NOT unlike in the case of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad before, news of Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud stepping down would have come as a surprise to some who knew Taib well, just as Dr Mahathir's resignation surprised almost everyone.
These surprised people had confidently predicted that our prime minister of 22 years and Sarawak's chief minister for the last 33 years would never step down and would instead die in office.
Such leaders as Dr Mahathir and Taib have loomed so large over our lives that they seemed indispensable, until they themselves disabused us all of such notions.
Just as Dr Mahathir will go down in history as the leader who stepped down when he was riding high, Taib similarly will earn his place in our history books not just as Sarawak's longest-serving leader in a long time (if not ever) but for also opting to go when he could very well have gone on and on.
To be sure, there had been sycophants who would give Taib any number of reasons why his services as political leader were still needed and that, in any case, now is not the time to call it quits.
|State leader with national impact
Sarawak Chief Minister (then) Datuk Patinggi Abdul Taib Mahmud addressing a crowd estimated at about 15,000 people at Kuching Airport. The crowd of wellwishers, Barisan Nasional supporters and government employees were at the airport to welcome home the chief minister on Jan 15, 1985, after his three-week vacation abroad.
Such reasoning is mostly self-serving. Others are undoubtedly borne out of regard for a leader of genuine uncommon calibre.
Many Sarawakians will volunteer that whatever might have been Taib's shortcomings as a leader or the controversy swirling around him and his extended family, they will miss a leader who had been mostly fair, who showed brave and exemplary religious tolerance and who brought prolonged political stability in a state whose very fractured ethnic make-up does not make its governance by any means an easy proposition.
Malaysians in general may also miss a state leader who, when doubts were openly expressed by lesser political leaders in the state as to whether it has indeed gotten a fair deal out of the federation, would sweepingly and categorically enumerate where and why Sarawak has benefited from being an integral part of Malaysia.
But the true mark of a great leader remains if he is ready and able to let go of his own accord. More than three decades in power is certainly a lengthy tenure by any standard. Any polity needs rejuvenation and renewal and that can only happen when those at the top show enough magnanimity to make way.
Indeed, the state last had any meaningful leadership renewal in the heat of a political crisis, back in 1987, when more than half of Taib's cabinet resigned and defected to the opposition, allowing the likes of such current stalwarts as Tan Sri Adenan Satem and Datuk Amar Abang Johari Openg to move up as state ministers.
Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Alfred Jabu has been in the Sarawak cabinet continuously even longer than Taib himself: all the way back to 1974!
A new chief minister taking over now as Taib makes way may serve also as a signal for some of these senior leaders that it is time they make way as well for newer leaders to move up and shine.
These new leaders will need their own time and space to consolidate their own positions and face the growing challenges of a new political era of much greater political openness, higher popular expectations and heightened political contestations as the opposition grows in strength, sophistication and determination.
New leaders in Sarawak will increasingly also be expected to manage rising expectations nationally as they will be called upon more and more to contribute in meaningful and productive ways to national governance, given that Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, the backbone of the Sarawak BN, is now also the second largest party in the Federal Government.
Taib, by dint of length of tenure as Sarawak chief minister as well as the leadership strength inherent within him, has insinuated his state very positively into national life and consciousness. Sarawak political leaders now bulk up the federal cabinet as never before.
Sarawak now is well-positioned to influence national political life instead of being mere followers as national politics impinges on the state and its people. Insofar as Taib galvanised the state's politics to make all this possible, he assured the state of far-reaching national impact.
Adenan, as successor, will have a high bar to climb building from where Taib has left. But as Taib's intellectual equal, he eases into the chief minister's chair well-equipped.John Teo | email@example.com New Straits Times NST Opinion Columnist 15/02/2014