Sarawak's popular chief minister dies, leaving big leadership gap

Mr Adenan leaving a polling station in Kuching last May. He died of a heart attack yesterday.
Mr Adenan leaving a polling station in Kuching last May. He died of a heart attack yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Sarawak's popular Chief Minister Adenan Satem died yesterday of a heart attack, leaving a big leadership gap in Malaysia's largest state, which is often described as a safe "fixed deposit" by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

News that Tan Sri Adenan, 72, died after being hospitalised just last Saturday sent shockwaves through Malaysia.

He died eight months after helping BN to clinch a resounding victory in the Sarawak State Assembly elections, winning 72 out of 82 seats - a two-thirds supermajority.

He was widely expected to bring in votes for the next general election, with the timber- and petroleum-rich state accounting for 31, or 14 per cent, of the 222 seats in the federal Parliament. BN currently holds 24 of the 31 wards.

Sarawak has declared a seven- day mourning period.

"He made huge contributions to Sarawak. Malaysia has lost a capable leader," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said yesterday.

Mr Adenan garnered a huge fan base from the moment he became chief minister in March 2014 by taking an oath before the anti-graft agency vowing never to award government contracts or state land to family members. This was a big contrast from his predecessor Abdul Taib Mahmud, whose 33-year rule was plagued with allegations of corruption and nepotism.

The giant rural state has about 2.6 million people - just slightly higher than the population of Kuala Lumpur. While urban Peninsular Malaysia saw vast development in the past five decades after independence, many Sarawakians and their neighbours in the other "fixed deposit" state of Sabah lamented the federal government's apparent neglect.

But when Mr Adenan took power, he pushed for development, often adopting populist approaches that endeared him to locals.

In contrast to his no-nonsense approach when dealing with the federal government, he got the thumbs- up for dancing and singing on stage during election campaigns.

Still, analysts do not expect his death to make a dent in BN's bid to secure a win in Sarawak in the next general election, widely expected to be called this year.

The state has long been BN's stronghold because rural voters are easily swayed by promises of development, and Mr Adenan's time in office has only entrenched the ruling coalition's position further. "So long as BN continues to implement what Adenan promised, they have no problem winning," said Dr Arnold Puyok, a political analyst from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).

A successor has not been named, but analysts doubt the next chief minister will change voters' minds.

"Whoever takes over would likely continue the policies in place. Results for GE14 are likely to be the same as the previous election's," said Dr Jeniri Amir, another political analyst at Unimas, referring to the next general election.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline 'Sarawak's popular chief minister dies, leaving big leadership gap'. Print Edition | Subscribe