There has long been unhappiness about the way Sabah and Sarawak have been treated by Putra Jaya. Sabah and Sarawak’s indigenous peoples are amongst the poorest and most marginalized in Malaysia. Solutions to Sabah and Sarawak’s long-standing grievances have been stalled, delayed, sabotaged, and even just ignored. In addition, Malaysian federalism has been on a centralist projection for decades, forcing Sabah and Sarawak to become much more dependent upon decisions made by the federal government. Until relatively recently, discussion and expression about autonomy and independence has been harshly repressed.
However, today there is new debate arising over Sabah and Sarawak’s position in Malaysia from a new generation of Sabah and Sarawakians.
Most grievances through the social media focus upon the legal aspects of the formation of Malaysia. These arguments dispute the validity of the Malaysia Agreement (MA63). Federal disregard to the Sabah 20 points agreement is another issue of contention. Most want to restore the status of Sabah and Sarawak under the constitution as territories of Malaysia, rather than just being listed states together with those in the peninsula. They want the constitution to reflect that Sabah and Sarawak were equal parties to Malaya in the formation of Malaysia. Sabah and Sarawak’s entry into Malaysia is seen as illegitimate as there was not a plebiscite or referendum to determine the will of the people at the time. They see Sabah and Sarawak being sold out to Malaya by the British.
Much of the discussion is centred around finding and launching legal remedies to the current situation. The reality is that any legal route wont reverse what has already happened.
There are many more contemporary grievances that permeate much wider within communities around Sabah and Sarawak. These include Sabah and Sarawak’s share of the oil revenue, jurisdiction over the continental shelf, the flow of illegal migrants from the Philippines and Indonesia that have been granted citizenship, the intrusion of peninsula based political parties into Sabah and Sarawak, Islamization, development, and indigenous groups being treated as second class bumiputras in their own land.
The pragmatic view that has been taken with Putra Jaya by Sabah and Sarawak, is to work at altering the current balance of federal-state relations. Within this framework, Sabah and Sarawak state governments try to obtain as much autonomy as possible. This is the current attitude of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the senior partner in the Sarawak government. The Sarawak state government has insulated Sarawak as much as possible from federal interference. PBB elders told the author that the party is not enthusiastic about the Malaysian federation, but an independent Sarawak, according to them would not be economically viable.
Sarawak’s MPs in the federal parliament voted against the 2019 federal constitutional amendment to return the status of Sabah and Sarawak as parties to the formation of the Malaysian federation before the 1976 constitutional amendment. The 1976 amendment relegated Sabah and Sarawak’s status to equal states along with those in the peninsula. PBB has usually stood alone and not cooperated with other parties seeking greater autonomy for Sabah and Sarawak, often denying entry to Sabah politicians who are advocating more rights from Putra Jaya.
The division and disagreement of politicians from Sabah and Sarawak has long prevented any common front to Putra Jaya, thus weakening leverage. Various political groupings have been competitive, and even gone to the lengths of sabotaging each other. This is not to mention the presence of peninsula based political parties that now influence local politics, especially in Sabah. The current state government in Sabah is Malay-centric, where there are very few Malays in the state.
In fact, peninsula based political parties have changed the narratives within Sabah and Sarawak. While DAP and PKR haven’t been able to develop strong political alliances in Sarawak, they are increasing their influence with a Malaysian-centric, rather than Sarawak-centric view.
UMNO’s clandestine project through federal agencies to grant citizenship and papers to immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia in Sabah has tipped the population balance, where Sabah is now a Muslim majority state. This has been reflected in electoral results, which allowed UMNO to rule Sabah for decades.
The objective of trying to gain as much autonomy from Putra Jaya is adversarial, usually with short term objectives in mind, rather than with a vision for Sabah and Sarawak. Politics and dealings between the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak are transactional.
Some within younger generations want to forget the past, as it can’t be undone, and move on to a new future. Their view seeks a new federal-state relationship framework. This centres on renegotiating the MA63 agreement, which has always met with issues that stall any discussions.
This is unwelcome by the federal government as any more autonomy given to Sabah and Sarawak could possibly open the floodgates from other states like Johor and Kelantan to demand the same autonomy. These are aspirations the palaces in both states are sympathetic too. This would be a nightmare scenario for the federal government which had always been centralist, slowly increasing power over the states for decades.
