HEAD of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud is still very much the same person he was as chief minister — knowledgeable, well-spoken and cautious when talking to the media during an interview in conjunction with his 80th birthday today.
As before, he spoke his mind, but one could sense the awareness of not overstepping in terms of protocol and presumably, also as a sign of respect for his successor Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem.
While staying above politics during the interview, Taib could not help but revisit the topic close to his heart — the development of Sarawak, where his focus had always been on economy and infrastructure.
His love for Sarawak is obvious and he continues to care deeply about Sarawak’s future and how the state moves forward economically.
BP: How do you describe the vast development taking place in Sarawak in the last 53 years?
Taib: The economic base in Sarawak is slowly changing. We are no longer depending on oil and traditional agriculture alone. It’s a good mix now.
Our industrialisation has taken place to enable us to diversify well but it poses a new question on how to supply manpower in the next 20 years.
Even before 2020, we are going to face shortage of middle-rung people to essentially mobilise our economy. We have industrialised to such an extent that we are able to tackle our employment situation and, in fact today, Sarawakians have spread throughout Malaysia because of their success in education.
By and large, that success is still feeding the management and that adds part of it.
The kind of technical skills that we do need in the future have yet to be developed fully. We ought to think more about middle-income workers who are essentially dependent on our development, which has now more technical contents.
So the old-style qualification needs to be revised and we have to encourage people to take up technical education. I have
been talking about technical education. We need that more and more in the future.
Most of our industrialisation is taking place in the north initially. But under SCORE (Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy), we can cover up to Tanjung Manis first before expanding to the Second Division (Sri Aman) where the population has thinned out because of the movement to respond to job opportunities.
Bintulu will be a gateway to the development of the interior. We have invested a lot in terms of developing our timber and plantation industries in the interior. And we also try to harness our hydroelectricity.
One has been completed.
Although we have a lot of oil and gas, there is a necessity to diversify more into hydropower. It may not be in the immediate future but over the long term, we have to develop that. It’s better to use our oil and gas for petrochemical industries rather than purely for energy generation.
It means that we must learn to balance energy generation and the use of oil and gas for our industries. I think it’s shaping up quite well. More and more people are moving northward and the population of Miri has never stopped growing.
BP: Will Sarawak be able to achieve developed state status by 2020?
Taib: Even on the present premise as well as size of our population, we can become a developed state by 2020. That’s not a big challenge. But that’s not the end of the story. We have to ensure we are moving upwards.
Our manpower use is going to be a challenge because we cannot move upwards if we have to import labour. That’s not going to be solved because Indonesia will be needing its own people to meet its own needs.
For instance, in our plantations, we cannot depend on the intake of workers from Indonesia.
In fact, we have allowed these workers to go back home. It’s good in a way because it hastens the pace of plantation development in Kalimantan.
And it’s also good for us because it’s not good to have a neighbour who doesn’t develop fast enough and allow the differences between us and them to become too wide. But for now, we are okay. The cross-border intake is much more productive.
We’re almost at the end of our plantation development.
Our main focus should be on industrial development in the next few years.
We concentrate more on semi-industrialisation in Bintulu — manufacturing high sophistication products into
the mid-range industrial products and seeing which developed countries can invest here. That can put us one step up the ladder.
Eventually, Sarawak will have to face the question of whether it can encourage more sophisticated industrial development — which is not that easy to attract because we are competing with developed countries. There will be less labour available except in China.
On the other hand, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are facing shortages of industrial manpower. So they can come over to Sarawak (to invest). But China is a different case as it’s trying to develop, like us, into a balanced economy. So China will expect more from others.
BP: Your comments on the interaction among the people in Sarawak?
Taib: Our education now is not only giving people more qualifications and skills but also bringing about more drift into the urban centres. For example, the Bidayuhs are now a different community. It has more industrial and commercial workers than agriculture workers.
But they are also getting efficient by adopting modern practices. I drove into the Bidayuh area and could not see any more atap homes.
Most of the homes now are very well built.
Almost two-thirds of places I visited have cars and almost all have some kind of transportation — motorcycles or even three-wheelers. There are no more problems of isolation in the Bidayuh area.
And I take the Bidayuh area because it’s a success story in the sense that the government’s programme and the development of the country have enlightened people as to where the opportunities are.
The Bidayuhs are moving into many sectors of our economy. Some have gone further to West Malaysia. But communities such as the Ibans, Orang Ulu and the Bidayuh have also made it.
They are not depending merely on what’s going on here in Sarawak but also on the opportunities to work elsewhere. So the next type of employment in Sarawak will be the technical employment we have created.
Younger people will be needed in more sophisticated industrial development. Some are going out to gain experience. I do believe a lot will come back such as those in Johor and Kuala Lumpur. And that means they will bring back some experience and expertise. So in that respect, we have no fear. Our fear is beyond 2020 when we expect shortages of labour.
