Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s greetings to all Sarawakians, celebrating Sarawak Day on July 22, is a significant step in recognising that the Borneo states have a different history and status from that of Malaya.
Muhyiddin noted the significance of the day Sarawak officially attained self-government 58 years ago.
Some see Muhyiddin’s statement as merely playing politics, because Sabah and Sarawak leaders are putting pressure on the federal government for the return of their rights and autonomy under the Malaysia Agreement 1963.
It’s an opportune moment for Sabah and Sarawak to pile on the political pressure while the Perikatan Nasional-led government is at its weakest.
Muhyiddin’s pronouncement of “wilayah” status for Sabah and Sarawak in April has fizzled out into nothing, as no special grants or autonomy were accorded or spelled out in clear terms.
It was another “feel good” publicity stunt. Borrowing from an advertising commercial’s catchphrase, we should ask, “Where’s the beef”?
Now Sabah, too, wants to celebrate its own independence day following Sarawak’s lead. Sabah deputy chief minister Jeffrey Kitingan said he has prepared a Cabinet paper to gazette Sabah Day, which commemorates the state’s independence on Aug 31, 1963.
The terms “independence” and “self-government” can be confusing as both carry different legal meanings and connotations. But the desire is the same, to be an independent nation state and not a vassal of Malaya.
The term self-government for the days between Aug 31, 1963, (proposed date) and Sept 16, 1963, (official date) in the formation of Malaysia, plays on the sentiments of Sabahans and Sarawakians.
West Malaysians must understand that Sabah and Sarawak come from different histories, cultures, traditions, religions and ethnicities. Sarawak was once ruled by a white Rajah and Sabah by a British trading company before becoming a British colony.
The growing frustrations with Malaya have been obvious. The identity politics of race and religion have been the mainstay of West Malaysian politics since independence in 1957. Even in pandemic times, the issue is being brought into play.
In March, the Malaysian Islamic development department (Jakim) launched a fund to help Muslim communities affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. After much criticism, religious affairs minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri clarified that the funds collected were not exclusively for Muslims.
In another incident, it was reported that certain groups were proposing to the government to ensure that permanent posts are given to Bumiputera medical graduates.
The Medical Practitioners Coalition Association of Malaysia said that the health ministry shouldn’t have considered the proposal in the first place.
Even during the pandemic when all hands are needed, the issue of race and religion raised its ugly head in Malaya. It’s no wonder many Malaysian professionals have furthered their careers abroad.
When the Warisan state government was in power in Sabah, it approved the setting up of two key ministries, the health and people’s wellbeing ministry and the education and innovation ministry. Health and education are two key components of building an advanced society.
Two recent controversies have reinforced Sabahans’ views on why we need to be independent from the control of the federal government.
The first was the Sabah chief minister’s prerogative to allow restaurant dining. The other was the lateral transfer of a state medical director to Putrajaya.
In many forums held on Sabah and Sarawak issues, constitutional experts, historians and academics have been asked if Sabah and Sarawak can leave Malaysia just as Singapore did in 1965.
While the answers were not direct and forthcoming, there is a recognition that Malaysia may be on the path of self-destruction of its own making. Sabah and Sarawak do not want to suffer another fait accompli as when the British handed over the sovereign territories of Borneo and merged with Malaya.
The destructive politics, rampant corruption and struggling economy created by the pandemic has brought the comment from a Bloomberg columnist, saying Malaysia is on the path towards being a failed state if it is not one already. Sabah and Sarawak do not want to be part of a failed state.
The oil resources of Sabah and Sarawak are being exploited but with both states suffering the highest level of poverty. The share of financial revenue as stated in the Federal Constitution and other documents has not been honoured.
East Malaysians can see for themselves how Peninsular Malaysia has been developed at the expense of Sabah and Sarawak.
Many East Malaysians have sought employment opportunities in West Malaysia due to the lack of industrial development in the state.
The valuable gas resources found in the state are not being used to fuel its own industries but are exported to richer industrialised nations.
Sabah and Sarawak can no longer be a passenger in the development of their economies and must exert their right over their oil resources. The petroleum sales tax is only ‘gula gula’ (sweets) to pacify the East Malaysian states. It’s only a tiny proportion of what they are entitled to.
Sabah and Sarawak political leaders are now in a position to be kingmakers and make their demands on the PN government, which may not hold legitimacy as its mandate and level of support has not been tested in Parliament.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.