By Newmond Tibin and Nashir Mansor
KOTA KINABALU, April 17 (Bernama) -- Undeniably, from Kuala Penyu on the west coast to Tawau in the east, economic progress can be felt throughout Sabah, making it one of the more advanced states in Malaysia.
The state's tourism sector deserves an ?A' rating, going by the significant influx of tourists in the various tourist destinations across the state.
The progress enjoyed by Sabahans now is the result of the programmes planned and implemented by Tan Sri Musa Aman since he became the Chief Minister in March 2003.
Musa has wisely planned the state's development under the Sabah Development Agenda by focusing on efficient economic management and reducing dependence on natural resources.
The development agenda also focuses on the programmes to assist the poor in the rural areas as well as forging greater racial unity through power sharing as the backbone of stability in the state.
Musa is also known for the sustainable management of Sabah's finances, having often received the Auditor-General's pat on the back with an ?A' rating in maintaining the good financial position of the state.
The Chief Minister discusses Sabah's development and progress in an exclusive interview with Malaysian National News Agency (Bernama) editor Newmond Tibin and the agency's Sabah bureau chief Nashir Mansor.
Sabah is actively moving towards becoming a developed state under your administration. What is the status of this development effort?
The Sabah government is committed to ensuring sustainable stability, not only in terms of politics but also economic development and social progress.
Today's achievement is not the result of my effort alone. As I have often said, our achievement is the result of the solid support and strong cooperation of all parties, including my fellow Cabinet ministers, component party leaders, civil servants, the private sector and the people as a whole.
Our emphasis is to ensure that the people continue to benefit from our development programmes in the rural areas, as well as in the agriculture, tourism, manufacturing and human capital development sectors.
Our goal is to improve the people's standard of living and to ensure that the momentum of development continues to run smoothly. 'Alhamdullilah' (Praise be to God), so far, our development efforts have helped to improve the well-being of the people, thereby reducing the gap in the standard of living between the urban and rural areas.
Tourism has long established itself as a pillar of the Sabah economy. Will Sabah be able to continue its dependence on tourism or will any other sector such as industries take over as the main contributor to the economy?
Sabah is indeed rich in natural resources, particularly the mountains, islands, beautiful beaches and unique cultural and ethnic attractions that are bringing in the tourists. With the relentless efforts of the government to enhance and maintain these attractions and uniqueness, Sabah has become a popular international tourist destination.
From the day I assumed the post of chief minister, I have emphasised and outlined my agenda. I have stressed the important sectors, first tourism, second agriculture and third manufacturing and human capital development.
Today, I see that I have hit the nail on the head. We are now leading in tourism. Tourists arrivals have risen to 3.4 million to 3.5 million people, comprising both locals and foreigners. Now, we don't have enough accommodation for the many tourists. Hence, we need a lot more hotels or homestays as I expect the arrivals to increase annually.
With such rapid development in this sector, it has spin-off effects. In 2016, we recorded RM7.5 billion in receipts from tourism. Restaurants and the logistics business are flourishing and small businesses and farmers are also benefiting.
The creative industry has also shown huge potential in terms of creativity and being innovative. More attention will be given to this industry in terms of infrastructure and facilities to enhance and diversify state tourism's assets as Sabah has human capital with talent and creativity in the performing arts and other creative fields, both at the national and international levels.
Hence, the state government is providing the appropriate platforms for them to explore, hone and improve the skills and talents, especially among the young people, in the creative industry. The Sabah Handicraft Centre and the Sabah International Convention Centre (SICC) provide conducive platforms to highlight local talents, not only in Sabah but also at the international level.
How much of these rapid investments and developments in Sabah will benefit Sabahans?
Sabah is one of the fastest-growing states in terms of investments and developments that benefit the people as it provides many employment opportunities, skills and training in various sectors as well as stimulates the socio-economic growth of the local community.
Apart from ensuring continuous development, the state government is also making sure there is sustainable development of natural resources so that the people, especially the future generations, will continue to enjoy the wealth of the state's rich natural resources.
These efforts also portray Sabah as a state capable of pursuing development without destroying its natural resources.
For example, in the tourism sector, the opening of many restaurants and businesses provide opportunities for our people. The hotels, including the international chains, need workers. Our young people, school leavers should be trained to work so they can fill the vacancies. We have also asked the hotel or resort owners to give priority to Sabahans in the recruitment of workers at their hotels and resorts.
