First 100 days of Hajiji’s GRS government in Sabah marred by Covid-19

Julia Chan
·6-min read
Much of Hajiji’s first 100 days revolved around Covid-19 as the state scrambled to cope with the sudden escalation in cases and communicate effectively with the public. — Bernama pic
Much of Hajiji’s first 100 days revolved around Covid-19 as the state scrambled to cope with the sudden escalation in cases and communicate effectively with the public. — Bernama pic

KOTA KINABALU, Jan 6 — As he marks his first 100 days in office, observers and the public alike would arguably be hard pressed to name any significant policy decision by new Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor to date.

The soft-spoken “Mr Nice Guy” of Sabah politics was thrown in at the deep end immediately upon his swearing-in on September 29.

The Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) leader had to deal with the state’s soaring Covid-19 cases, culminating in the worst wave of infections to hit the country yet, a depressed economy and incessant demands from new political allies at both the state and federal levels.

To add to his troubles, Hajiji contracted Covid-19 in early October after an aide tested positive, and was rumoured to have been quite ill, before turning the corner and making a full recovery.

In his capacity as the 16th chief minister, Hajiji said that GRS has nine main thrusts — Sabah rights, infrastructure, economy, employment, public service, health and well-being, education and human capital, security, and youth and women’s development — that he intends to fulfill despite the recent setbacks.

In a statement released today, Hajiji admitted any progress that could have been made was beset by problems, including the pandemic.

“However, the Pledge and the programmes we planned would be implemented as best as possible after the Covid-19 pandemic has eased... the GRS government has actually implemented some of the nine core thrusts and is committed to implementing them as soon as possible,” he said.

Covid-19 response

Much of Hajiji’s first 100 days revolved around Covid-19 as the state scrambled to cope with the sudden escalation in cases and communicate effectively with the public.

As cases soared, the state government struggled to keep people calm as rumours swirled over an apparent lack of adequate medical staff and resources to treat the stricken.

Hajiji’s response was to task his right-hand man, state Local Government and Housing Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun, with giving regular press conferences, where he could field any queries as the official Covid-19 spokesman.

Perhaps due to the SOPs that are currently in place and the need to avoid mass gatherings, Hajiji has yet to hold a press conference since his brush with Covid-19, instead preferring to release daily statements on points of interest.

In those, he has announced increased funding for food baskets and aid for Sabahans affected by the pandemic, among others.

The state has also channelled some RM160 million into its Covid-19 fund for cash aid for the many categories of people affected, waived stall licences, offered rental exemptions to People’s Housing Projects, given discounts for utility bills and distributed funds to small business owners.

State rights

Perhaps the most politically significant change thus far under Hajiji was compelling national petroleum company, Petronas, to pay state sales tax to Sabah.

Its significance lies in the fact that the sales tax on petroleum products, estimated at RM1.25 billion, is among the highest income earners for the state.

The previous Warisan Plus government gazetted the sales tax in 2018, and began its enforcement in April 2020.

Eight out of the nine oil and gas companies in Sabah had started paying this tax, except for Petronas, citing various technical reasons.

However, Petronas finally agreed to the payment officially on December 15, 2020, eight months after its implementation.

Hajiji, the state Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia chairman, credited his party president and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for the favourable outcome, saying that it would not have been possible without the latter’s relationship with the state government.

Hajiji has touted his close relationship with Muhyiddin as a promising foundation for state and federal ties in its struggle for state rights under MA63 and devolution of power.

The Sabah Economic Advisory Council

Undoubtedly his main task, Hajiji set up the Sabah Economic Advisory Council to help revive the state’s flagging economy.

Under the “Sabah Maju Jaya” theme, his aim is to implement a five-year plan to develop the agricultural, industrial and tourism sectors as well as build on human capital and well-being.

The council, which was set up to support this goal, consists of industry leaders from both the public and private sectors, academics and non-governmental organisations, who were tasked with bringing foreign investments to the state.

Its good intentions hit a bump in the road when Opposition leader and former chief minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal pointed out that a bankrupt had been appointed to sit on the board.

In response, Hajiji said that the individual in question was replaced once his status was known.

The incident, however, has led to some public scepticism over the council’s credibility and ability.

Appointment of women to top positions

After criticism over the lack of women representation in his Cabinet, Hajiji’s government appointed two women to senior public service positions.

State Deputy Attorney General (AG) Datuk Nor Asiah Mohd Yusof was appointed as the new state attorney general, replacing Datuk Brenndon Keith Soh, who resigned on November 23.

Meanwhile, Kota Kinabalu City Hall director-general Noorliza Awang Alip became Kota Kinabalu City’s first woman mayor, after incumbent Datuk Nordin Siman’s contract ended on December 31.

Nor Asiah, a 50-year-old alumnus of the International Islamic University Malaysia, was the fourth woman to be made state AG after Datuk Kinnie Li Yun Ken (1968-1972), Datuk Mariati Robert (2013-2017) and Datuk Rose Zaleha Pandin (2017-July 2020).

However, Nor Asiah’s rise came after Soh’s seemingly premature resignation after just four months in the role, following his appointment by the previous state Warisan Plus government.

Soh is now a legal adviser with the Chief Minister’s Department following mutual agreement with the current government.

Hajiji said that the state government will focus on giving women and young professionals opportunities to play more roles in developing the state.

The only two women in his Cabinet are assistant ministers in the Ministry of Community Development and People’s Well-being.

Controversial developments

Two major projects will be going ahead under the new GRS government as well.

They proved contentious for the Barisan Nasional government that first mooted them, as well as the Warisan Plus government that walked back election promises to cancel them.

Conservationists, activists and the public have objected to the multi-billion-ringgit beachfront Tanjung Aru Eco Development (TAED) and the Kaiduan dam project due to environmental and socioeconomic concerns.

Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin said that the projects are going ahead and the government will “have to be brave” in order to solve the problems of the people.

The mixed development TAED project, which was slated to include high-end resorts, commercial and residential complexes, a marina, a golf course and recreational areas, will be “scaled down” and will no longer involve any reclamation work.

According to Bung, the proposed Kaiduan dam, which was relocated downriver to the adjacent Papar district, will be moved back to Penampang, where its lifespan is expected to last 85 years.

Like Shafie, Bung said that the importance of the project outweighed the concerns of the public and would be beneficial in the long-run.

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