SARAWAK Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Abang Openg has, since assuming office about half a year ago, been giving people in the state some inkling of his grand plans which, if fully realised, will go a long way towards changing Sarawak’s traditional economic paradigms.
These plans largely revolve around Sarawak leapfrogging towards becoming a digital economy powerhouse.
Towards that end, the state government is setting aside a billion ringgit to bring the state’s Internet connection up to speed and get the whole state virtually wired up.
There are, as yet, vague and general announcements about an Information Technology (IT) enterprises incubation park in Kuching, for example, which must go in tandem with a virtual infrastructure ramming up if the whole plan is to succeed.
Abang Johari, based on his pronouncements thus far, is certainly not a leader whom anyone can accuse of a failure of imagination.
It certainly goes without saying that we need leaders with a visionary bent, who can then go on to espouse a particular vision with persuasive conviction and even missionary zeal.
And, the chief minister’s grand ambitions are not necessarily confined to those related to the digital economy alone.
Plans to turn the state into a renewable-energy powerhouse go on apace, best exemplified by the state government’s decision to buy back and control the Bakun Dam, which was built by the Federal Government. Further dam building will also go on.
Both decisions over dams have faced criticism. The state government has yet to win over sceptical Sarawakians that its takeover of Bakun from the Federal Government is a good deal, although objective assessments may conceivably conclude it is.
The construction of new dams may also be defended on the basis that the decision to go big on hydropower is a legacy Abang Johari had inherited, and has little choice but to continue, although with other renewable-energy sources, such as solar and wind, becoming more viable commercially. Perhaps, this behoves the state government to consider other non-dam options for power generation.
The subtext of Abang Johari’s economic plans appears to be for the state to take greater charge of its own economic and overall destiny, in line with a perceptible desire of Sarawakians in general to be masters of that destiny.
That explains the plan by the state to build a light rail transit (LRT) line from Kuching, all the way to the city’s outer limits in Serian, which is 65km away and near the Indonesian border.
There are questions if the state has the sufficient population density and mass, even within greater Kuching, to economically sustain an LRT infrastructure that will conceivably cost the state government easily tens of billions of ringgit.
One way to correct that in the medium term may be to selectively relax Sarawak’s strict immigration controls in favour of foreigners with proven IT-related talents and entrepreneurial flair, and even to actively encourage foreign retirees to consider Sarawak as their retirement destination of choice.
Land may be set aside in Serian and government incentives will encourage private sector players to set up state-of- the-art retirement villages with other associated medical and recreational facilities there.
The state should also leverage Kuching’s status as the most concentrated urban centre in perhaps the whole of Borneo to turn it into the logistics hub, not only for the city’s immediate vicinity, but also for the whole of Sarawak, and even for Sabah and west Kalimantan.
For that to happen, the state needs to speed up its decision to build a deep-sea port at Tanjung Po in the western-most tip of the state to overcome limitations of the existing riverine port that hamstrings Kuching’s otherwise natural and excellent position to be the main economic hub for Borneo.
The completion of the Pan-Borneo Highway will mean Kuching’s location in the state’s western-most corner need no longer be a factor inhibiting its development into a logistics hub as goods will, henceforth, be able to be transported with greater efficiency to the rest of the state.
A port at Tanjung Po may also make Kuching — already an established manufacturing and commercial centre — the logical and most obvious transhipment port for much of Borneo.
The state has built up a sizeable amount in reserves which, given its current levels of socio-economic development, must be prudently harnessed to raise the tempo of such development. But, they must be harnessed only for strategic and moderately-risky investments.
**The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.