BP: Your comments on the contributions of timber players to the state economy?
Taib: The timber people have invested their money in industries much more than in tourism. Somehow, they have played a dominant role and their children are much better qualified. They are not just in the timber industry. These are all the positive impacts that have changed the country.
And they don’t concentrate on Kuching alone but have spread out to other areas. Apart from Kuching which, in time, will become important as a commercial centre, development in other areas under SCORE will also be accelerated. But that
does not mean places like the Second Division (Sri Aman) will not be getting any development.
We have to start more agro-based industries there because it has a lot of land to be developed. Probably, we have to look at our land use — whether we have to move some of the national parks which are too near highly populated areas while some lands are not properly developed.
BP: Are you still in touch with your old friends?
Taib: I mean to. I have a lot of them. It’s not easy to be completely free for social purposes. But I’m beginning to do it.
I have begun to look for friends but I still want to keep my interests in developing Sarawak — at least, the understanding of it so that when people ask for my advice and views, or when I go out to meet the people, at least, I know how to focus their attention to where the opportunities are.
BP: You are seen as the architect of modern Sarawak…
Taib: I don’t want to be looked upon as the architect of modern Sarawak. I was forced into Sarawak’s politics. I mean if you are involved in Sarawak’s politics for 50 years and as the CM for over 30 years, you’re bound to know things like the back of your hand.
As Governor, I don’t interfere with the government’s policies. But this does crop up from time to time from my interactions with government officers.
So I have to have my own views. I have to have some ability to contribute to the understanding of Sarawak’s development. If I have it, then good. If they don’t have it, I don’t mind to share it.
BP: Sarawak is known to be strict in giving out state awards.
Taib: Put it this way — I think Sarawak has been very strict in this respect, and so getting a Sarawak datukship is something people really feel for and appreciate.
Sarawak awards are one of the most sought after because we’re strict. This makes the awards more valuable.
You have to be strict. That’s my personal view — except for honorary awards where the basis is narrow in terms of our relationships with outsiders.
But my view about giving awards is essentially to reward people who have done a lot for the country. And that should serve as an inspiration to the recipients to set good examples — and for people aspiring to do good, there’s every chance their good work will be appreciated and recognised by the state.
BP: After helming the state for 33 years, you must have a special place in your heart for Sarawak. How do you describe your relationship with the state?
Taib: Put it this way. If you adopt a child — no need to say your own children — and live with the child for so long, you can’t help but love the child, isn’t it?
So what more to say about a state that gives so much for you to look forward to. I’m very proud of Sarawak because I saw it lacing its own shoestrings over the past 53 years.
I remember when I was made a full minister in 1963, we had a deficit of RM10 million. And most of us were worried about how not to get too deep into debt.
We tried to get the federal government to give more attention to Sarawak. And the sympathy from Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak was more than what we thought (we would get).
Sarawak has been looked upon as a new addition to the family and probably in a family that is quite prosperous. You tend to say okay since you want all your children to be prosperous, so Sarawak and Sabah got a lot of attention.
But how much attention you will give and how much will manifest itself is a question that must be looked at — crucially, what needs to be done is to make the country safe, united and progressive.
Sarawak spends a lot of money on security. Rascom (Rajang Area Security Command), for example. I think if all the money poured into Rascom was instead poured into development, that would have had a tremendous effect on especially the Third Division (Sibu Division). But that was it — different situations required different solutions.
We happened to form Malaysia with a lot of problems due mainly to security. Comparatively, Sabah was free from such problems. For Sabah, it was straightforward help for development from the federal government.
For the federal government, Sabah was an ‘easier baby’ to look after than Sarawak when we formed Malaysia. Because of that, the federal government could not spend as much as it would have liked on development in Sarawak because it had to spend more on security.
I know all these things but at the same time, I also know the federal government spent as much as it could on Sarawak. So security expenditure in the early days was not reflected in Sarawak’s budget. We only asked for development mainly.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the federal government’s efforts in getting Sarawak to where it is today.
In the early days — until we resolved the communist underground problem in 1973 — the rate of development wasn’t as good as what we had wanted. However, we saw the concentration on basic infrastructure that would influence Sarawak’s development.
We never gave up or slowed down the construction of roads.
We built roads in the most essential form, and even completed one leading all the way to Miri within three years after Malaysia. That, to me, was quite good. But then, it was only a trunk road.
People didn’t respond to what the British had expected right in the middle of nowhere. So what happened was we had a road running through an almost empty land for a long time simply because it happened to fulfil a need for communication.
But from the viewpoint of opening up land — which is essential for building roads —this was not fulfilled immediately.
One thing was to build roads where there was more land, then people could cultivate. Therefore, we had a lot of empty land for quite some time before roads were seen to be serving their development-related purposes.
Peter Sibon & Lian Cheng, email@example.com