Celebrating the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, 1963, in Singapore (Source: Wikimedia.org)TO Sabahans and Sarawakians, 16 Sept is the date of their independence from British colonial rule back in 1963. It was on this auspicious day that Sabah and Sarawak helped to form the new Federation of Malaysia, together with the Malayan Federation and Singapore — on more or less equal footing. To them, Malaysia is going to be 45 years old this year.
The muted voices from these two outlying provinces have never gained much credence in the sprawling metropolis of Kuala Lumpur. There, in the centre of power, the Malay nationalist narrative rules supreme. It has been written into history textbooks, and taught in schools at all levels all over the country.
It is essentially a grand narrative scripted by Umno. It goes something like this:
The Malay people finally fulfilled their destiny of founding a Malay nation-state, the Federation of Malaya, on 31 Aug 1957. In 1963, the former British colonies of the North Borneo Territory (later renamed Sabah) and Sarawak joined the union and formed Malaysia as additional two states in the newly extended federation.
The implication is clear: the Malayan Federation is the parent body of Malaysia, and Sabah and Sarawak are mere extensions of the territory claimed by the Malay nation. The meek subservient voice of these two North Borneo states must be subsumed by the monopoly on national discourse emanating from Kuala Lumpur. That is why Malaysian Independence Day is celebrated annually on 31 Aug.
This is far more than a squabble over a mere date to commemorate Independence. The contradiction is symbolic of the regional divide between East and West Malaysia that has festered for all the decades since Merdeka. So far, this potentially explosive alienation has not exploded into a national crisis, simply because the voices from the East have never been given a platform by the Barisan Nasional (BN)-controlled national media.
Silence does not imply consent or acquiescence. Far away from the centre of power, the Land Below the Wind and the Land of the Hornbill have been steeped in undercurrents of bitter resentment. The long-standing question among Sabahans and Sarawakians has been this: have the promises of Malaysian independence been fulfilled for the people of these two states, or have they been liberated from British colonial rule in 1963, only to become quasi-colonies of Kuala Lumpur?
These two states are rich in natural resources, especially oil and gas. But they are given royalties of only 5%, which is pittance compared with the astronomical profits earned by Petronas every year. Petronas, as we all know, is the premier cash cow for the federal government, a prodigious source of income for all kinds of massive projects in West Malaysia, including the Twin Towers at the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
While Petronas remains the Malaysian government’s premier cash cow, Sabah and Sarawak
are given petroleum royalties of only 5% (© Ramasamy Chidambaram / sxc.hu)
Meanwhile, Sabah and Sarawak are decades behind in socio-economic development compared with West Malaysia. At the moment, they are two of the poorest states in the Federation, only slightly ahead of Kelantan.
The Trans-Borneo Highway is hardly a highway compared with the North-South and East-West Highways in the peninsula, though there is some improvement from the colonial days half a century ago. In all areas of infrastructural development, Sabah and Sarawak feel like underdeveloped regions to first-time visitors from West Malaysia.
So the grouses continue unabated, but as long as the BN controls the government at state level in Sabah and Sarawak, while maintaining supreme control in the allocation of development funds in Kuala Lumpur, the opposition can make little headway in these two territories.
With vast constituencies to cover, opposition candidates simply do not have the financial, and therefore organisational, resources to topple the BN government. In Sabah and Sarawak, money politics also reigns, especially in rural and semi-rural constituencies.
Flag of Sarawak (© Matthew A Lockhart, source: Wikimedia.org)A new path towards national integration?
The 8 March general election has changed all that. Overnight, the BN federal government found themselves ruling the country at the pleasure of 54 Members of Parliament (MPs) from Sabah and Sarawak. If 30 or so BN MPs jump over to the Pakatan Rakyat, the federal government would change hands.
De facto Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has promised that this Machiavellian tour de force would materialise on the symbolic date of 16 Sept — less than 24 hours away from the date of publication of this article.
Whether he has promised those MPs with uneasy feet personal gains or not is uncertain. From the rumour mills, I have heard he has promised them an increase in oil and gas royalties to the state government from the current 5% to 20%. The chief ministers of these two states would also come from the non-Muslim natives, who form the majority of their populations. These would be very powerful incentives for some BN MPs to jump ship indeed.
Flag of Sabah (Public domain, source: Wikimedia.org)So 16 Sept has now grabbed national attention. For once, the national eye is turned to the East. Will they or will they not jump: that is the million-dollar question. For once, Sabah and Sarawak hold the trump card in national politics.
Like most commentators from both sides of the South China Sea, I remain sceptical about the prospect of such a regime change. But then, Malaysians have since learnt not to brush Anwar Ibrahim aside lightly.
If it should happen, then I would be pleasantly surprised. It would mean a reinterpretation of Malaysian nationhood and a rethinking of what it means for Malaysia to be truly inclusive and independent. We shall then embark on a new path towards national integration.
If Anwar’s promise of regime change through mass defections of Sabahan and Sarawakian MPs turns out to be no more than a futile gimmick, it would not matter anyway. There are always the next parliamentary elections a few years down the road, and a crucial state election in Sarawak in two or three years’ time.
The floodgates for change in Malaysia have opened. Nothing can stop an idea when its time has arrived.
I am reminded of this immortal line by WB Yeats in his poem, The Second Coming: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre… (© Pavel Losevsky / 123rf)
Sim Kwang Yang was DAP Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. His column, An Examined Life, is published weekly on Malaysiakini.com.