“When God gives me a new lease of life, he must be trying to drop a message to give me a hint of what I have to do” - Chief Minister of Sarawak Adenan Satem
When Adenan Satem stepped into Abdul Taib Mahmud’s shoes as chief minister of Sarawak, few expected him to be more than a stopgap for the emergence of more ambitious and pushy politicians in Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the dominant party in the state.
The fact that Taib had not relinquished power but had moved into the position of governor seemed to indicate that the state’s post-colonial ‘White Rajah’ would be pulling the strings; and that Adenan would serve as a doormat leader.
Add to this the concern over Adenan’s health following his heart surgery in 2012 and it is not surprising that most analysts were predicting little or no change in the status quo with regard to the East Malaysian state in its relations with an Umno-dominated federal government, or the way in which the state’s interests have been ravaged by the alleged kleptocratic rule of the previous state government.
As the nation mourns his death it is clear that what Adenan did with his new lease of life is nothing short of extraordinary.
His achievements in his short span of three years as chief minister place him at the topmost rung of our nation's leaders with even his most staunch political enemies hailing his governance reforms and regretting his untimely demise.
Adenan was much more than a Sarawak leader. He has set the bench mark and shown the way for the rest of the nation's leaders on the true measure of leadership in at least four important ways.
In his own state, he embarked on a series of policy reforms from restrictions in timber concession licences to abandonment of the controversial Baram Dam project, recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate for admission in the state’s public universities and civil service and other sensible measures.
All the states in the peninsula, and in Sabah, can learn from Adenan's reforms in the state which are based on the interests of the rakyat, accountable government and transparency.
Secondly, by moving quickly and decisively on the devolution of federal power to the state in accordance with the 1963 agreement, he helped to defuse pro-separatist sentiments which have been growing in the state.
His reminder on various public occasions for the federal government - eg: “We are not happy. I can tell you we are not happy, with the present arrangement... I told the prime minister himself, I do not want, in the coming general election, to be seen defending the federal government if they do not concede, if they do not give us concessions on our requests” - will serve as a reference point for Sarawak-Putrajaya relations whichever government comes into power at the state and federal level in the next election.
The importance of inclusion
Thirdly, by his actions he has shown that it is possible to uphold the legitimate interests of minority communities and to resist playing up to racial and religious concerns. His public pronouncements on the importance of inclusion and defence of so-called pendatang communities have undoubtedly shamed and silenced purveyors of the ketuanan doctrine previously emboldened by the absence of challenge by opportunistic politicians.
Finally, but not least of all in importance, is his reputation for non-corruptibility and refusal to use his office for personal gain and enrichment.
Adenan fought for justice and good governance. He fought for peace and unity .
In doing so, he sacrificed his health and shortened a life span which could have been extended by a lot more years had he chosen to stay outside the political fray.
The country’s politicians should honour this great Malaysian by ensuring that the battles he fought end with victory.
LIM TECK GHEE is a former World Bank senior social scientist, whose report on bumiputera equity when he was director of Asli's Centre for Public Policy Studies sparked controversy in 2006. He is now CEO of the Centre for Policy Initiatives.