SARAWAK'S powerful Chief Minister will step down at the end of this month after three decades, and has hand-picked his former brother-in-law to succeed him in the Malaysian state in Borneo that is both politically and economically critical for its votes and resources.
Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, 77, announced his resignation on Wednesday and named Tan Sri Adenan Satem, 70, a veteran Sarawak politician, to take over the post. But analysts say Mr Taib is still likely to wield influence in the state.
Mr Taib said he will officially step down on Feb 28 without giving reasons why. As the state's leader since 1981, he has consistently delivered votes for Barisan Nasional via his Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), earning Sarawak its reputation as "BN's fixed deposit".
The media said Mr Taib is also expected to vacate his Balingian state seat soon. Speculation is that he will take over as state governor or Yang di-Pertua Negeri - a more ceremonial post where he would still have the power to appoint state government heads but technically must act on the advice of the chief minister.
Mr Taib said economic and political affairs in Sarawak would remain unchanged despite the power transition.
"Native lands will get a chance for development for higher income for the natives," he said yesterday. "The only sad thing for me is that I'm going to miss the pressure of work and have to learn not to drive like a sports car, and be more consistent with my age."
The move is widely being seen as one made to appease a Sarawak electorate that is unhappy over allegations of land-grabbing and the plundering of lush rainforests for logging and oil palm plantations made against companies linked to Mr Taib and his family.
Unlike some of Mr Taib's siblings and children, Mr Adenan has not been the target of such allegations of corruption. Still, as a state lawmaker and Cabinet minister, he is seen as loyal to Mr Taib, and is not expected to rock the boat. Mr Adenan was formerly married to Ms Aisah Zainab Mahmud, one of Mr Taib's nine siblings.
Mr Taib tapped Mr Adenan to succeed him over two others - PBB deputy president Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg and senior vice-president Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hassan.
Professor James Chin of Monash University said Mr Adenan is widely accepted by natives and the Chinese community of Sarawak as he is seen as moderate and able to block Umno from bringing in its brand of Malay Muslim supremacy politics - which many in Sarawak view as divisive. It remains the only one of Malaysia's 13 states without a single Umno branch.
"What Sarawakians are afraid of is Umno coming in, and so Adenan only has to keep the state in status quo," Prof Chin told The Straits Times yesterday.
But he reckoned Mr Adenan will not be chief minister for long, as he had heart bypass surgery last year, although there has been no speculation on who would be next in line.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.