Failure to amend constitution leaves lingering divisions

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad tables the Federal Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2019, which was defeated in the Dewan Rakyat last week. (Bernama pic)

KOTA KINABALU: Sabahans are split over the Federal Constitution (Amendment) 2019 that was defeated at the Dewan Rakyat last week. Some were upset with the politicking by MPs who chose not to vote for the bill, while others heaved a sigh of relief, urging for a more comprehensive amendment in the future.

The amendment would have placed Sabah and Sarawak on equal footing with Peninsular Malaysia in the constitution.

Douglas Valentine, 33, a contractor, was one of those who criticised those MPs who had abstained in the vote. He said Sabah rights and the Malaysia Agreement 1963 had been used as an election tool for decades.

“But when the moment mattered, you all withered. How are you going to face the people and use the same arguments again in future polls?” he said.

The bill, which seeks to amend Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution, failed after Pakatan Harapan did not secure a two-thirds majority: 138 MPs voted for the amendment and 59 abstained, while a total of 148 votes was needed for it to pass.

Social activist Thonny Chee said the MPs who abstained seemed to be more interested in getting credit for their political careers rather than genuinely fighting for the rights of Sabah and Sarawak.

However, the bill seemed to have been done in a rush and there was lack of deliberation at the respective state assemblies. “MPs from both sides must work together to honour what’s ours and stop using this matter for political advantage,” he said.

Sabah PPBM’s Karanaan assemblyman Masidi Manjun agreed it was a lost opportunity. “The bill should have been supported by every MP. Those who claim the bill is not comprehensive enough could continue to fight for other amendments,” he said.

Ashley Thien, however, disagreed. “I think it is right for the bill to be rejected because it was rushed by the current government. Many of the details are unknown, such as oil and gas rights or what actually falls under the jurisdiction of Sabah and Sarawak.”

However, he was worried the federal government will now take its “sweet time” on the next tabling.

Former state assemblyman James Ligunjang said the Sabah and Sarawak MPs who abstained should not be blamed. It was appropriate for them to demand for a parliamentary select committee to deliberate on the bill.

“Even if Article1(2) was to be reinstated to the pre-1976 definition, it still falls short of meeting the threshold of equal status.

“On a cursory read it may appear that we are of equal status but in reality it is not. The amendment must be done in good faith devoid of trickery and free from ambiguities to prevent future misinterpretation and misunderstanding.”

A politician who requested anonymity said it would be good to wait for the full report of the MA63 steering committee before hastily amending the constitution.

“The MPs also want the report to be scrutinised by the parliamentary select committee and thereafter the respective Sabah and Sarawak state assemblies. If both are satisfied, then only Parliament should pass the bill.”

Farmer Maslan Kelu agreed that there should be more comprehensive changes instead of mere cosmetic ones.

“There are other clauses to be looked at such as the proportions of MP seats for Sabah and Sarawak and to the peninsula. A mistake would open a can of worms. And this failure should also be a signal to the ruling leaders now to be more sensitive to the people’s desires or else your position will be at stake,” he said.

Political analyst Arnold Puyok said amending Article 1(2) without specifying equal partnership and how it will affect the country’s federal structure will bring Sabah and Sarawak to the path of uncertainty in future.

“Where do we go from here? First, the provisions of the MA63 must be effectively implemented particularly the recommendations of the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) Report. The state and federal governments must identify which jurisdictions must be returned to the state or remain under federal control,” he said.

“Any attempt to revisit MA63 must be done with the aim of restructuring the Malaysia federalism so that states are empowered to make decisions on their own according to their uniqueness and needs.

“There is ample evidence linking decentralisation with good governance and economic growth,” he said.