Talk of secession had arisen from time to time in Sabah and Sarawak. This had always been met with the police taking swift action to arrest under the then Internal Security Act (ISA) anyone gaining any public traction on the idea. Talk of secession for many years was a seditious action.
Over the last couple of years, a number of professional people have formed groups and promoted the idea through social media. Sabah and Sarawakian diaspora, primarily in Australia and the United Kingdom are the most vocal through social media, webinars, and demonstrations. According to Sabah and Sarawak watchers, there are many who sympathise with the idea of secession, although they are not vocal. These appear to be mainly the urban middle class educated.
However, these numbers are not high, and those advocating secession have not mapped out a vista of what Sabah or Sarawak could look like if they were independent states. How would they be governed, how would these states be economically viable, how they could develop the infrastructure they required, and how they could defend themselves from external threats. Would the people of Sabah and Sarawak be better off?
There are no politicians in either the respective state or federal parliaments who openly advocate secession. Those who may be sympathetic are very careful with the semantics they use. There is only one political party in Sarawak, Parti Bumi Kangalang (PBK) that advocates secession in the party platform. However, this party has no elected representatives in any parliament.
However, the Sarawak state government celebrates Sarawak’s independence from Britain on 22nd July formally each year. This is very symbolic, sending a clear message to Putra Jaya that Sarawak values its sovereignty as a state. Merdeka Day on 31st August has no significance for Sabah and Sarawak. Merdeka Day is seen as being a Malay-centric celebration, and tends to be seen as a celebration of all the things Sabah and Sarawakians don’t like. Malaysia day on 16th September is celebrated, but seen by some as Occupation Day 916.
Where to Malaysia?
Sabah and Sarawakian unhappiness over the status quo now have much wider reach through social media and local news websites. Twelve non-government organizations (NGOs) from Sabah and Sarawak have brought up the issue that Sabah and Sarawak should have one-third of the total federal parliamentary seats, according to the terms of the MA63 agreement. They are asking for Article 46 of the Malaysian Constitution on seat allocation to be restored. So far, the recently signed MOU between Pakatan Harapan and the Ismail Sabri government only talks of strengthening matters that are contained in the MA63 agreement.
Transactional demands, negotiations and results are going to be very slow, if achieve much at all. The important question that could be asked here is whether adhering to the terms of MA63 really give more autonomy to Sabah and Sarawak? Maybe, the effort should be made on a completely new deal.
The MA63 agreement itself has many weaknesses and issues left out that have led to constitutional inequities. For example, the monarch of each Malaysian state takes a 5 year turn as Malaysia’s monarch and head of state. Sabah and Sarawak were treated as Penang and Melaka, which have a governor, rather than sultan or raja. This means that Sabah and Sarawakians will never see one of their own as Malaysian head of state.
The sense of history of Sabah and Sarawak is slowly disappearing. The history of Sabah and Sarawak is not taught in schools. Many Sabah and Sarawakians are living and working in the peninsula and their children growing up in an environment different from their parents. Institutional discrimination against non-Muslim indigenous ethic groups in the civil service is hindering the development of future leaders from minority groups, who have lost the most from the Malaysianization of their respective cultures.
It would be very difficult to undo the cultural and social engineering that has been going on for the last 58 years.
However, the biggest threat to the integrity of Malaysia today is the export of Islamization and Ketuanan Melayu to Sabah and Sarawak. This has been happening for a while. Comments made by some political and Islamic leaders reminded the Bumiputras of Borneo they are second class to Malays. Now Ketuanan Melayu has created two classes of Bumiputras, which is potentially dangerous to the premise that Malaysia was created to form a multi-cultural nation. Peninsula-centric politics is destroying this.
Malay-centric political narratives are alien concepts to Sabah and Sarawak. Sabah and Sarawak have traditionally been harmonious multi-ethnic societies. This is under threat today. Sabah and Sarawakians don’t want the situation where they feel forbidden to celebrate the festivals of other ethnic groups, something they have down for generations.
One of the products of a more polarized Malay-centric government will be a more unhappy Sabah and Sarawak. Federal government insensitivity to the aspirations of Sabah and Sarawak and failure to treat them as equal partners in Project Malaysia will carry the price of more demands for secession, unless a new approach is found. The answer may be in the way Malaysia structures federal-state relations. This may mean reversing federal centralism and adhering to the principles of a true federation.
If Project Malaysia is to succeed, fixing MA63, or enforcing the twenty points isn’t going to solve the problem. A new shared vision for Malaysia is necessary.
Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here