The successor to the powerful Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, 74 has yet to be resolved. The increasingly frail Taib has been in office for 28 years, the longest term of any chief minister or menteri besar in the history of Malaysia.
Taib's son Sulaiman has been mooted as the most likely candidate. This would continue the mini-dynasty established by the minority Melanau ethnic group, beginning with Taib's uncle and predecessor Abdul Rahman Ya'kub.
The Melanau make up barely five percent of the population of Sarawak. Their political and economic dominance has caused deep divisions, even within Taib's (right) own dominant party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Sarawak (PBB).
Iban, Malay and Bidayuh, making up 34 percent, 21 percent and eight percent of Sarawak's population respectively, resent the accumulation of vast wealth within Taib's own family and ethnic group. Rahman was Sarawak's third Chief Minister from 1970 to 1981. He and his nephew Taib presided over a sustained period of rapid expansion of logging, resulting in deforestation and logging blockades.
Income disparities in Sarawak have ballooned, and are now among the worst in Malaysia. High profile reports of human rights abuses, including the loss of Native Customary Rights (NCR) land of the indigenous Dayak, and sexual abuse of local communities by loggers, have drawn international condemnation.
Taib has found it difficult to shrug off reports of alleged nepotism and corruption. These include a story broken by Malaysiakini detailing RM32 million worth of kickbacks paid by Japanese timber importing companies to a Hong Kong agent allegedly linked to Taib, and a report of his daughter Jamilah's purchase of a 'palace', the second most expensive house in Ottawa, Canada, worth RM28 million.
Taib has sued Malaysiakini over its special report on the Japanese timber import scandal, described as 'the tip of the iceberg', but has been unable to silence outrage both at home and abroad.
CM needs a supportive successor
Amidst such controversy, Taib must be extremely careful with the choice of his successor. The next chief minister must be loyal, and protect Taib and his family, both from any possible legal consequences, and from the vagaries of the free market.
Taib's family dominates Sarawak's economy through the Cahaya Mata Sarawak (CMS) conglomerate. CMS, widely disparaged as 'Chief Minister and Sons', makes money from a huge range of industries, ranging from cement to road maintenance to the posh international Tunku Putra school in Kuching.
Taib's heir apparent, Sulaiman, entered Parliament by winning his father's old seat, Kota Samarahan in 2008. The PBB Youth vice-president was immediately elevated to Tourism Deputy Minister.
Sulaiman (left) resigned from the federal cabinet over a month ago, creating speculation that he could not work with Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen. Ng denied they could not see eye to eye.Sulaiman did not explain his abrupt resignation, but Taib later announced that "he was not very happy and a bit upset" over his mother's death from lung cancer last April.
Some observers still maintain Sulaiman is next in line to succeed his father. They wonder whether he may have resigned in order to contest a state seat in Sarawak's upcoming State Assembly elections. However, Sulaiman certainly has significant baggage in tow.. He has been dogged by controversy.
In 2003, national news reports that he had assaulted a television news presenter, Avaa Vanja Ramli. Reports splashed across the front pages outlined allegations that he had beaten and strangled the young woman. She was said to have described him as "her boyfriend" in her police report. The case was subsequently closed by the Attorney General's office.
Sulaiman did not win admirers, too, for his lacklustre performance as executive chair of RHB Bank, beginning in 2003. He was reported to have had little enthusiasm for attending board meetings and was widely derided for attempting to change the bank's name to 'CMS Bank'.
He was eventually removed as chairperson by Bank Negara, an unprecedented move in Malaysian banking.
"How can he run a state if he could not even run a bank?" asked one political observer. Unlike his strongman father, Sulaiman does not command much grassroots political support, as evidenced by Sulaiman's relatively humble post in the PBB party structure.
In fact, credible candidates to take over the PBB president's position, and therefore the chief minister's post, as is the custom in Sarawak BN, appear thin on the ground.
Awang Tengah Ali Hassan, Second Minister for Planning and Resource Management, appears to be another frontrunner. Awang Tengah is Taib's powerful right hand man, in matters of land acquisition and awarding of lucrative licences and land in the logging, plantation and other industries.
Awang Tengah (left) has drawn criticism for telling NCR landowners they can be expelled from their land at the state government's discretion, and for asking the Auditor General to change his department's annual 2008 report, alleging poor forestry management and enforcement..
PBB deputy presidents Alfred Jabu and Abang Johari Openg are not likely to ascend to the chief minister's post. Alfred Jabu is not considered to have the political mind for the job.
Abang Johari (right) is considered divisive in the Malay-Dayak-Melanau party as he is seen to represent the Malay faction in the party. Malays resent Melanau dominance of the economy, and most rural Malays remain poor and disenfranchised.
Whoever takes over as chief minister will have to struggle with Sarawak's stagnant economy, depleted natural resources, and primitive race-based politics. Perhaps the choice of any particular individual personality as Taib's successor will not prove as important, in the long term, as the new, stumbling efforts to reform Sarawak's moribund political culture, and deep rooted corruption in its economic life.
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - 'anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia'. His weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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