SARAWAK mourned the passing of a statesman in Tan Sri Celestine Ujang Jilan, a former state minister, when he died on Jan 9 at 71. Ujang became a state minister in 1974 and served in various portfolios before stepping down from the state cabinet in 1981 to become Speaker of the Sarawak state assembly from 1981 to 1987. He was the party youth chief before he was elected to the post of vice-president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) in 1998, a position he retained till his retirement from active politics in 2007.
This made him a political contemporary of such state luminaries as current chief minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Abdul Rahman Zohari Tun Openg, the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem and former deputy chief minister Tan Sri Alfred Jabu Numpang. Which explains why Zohari had such warm words in tribute to Ujang on the latter’s passing, describing how he and Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas (the current deputy chief minister) had discovered Ujang to be a fair leader when both served under him as the PBB Youth chief.
PBB is, of course, an amalgamation of the Iban-based Pesaka and the Malay-Melanau-based Bumiputera and both the party and state government leaderships have maintained a delicate balance in representation from both wings of the party since both parties merged in 1973. Such a “gentlemen’s understanding” is what underpins the state’s political stability ever since.
Zohari revealed that when the state Barisan Nasional (BN) faced a political crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which saw the need to bring back Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) into the state government in order to broaden the base of Dayak political support for the state government, it was Ujang who volunteered to give up his government position in order to make way for PBDS to be accommodated.
Ujang was again in his element as he quietly and happily went into retirement in 2007 when he was still only 60. It is such leadership trait that marks him out as a rare political leader, always treating high political office humbly as a privilege, not a right, and subsuming personal interests and ambitions to the much higher demands of overall party and state interests.
As PBB faces impending party elections for its leadership posts, Ujang’s exemplary spirit of personal sacrifice should serve as a timely reminder that the party may perhaps only retain its lofty political position in the state and esteem in the eyes of both its fellow state BN component parties and the state electorate at large if it does not lose sight of the fact that political office should be all about selfless public service.
The secret of PBB’s success over the last 45 years is its proven capacity to be broadly representative and inclusive while uniting the state’s Bumiputra communities under a single political party. As with all major communities in the state, regional Iban representation is also an important consideration within PBB. Thus, Ujang is now succeeded by party secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Stephen Rundi Utom as state minister and assemblyman for Kemena in northern Sarawak. Deputy Chief Minister Uggah hails from Betong in the state’s south while fellow Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing of Parti Rakyat Sarawak represents the Ibans of central Sarawak in the state administration.
It is such a finely-tuned and delicate political balancing act which ensures there is sufficient give-and-take and internal checks and balance within the state government, PBB and the state BN to keep everything on an even keel overall. Political stability within such a bewildering multi-ethnic polyglot as Sarawak is only possible and sustainable with close adherence to such a political balancing act. PBB is also lucky to have such leaders as Ujang and Uggah who either willingly gave up high office or patiently waited their turn to shine at state level as in the latter’s case.
Promising and worthy individuals will be encouraged to enter the political arena if they see that there is a fair chance for them to come in and move up. Ujang also showed that there are ways to remain active in contributing to society even after politics. At the time of his passing, he was advisor to the Dayak Chamber of Commerce and Industry where he had earlier served as deputy president and was instrumental in promoting the commercialisation of the Dayak popular music genre through the Dayak Music Awards.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak