A strange event took place in the a luxury Central London Hotel, The Churchill, on Friday to promote international investment in Sarawak.
It was held under the banner of a ‘global roadshow’ called MINTRED Connects (MINTRED being the Ministry of International Trade, Industry and Investment Sarawak)
Fresh from COP 28, the newly titled premier of the state, Abang Jo, and his deputy, Awang Tengah, presided over the hour long event that was preceded by nice refreshments (which included intricate Sarawak sweetmeats, painstakingly produced) and followed by a grand ‘Networking Lunch’.
The attendees were almost entirely made up of Malaysians based in London and what appeared to be a large delegation of Sarawakians themselves.
The Editor of Sarawak Report had been notified of the occasion, but having applied a few days before to attend and also to interview the ministers was told that “Unfortunately due to prior engagement[s] and [a] tight schedule, the Premier of Sarawak is fully occupied for this Friday”.
Nonetheless, there was a clear opportunity to at least interact with Sarawak’s chief minister in the published schedule for that day. This specified that half an hour would be set aside from 1045- 1115 for a ‘Fireside Chat’ for the audience to put questions to their host and his deputy.
The MINTRED documents for the day had outlined the state government’s ‘Vision‘ to make Sarawak a “thriving hub for international trade and investment, recognised for its vibrant business ecosystem….”.
Sarawak Report drew up a short list of questions designed to draw attention to the lack of any mention in the briefing of the state’s impoverished native communities and their exclusion from the abundant existing wealth of this now ‘high income’ state (according to the World Bank’s latest tables).
Neither does the vision statement refer to the importance of conserving the state’s precious natural ecosystems as its politicians strive to create their “business ecosystem”. Was this not unfortunate in the week following Malaysia’s statements of intent at COP 28?
Sarawak Report also planned to ask why the priority is to invite new businesses to the already wealthy gas and oil producing region, when numerous indigenous folk have yet to be granted the ID cards they need to gain statehood, education and healthcare in order to participate in the business economy themselves?
However, upon arrival, guests were surprised to note that, in the context of an otherwise immaculately and expensively produced event, there was an unfortunate blemish on the printed version of the agenda that had been laid out on every seat.
Someone had clearly put a Sharpie pen through the three lines referring to the previously advertised Fireside Chat on each of the hundred or so cards that had presumably been delivered some days in advance of the reception taking place.
It must have been quite a job to cross out all those lines individually. However, the original type was still visible underneath stating: 1045 – “Fireside Chat London Series” Sustainable Investments and Trade Opportunities with the Premier of Sarawak”
Instead, the meeting broke up immediately after a ceremony where ‘MOUs’ were brandished involving around five small businesses which had expressed some interest in working in Sarawak.
Behind the scenes, research and discreet questioning disclosed that the presence of a potentially awkward questioner in the room was indeed the reason behind the last minute alteration to the schedule!
Such a lack of confidence and time seems strange, given the bravado of the very short event and the time set aside for a junketing lunch starting at 1115 am (which SR did not attend).
The room was instructed to rise to its feet and cheer the arrival of the premier and his deputy who then sat down to watch a well produced promotional video that trumpeted the undoubted excellence of ‘the Land of the Hornbills’ as a wonderful place to visit and to do business.
However, there was no mention of the threat to Hornbills, which like so many other species and the forest peoples face extinction thanks to deforestation and dam building.
Instead, there was much talk of the alleged ‘sustainability’ of the industrialisation plans of the state government, which plainly still chooses to categorise mega-dams as a form of ‘green energy’ and mono-culture plantations as ‘forest cover’.
Intriguingly, one of the prime virtues touted in this video for doing business in Sarawak was the distinctly sinister boast that the state enjoys “unparalleled political stability”,
How strange that such a stable and secure set of rulers seem so shy of giving interviews or explaining how they have kept in office for such an extremely long period of uninterrupted election victories.
It is indeed a world-beating period of time that has even outlasted the previous record hold on power by a single coalition …. which was that of the federal government of Malaysia itself.
The Deputy Premier was allocated just five minutes to make his speech and the Premier just ten minutes.
Abang Jo notably praised further dam building plans and referred to algae based jet fuel research as evidence of a ‘green’ agenda for Sarawak.
Yet, he didn’t mention his recent renewal of the 60 year timber concessions granted across swathes of Sarawak to the notorious crony company Samling, prolonging environmental destruction and misery to communities in the sparsely remaining less damaged rainforest regions of the state.
The premier (introduced by his extended name and full title, together with his collection of multiple offices of state i.e. “The Right Honourable Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri (Dr) Abang Haji Abdul Rahman Zohari bin Tun Datuk Abang Haji Openg, Premier of Sarawak, Minister For Finance and New Economy, Minister For Natural Resources and Urban Development, Minister For Energy And Environmental Sustainability”) went on to speak of developing local skills and of allowing all races and even religions to go to university.
He clearly viewed this approach as being vastly progressive on his part and yet he neglected to mention the plight of stateless children whose families predate his own in the region.
They can’t go to school, develop their skills or join Sarawak’s university campuses or work in public services, which are still overwhelmingly dominated by the Malay/Melanau Muslim minority community in the state from which he too originates.
The two illustrious Sarawak leaders made a very swift exit from the gathering towards lunch, refusing all requests to answer questions from the editor of Sarawak Report.