Sarawak started getting the attention it truly deserved during Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration.
So said a former MP from the state, Tan Sri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, who added that many Sarawakians still appreciated the former prime minister and Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman, who is serving a 12-year jail sentence for corruption linked to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
On Tuesday, Najib, 70, was sent to hospital from prison after testing positive for Covid-19.
“Until (Tan Sri) Abang Johari (Openg) became chief minister (now known as ‘Premier’), the state had been largely ignored. No one cared about Sarawak, until Najib became prime minister,” said Wan Junaidi, who is the Dewan Negara president, in a recent exclusive interview with Twentytwo13.
“Najib not only came with the money, but he also came personally. If I am not mistaken, (former prime minister Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) in his 22 years as PM, only visited Sarawak about five or six times. Najib, during his nine years (as prime minister), visited Sarawak 61 times.”
“We know Najib had a soft spot for Sarawakians … whether it was genuine or political.”
BN’s downfall started at the 2008 general election. Following the coalition’s poor performance, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stepped down as prime minister, and Najib took over in 2009. Najib too, was forced to quit after BN were handed a humiliating defeat at the 2018 General Election. The coalition was booted out of the federal government for the first time after being in power for six decades.
“Maybe Najib was motivated by the fact that Umno was losing support, so he needed our (Gabungan Parti Sarawak) support as we were solid in Sarawak. But that’s immaterial. He still came, not just with what Sarawakians call ‘air liur basi’ (mere words)… but he came with tangible improvements, for example, the UTCs (Urban Transformation Centres). Sarawakians are very happy with the UTC, till today.”
Urban Transformation Centres were Najib’s brainchild. The idea was to house different government agencies under one roof to ease the service delivery process and to cut red tape and bureaucracy. Strategically located nationwide, UTCs offer various services, such as the application of identification cards, passports, road tax, and licence renewals.
Najib had also set aside funds for the Pan Borneo Highway, and his efforts were acknowledged by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, during his Kembara Kenali Borneo tour in September.
“Every trip that he (Najib) made to Sarawak, he gave (something) … even if it was a small thing. Sarawakians are very appreciative of Najib until today because he was real, as far as we are concerned. Not like Dr Mahathir (when he was prime minister), and even Ahmad Badawi, who, during his short term, only came for functions and didn’t offer anything solid.”
Wan Junaidi admitted that the lack of attention to the state since it became a part of Malaysia in 1963, had caused a little bit of resentment.
“Sarawakians felt they were being marginalised.”
“But over the years, Sarawak became a bit more vocal. Najib also encouraged this as well, because he was the one who created the committee to look into MA63 (Malaysia Agreement 1963) in 2016. It was co-chaired by (Datuk Seri) Nancy (Shukri) and (Datuk Seri) Anifah Aman. The committee was formed in 2016, but in 2018, when Pakatan Harapan (PH) came into power, (then) prime minister (Dr Mahathir) took over as chair. Later, (during Datuk Seri) Ismail Sabri’s (Yaakob) time, it was chaired by someone else,” he said.
Nancy was the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, while Anifah was the foreign minister when they co-chaired the committee in 2016.
MA63 had set several terms under which Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore would come together with Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore, however, left the federation in 1965. The autonomy granted to Sabah and Sarawak under MA63 has since been diluted, much to the displeasure of Sabahans and Sarawakians.
Wan Junaidi highlighted that Nancy and Anifah had solved several administrative issues, which Najib agreed with, in 2016 and 2017. He added that the abolition of the draconian Internal Security Act during Najib’s time in office had somehow contributed to Sarawakians being more ‘vocal’.
“Even the government became more open, and accepted people with different opinions, voices, and ideas. This made it (the discussions) more open to the public. But some in Peninsular Malaysia thought we (Sarawakians) were becoming more ‘demanding’. We were not. We were merely asking for our rights, accorded in MA63, to be honoured. MA63 was shrouded in ‘mystery’ for the longest time and the federal government made use of that mystery, the shadow, the silence, by not honouring it, and eroding what had already been agreed to.
“We have become more knowledgeable, and we know our rights. We cannot be blamed for talking about it today, asking for it (our rights) to be given to us. West Malaysians must also understand that it has been our right since 1963. We are only asking for our rights because the government has not voluntarily given them to us.”
PH’s reign following GE 2018 ended after 22 months. Political infighting saw several changes in leadership, culminating in the general election held on Nov 19 last year. Following a hung Parliament, PH joined forces with BN and several other political parties to form a so-called ‘unity government’. Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof was made deputy prime minister –cementing his name in the history books as the first Sarawakian to hold the post.
When asked if he was happy with the progress in Sarawak today, Wan Junaidi replied: “Yes, I’m quite happy … since Najib’s time, I’ve been happy. I can’t blame Pakatan Harapan as they are all new.”