Sabah autonomy: the winners and the losers

While old leaders may come out of their political obscurity using state autonomy and the oil royalty as issues, the real losers are ordinary Sabahans, says Arnold Puyok.

Sabah remains within the league of poor states in Malaysia

Sabah remains within the league of poor states in Malaysia

For the umpteenth time, the issues of state rights and autonomy are once again being ignited. Sabah leaders claim that Sabah has lost its autonomy and it is time for it to be fully reinstated. This includes an increase in oil royalty from the meagre 5 percent to 20 percent.

While no one can deny the fact that Sabah deserves the right to assert its autonomy based on the Malaysia Agreement 1963, it has to be done within the context of the Federation of Malaysia and national interest. Sabah leaders appear to be clueless on how to translate this call for autonomy into pragmatic policies that can benefit the ordinary people.

Who are the benefactors?

If Sabah leaders are serious about reinstating and strengthening the autonomy for the state, they must first convince the people that their call for autonomy is not merely for their own political survival but for the overall well-being of Sabahans. The people of Sabah must not be duped into thinking that these ‘champions’ of Sabah issues are serious in fighting for what is ‘best’ for the state.

On the issue of oil royalty, what guarantee can Sabah leaders give that with more funds there will be a greater sense of responsibility and integrity? Can Sabahans be assured that with more funds, their standard of living will be uplifted to be at par with Brunei and Singapore?

It is true that  state rights and autonomy are (and always will be) important. After all, the 20-point memorandum for Sabah and 18-point memorandum for Sarawak were drafted to preserve Sabah and Sarawak’s distinctive characteristics in the federation. For the Federation of Malaysia to work, the special characters of each of the states must be maintained. But there is a need for the country’s current and emerging leaders to look forward in uniting the country in spite of its diversity.

Does it matter?

Most of the ordinary people in Sabah do not understand what autonomy is and do not think it really matters. In a survey conducted by Merdeka Centre in 2012, only 3 per cent of the respondents said that the issue of autonomy was important and needed to be solved fast compared to other matters such as illegal immigrants (53 per cent), price hikes (38 per cent), and corruption (21 per cent). In the same survey, only 9 per cent of the respondents regarded the oil royalty as an urgent issue. Despite Sabahans’ concerns over other pressing issues that affect their daily lives, they have been distracted by the political elites who insist that Sabah’s waning autonomy is more pertinent.

It is true that due to the dominance and indifference shown by the federal government, Sabah remains within the league of poor states in Malaysia. But local leaders should also be blamed for their lack of leadership in developing resource-rich Sabah. They appeared to be more interested in enriching themselves and being subservient to their federal masters,  rather than in solving the problem of poverty and under-development.

Now, Sabahans have been urged to look at Sarawak for its ‘gumption’ in standing up to federal pressure. The problem is, Sarawak is different. Sabah is already infested by the Peninsular’s political dichotomy of Muslim Bumiputera-versus-non-Muslim Bumiputera-versus- Chinese. This unwanted political culture came to the state  after Umno’s entry into Sabah in the early 1990s. The Muslim electorate had no choice but to rally behind Umno – the single most dominant Muslim-based party in Sabah after the disbandment of Usno.

Due to gerrymandering, electoral boundaries were altered in favour of Umno, causing the biggest ethnic group in Sabah, the KadazanDusun to be electorally split between  the PBS, Upko and the PBRS while the Chinese were divided between the SAPP, the LDP and the MCA.

Consequently, the real losers were the multiracial and multireligious Sabahans who had to vote along racial lines. One of Sabah’s unique characteristics is its multiracial politics but with Umno’s entry, communal politics, which is an important feature of Peninsular politics, has begun to seep into Sabah society.

State autonomy or political ploy?

The claim by the PBS that they represent Sabah’s multiracial society is just a camouflage to ensure its survival. In fact, if not due to Joseph Pairin’s status as Huguan Siou (paramount and brave leader) and the KadazanDusuns’ sympathy for his political struggle in the past, the PBS would have ‘closed shop’ a long time ago.

Another KadazanDusun-based party, Upko, is struggling to retain support among the Kadazan-Dusun electorate, knowing that many of the young Kadazan-Dusuns are now supporting PKR. The other KadazanDusun-based party, the PBRS – albeit without strong grassroots  – will survive as long as Joseph Kurup continues to get patronage from the federal government.

When the youth wings of the PBS, Upko and the PBRS organised a joint press conference to state their support for an increase in the oil royalty, it meant only one thing: they wanted to rejuvenate their party’s fading popularity. Their ‘older’ comrades did the same thing before the 2013 general election through the ‘tataba’ meeting but nothing  concrete came out of it, apart from showing that the BN’s KadazanDusun-based parties were ‘united’ behind the ruling BN coalition.

But the election results proved otherwise. The popular support for the PBS, Upko and the PBRS saw a marked decline, indicating the KadazanDusuns’ frustration with the lack of leadership shown by their leaders.

The losers

While the leaders may come out of their political obscurity using state autonomy and the oil royalty as issues, the real losers are ordinary Sabahans. They are being made to believe that it is the Malayan leaders who cause Sabah to remain poor; Sabahans are time and time again reminded that they can become rich like the Bruneians and Singaporeans if they are granted autonomy and more oil royalty.

But many Sabahans tend to forget that Sabah was once ruled ‘independently’ by Usno, Berjaya and the PBS. Federal interference only occurred when Sabah leaders fought for state interests at the expense of national interests. Clearly, Sabah’s leaders are partly to be blamed for failing to defend the Malaysia Agreement 1963 and the Federal Constitution that safeguard Sabah’s special position within the Federation of Malaysia.

So, the same parties (and their offshoots) that ruled Sabah before are now clamouring for change, promising to give Sabah a better future if they can force the federal government to grant state autonomy and increases in oil royalty. The current and emerging leaders seem to be trapped by the political thinking of the past.

Sabahans must ‘free’ themselves from the old paradigm. They cannot afford to support leaders who continue to harp on the issues of state rights and autonomy but fail to provide them with pragmatic policies that can uplift their standard of living.

Sabah can only be rich and be at par with Brunei and Singapore if it is led by capable leaders who can formulate and implement policies that are people-oriented, needs-based, and in tune with the changing times.

Dr Arnold Puyok is a political analyst based in East Malaysia.

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