The formation of Malaysia was an artifact of anti-colonial sentiment and the Cold War domino theory during the early 1960s. The formation of Malaysia was a way Singapore could gain independence, and North Borneo, and Sarawak could be de-colonized without Indonesia or the Philippines moving against small and young nations, as happened to West Papua.
The formation of Malaysia was a project undertaken by the elites of party states involved, rather than the result of a mass movement, or acts of self-determination. Malaysia was imposed upon Sarawak, and North Borneo, now Sabah by the United Kingdom, without alternative options. A number of promises were made to Sarawak and Sabah that have been reneged upon, not lived up to, or totally ignored. Many in Sarawak and Sabah are left with an empty sense of nationhood, that has led to disappointment.
One of the gravest threats to Malaysian nationhood doesn’t stem from Sarawakian or Sabahan aspirations for independence. The Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) narratives and Islamization of government and society by Putra Jaya are a clear and present danger to the existence of the federation as it was originally conceived. This has marginalized Sarawak and Sabah more than anything else. The non-Muslim natives of Sabah are now outnumbered by immigrant Muslims from the Philippines and Indonesia.
Issues like the attempt of Malayan political parties to influence politics, an unfair share of revenue from Putra Jaya, lack of infrastructure development, federal interference on educational issues, the rise of state Islam, and the failure of Putra Jaya to honour the 18 and 20 points agreements, have created dissatisfaction among different groups within Sarawak and Sabah.
The rest of this essay looks at the future road for Sarawak and some of the major issues involved.
The focus by many pro-Sarawakian independence activists has been on 1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63). Various remedies over the years have been discussed in reference to legality, justness, lack of self-determination, and the agreement not being honoured by Putra Jaya.
Sabah and Sarawak have become a trendy topic
Over the last couple of weeks, the issues of Sabah and Sarawak autonomy has attracted a number of statements from some of the top politicians of the nation. Most of these comments are centred around the future of the 1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63) signed between the United Kingdom, Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak back in 1963, becoming the modus operandi of the new Malaysian nation. Sarawak Premier Abang Johari Openg, federal Tourism, Creative Industries, Performing Arts Minister Abdul Karim, and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department for Sabah and Sarawak Maximus Ongkili stated they believe just honouring the existing MA63 is enough, with adding a supplementary agreement, if necessary.
UMNO vice president Mohamad Hasan (Tok Mat) said a new Malaysia Agreement is the best approach to restore the rights and interests of Sabah and Sarawak. DAP mentor Lim Kit Siang went even further saying there should be a complete reappraisal of all federal-state relations, greater decentralisation, and autonomy from Putra Jaya.
Lina Soo, President of the Sarawak Peoples’ Aspiration Party (SPAP) describes MA63 as a broken mirror, which cannot be patched up to serve its purpose of providing a good reflection, metaphorical of a broken-down relationship which can’t be healed or salvaged.
MA63 is an international agreement signed in 1963 between the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo (now Sabah). MA63 was the instrument that led to the formation of Malaysia on 16th September 1963. Soo argues that MA63 is outdated and any new agreement provides an opportunity to incorporate the peoples’ aspirations that could save the Federation of Malaysia, as we know it today.
Such a new agreement, according to Soo would be far sighted and potentially change the dynamics between Sarawak and Putra Jaya. A new agreement is pragmatic and may solve much political instability. Soo says a new agreement could be an opportunity for a new Malaysia that not just Sarawakians hope for.
However, within the reality of the current political dynamics nothing concrete can or will be enacted over the issue of autonomy during the rest of the life of this parliamentary session. If after GE15 UMNO and the Barisan Nasional win a sizable majority, where only minor East Malaysian support is required, the agenda of more rights and autonomy for Sarawak may fade.
One must always remember, the semenanjung or peninsula elites have long held attitudes that Sarawak and Sabah are subservient to any Malayan agenda. This is symbolic in the position of head of state, the Yang Di-pertuan Agong, or king, who according to the Federal Constitution will always be a Malayan.
