THE establishment of Malaysia was much like a marriage. Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak entered into matrimony on 16 Sept 1963. Indonesia and the Philippines spoke out against the union instead of forever holding their peace.
Despite the opposition, the four regions pledged unity as a single, sovereign federation, promising to be faithful and equal partners in good times and in bad, in joy and in sorrow.
And they lived happily ever after.
Fast forward 45 years after the union. Singapore has, since 1965, seceded from Malaysia. The relationship between Peninsula Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak is no longer sacrosanct, a marriage rocked with broken promises. The East Malaysian states have “descended” in ranks to become no more than a wronged spouse in an unfortunate union, with West Malaysia enjoying political supremacy and socio-economic advantage.
“Sarawak and Sabah feel that we have been sidelined. There is still that uneasy feeling [that begs us to question], ‘Are we really part of the three regions (i.e. Peninsula Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak)?’” says Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) president Datuk Seri Dr James Jemut Masing.
With the political events that have swept the nation, that bleak situation might change. As a result of the 8 March 2008 elections, Sabah and Sarawak’s support have become particularly important to the survival of the Barisan Nasional (BN). The East Malaysian states have once more found leverage, just as they did in 1963, when they were wooed to join the federation of Malaya to form Malaysia. Then, it was so that their native populations would provide a counterweight to Singapore’s predominately Chinese population.
“I would like to emphasise that Sabah and Sarawak are two of the most critical partners of Malaysia. And 8 March shows, we cannot ignore that. You cannot ignore us,” Masing says in a phone interview.
Political observers say the key to cultivating unity between East and West Malaysia is to overcome the national historical amnesia about Sabah and Sarawak’s equal partnership in the federation. The two states’ cultural and religious autonomy must also be respected.
“To foster unity, we must recognise that there are three regions in Malaysia. Not two out of the 14 states. If we understand that, I think a closer relationship can be built much faster,” Masing says.
Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, who is president of United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko), and a former chief minister of Sabah, concurs.
If we want national unity, “it must not be artificial — you know, singing this song or that song… it should be more practical, [such as] settling grouses and changing the people’s mindsets.
“There is still this perception that Malaysia refers specifically to the peninsula. When I tell people in Semenanjung that I am going back to Sabah, they ask me when I am coming back to Malaysia. The mindset that Sabah [and Sarawak] is an addendum to Malaysia must change,” he tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
Which direction are we headed in? A boatman waits for passengers at the Sarawak river (© Albert Lai / sxc.hu)State rights
Sabah and Sarawak were guaranteed enormous autonomy under the auspices of the 20-Point Agreement (Sabah) and the 18-Point Agreement (Sarawak), the international treaty signed during Malaysia’s establishment.
The agreement stipulates, among others, that Sabah and Sarawak are not required to declare Islam as their state religion. The states would also have control over immigration, the civil service, education and development funds.
But these rights have, over the years, been bartered away by politicians who were eager to gain favour with Putrajaya.
Monash University Malaysia political science professor James Chin says respect for that agreement is the lynchpin of unity between East and West Malaysia.
“The people of Sabah and Sarawak feel that the federal government has not met their promise,” he says.
Dompok believes Sabahans have been shortchanged in some crucial areas. He points to the civil service as an example. “After 45 years as Malaysians, there are not many signs of advancement [in the civil service]; we don’t get a chief secretary, for instance.
“There are many explanations offered [by the federal government]. But the country has not worked hard enough to ensure that the civil service is a reflection of Malaysia. We should have a service that is Malaysia, truly Malaysia,” complains Dompok, who is also minister in the prime minister’s department.
“Another point of contention is the economic disparity between the Malay bumiputera and the non-Malay bumiputera. There are glaring disparities that require attention,” he adds.
Constitutional law expert Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi thinks we ignore at our peril the importance of the international treaty that binds Malaysia.
“Sabah is wedded to the 20 points. And Sarawak is wedded to the 18 points. They hold it dear to their hearts and we must respect that. Nations are born not because the law binds them. But nations survive, and unity and patriotism are created by winning people’s hearts,” says Shad.
Shad maintains that Sabah and Sarawak are more than equal partners under the Federation. Most of the 20 points are included into the Constitution; and the states have additional law-making and financial powers, and sources of revenue that are not available to the West Malaysian states.
