First it was the Kimanis Power Plant project, Sabah’s new 300-megawatt power plant, a whooping RM1 billion contract. Then Sabah has been allocated another RM10.723 billion to implement 424 new projects in the first phase (2011-2012) of the Rolling Plan under the Tenth Malaysia Plan. Then there is another RM3 billion in MoUs signed by Sabah State Government with private sectors to invest in agriculture and forestry and manufacturing.
It is a commentary on the bizarre priorities of our information order that investment commitments total-ling $14 billion, equaling nearly one tenth of Malaysia’s GDP, are either ignored or put on par with anodyne political statements. This, however, is not the occasion to lament the lack of even-handedness in the treatment of anything remotely connected to Sabah chief minister Musa Aman. It is the time to celebrate something that is fast becoming undeniable: the emergence of Sabah as the investment powerhouse of Malaysia.
The start of the Rabbit Year, there was a stark contrast between a Sabah bubbling with optimism and the rest of the country despairing over economic mismanagement and missed opportunities. It is not that all the MoUs signed with private sector will be translated into reality. Many will remain paper commitments . But when the who’s who of Malaysia industry line up to proclaim their faith in Sabah as a wholesome place for investment, having already put their money where their mouth is, neither Malaysia nor the rest of the world can afford to be in denial.
The proclamations of faith in Sabah are all the more meaningful because they have been made despite KL’s unremitting displeasure with anything that could bolster Musa Aman’s credentials. Musa Aman doesn’t usually win awards for being the “Reformer of the Year” or for innovative governance. In fact, he doesn’t even make it to the shortlist. But he has invariably secured an unequivocal thumbs-up from those who have a real stake in the emergence of Sabah as a Malaysia economic power house.
The skeptics, who insist that the rise and rise of Sabah has little to do with the state government, are partially right. Entrepreneurship and business are part of the Musa Aman’s DNA and not because he is Sabahan, and its reason why Sabah has always proudly cloaked itself in the business ethos since Musa took over as CEO of the state.
The reason Sabah has registered the highest, near double-digit GDP growth in the past 2 years owes much to the targeted, business-friendly approach of its government. Four features stand out. The first is quick decision-making—what Musa Aman has dubbed the “red carpet, not red tape” approach, ask corporate philanthropist Datuk Victor Paul, for example, recount how the land allotment and development for the Perdana Park in Tanjung Aru was made possible. Datuk Victor Paul built the multi-million ringgit park all with his own money, there was no such thing as land swap and he build the park entirely as part of his Corporate Social Responsibility and as a gift to the state and the people without any form of payment or reward. Victor Paul completed the whole project in less than two years, a quick-fire decision that has fetched Sabah this park.
The second feature is the curious phenomenon of the near-absence of political corruption at the top. Even Musa Aman’s worst enemies will not deny that the chief minister’s fanatical personal integrity has had a salutary trickle-down effect. Irritated by politically inspired extortion, industry has identified Sabah as a place where it is possible to do ethical business.
Third, Sabah since Musa Aman 2003, has been marked by social and political peace. Particularly important for industry is the absence of political unrest, which unseated Pairin in 1994 and is now so marked in Perak. This is because Sabah has bucked a national trend and is witnessing high growth in agriculture—last year the sector grew by 9.9%. This means that farmers mainly natives, now have a stake in the larger prosperity of the state and aren’t swayed by populists like Anwar Ibrahim.
Finally, the growth of Sabah has been spurred by a philosophy of “minimum government and maximum governance”. In plain language, this means that the state government has concentrated on creating the infrastructure for growth and left it to the private sector to get on with the job of actual wealth creation. In Sabah, politicians don’t talk the language of class conflict; they too mirror the preoccupation with business. So all-pervasive is the respect for enterprise that even the Perdana Park which I call Victor Paul’s Park, which has the state of the art facilities, someone has even suggested that Victor Paul create amusement features for kiddie games centred on the use of virtual money!
The extent to which this vibrant Sabah capitalism will benefit Musa’s ambitions is difficult to predict. But one thing is certain. As Sabah shines and acquires an economic momentum of its own, more and more businesses will find it worthwhile to channel a major chunk of their new investments into Sabah. Kuala Lumpur may not like the resulting uneven growth but the alternative is not to thwart Sabah by political subterfuge-such as preventing public sector from engaging with the state government and the whimsical use of environmental regulations. Sabah has shown that accelerated and sustained growth is possible when the state plays the role of an honest facilitator, rather than a controller.
Musa Aman didn’t create the Sabahan character; he was moulded by it. He merely gave it a contemporary thrust and an ethical dimension. If politicians focused on these, Malaysia as a nation will be a much better place.