Divided people, shared destiny?

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Sheridan Mahavera explores federal-state relations in relation to Sarawak and Sabah. The people of these two states have to believe that there is hope, not only for change through the ballot box but for a better shared destiny between east and west Malaysia.

With the impending completion and soon-to-be commissioned Bakun Dam, Malaysians will get a glimpse of yet another irony in the incongruent tapestry of their country.

A core component of Sarawak’s huge power corridor of more than 13 proposed hydro-electric dams in the state, Bakun reportedly aims to supply power to mega-industries like Rio Tinto’s aluminium smelter, and to the towns and industry of Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia. All the former residents of the remote Bakun watershed in central Sarawak who were re-settled to make way for the huge dam will thus see Bakun’s power transported from the hydro-electric dam to other parts of the state and beyond the South China Sea – via massive overland and submarine cables.

A majority of Sarawak’s rural folk will thus see Bakun’s electricity pass them by. Many rural residents will continue to get their electricity from noisy personal generators that they have to feed with their own diesel.

It promises to be another flesh-and-blood example of the continuing tragedy of Sarawak – where the precious fruits of its resources are taken out for others to enjoy while the poor locals sit by and watch.

The story is also repeated in Sabah, where whole villages have to rely on Western NGOs to build simple fresh water supply systems while Putrajaya elites boast about how Malaysia sent a man into space.

These stories are strung together to form that collective lament that is heard every 31 August and 16 September: why is it that after 46 years of Malaysia, Sabahans and Sarawakians feel no closer to Peninsular Malaysians?

Many young Sarawakians and Sabahans believe that their two homelands have given more in terms of petroleum revenues and votes for a Peninsula-centric ruling coalition than they have received in terms of development.

Most importantly, many of them feel that because they are still not treated as equal siblings in the Malaysian family, the only recourse would be for Sabah and Sarawak to go their own way, apparently.

In other words, is the divide between the two regions in terms of infrastructure and culture so irreconcilable even after nearly five decades, that many feel Sabah, Sarawak and the Peninsula might as well be foreign countries in the true sense of the word?

Divided by history and design

Talking about a “divide” between the three homelands is tricky. The individual histories of these regions, their multi-cultural populations and how their societies have evolved righy up to 1963 makes it seem as if they were meant to be organically different from one another.

There is also the geographical distance. Universiti Malaysia Sarawak political scientist Dr Andrew Aeria points to the sea that literally separates the three areas as a factor that has widened the chasm between their peoples.

It was precisely because of these differences in terms of development between the Peninsula and Sarawak and Sabah that the latter’s forefathers insisted on a set of conditions that would govern these two regions once they agreed to form Malaysia.

The 20-point agreement for Sabah and the 18-point for Sarawak allowed local leaders wide freedom to craft education, language and physical development policies that would suit the special needs of the two regions.

Some of its provisions included the freedom not to have Islam as the State religion, (point 1) the ability to manage immigration (point 6), control of revenues and where the monies are spent (point 11) and creating school systems (15) that would serve the needs of their various communities.

The agreements, says Dayak social activist Dr John Brian Anthony, would prevent both States from being colonised by Peninsula-oriented Malay-Muslim interests.

Out of all the provisions, only the immigration control remains the fully functional provision, adds Anthony.

“Somehow, the federal government has ignored the agreement and even changed the ‘rules’ without the consent of Sarawak and Sabah,” he says.

Aeria however disagrees and points out that the watering down of the various provisions were accomplished through a series of bureaucratic changes and constitutional amendments agreed upon and supported by pliant state government regimes installed by Kuala Lumpur.

Sabah and Sarawak were gradually pulled into the sphere of influence emanating from Kuala Lumpur and they were made to adopt its bureaucratic system, like in education.

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Most of the revenues from their natural resources were given over to the Peninsula.  For example, Sabah and Sarawak’s petroleum reserves are controlled by Petronas on account of the 1974 Petroleum Development Act, which handed over control of petroleum resources in the whole country to Petronas and which allocates five per cent of royalties to each oil-producing state (including Sabah and Sarawak).

Still, even though Sabah controls immigration, this has not prevented it from being flooded by illegals during the 1990s. The sudden increase of dubious citizens of Indonesian and Filippino origin has been a constant problem in Sabah society, which locals have blamed on the Barisan Nasional federal government.

But what has anguished Sabahans and Sarawakians the most is arguably the way the BN Federal Government has tried to insidiously change the ethnic character of both states.

In the words of Kota Kinabalu resident Dayang Yohana Awang Salleh, the federal government has “taken all our revenue but only given us racism and religious intolerance”.

Bringing closer but drifting

If the old divide was due to geography and historical circumstance, the modern rift ironically comes from how the Peninsula-centric Federal Government has tried to bring the three regions together.

