A ‘New Deal’ for Sarawak

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By Liew Chin Tong

A New Deal for Sarawak – through devolution of education, health, municipal policing and transport powers, backed by much higher tax sharing between federal and Sarawak governments (say, 50 per cent of income taxes collected in the state) – should be the central campaign theme for the upcoming state election which is likely to be called within days.

The 2016 state election is set against increasing antipathy among Sarawakians towards the national leadership under Prime Minister Najib Razak. There is also the much older, deep-seated hostility against Umno.

Understandably, many in the state feel Putrajaya is extracting precious resources and taxes from Sarawak, then squandering these in the most extravagant and outrageous manner while they continue to live in misery and poverty besides putting up with slow development.

However, despite being hugely unpopular, the Najib Federal Government is jealously guarding its highly centralised structure with no readiness to rethink how powers can be devolved to the states to empower democratic participation of locals in public policies. Devolving powers can help to ensure that the nation holds together and does not provide grounds for potential separatism.

Najib’s only recipe for Sarawak is his already well-known “cash is king” modus operandi. In his nearly fifty visits to Sarawak since becoming Prime Minister in April 2009, it was all about splashing federal money to various projects which, as usual, benefitted the contractors more than the purported beneficiaries on the ground.

Adenan’s popularity

In contrast, Chief Minister Adenan Satem, who succeeded Taib Mahmud in 2014, is quite popular. His relaxed style, less political baggage in terms of nepotistic practices, and his many popular pronouncements, has endeared him to the electorate. In essence, Adenan became an instant idol in Sarawak by being neither a “Taib” nor a “Najib/Umno.”

Adenan was initially pursuing the devolution/decentralisation agenda but sensing that the Federal Government is more stubborn than he thought, he has recently been spending more time playing with fire. He is tapping into the anti-Putrajaya hostility which has been reinterpreted as anti-Malaya parties, and, when it reaches the ground, it is more like “anti anything from West Malaysia”. Hence, the upsurge of the sentiment “Sarawak for Sarawakians.”

However, deporting or banning Opposition politicians from the Peninsula would not help the cause of empowering Sarawakians. Likewise, giving Adenan a landslide win at the state election won’t mean Najib’s Federal Government would do anything to change the lives of ordinary Sarawakians for the better.

Winning extra seats for Opposition

Politically, for the sake of Sarawakians in general, allowing the Opposition to win a few more seats than they have now would push Adenan to rethink his allegiance to Najib at the federal level. Adenan controls 25 federal Parliamentary seats which are highly important in the high stakes struggle to remove Najib.

DAP won 12 seats and PKR 3 in the 2011 state election. If the Opposition can win at least 20 seats in total in the expanded legislature (from 71 to 82 seats), Najib may not survive for too long.

Therefore, those who want Najib to go have to get ready to participate in the wider Sarawak election debate.

Can the removal of Najib offer a New Deal for Sarawak? Will such a new deal make a difference to ordinary Sarawakians? Will devolution of powers to the State be abused and benefit only existing power elites?

A New Deal for Sarawak should be about delivering many Sarawakians from their constantly poor and disempowered state. As Adenan has failed to nudge Najib to grant Sarawak more autonomous authority, he has very little serious agenda to offer in the state election apart from his own charm.

I sense that he is more vulnerable than previously thought. Had he gone into the election a year ago before the GST (Goods and Services Tax) was implemented and before his “autonomy” agenda was thrown out the window by Najib after several rounds of negotiations, he would have won a landslide victory.

The economy on the ground is really in a bad shape. Many are adversely affected by the GST. Some are also affected by job losses from the oil and gas industry in Bintulu and Miri. Even if Najib is to concede to a higher share of oil royalty during the state election to shore up support for Adenan, oil revenue from low oil prices amounts to very little.

Give states more power

It’s time for Malaysia to re-imagine our federation with the intention to give more power to the states, in particular Sarawak and Sabah.

If 50 per cent of income tax collected in Sarawak is handed to the Sarawak State Government, the new fiscal arrangement will encourage the state from relying less on extractive industries for income such as land sales, timber, oil and gas etc, which in turn is good for the environment and sustainability.

The new design will help the state be more focussed in getting quality growth and also better distribution as the more companies and taxpayers pay taxes, the better it is for the State Government. In order to get Sarawakians to pay tax, they have to be helped to gain the capacity to reach the stage in which they can excel.

Ultimately, even after sharing half of its income taxes collected, the Federal Government will collect more taxes if the economy is at a much higher level than it is now. At the same time, the taxes shared with the state are meant for the state to manage and provide education, healthcare, transport and municipal policing which will allow Sarawakians more control over their lives and destinies.

Such areas are purviews of the states in many countries which practice federalism, such as Australia and India, which Malaysia borrowed its institutional framework from. Indeed, the Sarawak State Government used to control its schools up until the 1970s.

Devolution and democracy

Will such arrangements give rise to state-level despots? My response is that even without such devolution, Sarawak has been run by despots of sorts for decades.

Devolution works best in genuine democracies. The ideal new Malaysia shall be a genuine democracy in which press freedom, freedom to voice opinion, freedom to assemble are guaranteed; the judiciary is incorruptible and just; the anti-corruption institution is free of political interference; and the electoral system is free and fair. And a genuine democracy that can be on guard against despots is better than an authoritarian regime.

Sarawak DAP proposed some of the ideas above in its Bintulu Declaration in October 2014 and it is the time to argue about these with more rigour. But a New Deal with Sarawak is urgently needed and shall not just come from DAP.

Everyone who wants Najib to go shall ask themselves before the state election what they can offer to ordinary Sarawakians that would bring lasting goodwill, as well as a better economy and a better quality of life. Everyone who wants the Prime Minister to go should pay serious attention to this upcoming Sarawak election. Only sincere and genuine devolution of powers to Sarawak, within the context of democracy, can hold the nation together for the better.

Liew Chin Tong is DAP National Political Education Director and MP for Kluang.

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