Modernising Sarawak’s agri sector
John Teo 
Idris recently quelled Sarawak media speculation that he would be appointed to the Petros board

One of the earliest political battle-cries in Sarawak coined in the early years of Malaysia that has resonated anew these days was “Sarawak for Sarawakians”. Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg has lately been casting about for qualified Sarawakians to fill various key appointments created in the wake of a series of new state agencies tasked to drive his ambitious economic agenda.

The chief minister recently announced the appointment of local-born retired banker Sim Kheng Boon as CEO of the Development Bank of Sarawak which is expected to begin operations in the new year.

Abang Johari also revealed the names for the board of the state-owned Petroleum Sarawak Bhd (Petros), headed by former State Secretary Tan Sri Hamid Bugo. The new company will spearhead the state’s foray into the oil and gas industry.

The list of well qualified and battle-tested Sarawakians cannot be very long and Abang Johari ought to cast his net far and wide to pick the very best to ease the huge challenges his economic vision and the strategies to go with it necessarily entail. Indeed, he must not restrict himself only to the best qualified Sarawakians to aid him through the tasks ahead. The best available candidates ought to be signed up regardless of whether he or she is from Sarawak.


Federal minister

What is perhaps somewhat puzzling is why such a celebrated Sarawak-born corporate titan turned federal minister as Datuk Seri Idris Jala has not been pressed into service on behalf of his home state despite the years he has made a splash nationally in spearheading the national economic transformation drive.

Idris currently retains his role as the president and CEO of the federal government’s Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) despite giving up his ministerial post after serving the maximum duration allowed as a senator.

A native from the Bario Highlands, Idris will add powerfully to the Highland Development Agency (HDA) the state government has just created recently, even in a purely advisory capacity. As well, given his corporate background and experience in the oil and gas industry, he should be able to contribute positively to Petros.

A person of Idris’ proven corporate calibre and technocratic savvy (which included a stint leading the turnaround of Malaysia Airlines) and exposure at the highest levels of the nation’s governance brings to the table rare and invaluable insights and expertise which the state should usefully tap for the strategic economic direction the state can and should take.

Idris recently quelled Sarawak media speculation that he will be appointed to the Petros board. The chief minister was likewise non-committal about any role for Idris in the state under his leadership, when asked about the matter.

The former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department exuded eminent good sense when he spoke before a conference on Sarawak’s agriculture and agro-based industry on Aug 21. The state government and its key officials have been scouring the world literally to learn lessons and experiences from various countries on various aspects of public policy matters and development issues.

Idris instead made the suggestion that the state need look no further than within the country’s shores for a suitable model to empower local landowners and propel the state’s agriculture forward in a big way. The answer, he said, is Felda (the Federal Land Development Authority).

“Felda is a very successful model. It lifted the income of small farmers out from poverty over the years,” said Idris. “So maybe what we need to do for Sarawak is about creating a Felda model here. The idea is ‘don’t think small, think very big’. If you don’t make it big, it is not going to work.”

Sarawak is definitely thinking big in terms of opening up huge tracts of virgin forests in the Upper Rajang River basin and the highland regions which form the natural border with Indonesian Kalimantan. The HDA and the Upper Rajang Development Agency (URDA) are two specialised agencies created by Abang Johari specifically aimed towards utilising the state’s vast land holdings for modern agricultural pursuits.


Net exporter

In the words of the chief minister, the state aims to “be a net exporter of high quality agriculture produce and products that meet the needs of both domestic and global markets.”

“Our main strategies are modernisation, commercialisation and application of digital technology,” said Abang Johari.

Modern jargon aside, the key to the success of Sarawak’s agricultural modernisation drive will lie squarely on the shoulders of the stakeholders on the ground itself, the farmers and land owners themselves and how best the related state agencies harness them for their individual profit and the benefit and advancement of the state as a whole.

Idris stressed the importance for farmers to move away from self-sufficient farming to large-scale plantation and contract farming. Which is why the Felda model may be the critical missing link if the big state agriculture push is to make real headway ultimately.

Felda and its corporate affiliates may be in the news lately for all the wrong reasons but its founding objectives had been noble and it remains a somewhat rare success in the developing world of large-scale land development schemes that stays faithful to the well-being of the individual farmers and their families.

Sarawak’s land ownership laws are perhaps uniquely complicated within Malaysia. Its own specialised land development agencies such as the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra) have made at best fitful headway and have not always placed individual landowners and farmers at the very centre of their efforts. These individual Sarawakians have thus far not benefited fully from what the state agencies set up to realise the potentials from their farm lands have achieved.

There must be safeguards in place to ensure that new agencies such as HDA and URDA are not sidetracked from their primary objectives to economically uplift rural Sarawakians, by political elite capture, for example.

One way to avoid that may be to appoint eminent non-political technocrats or retired politicians such as Idris or former federal agriculture minister Tan Sri Effendi Norwawi into meaningful and effective oversight roles as well as providing useful strategic input.      

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 249.