Column - Abang Johari’s huge challenge

DATUK Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg has suddenly been catapulted to the position of being Malaysia's "man of the hour".

Although he's one of the most senior politicians in Sarawak, his name hardly rings a bell outside the state's borders, largely because he is not the type who makes blunt or controversial remarks or one whom hard-nosed reporters would regard as their darling.

The new Sarawak chief minister, who took over the hot seat a week ago following the death of Tan Sri Adenan Satem, faces a huge challenge as every political pundit agrees that he has large – too large in fact – shoes to fill.

That's what happens to all political leaders who succeed a predecessor whose performance had been par excellence and who made such a great impact after hardly three years in office like Adenan did.

During the over three-decade-long administration of Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, now the yang di-pertua negri, Abang Johari's name had always been on everyone's lips as Taib's successor should he step down which he finally did in 2014.

It's mainly because he was the deputy president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the dominant party in the ruling state Barisan Nasional coalition. But it was not to be in 2014 when Taib hand-picked Adenan as his anointed successor although at the time Adenan was not even a party vice-president. He was only the party's information chief.

But that's the peculiarity of Sarawak's succession dynamics which runs in stark contrast to the practice of parties like Umno where the deputy president always succeeds the president as prime minister so far when the change of guard takes place.

In Sarawak, the BN has a caucus comprising all state assemblymen and members of both houses of Parliament tasked with appointing who shall be chief minister when the need arises.

But the caucus was not called into session in 2014 when Taib quit and neither did it meet this time around when Adenan died from heart complications on Jan 11.

In 2014, all leaders of the state BN unanimously agreed to Taib's hand-picked successor bypassing the question of seniority in PBB's hierarchy; when Abang Johari was appointed the chief minister last week, the seniority clause was invoked, and apparently with Taib's blessing.

Taib's choice of Adenan as chief minister turned out to be a master-stroke for the latter was for all intents and purposes a brilliant and extraordinary leader for Sarawak. The only concern in everyone's mind was his poor health. He had for the past four years been using a pacemaker to stabilise his heartbeat to which he succumbed.

In my conversations with some top people in Sarawak's corridors of power, I was told that Adenan had been pushing himself too hard, work-wise, for someone with such a heart condition.

He had had a punishing time campaigning during last May's state election with his battle cry of appealing to Sarawakians to give him a fresh mandate and that he wanted to be chief minister for another five years only and no more.

His efforts paid off when the BN was returned to power with a thumping victory that reversed the losses of many seats in the previous election under Taib.

Within a short time after taking over from Taib, he implemented a slew of policies that were not thought of during the 33 years Taib was chief minister and even changed many of Taib's policies.

For example, he immediately ordered a total freeze on the issuance of logging licences and came down hard on illegal logging and scolded Immigration Department officers for closing one eye on illegal immigrants entering the state.

He fought very hard during negotiations with the federal government over devolution of administrative powers to the state. He had remarked that Sarawak was not a state in Malaysia but had the same status as Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah because the three entities formed Malaysia.

He repeated this in a speech telecast live on television nationwide during the Malaysia Day celebration last Sept 16 in Bintulu in the presence of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak.

I had breakfast with him and his wife at the hotel that morning and it was the last time that I met him.

To the credit of the federal government, Adenan got most of what he sought for which he did all for the sake of restoring the state's rights as per the Malaysia Agreement.

He was the only one among all the politicians of the ruling BN who had no qualms about calling a spade a spade and he did not play to the gallery.

It was a culture shock for some people when he criticised the national education policy of sidelining English, which was once the medium of instruction in our schools. He described such a policy as "stupid".

He barred politicians with extremist views on race and religion – irrespective of who they were – from entering Sarawak during last year's state election. He did not want them "polluting" the pristine state of racial and religious harmony that's a way of life in the state.

As a result, a number of politicians did not get past the immigration counters while Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali was asked to leave after making a campaign speech.

But to Azmin's credit, he bore no grudges for the rough treatment. He flew in to Kuching on the Wednesday news of Adenan's death broke out and went to Adenan's house to pay his last respects.

On hindsight, it is obvious that Adenan was in a hurry to get things done despite his failing health as he knew that he was living on borrowed time with his heart condition and the five years that he craved for, sadly lasted only six months.

This triggered such an outpouring of grief especially from netizens and tears flowed on the cheeks of many people I saw during the entire night I was at his house on the day of his passing.

The Malay Mail summed up spot on the endless tributes for Adenan with this banner headline: "There will not be another Adenan Satem".

What of Abang Johari? Can he fill the big shoes left by Adenan dubbed by many as the best chief minister Sarawak ever had?

I have known Abang Johari from even before he became a politician some 30 years ago and there's no doubt in my mind, as a fellow Sarawakian, that with so much experience in the state cabinet and having been through the rough and tumble of Sarawak politics, he will prove to be a worthy successor.

True to the lyrics of the evergreen Frank Sinatra song My Way, for Abang Johari the watchword will be, "I'll do it my way".