The chief minister of Sarawak will be known as Sarawak premier, after the state tabled and passed an amendment Bill on Tuesday (Feb 15), in what analysts say could be the first step towards maximising the state’s autonomy of governance in Malaysia.
The amendment passed at the second time of asking, with 67 assemblymen voting in support, after the first count was short of the required two-thirds majority of 55 supporting votes.
Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) lawmakers hold 76 of 82 seats in the Sarawak state assembly.
The vote means that the state’s hitherto chief minister Abang Johari Openg will now officially be known as the state’s premier in written law.
Dr James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said it was a sign that Sarawak is heading to “maximum autonomy” under the Malaysian federation.
“Sarawak is basically sending a signal to the states in peninsula Malaysia that… Sarawak and Sabah are no longer mere states like them. Sarawak is saying ‘we are different’,” he said, adding that Sabah will soon follow Sarawak’s move.
Dr Chin, who was born in Sarawak’s capital Kuching, told The Straits Times that Sarawak was emboldened now and may look at further changes to “more substantive” issues.
He did not elaborate but Sarawak had previously been involved in legal disputes with Malaysia’s national energy giant Petronas over a higher revenue share of oil and gas produced in the state.
The tussle was widely believed to have led to Petronas’ former chief executive quitting his role in 2020 after a disagreement with then Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin over giving more oil money to Sarawak.
Professor Lee Kuok Tiung, associate professor of communications at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, said the amendment Bill is “just another (form of) pressure Sarawak is applying on the federal government for more autonomy” and that the state will not stop there.
When asked if Sabah would soon follow suit, Prof Lee said “it would not be easy”, given the state government would need a two-thirds majority to amend its constitution.
He said: “Sarawak did it because they have the two-thirds majority, but Sabah doesn’t have it.”
Some politicians saw the change of title as symbolic.
Demoratic Action Party assemblyman Chong Chieng Jen, one of six opposition lawmakers who voted against the Bill, said it is a redundant exercise as it does not give the premier any extra powers nor status outside the state.
“You step outside the state, you are still regarded as the chief minister,” he told the assembly.
Malaysia’s de facto law minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, who is lawmaker for Santubong in Sarawak, compared the choice of nomenclature to Australia, where its state leaders are also known as premiers.
Dr Jayum Jawan, professor of political science at Universiti Putra Malaysia, said the change was anticipated, adding that he hoped with the constitutional amendment at the state level, there will be ” more substantive policies and programmes”.
“I would want to see how they address the many grievances that have been aired over the last many years and especially highlighted in the campaigns during the last general elections,” he added.