Popular leader who makes the right moves

Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem taking his oath of office in February 2014. The 72-year-old has found himself increasingly well received, right down to the grassroots level.
Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem taking his oath of office in February 2014. The 72-year-old has found himself increasingly well received, right down to the grassroots level.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Tan Sri Adenan Satem has not always been as popular as he is nowadays.

When he rose through the ranks under Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud - his predecessor who ruled for 33 years - many in Sarawak considered him arrogant. So, after 17 years at the state-level Cabinet, everyone was just fine with his move in 2004 to serve as a federal minister.

In 2006, Mr Taib fell ill amid growing allegations of corruption and abuse of power, so Mr Adenan quit his post as Malaysia's Minister of Natural Resources and Environment and returned to Sarawak.

The move was widely seen as an attempt to entrench himself in the resource-rich state as a successor to the ageing Chief Minister.

But Mr Taib returned to good health, and quickly responded by moving Mr Adenan out of positions of power.

This, however, marked the start of the making of Sarawak's new leader. As he learnt to engage stakeholders at every level of society, Mr Adenan, a father of five, found himself increasingly well received, right down to the grassroots level.

As a result, the Taib administration was left without arguably its best mind. It found itself unable to respond to the opposition's mounting attacks of corruption and loss of autonomy from the federal government.

By the time Mr Adenan - known as a well-read law practitioner who was once a magistrate - was brought back into the fold in 2010 as special adviser to the Chief Minister, the damage had been done.

In 2011, the government suffered its worst electoral performance since the fractious 1987 polls when a rival faction of Barisan Nasional (BN) rebels ran against Mr Taib, and he was forced to step down.

Mr Adenan was appointed Minister with Special Functions after the 2011 polls, and his duties included combating criticism of the state government. The Sarawak BN's improved performance in the 2013 general election can be partly attributed to his efforts.

Mr Adenan began to embody and take up the now widespread "Sarawak for Sarawakians" call, undercutting a key thrust of the opposition's campaign.

Since becoming Chief Minister in February 2014, Mr Adenan, now 72, has made all the right moves.

He has asked for just one more term and personally met villagers unhappy about the controversial Baram hydroelectric dam project.

He even met staunch critics like Sarawak Report founder Clare Rewcastle-Brown and the Switzerland-based nature non-governmental organisation Bruno Manser Fund, calling on activists to help him reform Sarawak.

Last April, he said he had become weary of the fuss and protocol attendant with his position, and went on record in the legislative assembly to say that people should "just call me... CM or Adenan".

He also asked that supporters not spend money on congratulatory messages in the media or presents on his birthday or anniversary as Chief Minister, saying the money should go to charity.

In fact, he has developed such a halo that it was the Bruno Manser Fund - which has long accused Mr Taib of enriching himself by exploiting Sarawak's rainforests - which publicised Mr Adenan's meeting with critical activists.

Although Mr Adenan uses the dubious tactic of banning top opposition figures from entering the state, he insists that it is to prevent the spread of Peninsular Malaysia's racism into Sarawak. That is hardly challenged and, in fact, supported by some Sarawakians.

Shannon Teoh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Popular leader who makes the right moves'. Print Edition | Subscribe