Malaysia Day Time For Sabah Sarawak To Rise
As we celebrate the 58th anniversary of Malaysia Day, it is time to holistically address the frustrations of the people of Sabah and Sarawak and allow them to play a larger role at the national level.
Even today there isn’t much representation of Sabahans and Sarawakians at the national level – whether in politics or culture, whether in the civil service or government-linked companies (GLCs).
The people of these two regions feel they have been given a raw deal by the ruling politicians from Peninsular Malaysia. They never fail to remind federal leaders that a substantial number of them lack basic needs such as proper electricity supply although their oilfields generate much revenue for the national coffers.
Sarawak is the largest state in the country, with a land area of 124,450 sq km while Sabah is next with 73,904 sq km. Together, they account for about 60% of the country’s total land mass.
Many Sabahans and Sarawakians believe that with the resources at their disposal – such as petroleum, timber, fisheries, hydroelectric power and natural tourism attractions – they would do well on their own.
Some groups have even floated the idea that Sarawak and Sabah should secede from Malaysia.
Although some NGOs and individuals in the Borneo states have been agitating for a better deal – particularly a return to the promises made in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) and the 18-point Sarawak memorandum and the 20-point Sabah memorandum – for years now, the demands picked up steam after the 2013 general election.
But it was the unexpected sinking of the once-powerful Barisan Nasional in the 2018 general election that caused expectations to rise, with mainstream politicians joining in to echo the demand for equal treatment. With Pakatan Harapan touting reforms, the expectations of Sabahans and Sarawakians hit the roof.
And now, with an unsteady political situation in the peninsula, parties in the two states realise they have the clout to decide who sits in Putrajaya.
Basically, Sabah and Sarawak are saying they are equal partners with the former Malaya in Malaysia and it was wrong on the part of the federal government to diminish their importance and turn them into mere states such as Perlis or Kelantan.
I won’t argue with that.
Pressure is now being applied on the new government to recognise the special rights of these two Borneo territories.
Upko president Wilfred Madius Tangau, in his capacity as chairman of Sabah-based think tank Wisdom Foundation, said on Sept 8 that for parliamentary reforms to be meaningful, they must have substantial representation of MPs and senators from the Borneo territories.
“Today, the Dewan Rakyat consists of 222 seats: 166 seats for Peninsular Malaysia, 25 seats for Sabah, and 31 seats for Sarawak,” he said adding that only 25% of the seats were from Sabah and Sarawak.
Tangau suggested that, for a start, the number of senators from Sabah and Sarawak should be increased to 24 from the present nine.
Last month, before new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob named his Cabinet, Sarawak United People’s Party secretary-general Sebastian Ting called for the creation of the post of second deputy prime minister and for it to be filled by a Sarawakian MP from Gabungan Parti Sarawak.
Apart from their special rights, many Sabahans and Sarawakians are also unhappy with what they see as racist politics in the peninsula; and they fear that the poison of religious bigotry that has gripped the peninsula will spread to Sabah and Sarawak too.
However, taking cognisance of the feelings of the people of Sabah and Sarawak, and realising the kingmaker position of parties from these two states, the federal government – whether under the BN or Pakatan Harapan or Perikatan Nasional – has in recent years been bending a little to accommodate some of the demands.
For instance, earlier this year, Putrajaya declared that the administration of the Sipadan and Ligitan islands would be handed over to Sabah while Sarawak would have full control of its gas distribution.
But if Sabah and Sarawak want their rights restored and to play a more meaningful role, there are several things they need to understand and to address.
One, they cannot continue to solely blame Umno and the federal leaders for the whittling away of the special rights and privileges promised under MA63 and the 18-point and 20-point agreements.
They must apportion part of the blame on their own leaders who allowed this to happen over the years. Their leaders had either colluded with federal leaders in downgrading their status or diminishing their rights, or had remained silent or had failed to put up strong enough resistance.
The status downgrading in 1976, for instance, did not happen overnight. The amendment was debated in Parliament and the MPs from Sabah and Sarawak – except for four – voted for it.
After all, politicians are known to assiduously follow the conviction “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”. It is a credo for many of them.
Two, they must understand that Sabah and Sarawak are part of the Federation of Malaysia and, therefore, they cannot treat citizens from the peninsula differently.
They cannot, for instance, disallow any citizen, including opposition politicians, from the peninsula from entering the two states for a visit – unless police confirm that person to be a security threat. They also should not require work or special permits from peninsula Malaysians – such as lawyers – wanting to work there.
Thirdly, they should school their politicians on the importance of holding on to principles. Sabah, for instance, has a reputation – rightly or wrongly – for having politicians who are easily persuaded to cross over from one party to another. To put it crudely, there is a joke that many of them can be bought if the price is right.
Some Sarawak politicians too are seen as being pliable to persuasion if the offer is right.
So, Sabah and Sarawak politicians must so behave that this belief is shattered once and for all.
Fourthly, leaders of Sabah and Sarawak need to enhance their cooperation and come up with common strategies if they hope to play a leading role in national politics. If they combine, they could very well nominate someone from Borneo for the post of prime minister.
I think for a more progressive Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak must play a greater role in all areas of national life. There must be better representation not only in politics but also in other areas such as the civil service, corporations and academia. Why can’t, for instance, a qualified Sabahan or Sarawakian be the vice-chancellor of a public university in the peninsula?
I think it is time more people in the Borneo states are appointed CEOs of GLCs and heads of federal government ministries.
I also think that a future prime minister hailing from either Sabah or Sarawak will be good for the nation, and I hope it happens soon.
The people of Sabah and Sarawak can teach those of us in the peninsula some good lessons, including in tolerance, appreciation of diversity and how to live and let live.
It’s still not too late for leaders in the two Borneo regions and the peninsula to sit down and thrash out an understanding that will lead to greater integration and a true sense of nationhood.
And what better time than this, when we are celebrating Malaysia Day? - FMT
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.
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