“But whether they (the people of Sabah and Sarawak) are afforded those special rights in the administration, that is the question,” he says.
However, Shad says, Sabah and Sarawak must also take a share of the blame. The lack of development in these two states is also the result of inadequate leadership, mismanagement, and the lack of dynamic policies.
An Iban dance performed at the Borneo Cultural Centre (© Alex Hilton / sxc.hu)Cultural and religious autonomy
Chin says granting Sabah and Sarawak complete autonomy would go against the notion of building a united nation. But the federal government should respect Sabah and Sarawak’s cultural, religious and language diversity and autonomy.
The many minority bumiputera groups in Sabah and Sarawak are largely marginalised by sheer virtue of the fact that every facet of life — be it pop culture or political discourse — operate along Malay, Chinese and Indian racial lines. The people of Sabah and Sarawak are more than often under-represented in these areas.
Chin says the government could, for example, grant the people of Sabah their own television station, which they have been asking for since the 1980s.
“It’s very simple, it’s not very difficult and it doesn’t cost a lot of money. It’s not a multi-billion ringgit project, it’s a matter of political will,” he says.
Furthermore, the government should not export Putrajaya’s brand of race-based politics or try to Islamise the population. Such actions would undermine the inherent pluralism in Sabah and Sarawak.
Chin says the ruling coalition has been trying to export its model of race-based politics to Sabah since the early 1990s. It has racialised politics in Sabah and created a heightened sense of ethnicity.
“Race is not an issue there. When you start promoting race, you will heighten the awareness of racial issues,” he says.
Additionally, while issues of an Islamic state often grab the headlines in the peninsula, Muslims are a minority among the 27 ethnic groups in Sarawak and 32 in Sabah.
Masing says Sabah and Sarawak feel the need to maintain autonomy because it is “the last bastion in being recognised as an integral part of Malaysia.”
He argues that once Sabah and Sarawak gain parity with the peninsula in terms of progress, development and education, the states’ protective barriers will naturally fade away.
Some have argued that this is the opportune moment for Sabah and Sarawak to make demands from the federal government in order to adjust the widening disparity between East and West Malaysia. Already, post 8 March, the federal government has been allocating funds for Sabah and Sarawak, and addressing grievances that have long been ignored such as the issues of illegal immigrants and lack of economic parity.
By and large, development has bypassed most Sabahans and SarawakiansBut Masing disagrees, saying this was exploitative “blackmail”.
“I don’t think Sabah and Sarawak — now that we hold the political strings, so to speak — should push this idea forward,” he says. He asserts that Sabah and Sarawak should have the political maturity to understand the situation and be sensitive to each other’s needs.
Nevertheless, political maturity cannot be developed if Malaysians as a whole continue to overlook the original stakeholders and the events that led to Malaysia’s formation.
With the anticipated political changes ahead, it will be interesting to see if 16 Sept will go down in history as the birth of Malaysia or the day the BN ends its half-century rule.
Whatever the outcome, the tragedy is that most national-level politicians have refused to give full importance to 16 Sept as Malaysia Day, saying it isn’t “healthy for national integration”.
“The bone of contention is this: they say Malaysia is 51 years old. Of course, that is not historically true. Malaysia was not formed 51 years ago. But there was Malaysia 45 years ago. Let us not deceive ourselves to think that something was formed before its existence,” Masing says.
Dompok, too, is bitter about this. “If you ask people in the peninsula how old the country is, they will say 51; but if you ask those in Sabah and Sarawak, they would say 45. There is this mindset that Sabah and Sarawak did not join to form a country.
“There are people who point to the United States, which got its independence on 4 July 1776. They say many of the states joined the country at a later date, yet they all celebrate 4 July. Well, in their case the other states joined them but there was no change in name — it remained the United States.
“That’s not the case here. On 16 Sept 1963, the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore joined together to form Malaysia. There was even a name change from Malaya to Malaysia to reflect its new composition, the fact that it is a new country,” he points out.
“There is no doubt that the nation is only 45 years old. But as you can see, in this matter (as in many others), Sabah and Sarawak are being asked to follow Semenanjung,” Dompok laments.
Whether we choose to think of ourselves as being 45 or 51, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the fate of Malaysians is entwined. In our march to progress, no one — be they from the peninsula, Sabah or Sarawak — should be left behind. Indeed, a nation is only as strong as its people are united.