Sarawak is separated from the semenanjung or peninsula by the South China Sea. Sarawak primarily relies on air links to Sabah. The three regions of Malaysia have very different histories, ethnic demographics, languages, religious mixes, and cultures. Consequently, the social dynamics of the three regions are vastly different. Sarawak is vastly different from Sabah in respect to the above, where there has been lack of any common view towards nationhood and relations with Putra Jaya.
This lack of political cooperation between Sarawak and Sabah at social, political, or governmental levels has allowed Putra Jaya to dominate, taking advantage of division. Although within Sarawak and Sabah there is some consensus about the need for more autonomy, there is little mutual cooperation on the issue.
Politicians from both Sarawak and Sabah have done very little to promote the cause, even though they have participated in the federal government. The federal government has usually thrown funds into projects in both Wilayah or regions, in lieu of concessions, and any real negotiations. Sarawak and Sabah politicians have fallen into this trap every-time, and most have retired with large asset portfolios.
Push and pull factors
The semenanjung or peninsula has many pull factors that attract young Sarawakian professionals and skilled workers to the major commercial centres in Klang Valley and elsewhere. This leaves Kuching with a talent vacuum, as many of Sarawak’s best thinkers have been poached. This is partly the reason why social media activism over the future of Sarawak is often led by the Sarawakian diaspora in Australia and the United Kingdom.
This has a number of perspectives. Generally speaking, many rural folk within Sarawak are politically naïve, and don’t have much understanding of the complexities, organization and principles of government. When those who work on the peninsula return to the towns and longhouses, they most often assist their extended families become more politically aware. Social media is playing a major role in developing political awareness in rural Sarawak.
However, today, the majority of Sarawakians don’t understand in much detail the issues involved in secession, and political autonomy. This makes it very difficult to determine any majority view on the subject. Today, most of these issues are discussed by a small group of professional urban based groups within the major towns. Consequently, any plebiscite or referendum on the subject of independence would be very complex, and even if there would one day be one, the choices for Sarawakians in the plebiscite would influence any outcomes. This we have seen with other referendums around the world.
Under the current political climate, both federally and within Sarawak itself, its difficult to see how any referendum would ever be contemplated. With no framework and procedures within the constitution, any referendum process would be hindered by legalities with the intention to hinder a positive vote.
Attitudes of Sarawak State Government
What is important is the attitude of the State Government, which is rules by the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) collation, made up of three parties, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), and Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP). All three parties are very Sarawak centric, receiving 62.2% of the vote at the 2021 state election.
A very senior figure within PBB once told the author that seniors within the party believe that Sarawak cannot go alone, and fundamentally must remain within Malaysia (mainly security and economic reasons), but with maximum autonomy and little interference in state affairs from Putra Jaya. The prime disenchantment with Putra Jaya is over revenue issues, which appear to encourage official resurgences in calls for more autonomy from time to time. Counterintuitively, GPS abstained from voting on a constitutional amendment to restore Sarawak and Sabah as equal partners in Malaysia in 2019 for domestic political reasons.
However, as long as Abdul Taib Mahmud has influence within Sarawak political affairs there will be no rethinking on this issue.
While the Federal government is finding it difficult to appoint an ambassador to Indonesia, and Indonesia has placed a temporary ban on allowing its citizens to work within the Malaysian plantation sector, due to an alleged breach in an MOU signed by the two countries, Sarawak Premier Abang Johari pledged assistance to Indonesia in building their new capital within Borneo, Nusantara. This can be seen as a new assertiveness by Sarawak in a changing regional political environment, where Putra Jaya may face competition as a sphere of influence.
Sarawak’s future options
There are a number of options ahead for Sarawak, as touted by various groups.
- No change, just stay the same: The latest vote on constitutional amendments, and changing the status of Sarawak and Sabah from Negri or state to Wilayah or region, are more symbolic than of any great substance. The current discussion on MA63 is likely to fizzle out, unless the results of GE15 place Sarawak and Sabah in a strategic position as ‘king makers.’
However, the inertia for the status quo could also be challenged by a backlash against Malayan based political parties. In Sarawak this could put pressure on Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), and even the Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) strongholds in the towns. This could lead to up to 7 constituencies held by Malayan based parties being lost to Indigenous parties. In the new federal parliament after GE15, this would aid UMNO and the Barisan Nasional and weaken the opposition substantially.
