Abang Jo to keep the candle burning

 By Joceline Tan

New Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg has his work cut out for him but his big test is whether he can match his predecessor in delivering in the general election.

“I love you ’Milah, don’t leave me alone.”

Those were the last words of Tan Sri Adenan Satem to his wife Puan Sri Jamilah Anu as she comforted him in his final moments.

There has been an avalanche of tributes to the former Sarawak Chief Minister for the reforms he brought during his brief stint at the top. His death hit Sarawakians like a tonne of bricks even though they knew he was in poor health and had difficulty moving about.

His final day on earth had begun quite normally. He had requested for a shower and change of clothes so that he could feel fresher, and he told Jamilah he felt like eating his favourite dish – masak lemak ikan masin dan terung (salted fish and eggplant cooked in coconut milk). He had also asked for ice cream, his favourite dessert.

He had earlier told his special administrative officer Wan Khalik Wan Muhammad that he planned to attend the main Chinese New Year open houses in Kuching, Miri, Sibu and Bintulu.

Adenan had sat looking out at the view from his hospital window before returning to his bed and Wan Khalik was reading out to him from the newspapers, when he began feeling unwell and asked for Jamilah. He suffered a cardiac arrest not long after, as Jamilah and Wan Khalik recited prayers by his bedside.

Sarawak’s “singing Chief Minis­ter” was 72 and the candle had burnt out all too soon for the man whose vision and policies have helped project Sarawak as a model of moderation.

Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg or Abang Jo, as he is widely known, is coming in on this sad note and into what many have described as big shoes to fill. He was sworn in as the new Chief Minister on Friday. It was a smooth and fuss-free transition, although barely hours after Adenan’s death, WhatsApp was on fire with the fake news that Datuk Seri Douglas Ug­­gah Embas had been appointed acting Chief Minister.

The Governor’s Office immediate­ly issued a statement to quash the rumour.

Sarawak had three Deputy Chief Ministers – Abang Johari, Douglas and Tan Sri Dr James Masing. Technically speaking, any one of them could have filled the post but Abang Johari being the deputy pre­sident of PBB, the big brother party in the state Barisan Nasional, has greater locus standi. He also has good grassroots and is said to command a big chunk of support in the party.

He was widely expected to get the job after Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud retired and was deeply disappointed when the post went to Adenan. But he took it like a gentleman and it did not affect his loyalty. Adenan also appointed him the election director during the May state elections and his supporters pointed out that he gave it his all.

There was no time for a proper caucus meeting to decide on who should succeed Adenan.

Political insiders claimed there was an informal but high-level meeting of key state leaders to reach a consensus and present the name to Sarawak Governor Taib, who is arguably still one of the most powerful figures in Sarawak.

Situations like these are fertile ground for rumours, hence the need for a swift transition.

In fact, during the brief interval between Adenan’s death and the appointment of a new Chief Minister, there were claims of some sort of a tug-of-war behind the scenes.

One version had Datuk Awang Tengah Ali Hassan as the preferred name because he is close to Taib and had joined the Taib family for dinner during an overseas holiday last month.

Awang Tengah, 61, had also grown close to Adenan and was seen crying his eyes out during the funeral. At Adenan’s last big press conference, he held Adenan’s hand as he helped the older man towards the table.

Taib’s hold on the imagination of Sarawakians will always be there for as long as he is alive. But as a young Chinese lawyer from Sibu pointed out, despite the negative feelings about Taib, deep down people admit that he is an important balancing factor in Sarawak politics and even the big political players tread carefully around him.

He has carried himself as Governor with great dignity and refinement and you do not want to mess with him.

Meanwhile, this is Abang Johari’s time, his ship has finally come in. The new Chief Minister, in keeping with the seven-day mourning pe­­riod, has been restrained and respectful in his remarks.

Waylaid by the press after his swearing-in, he deferred comments about his plans and stuck to thanking the Governor and the ruling coalition for their confidence in picking him for the job.

Abang Johari and Adenan grew up in the same kampung. Their fathers were top civil servants and family friends and his elder brother Datuk Abang Karim used to sing in the same band as Adenan.

The question on everyone’s lips is what kind of Chief Minister will Abang Johari make. He has contested nine state elections and he is a household name. Sarawakians are so familiar with him, yet there is so much more they want to know about him.

Adenan, said a former Kuching-based journalist, had set the bar high, his brand was so strong and he was “a different kind of politician”.

Abang Johari and Adenan are as different as day and night but one thing about Abang Johari is that he is as Sarawakian as it gets. In other words, he is not the race and religion type of politician.

He is also not a showy or extravagant politician. For instance, Sara­wak politicians are famous for their palatial residences but Abang Johari’s house is pretty modest compared to the rest and that says a lot.

Adenan, as the song goes, was like a candle in the wind, and Abang Johari will want to keep the candle burning.

He has his work cut out for him but his big test lies not far ahead. Can he deliver the Sarawak seats in the general election? – The Star

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