Analysts: Support for Abang Jo and GPS looks solid ahead of Sarawak state poll

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Gabungan Parti Sarawak flags are seen along Jalan Sultan Tengah in Santubong, Sarawak December 7, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Gabungan Parti Sarawak flags are seen along Jalan Sultan Tengah in Santubong, Sarawak December 7, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 8 — Support for Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and incumbent Chief Minister Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg should remain strong heading into the upcoming polls despite his outlandish promise to start a boutique airline should his party win.

Political observers said more than RM5.6 billion had already been spent by Abang Johari’s administration on eight Bantuan Khas Sarawakku Sayang (BKSS) initiatives since the start of the pandemic.

National Professors Council senior fellow Jeniri Amir explained that since taking over in 2017, Abang Johari’s government has started at least 110 initiatives throughout the state across various sectors, which should bolster his chances of re-election.

Jeniri said these include infrastructure projects covering bridges, dams, power plants, hydrogen energy plants, and schools throughout the state, adding the call for the airline would probably not dent his re-election prospects too much.

“This boutique airline is just part of his initiatives and this has nothing to do with, or I at least don’t believe it has something to do with the election,” Jeniri expalined.

University of Malaya associate professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi agreed that the suggestion of a new airline will have minimal pushback, adding how Sarawakians might even be supportive of such suggestions following a recent spike in airfares to the state.

“The suggestion for the boutique airline is a response to the grouses of Sarawakians towards the high prices of air tickets recently that triggered a backlash from various Sarawak media channels,” he told Malay Mail.

Awang Azman disagreed with the suggestion that the boutique airline could be seen as Abang Johari not being prudent with the state’s finances, saying much has already been spent on the people’s welfare especially through the BKSS initiatives.

“The issue of him not spending prudently does not arise because Sarawak was the state with the most amount of assistance handed out to its citizens, with many other initiatives implemented to revive the local economy from the effects of the pandemic,” he said.

Jeniri agreed, saying Sarawak is one of the states that can afford to start an airline if it really wants to.

“I think Sarawak has the money despite the fact that (former finance minister) Lim Guan Eng said three years ago that Sarawak is going to be bankrupt.

“I think this is the only state that has been having a RM10 billion budget every year for the last four years,” he said.

Over the past three years, the Sarawak state legislative assembly has passed a state budget of RM9.891 billion for 2020, RM9.832 billion for 2021, and an RM10.136 billion budget for 2022.

Abang Johari said last week how plans were underway for Sarawak to establish its own boutique airline should his party be given the mandate to govern the state.

He had said the airline, which would be available for business and leisure travel, would be parked under Hornbill Skyways, the established regional charter air service in the state.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia senior professor Suffian Mansor said there could be pockets of people who might be unhappy with calls for an airline to be set up, especially since many bread and butter issues are still left unresolved.

But Suffian said the range of sentiments triggered by this one announcement will, however, vary depending on the locality of voters.

“Yes the voters would think the bread and butter issues must be priority over the mega project. However, this issue would not have great impact on GPS’ changes especially in rural areas,” he said.

Suffian also felt the promise of an airline might not come off as Abang Johari focusing on more luxurious options, saying not many Sarawakians would share that sentiment considering the amount of aid that has reached the people.

“The topic of the GPS government having done much under the Sarawakku Sayang (BKSS) plans would overshadow the question of Abang Johari indulging in luxuries like the airline.

“The important thing is that GPS has played a good role in helping the people during the time of the pandemic, that is what would matter to the voters,” he said.

On Abang Johari’s timing of the announcement, Jeniri said he sees it as coincidental that it was done during election season, and not deliberately trying to woo voters.

“It is part of the state's initiatives, it’s not (a move) strategically to win the voters. It is to me, based on my observation over the last five years, him announcing what is part of his overall plans for the state,” Jeniri asserted.

Sarawakians will head to the polls for the 12th state election on December 18 to elect a government into the country's oldest state legislative assembly.

Before the state legislative assembly’s dissolution, ruling coalition GPS held 67 seats or more than a two-thirds majority, despite winning 72 seats in the 2016 polls, as a result of defections.

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