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‘Premier’ for Sarawak just cosmetic but will boost popularity, say analysts

They question any discernible impact the move will have on federal-state relations.

Nur Shazreena Ali
2 minute read
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People stroll about the Waterfront area in Kuching, near the Sarawak state assembly building where a bill to change the title of 'chief minister' to 'premier' was passed yesterday.
People stroll about the Waterfront area in Kuching, near the Sarawak state assembly building where a bill to change the title of 'chief minister' to 'premier' was passed yesterday.

Analysts are unconvinced that the recent move in Sarawak to replace the title of “chief minister” with “premier” will help reinstate the rights of the Bornean state despite assurances by its leaders that the change will reflect its special status in the federation.

The amendment was part of the Constitution of the State of Sarawak (Amendment) Bill 2022, passed after its third reading in the state legislative assembly on Tuesday with a two-thirds majority.

The constitutional change paved the way for Abang Johari Openg to become the first premier in the country.

But political analyst Azmil Mohd Tayub said the title mostly indicated the maintainance of Sarawak’s status quo.

“I don’t think there will be any discernible impact on federal-state relations,” he told MalaysiaNow, describing it as a “populist move” aimed at the Sarawak public.

State Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Minister Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah, who presented the bill, said it would reflect Sarawak’s status in the federation, in line with the recent amendments to the Federal Constitution under the provisions of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).

Azmil however said that the move would only boost the popularity of the ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak coalition.

“Other states do not enjoy similar autonomy and the federal arrangements accorded by MA63 like Sarawak does,” he added.

“So I don’t think the move will have any effect on other states.”

Analyst Oh Ei Sun of SIngapore’s Institute of International Affairs agreed.

He said the move would only have significant political consequences if the premier position enabled Sarawak to reinstate its powers on its territorial and oil and gas rights.

“It really doesn’t matter to the federal government of the day as long as they continue to receive the undivided parliament,” he said.

“The other states will adopt a wait-and-see attitude, to see if and when Sarawak really gets to the meat of the latter – the devolution of essential centralised powers to the various states, together with the proportional reversion of taxes mostly collected by the federal authority.”

The Constitution of the State of Sarawak (Amendment) Bill 2022 received the support of 67 assemblymen in the legislative assembly.

Even before the bill was passed, the then Perikatan Nasional government had in 2019 issued a directive to replace all references to “state” with “region” for Sabah and Sarawak.

Muhyiddin Yassin, who was prime minister at the time, said during his visit to Sarawak in April last year that Sarawak was a region or “wilayah”.

“From now on, we should not forget that Sarawak is a ‘region’, ‘wilayah’. I feel like it is a great region. I can’t say it’s a state because it’s big though the population is not big,” he had said.

While the change in title might be devoid of any significant impact, James Chin, an observer of politics in the state, said it could spark concern in the peninsula if Sabah follows suit.

“Abang Johari is sending a signal that Sabah and Sarawak are different from other states,” he said.

“States in Malaya will understand this is symbolic, but I suspect the ordinary people, especially the Malays, may not be happy about this.

“They might get worried about seeing Sarawak pushing further and further away from the federation and setting up a little kingdom in the Malaysian federation.”

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