For long, Sabah was considered a “poverty” state, what with extreme destitution, a massive influx of illegal immigrants and corruption being considered synonymous with the state. But all that is now history. The state is now on the fast track to shed its “poverty” tag, having achieved one of the highest GDP growth rates in recent years. The iconic changes have been ushered in by the Musa Aman-led government after he took over the reins in 2003.
The metamorphosis has not gone unnoticed in the country as well as abroad. Sabah is now considered a state on the move, thanks to improvement in governance, law and order, infrastructure and financial discipline. “My first three priorities are governance, governance and governance,” Musa had once said. The stress on governance was primarily because of his finding that Sabah had suffered not just because of bad governance but also due to a lack of it. After taking oath as the chief minister, he embarked on the journey of development with justice. Till recently, it was beyond the people’s imagination that Sabah could embark on a trajectory of development, and an inclusive and equitable one too.
Profile of the state started changing since late 2003. Plan expenditure leapfrogged from RM1.22 billion in 1984 to RM3.84 billion in 2013. The annual growth rate of Gross State Domestic Product, which averaged 2.42% between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, jumped to 7.36% for 2013. Even tourism receipts of RM 6.35 billion for 2013 was the highest record where 3.3 million tourist arrivals of which 2.29 million was domestic arrivals. This growth rate and the consequent transformation in the economic profile of the state made the country sit up and take notice, since it had surpassed many developed states.
“Sabah’s turnaround illustrates how a handful of seemingly small changes can yield big results in Sabah’s most impoverished and badly governed districts. Sabah is a textbook case of how leadership determines development. At a recent speech at the premier assembly with members of the State and Federal public service personnel at the auditorium Menara Tun Mustapha, Musa said since the people have given the mandate to the Barisan National to lead the people in Sabah, it was imperative for civil servants to deliver and ensure the success of policies and programmes that had been planed.
In the same speech he also talked about prudence, he being in the East-coast of Sabah in Brumas a week ago, visiting Yayasan Sabah subsidary the Sabah SoftWoods, and the next day he had to go for Deputy Education Minister Datuk Mary Yap Kain Ching’s Chinese New Year Open House in Tawau. He could have driven down from Brumas to Tawau which was just an hour’s drive and stayed at the Promenade Hotel’s suite with a few other rooms for his security personals. This could have easily cost the state RM five thousand, but he refused to spent that money and instead stayed on at YS Guest house for free. He was similiarly requested by former deputy chief Minister of Sabah, Tham Nyip Shen to come down to Tawau and stay in comfort at the hotel but Musa adamantly refused. Now we know how Musa accumulated more than RM3 billion in cash reserves for the Sabah state government.
Remember, under Musa, Sabah has been given recognition by the Auditor-General for its financial administration and 9 agencies, including district offices and departments, all having been given four-star rating. Many who had given up on Sabah are constantly astonished by the ‘turnaround’ of the state. Musa Aman has achieved the status of a miracle worker. How did he manage to resurrect the state? Musa works well under Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his younger Foreign Minister brother Anifah is also a political ally of Najib. Putrajaya sees him as someone who is reliable and the Prime Minister even once said to Musa, “I have been to all the states but when I think about Sabah, I can sleep well.”
Musa is a professional manager. His years as a banker, businessman and Sabah Finance Minister has certainly proven to be of great help to Sabahans. But more than a minister or chief minister, Musa thinks of himself as a politician. A professional politician. Although he exudes an air of supremacy but he is still humble. When he took over as chief minister in 2003, he would often remind civil servants that his ministry had the greatest stake in the performance of the government, not the bureaucracy. If the government achieved success, his ministry would get all the credit; if it failed, his ministry would have to bear all the blame. In short the bureaucrats wouldn’t have lost their jobs – He would. So, from the outset, he concentrated on driving the bureaucracy. During the years when Sabah had so many chief ministers at the helm, the bureaucracy had stopped thinking because the leader never provoked them, or taking action because it was not expected of them. Problems remained unresolved in the absence of ideas. Implementation of programmes lagged for lack of exertion.
The twin problems Musa faced were of his people suffering and him having to propel a paraplegic bureaucracy to join him in his attempt to resolve that suffering. In the initial few months of his first tenure Musa held long meetings with officers of all departments. He tried to understand where things stood, where they were going wrong, and in the process also gauge the quality of senior bureaucrats: how much each bureaucrat understood his job, whether he had new ideas to offer, how much of a leader he was; who was a charlatan, who had a social conscience, who was earnest, who was a shirker.
Musa used a hands-on approach in all areas. That was his style. He would not be there just to frame policies and draw up programmes and leave the implementation to the bureaucracy. He did not believe in the conventional method of governance as it had come to be followed in post-Independence Sabah. He believed implementation was the key. Governments usually faltered on implementation. Ministers would call officers to meetings and lecture them on policies and programmes, and there the involvement ended. Once the officers saw the chief minister individually involved, they got involved themselves. There was somebody watching them. Musa regularly monitored the progress of the programmes. That kept up the momentum.
Sermons did not help; what worked was the delegation of powers. Responsibility would still be considered a burden by officers if no authority was given to them. Musa framed a policy delegating authority down the line from the minister of a department to the junior-most officer for approval of projects of a progressively declining amount. Authority for approval of projects and freedom of action alone, however, could not have brought about the success in his ‘Halatuju’ development framework for the state which focused on tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing. There was a wholly new driving force he had created that worked wonders. Musa was even successful in further preventing occurrence of another Lahad Datu Style intrusion by bloodthirsty crackpots from Southern Philippines. The Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) has stepped up security measures, with heightened alert from the military and police, in the 10 districts placed under the Esszone.
Sabah is far from becoming a paradise despite these initiatives.
The best that can be said of the transformation Musa Aman has brought is that he has pulled Sabah back from the dead. That is a significant accomplishment in itself. At last Sabah has shown stirrings of life. But there is a long way to go but Musa has put the Sabah administration back on an even keel and brought changes to the state.
In a recent development, unscrupulous elements are trying to drum up religious sentiments in Sabah to disrupt harmony among peaceful Sabahns. So I asked Musa what his take is on this. Interestingly, he said “Sabahans must get on with their lives and not be carried away by certain quarters who are trying to create chaos and confusion. Sabahans must take heed of the experience of countries that fell into abyss from prosperity due to distrust and lack of respect for each other’s religion and belief. The present generation and leadership should strive for excellence to be inherited by the next generation, instead of destruction, sufferings and misery.”
Musa said about the changing Sabah: “The state is experiencing all-round development because of our policy of ensuring that the benefits of development first go to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Over the years, we rose above the feelings of race and religion, and have worked tirelessly on the agenda of inclusive development of the state.” Musa believes in the maxim of “miles to go before I sleep”. He once told me “I work 24×7 without a break, thinking often of the philosophy of uninterrupted service day and night. I understand this will need to go on without any let-up, so that more and more people join hands to bring a brighter future. I am not fully satisfied with the work done. But one has to remain dissatisfied only to move ahead with vigour. I feel satisfied seeing the happy faces of people, who are now living without any fear.”