976 to 1985. Lo called him a visionary leader and gave him credit for the development of the tourism, oil and gas industries and an acceleration in agricultural development.
“He started Sabah Forest Industries, embarked on major projects in Labuan and he left the state with reserves of RM2.5 billion, which was a lot in those days.”
Lo, who has been involved in various business organisations, said the next chief minister would need a new economic model for the state.
“Sabah’s economy has not been doing well, even before Covid-19,” he said. “Politicians are focusing too much on politics and not providing economic leadership.”
He noted that Sabah was rich in resources and said there was no reason for many of its people to continue living in poverty and for the state to have the highest graduate unemployment rate in the country.
He said the next government must create employment and investment opportunities for Sabahans, pointing out that Sabah is the country’s largest producer of palm oil but that 90% of the plantations are owned by outsiders.
“We must regain control over the economy by empowering the people and putting the state first,” he added.
Noting that oil palms occupy about 1.4 million hectares in the state, he proposed giving incentives to plantation owners to designate land for food production.
“The state can give them a discount on the assessment tax for carving out a certain amount of land for certain agricultural activities,” he said. “This can be a form of corporate social responsibility for the plantations.
“The plantations can then work with local entrepreneurs to cultivate high value crops for export. Even if just 1% of the total land is designated for this purpose, we can increase food production, lower costs and increase revenues.”
He also said there was a need for Sabah to diversify its sources of revenue as it was now too reliant on natural resources.
Economist Firdausi Suffian of Sabah UiTM also spoke of the need for economic reform, saying this should be done through industrialisation.
For the past five years, he said, natural resources accounted for 56% of all exports whereas industrial activities contributed only 7.3% to the gross domestic product.
“Exporting too much does not help the state,” he said. “We have limited downstream industries. We do have a downstream industry for oil and gas, but it is small.”
He noted that Sabah was a large importer of food, saying this was despite its being big on agriculture.
“We have seafood, but manufacturing activities are outside of Sabah,” he said.
“The economic reality is that we need to industrialise the state. Whichever party comes into power must place structural economic reform through industrialisation as a high priority.”
He praised the state for coming up with an agricultural blueprint focusing on downstream industries.