By UCA News
By Vanitha Nadaraj
(UCA News) — People in Sabah and Sarawak have long talked about leaving the Federation of Malaysia but mainly behind closed doors with occasional public outbursts of their historical grievances. It has gone no further than that because the federal constitution does not provide for secession, and those making an attempt to secede can be charged under the Sedition Act.
The latest public outburst came when three NGOs from Sarawak brought up secession in a press conference in August. They said that the two Malaysian states in Borneo must be allowed to leave the federation if there is a move to establish a Muslim-Malay federal government.
They were responding to a prior statement by a coalition of 300 Muslim NGOs asking Muslim elected representatives in the recent state elections to band together and form all-Muslim state governments. The NGOs wanted these representatives to put aside party loyalties and alliances with non-Muslim parties.
There was fear on the part of the Sarawakians that once the peninsula states had all-Muslim state governments, the federal government was next.
The NGOs said in a joint statement, “A mutually agreed separation is a win-win solution for both Malaya and the Borneo Territory as each side gets what it wants — Malaya a Malay-Muslim government and the Borneo Territory, a secular color-blind government.” The peninsula is also referred to as Malaya by those from the Borneo bloc.
Sabah and Sarawak are known for their high ethnic and religious tolerance, and the Muslim and non-Muslim divide is insignificant. No ethnic group constitutes more than 40 percent of the population in either of the states. They have been hailed as the epitome of inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony.
Wilfred Madius Tangau, an MP for Tuaran in Sabah, said, “We celebrate each other’s festivals and eat together at the same table, a common trait in most parts of Southeast Asia but fast disappearing in Malaya.”
He then asked if Borneans would be able to continue to “withstand all the efforts to convert and assimilate us into Malaya’s rigidity and segregation?”
Sarawak has a Christian-majority population while the once Christian-strong Sabah now has almost 60 percent Muslim-Malays. Still, Sabah’s Christian population is at a sizable 36 percent.
At the formation of Malaysia in 1963, Muslim Malays were one-third of Sabah’s population but in the 70s they became the majority. According to a 2019 study called: “Islam and Politics in Malaysia: The Realisation of Islam as a State Religion in Sabah” published in the Journal of Islam in Asia, this was largely due to evangelization by Muslim political parties in Sabah and the alleged granting of citizenship by the federal government to Muslims from the restive southern Philippines and Indonesia.
In 1973, an amendment to a state law made Islam the official religion of Sabah.
Then there is the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63). Borneans have long been accusing the federal government of not honoring the agreement that brought together the states in Malaya, Northern Borneo (now Sabah), Sarawak and Singapore to form Malaysia.
Two years later, in 1965, Singapore left the federation. Some argue that if Singapore could leave, so can Saban and Sarawak.
The agreement gives a high degree of autonomy to the Borneo bloc on matters relating to state administration and resources, among others. However, the nationalization of petroleum resources in 1974 gave the federal government-owned Petronas full control of all oil and gas resources through the Petroleum Development Act.
Sabah and Sarawak get only 5 percent of oil royalties annually and no federal government has agreed to their request for 20 percent. Both these states together produce 68 percent of oil and 74 percent of the natural gas in the country. Despite being oil-rich, Sabah is the poorest state in Malaysia. It has a poverty rate of 19.5 percent, while Sarawak is third at 9 percent. The national average is 5.6 percent.
The economic inequality between the Borneo bloc and the peninsula states has been one of the main gripes. Sabah and Sarawak suffer from poor infrastructure, high unemployment, and a lack of investment in industrial development. Sabahans and Sarawakians feel that the peninsula has been prospering at their expense.
When six new oil and gas fields were discovered off Sarawak waters in July, the state government quickly declared ownership over the deposits. Sabah is taking court action against the federal government to honor an old agreement on oil and gas revenue-sharing. Both these actions are among the latest to challenge the controversial Petroleum Development Act.
Recent events show that the two states are starting to be self-reliant. Sabah will have its own airlines by next year. Presently, its air routes are being served by peninsula-based companies. Sarawak is studying the possibility of joining Sabah to form a Borneo airline.
Earlier this month, the Sabah government talked about plans to manage their own rice imports and not rely on the peninsula-based company Bernas, which has a monopoly on rice imports. Also, about the same time, there was a suggestion by Sarawak politicians for the state to have its own currency but it was shot down by the state government.
Sarawak is working towards improving its air and land routes with Indonesia’s new administrative capital Nusantara and other major cities in Kalimantan, the southern half of Borneo. Both the Malaysian states are culturally closer to Kalimantan than they are to the peninsula. There is every chance that economic and cultural ties within Borneo will grow exponentially.
Meanwhile, there are regular demonstrations by a movement called Sarexit (Sarawak Exit) in the Sarawakian capital Kuching, and other similar movements in social media calling for secession.
Political analyst James Chin said that the secessionist groups posed no real threat to the federation. “But if enough people buy the secession argument in the future, public sentiment may be too strong for the national leaders to ignore.”
Should the two states secede, Islamization could be the tipping point.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.