Shafie Apdal’s challenges in Sabah

Keeping cool seems to be one of Shafie’s Apdal positive traits. In the rough and tumble world of Sabah politics, you need more than strength of character to maintain your poise in public. His soft-spoken demeanour should not be taken as a sign of weakness. When push comes to shove, many Sabahans are confident that Shafie will make the right decisions in the interest of the state.

Going against Najib Razak and all the might of the government already showed what kind of person he is. Not many would have been willing to give up the comfort of their positions to confront Najib. While the former trio of leaders from Sabah – Pandikar Mulia, Salleh Keruak, and Rahman Dahlan – defended Najib’s misdeeds and let Sabahans down, the diminutive Shafie went against the tide to speak out on the massive corruption at 1MDB. We should not forget that Shafie and Muhyiddin Yassin’s open defiance on the 1MDB issue triggered the downfall of Najib’s corrupt administration. The rest is history.

Shafie’s appointment as chief minister is being challenged by the former Barisan Nasional (BN) chief minister Musa Aman. But the legal challenge has not deterred Shafie from taking full control of the state and getting down to business. Many are of the view that Musa’s challenge is purely academic and, as Shafie has reiterated several times, his appointment was in accordance with the laws and the state constitution. This is the second time Sabah has been down this road, the first being in 1994.

With the crossing over of Upko members from the BN coalition, Shafie has the numbers to rule the state with a simple majority. In the first sitting of the state assembly under the new government, Shafie could consolidate his position by the state assembly passing a vote of confidence. Alternatively, he could call a snap election and win handsomely now that the Election Commission’s shenanigans have been exposed.

One of his promises to Sabahans was that elected representatives would not become the chairmen of statutory bodies and government-linked companies (GLC) as they need to focus on their service to the people. This is a good move as many YBs see such appointments as perks rather than the responsibility to help improve the performance of the organisation.

In the past, YBs played the executive chairman role and interfered with the day-to-day operations of the company. Most of the board of directors were also political appointees who did not contribute much in terms of ideas or expertise during board meetings.

There are 61 GLCs in Sabah that will be administered by individuals whom the people can trust to shoulder the responsibility well and effectively, Shafie said. The challenge is to find the 61 people of integrity who can live up to the position of trust.

Another of Shafie’s major announcements was the ban on the export of round logs. Sabahans applaud the move as timber has always benefited a handful few, cronies to the past chief ministers in power. Shafie said there were serious decisions to be made concerning the logging industry in Sabah, and that he had to put his foot down in the best interests of the people. He added that this should have been done a long time ago. Shafie’s move will cut out the massive corruption in timber logging that has continued wantonly over the years, and will benefit the downstream activities.

One of the controversial decisions Shafie made for himself was to hold the finance minister’s portfolio as well. This did not go down well with the general public, and a petition was organised to send the message to Shafie to relinquish the post. The people’s concerns were well founded, based on previous alleged abuse in the case of Najib and Musa who held the portfolio of finance minister in addition to their positions as prime minister and chief minister respectively. Shafie has answered his critics by saying he needs to understand the nitty gritty details of the state’s finances, and that holding the position temporarily will help him understand the financial health of the state.

Shafie has already hinted of the massive debt at Yayasan Sabah, and has cast doubts on the RM4 billion reserves which are supposed to be in the state treasury. Based on his initial statement on Sabah’s financial health, Shafie has a lot of work to do to put the state back into the black. The challenges are not dissimilar to those of Lim Guan Eng when opening the Pandora’s box as the federal finance minister.

It takes time to do a thorough audit and get the state machinery working again. The abuse of the past and the dead wood must go, especially in organisations like Yayasan Sabah where one person close to Musa controlled the whole organisation, by-passing the formal structure and causing fear among the staff.

The concerns about Shafie holding the finance minister’s post are understandable, but this fear may be premature. With the “bare all” type of government already in place, there is less chance of abuse. Everything will be scrutinised by the general public and shared on social media for all to see. In the meantime, it is only fair to give Shafie a chance to do his job and prove his worth.

Joe Samad is an FMT columnist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.