Sabah is a state which has defied good governance. But in just eight years Musa Aman as chief minister has proved that diligence in administration can bring about wonders. If little has been heard of him during this time it is because he has been working quietly. Turning a state around is no easy task. And getting Sabah on track is doubly difficult.
The results of the recent Batu Sapi parliamentary election results, however, have left no doubt about the impact that his government has had. Now Musa is really big news.
So what is it that Musa has done so right? How has he succeeded in improving the life of the poor people in Sabah.
Musa spends long hours in his secretariat. He is known as the “18-hour chief minister”. Till the election results came out you couldn’t be sure whether the description was being used out of derision or admiration. Yong Teck Lee, for instance, made it plain that he saw little hope for Musa, saying a “glorified clerk” couldn’t be expected to run Sabah. The people of the state clearly think otherwise because Yong Teck Lee has been wiped out.
One of Musa’s priorities has been to restore order and discipline in the state government. The only way of doing this was by setting an example. Since he himself works long hours and doesn’t hold up files, officers and his ministerial colleagues have to be pretty sure that they do likewise. He has also chosen good officers to fill important posts in Kota Kinabalu and empowered them to bring the administration in the districts back to life as well. Government staff, long accustomed to snubbing authority, found they couldn’t bully the new chief minister. They had to come to work on time, accept computerisation and so on.
Earlier chief ministers, rarely came to office. Meetings were held sometimes at home and decisions were taken whimsically, with little consultation. They saw themselves as royalty who would rule by fiat and favour. The result of over 15 years of this behaviour was that the government lost its systems. The depth of its decision-making diminished.
Musa’s next step has been to restore the morale of the enforcement people. Sabah used to be called the “abduction capital” or the “curi Kayu capital” of Malaysia. “Timber Thieves” and “Abu Sayyaf” with political connections ruled and there was no question of the forest rangers and police exercising any control over their nefarious activities in the forest reserves and the east coast of Sabah. As the number of criminals, timber thieves and illegals kept growing they became bolder and would openly steal timber from forest reserve and kidnap, sell “Shabu” and other drugs and even run guns.
As Security Chief of the state Musa made it a priority to enforce the law and ensure that timber thieves, criminals and illegals are punished and kicked out of the state. Under previous chief ministers there were lesser arrest and deportation of illegals. Once Musa came to power, there was more arrest of criminals and up to now nearly 100,000 plus illegals have been deported and the process of deportation is an an ongoing exercise. This was a huge jump but the arrests would have meant little if they weren’t followed up by trials and punishment.
Now it doesn’t seem such a good idea to take to crime in Sabah any more. Average people cannot believe that they are free of the terror that was once unleashed upon them by names that they had come to widely feared like “007”, Abu Sayyap and the Moros from Southern Philippines.
Musa has shown that in a low-key but determined manner it is possible to restore the writ of the State and revive the justice system. His ability to transform Tawau, Sandakan, Lahad Datu and even Kota Kinabalu into a safer place to live in has left a huge impression. Kota Kinabalu had become a city where children, mothers and young girls could move around safely till the wee hours of the morning.
With proper policing, the number of abductions has fallen.Till March this year there were a mere 1 abductions in Semporna. While earlier people used to hurry home as soon as it got dark, now tourist find it safe to stay out till late at night, restaurants are open and life has returned to Semporna and other east coast towns.
A significant fallout of this normalcy is that real estate prices have begun to rise. People were selling off their properties for whatever they could get and moving out of Sabah. It had become common for properties in Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Tawau and other towns to be forcibly occupied and possessed by Filipino illegals.
Musa in fact went out of his way to make it a referendum on the performance of his government. In meeting after meeting during the campaign in Batu Sapi Parliamentary election, I remember, he would ask voters to choose between the past eight years under him and the 15 years that preceded his government.
He made no personal attacks, didn’t call rivals names and refrained from making exaggerated claims.
By asking voters to judge his government on the basis of how it had changed their lives, the chief minister raised the threshold of the debate during the election. He appeared far taller than Yong Teck Lee or Pakatan Rakyat. In comparison to them he looked progressive and seemed to have a vision for Sabah.
The three key tasks for Musa Aman was to develop the state to be on par with Selangor and Penang and to restore the authority and credibility of the civil servants in Sabah and to cleanse the administration of corruption. He has set a personal example by not allowing family members and close supporters to use his name. So unlike his predecessors he does not have a coterie that runs the government from behind to its own advantage. There are strict rules for all ministers and party people and civil servants. For instance, the State Forestry Department was instructed to follow the implementation of Sustainable Forest Management practices, and because of such instruction, today Sabah manages its forest remarkably, particularly in terms of phasing out short term logging license which did not adhere to sustainable principals. Through new practices, long term forest management plans were designed, reduced impact logging was introduced and the State started protecting High Conservation Value Forests, home to diverse wildlife and plants which serve as watersheds. Not only that, by committing to sustainable ways of logging, Sabah has also been able to safeguard the interest of the Native Communities whose lives depend on the forest. And because of such policies, today Sabah has close to 400,000 hectares (FSC) of certified forest areas – the largest in Malaysia. This is indeed a success story – thanks to Musa Aman. To date, Sabah has some 839,477 hectares of forest area under some form of certification accredited by FSC and this includes 50,000 hectares Tangkulup Forest Reserve and 241,098 hectares Ulu Segama and Malua Forest Reserves. Even Yayasan Sabah concession area of about 260,000 hectares is part of the UNDP-GEF project on Biodiversity Conservation in Multiple-Use Forest Landscape.
Similarly, the chief minister introduced Communal titles with the noble intention to expedite land alienation to Natives and to ensure they develop their land at the same time. Communal title is a fast-track way to provide land rights to Natives in mass groups. Communal land titles first of its kind in Malaysia is granted to communities instead of individual titles to ensure that all recipients, particularly Natives, benefited from land use. A Communal title prevents the landowner from selling the land for quick profit and being landless again. Communal title ensures that the allocated land is kept in perpetuity for the family concerned. So far the government had issued communal titles for 33,600 hectares to 7000 Natives. In Kemambong alone about 1400 Natives had received communal titles for land covering an area of 3650 hectares and Sabah Land Development Board (SLDB) will develop it with oil palm to help the poor villagers there.
Keeping the administration on the straight and narrow path is just part of the story. Much more important are the positive measures that make people feel that life is looking up.
So, when the government takes an active interest in land matters and tries to make sure the natives don’t sell of their land to some Chinese businessman from West Malaysia or Sarawak for some quick gain, a new optimism is created. After all, if we just go to Kundasang and across the state and see the Natives going deeper and deeper into the mountains and forest because they had sold off their lands on the roadside to some Chinese businessmen from Sarawak or West Malaysia, we can only feel sorry for them. Now with the communal land title this will be history.
Musa Aman has chosen to plunge in and look for solutions. Often he has been mired in disputes with KL and NGOs’ over measures or the number of extremely poor people getting state land through the public distribution system. But it hasn’t gone unnoticed that under him the state government is refreshingly in search of solutions.
The chief minister distinguished himself by his hands-on approach to so many things. He went into great detail over the measures that were being taken. Traditionally, land matters in Sabah has been an opportunity for politicians to siphon off money. But this time around there is supervision right from the top and it matters
Musa Aman has shown that governments work best and deliver results when they are activist in their orientation. Turning Sabah around requires not just stamina but inspiration and a willingness to be seen as aspiring, somewhat crazily, to the impossible.