The freedom to fashion Sarawak and Sabah societies according to their needs was eroded so that they became less of the autonomous entities envisioned in the agreements to more of units within and dependent on a strong, centralised organisation headed from Kuala Lumpur.

As power receded from these states, the Federal BN began sowing the seeds of a Malay-Muslim national identity that grated with the inter-ethnic harmony in Sabah and Sarawak.    

“In their policies, the federal government has little appreciation of the sheer diversity of ethnicities, faiths, languages, lifestyles, dreams and hopes of Sabahans and Sarawakians,” says Aeria.

This re-engineering of their societies was felt most acutely in schools. Teachers from the Peninsula many claim, come to Sarawak and Sabah schools with high-minded ambitions to cajole, school and civilise the natives.

Dayang Yohana relates how almost overnight, the students in her secondary school had been segregated into Malay and non-Malay groups by their Peninsula teachers.

“My friends used to mix freely and we didn’t even look at each other as Malay or non-Malay. But suddenly the Malay kids would be separated and put into special classes.

“They were told not to mix with the non-Malays and that they had to compete with them in the exams.

“It was distressing because these teachers were essentially telling us that it was wrong to mix with the non-Malay friends that we had grown up with,” she says.

Kuching-based photographer Norman Goh relates the same thing when speaking of his experiences as a former teacher.

“Teachers that I came into contact with from the Peninsula would tell Sarawakian students and teachers that they should not mix with other races. We hate this attitude because in Sarawak we mix freely with each other.”  

This is not just about Peninsular arrogance and the way they impose such racial attitudes upon Sabahans and Sarawakians.

Adam, a secondary school teacher in Sarawak, points to how their attitude towards ethnicity and religion colours everyday life and makes it hard for Sabahans and Sarawakians to live in the Peninsula and vice versa.

“In Sarawak, you can be a non-Muslim and use terms like Alhamdulillah (praise Allah) and Allah and it’s not a problem. But I can never say these things in the Peninsula,” says Adam, who declined to reveal his full identity for fear of repercussions in his job.

It also does not help that Merdeka on 31 August has long been given more importance than 16 September, Malaysia Day.

“This speaks volumes about what the BN federal and state governments think of the position of Sabah and Sarawak in the federation. How else does one interpret this symbolism?” asks Aeria.

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, however, recently announced that 16 September would be a national holiday starting from 2010 to commemorate Malaysia Day. Although belated, this announcement will undoubtedly be welcomed by Sabahans and Sarawakians.

Although a disconnect still exists, Unimas’ Aeria stresses that many Sabahans, Sarawakians and Peninsula Malaysians blend in seamlessly both ways.

Although the psychological disconnect can be disputed what is harder to ignore is the brick and mortar differences between the living standards between the Peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak.

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Adam cites how despite Sarawak’s natural riches, it still struggles to provide adequate health care even in highly urban Kuching.

While schools, houses, roads and towns have been built and standards of living have risen in Sabah and Sarawak says Aeria, poverty has also deepened and income inequality has increased.

“Given the resource-based structure of the economies of Sabah and Sarawak, job opportunities are severely limited and more and more natives are forced to work outside Sabah and Sarawak to earn decent incomes.

“In other words, the Barisan Nasional has delivered a very bitter-sweet form of development-deprivation in East Malaysia.”  

A return to the past or leap to the future?

The majority of noise in cyberspace generated by critical Sabahans and Sarawakians is for a return to the 20- and 18-point agreements.

The full implementation of each of the points is seen as the ultimate salve for the wounds Sabahans and Sarawakians feel they have sustained over the 46 years of their association with Malaya.

The points are trumpeted as the solutions that will end the “orang Semenanjung, orang Sabah, orang Sarawak” syndrome and bring their peoples together.    

Advocates for a return to the agreements claim that it would empower non-Muslim indigenous groups by getting rid of any official State religion and that natives get bumiputera status recognition that is equal to that accorded the Malays in the Peninsula.

The agreements would also stop Peninsular policy makers from coming in and disrupting the close ethnic concord between communities.   

Malaysian Orang Asal Network president Adrian Lasimbang claims that Peninsula-oriented Federal Government officers are often unaware that the many tribes of both states have bumiputera status.

“Education and welfare aid is mainly in the hands of federal government agencies. But its officers often think that only Malays are bumiputeras.

“We have many cases of non-Malay bumiputera being denied aid while new bumiputera get help,” Lasimbang says. He uses the term “new bumiputera” to refer to the thousands of illegal immigrants who became citizens through dubious means in the 1990s.

The problem, he says, could have been easily overcome had the federal agencies been “Borneanised” with natives aware of Sabah’s and Sarawak’s diversity.

Anthony, who runs the well known dayakbaru.com website, claims that the erosion of the no-State-religion principle has prevented a Dayak from becoming either chief minister or Yang Di-pertua Negara.