Similarly, we are also developing the agricultural sector with the cooperation of the relevant parties. There are several agricultural programmes that provide good employment opportunities including livestock breeding, aquaculture and many more.
What is the status of the progress of the Pan Borneo Highway project in Sabah, and how will the highway benefit the people and the development of the state?
The Pan Borneo Highway is a promise made by the Barisan Nasional, under the leadership of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, in its 13th general election manifesto to build a highway in Sabah and Sarawak.
Starting from the manifesto and then on to the planning, followed by a series of discussions and signing of agreements, today the Pan Borneo Highway project in Sabah is being implemented in several phases and packages.
Thus far, the project, launched in March 2015, has been running smoothly. The Pan Borneo Highway project in Sabah involves 35 packages worth RM12.8 billion from Sindumin, Sipitang, to Tawau, with seven packages currently being implemented. As of March this year, five of the packages were at the stage of work to build the alignment and bridges while the other two were in the process of entering the site phase.
It (the highway project) is not just about building and upgrading a road and turning it into a highway. In fact, this project is a catalyst for Sabah's economic development as it will help boost the state's development as outlined in the Sabah development agenda.
Apart from strengthening the state's road networks that will facilitate the people's mobility, the highway will also stimulate and boost other economic activities by facilitating the marketing of agricultural products, as well as encouraging the development of the tourism sector.
It will also stimulate the development and growth of economic zones such as housing and commercial areas, creating more employment opportunities, improving skills as well as providing experience for the local population.
The important thing is the guarantee given by the BN government that this highway will be toll-free, meaning that people who use the expressway don't have to pay toll charges. Once again, we are grateful to and really appreciate the Prime Minister's concern for the development of the state and the people's needs with the implementation of this highway project that will stimulate and drive the state's economic growth comprehensively.
How far has the Mini Estet Sejahtera (MESEJ) or Prosperous Mini Estate programme helped the target group?
The state government has always been committed to developing areas identified as being under the poverty line by ensuring that the wellbeing of people in these areas will be taken care of. There has been a sharp drop in the poverty rate, from 19.2 per cent in 2009 to 2.9 per cent in 2016.
MESEJ is one of the programmes introduced to eradicate poverty, whereby the poor are involved in income-generating economic activities such as collective cultivation of oil palm. Evidently, this programme has been successful in contributing to an increase in the income of the poor and uplifting them from poverty.
Apart from MESEJ, other poverty-eradication programmes initiated by the government are the Prosperous Village Programme (Program Kampung Sejahtera) and farms to generate income for the hardcore poor, especially in the rural areas.
What is Sabah BN's strategy to meet the challenges posed by the coalition of local opposition parties?
I often emphasise that all BN leaders and machinery, in particular, should not take it easy or feel comfortable or be complacent. Instead, we must continue to multiply our efforts and work to help the people and explain what we have done so far and to ensure that our machinery is in a smooth and orderly state at all levels.
In terms of strategy, we don't have a specific strategy because our strategy is to go down to the ground and help the people at all times and seasons, without having to wait for the election as we do have the records and facts to show our success and achievements compared to the opposition parties that promise populist and unrealistic ideals to the people.
God willing, with the cooperation of all parties, UMNO and BN components, and by staying united, I believe we will achieve a major victory as the people know that we have a good track record, we do our work, we go down to the ground and we know the people's problems and help solve them.
Based on all the successes and achievements of the BN government in Sabah, what are the BN's chances of defending its seats and capturing opposition seats in the 14th general election?
Based on our achievements and successes in driving the state's development, it is clear that we have fulfilled our responsibility and mandate. We have been working and going down to every part of the state from the very beginning, from the time we formed the government after the last election.
We are not a seasonal party and leaders who only work during an election; we work to help the people across the state - before, during and after an election.
With the political stability, economic growth and social prosperity that we have enjoyed under the BN government, I believe the people of Sabah will make a wise and right decision for continuity of the development and progress.
For me, the people of Sabah are wise. They are good at assessing what is good or otherwise. Therefore, do not make a mistake as the wrong choice or wrong step can trigger unwanted things. Hence, support the BN and vote BN candidates because we have a good track record.