Such a scenario would be very acceptable to GPS, which would continue to rule as at present, abet with more bargaining power federally after GE15.
- Secession-independence: Secession or independence, depends upon one’s interpretation of history, which is beyond this review, as much has been written about the subject. However, an independent Sarawak is a romantic sentimental notion, unless the economics could be substantiated. This would also lead to many arguments that wouldn’t assist any cause for independence or leaving the Federation of Malaysia.
Any leaving of the Malaysian federation would be a long and even potentially violent road. The Malayan elite regret the loss of Singapore. Any attempt of Sarawak to leave would be met with hyped up security surveillance, arrests, and suppression. The symbolic deployment of the Royal Malaysian Army 10th Rangers in Kuching Sarawak attests to that.
Any independence would presumably occur after an exercise in self-determination, ideally an independent referendum with international observers. However, even if this currently unimaginable scenario occurred, achieving a positive vote for secession from the federation would not be straight forward for reasons mentioned above. It would be doubtful Putra Jaya would recognise any positive result for leaving the federation.
- Autonomy or greater autonomy: Autonomy is a very wide continuum which in the extreme would mean Putra Jaya looking after defence and foreign policy, and the Sarawak government responsible for all other matters. This would also imply a very complex revenue agreement, which on its own would take a long period of time to negotiate and implement.
Greater autonomy could mean anything from Putra Jaya respecting the 18 points agreement, and/or an additional supplementary agreement specifying more points of autonomy for Sarawak.
Greater autonomy is the most likely pathway, which the current Sarawak government and many “activists” see as a realistic alternative in the future. This is the option that requires imagination, education, and negotiation on reaching a vision both government and the people of Sarawak could share. However, this is where it becomes a naivety to think such collaboration could possibility occur.
The elephant in the room
Any greater autonomy or secession from the Malaysian federation would be purely futile if the same Melanau elite were ruling Sarawak. PBB with its coalition partners garnered 62.2% of the popular vote in the last state election.
There are very close patriarchal political relationships across Sarawak through all levels of government. Sarawak has its own version of Ketuanan Melayu, being Ketuanan Melanau. This is evident within the civil service.
Thus, what is probably more important for Sarawak today is developing a more inclusive notion of politics, democracy, and governance.
The focus on Putra Jaya as the oppressor takes attention away for which group is the real feudal lord in residence. However, all is not black and white. GPS has been able to maintain the integrity of Sarawak much more responsibly than Sabah over the last 59 years. Sarawak is the only state not to have a state (now region) religion, and is the only state (now religion) to push back on edicts from Putra Jaya such as use of Bahasa Malaysia and the use of the word Allah, etc.
Education must be the first step
Sarawak needs more education that reaches deep into the interior of the region, so people are able to understand the issues involved in civics and community. The reinstatement of local government elections would widen the pool for potential future leaders to be developed and trained up. Democracy must be introduced at the grassroots and nurtured up the hierarchy of governance to give people a real sense of what Sarawak’s and how their own destinies should be intertwined.
Then questions can be asked about what Sarawak should look like in the future. Should Sarawak focus on development? If so, what type of development? Should Sarawak focus on maintaining cultural integrity? Should Sarawak open up to the world, or maintain a sense of isolation?
These are all important questions for the next generation.
From a Malaysian-centric perspective, there are also many questions and one would hope opportunities. Has Putra Jaya smothered the states to the point they have lost a great amount of autonomy? Have the narratives of Ketuanan Melayu done irreparable damage to the sense of nationhood of Malaysia? Is it now time to truly strive to create real Malaysian nationhood that all Malaysians might be proud of?
If the answers are in the positive, federal-state relations and decentralisation of power across the matrix of governments within the federation needs to be a priority consideration. This is where the issues of Sarawak may best be solved.
Based on history and the current calibre of federal politicians, its very difficult to be optimistic. If that is the case, we will still be discussing the same issues in a generation’s time.
*Address to 722 Sarawak Independence Day Summit, for 23rd July 2022, Hotel Grand Continental Kuching, Sarawak.