It is not just about state autonomy for Sarawak

By Wan Saiful Wan Jan

My team and I were in Kuching last week to launch our East Malaysia edition of the #NyahKorupsi campaign. This is part of our ongoing effort to promote the separation of the roles of the Attorney-General and Public Prosecutor, and strengthening the effectiveness of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Under the #NyahKorupsi campaign, we hold closed door discussions with opinion-shapers as well as public forums, and we also conduct ongoing research on how to improve policies around fighting corruption.

The public event in Kuching was well attended and we had a good mix of people in the audience. We also held a very lively conversation with representatives from the legal fraternity and the MACC.

We will be holding more #NyahKorupsi activities in Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru soon. If you want to join our activities, you can get the latest information from our Facebook Page. Just search for #NyahKorupsi on Facebook and you will find the page.

When I was in Kuching, quite a few people mentioned the “Sarawak for Sarawakians” campaign that is happening in the state now. Sentiment was clearly very high and many people seem to be supportive of the idea.

In fact, I saw a “Sarawak for Sarawakians” sticker even on the taxi that was taking me from the Kuching airport to my hotel. This is clearly not a campaign supported only by the elites. People from all walks of life seem to like the agenda.

It is not easy to trace the origin of this campaign. My first exposure to it was in 2011 when I visited Sibu to hold a workshop there. But even then I was told that they had been campaigning on the agenda for many years.

From what I gathered, the sentiment exists because many Sarawakians feel that they are not given all the rights due to them by the Federal Government.

When Sarawak helped to form Malaysia, they were one of the four entities that came together to form the new country. This is true.

A simple search in Arkib Negara will reveal that, in addition to the United Kingdom, the agreement to establish the Federation of Malaysia was signed on July 9, 1963 by Sarawak, Sabah, Singapore and Malaya. Sarawak did not “join” Malaysia but they are one of the four founders of this country.

But today Sarawak is treated as one of 13 states and three federal territories. This dilutes their influence and their share of wealth. And it enhances the status of the 11 states in Malaya in a way that may not been the intention of Sarawakians in 1963.

Let me give a simple example. Let’s say we are formulating a way to divide RM200 billion between the states for Budget 2017 that will be announced by the Prime Minister later this year.

If the money was divided equally between the 13 states, Sarawak will receive RM15.38 billion. But if we follow the original formula of Sarawak being one of four, and with Singapore having since left Malaysia, then Sarawak should receive one third of the money or RM66.7 billion instead.

This is a huge discrepancy. It is not surprising that Sarawakians are not happy.

Somehow the 11 states in Malaya have quietly enhanced their individual standing to be equivalent to Sarawak.

Today, the name Malaya is not even used anymore and people talk as if Sarawak and Sabah are equal to the 11 states individually.

We have forgotten that when Malaysia was formed, Sarawak and Sabah did not negotiate with the individual states. Instead, they negotiated with Malaya as one entity.

Unfortunately, Sarawak campaigners have not been able to push their campaign beyond Sarawak shores. When news about this issue appears in Kuala Lumpur or in other cities in Malaya, usually it is portrayed as a purely Sarawak agenda.

The latest example is the moratorium on new work permits imposed by the state. At the moment, most people in Malaya are not even aware why this is happening because they see it as irrelevant to them.

The Sarawak campaigners do have a good point that must be carefully examined by Malaysians as a whole. The issues being raised by the Sarawak activists are actually much bigger than Sarawak alone.

It has to do with the rights of states in Malaysia in the context of federalism. If argued from the bigger perspectives of devolution of powers, the demands made by Sarawak activists could have greater traction.

More importantly, they need to paint a more holistic picture of what devolution will look like. It cannot be just about the right to control who gets to work in Sarawak, or how much royalty Sarawak should get from Petronas.

The full picture of what devolution would look like needs to be defined first. That could turn a narrow and state-specific campaign into a national issue. And only then would others in the country be able to see the merits of the “Sarawak for Sarawakians” demand.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the CEO of political think-tank, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas)

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