“When Tunku Abdul Rahman was campaigning in Sarawak to sell the Malaysia idea, he pledged that should the chief minister be Muslim, the Yang Di-Pertua Negara must be Dayak. I specifically remember this being broadcasted on the radio.”

“But ever since Islamisation crept into Sarawak, the powers-that-be insist that a Yang Di-Pertua Negara be a Muslim. This should not be.”

Building unity

Yet, despite the promise of autonomy and self-sustainability of the agreements, the question must be asked: can the people of the three regions be unified if the solution to their schism lies in implementing policies that would make life in Sabah, Sarawak and the Peninsula so different from each other that they will really seem like foreign countries?

Unimas’ Aeria points to how this has occurred with immigration controls.

A foreigner under the ‘Malaysia, My Second Home’ programme can get a 10-year residence visa in both Sabah and Sarawak. A Peninsula Malaysian, however, wanting to spend a lengthy sojourn in both states is only entitled to a three-month visit pass that must be constantly renewed by exiting and re-entering the states. As well, all Peninsular Malaysians who work in both states but who are not attached to the federal civil service are required to apply for a work visa, which must be renewed annually or every two years. All Peninsular Malaysians are required to leave the state upon retirement – the exception being only when a Peninsular Malaysian is granted PR status or is married to a local. Sabahans and Sarawakians working and living in Peninsular Malaysia face no such hurdles.

“Immigration controls therefore no longer serve any meaningful purpose. They only reinforce the mental and psychological divides in our mind instead of building up a sense of oneness and emotional belonging. It is time we removed these barriers to unity.”

Aeria thus believes that talk of the 20-point and 18-point agreements is mere rhetoric and that the solution to Sabah and Sarawak’s woes lies in looking towards the future instead of to the past.

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“What we do need today are more just and respectful policies and more development funds that deliberately aim at overturning the hitherto neglect of both Sabah and Sarawak in the national developmental agenda.

… via recognising diversity

“Policies must recognise the unique religious, cultural and linguistic diversities of the peoples of Sabah and Sarawak as being as important as any other mainstream ethnic community in the country.

“Recognition of the main languages of Sabah (Kadazan-Dusun) and Sarawak (Iban) has to be officially institutionalised at all levels.”

For the youths interviewed for this article, the only lasting solution would be mutual separation although this is forbidden in the two agreements.

Marketing executive Mike Cheng points to how well Singapore has done when it left Malaysia in 1965.

“They broke away and made it big. Borneo is larger in size and we have more resources; so it is very possible that we could do just as well.Unless the Federal Government is sincere about doing justice to Sarawak and Sabah, we feel we would be better off on our own.”

Kuching-based Adam was ecstatic over the prospect.

“It would be the only way where we could finally control all our resources to use it for our people.

“Now we only get five per cent of the oil revenue; imagine what we could do with all of it. It’s not that I do not love Malaysia, but I feel that if we were on our own maybe the people of Sarawak can finally be the masters of their land.”    

However, this option is extremely difficult. The 1963 Malaysia Act forbids secession.

… via the ballot box?

A better bet to healing the rift would be for voters to enact political change on the ground, starting with their local leaders.

This is already happening as seen in the 2008 general elections where support in middle-class, urban constituencies is shifting towards non-BN candidates and parties.

Aeria, however, feels that parties such as the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat offer little substantial value for the electorate in terms of principles or policies.  

“There is presently no opposition worth talking about to even begin contesting elections here.”

Not too long ago, people used the same line of argument when discussing opposition parties in Peninsular Malaysia, before March 2008.

In fact, much of the speculation in the run-up to that election predicted that BN would win handily in all states except Kelantan. No one, not even the Pakatan Rakyat parties themselves, expected them to keep Kelantan and take over four more states.

Though how the Pakatan administrations are currently faring is debatable, their victories have brought changes in attitude in how the BN relates to the aspirations of Malaysians.

It could be argued that the liberalisation of the economy by stripping away pro-Malay regulations and a review of the Internal Security Act could not have been done if the BN had not lost ground last year.

Though much of the rhetoric was inflammatory, the concerns highlighted by the banned Hindu Rights Action Front on behalf of the Indian community have made the Prime Minister himself pay serious attention to this ethnic group.   

A loud and clear signal at the ballot box would jolt the local and federal BN that the populace rejects their current divide-and-deprive methods.  

There is thus every possibility that Sabahans and Sarawakians will soon see the end of Peninsula-style racism, the start of more funds to the states and more respect for indigenous rights.

But for that to happen, they have to believe that there is hope – not only for change through the ballot box but for a better shared destiny between East and West Malaysia.

Sheridan Mahavera is a journalist who used to work with a major mainstream newspaper.

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