Sarawak has upped the ante in its fight with Putrajaya for a greater share of the oil and gas resources mined in the state when it froze the issuance of work permits for new non-Sarawakian staff Petronas had hired over the national oil company’s alleged discriminatory hiring policy.
The decision, well within its rights under the Malaysia Agreement, will surely not go down well with those who think Sarawak should not have a large chunk in the share over the two raw materials that could rake in billions of ringgit when prices are good even though they are mined in the state.
Nor would it go well with the hawks in Putrajaya who are against Sarawak being an autonomous state.
The Sarawak government’s freeze decision came after a state-sponsored think-tank group Suarah Petroleum Group (SPG) claimed the national oil company had hired hundreds of new staff from the peninsular at the expense of Sarawakians.
They reportedly had been hired to fill new positions in Petronas’ upstream gas operation — the Train 9 liquefied natural gas (LNG) operations and its Floating LNG Satu facility.
SPG’s grievance was why hire hundreds of new staff from Peninsular Malaysia when they are retrenching their Sarawakian staff at the same time.
The state government intervened while at the same time demand Petronas give answers.
The demand for an increase in “what is ours” from the current 5% to 20% and a greater say on Petronas’ operation in Sarawak are all tied to the state’s demand for the return of the state’s constitutional rights in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 that been eroded over the years.
Petronas probably bore the brunt of the state’s anger because as it might be seen as an extension of the federal government.
It has also been accused of being strongly against Sarawak’s royalty increase demand.
Sarawak’s toughening stance in dealing with the royalty and autonomy talks has politicians on both sides of the state’s political divide accusing Petronas of treating Sarawak like its little fiefdom to plunder.
BN politicians, who in the past would rather stay muted, have suddenly found their voices in the growing row.
One of them is Assistant Housing Minister Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah who was reported by a local newspaper as being overjoyed with the freeze.
“Petronas must know that their political master is not just the federal government, but the state government too,” Karim was quoted as saying.
He went to say Petronas’ hiring policy was an insult to Sarawak.
“Sarawakians had been insulted by Petronas for too long”, he was quoted as saying, and that has to be stopped.
The freeze move was probably unexpected and something no one, including Putrajaya, had expected.
After all, not too long ago such actions by the two Borneo states on the powers that be in Putrajaya would be construed as anti-federal and therefore subversive political activities which would invite unwanted repercussions.
Just ask Sabah politician Datuk Dr Jefferey Kitingan who had the now repealed draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) thrown at him allegedly for speaking on Sabah’s rights in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder questions are also being asked now how much patience Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has in Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem and how is he going to handle the issue with an increasingly confrontational old man.
Would he look for some laws to throw him in jail like what former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad did to Kitingan or handle him with a velvet glove?
Only last week, Adenan had warned Putrajaya that the royalty talks, and more importantly the return of Sarawak’s lost rights, must show results or risk the Barisan Nasional losing in the 14th general election in the state.
That must be food for thought for Najib, already preoccupied with tip-toeing around the 1MDB minefield, and fighting for his political survival.
He and his closest aides must decipher the cryptic message in the warning and see if that warning is good enough to give some concessions.
The ball is now in Najib’s court.