Sheridan Mahavera interviews political economist Andrew Aeria, who speaks frankly about the divide between east and west Malaysia and suggests what can be done to overcome it.
Q: After 46 years of association with Malaya, Sabahans and Sarawakians feel just as disconnected emotionally with the people from “Semenanjung” as their grandparents were before 1963. Why do you think this has happened and what are its root causes?
Eight root causes
First, it is inappropriate to lump all Sabahans and Sarawakians together as an aggregated whole. In my opinion, not all Sabahans and Sarawakians feel disconnected emotionally from the people of Semenanjung (and vice-versa). There are many who blend in seamlessly both ways. But certainly, one cannot deny that there still exists a sense of dis-connect among many segments of Sabah, Sarawak and even Peninsular Malaysian society towards their fellow citizens across the South China Sea.
Second, we cannot escape our geography. Distance and the South China Sea divide the peoples of the peninsula from those of Borneo. And our transport links between both regions aren’t superlative either. Certainly, they are much better today than before. But historically, it has always been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to travel between both territories. This has discouraged social interaction between us. This has partly had an impact upon Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsula society and how we view each other.
Third, the states of Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah all have different socio-cultural make-ups and politically-administratively different histories. And despite merger in 1963, the Alliance/BN Federal Government (led by an increasingly chauvinistic Umno) has consistently sought to impose its own ethnic (especially Malay-Muslim) worldview and imaginings of what it means to be Malaysian upon the whole country. In their policies, the Umno/BN Federal Government has had little appreciation of the sheer diversity of ethnicities, faiths, languages, lifestyles, dreams and hopes of Sabahans and Sarawakians. This has partly contributed towards the continuing sense of emotional dis-connect.
Fourth, the Federal Government presently gives greater priority to celebrating Merdeka Day on 31 August instead of Malaysia Day on 16 September. Like it or not, the BN state governments in Sabah and Sarawak are forced to do likewise. Considering that the 1963 merger to form Malaysia was a joining of equals instead of a subjugation of Borneo by Kuala Lumpur, this celebration of 31 August speaks volumes about what the BN federal government thinks of the position of Sabah and Sarawak within the federation. How else does one interpret this symbolism?
Fifth, KL has tended to treat independent-minded leaders from Sabah and Sarawak with an iron-fist instead of engaging them as political partners as per the idea of a genuinely-equal partnership of three territories which formed Malaysia via merger. Both Sarawak and Sabah have seen this iron-fist on many occasions, with its people suffering the consequences of elite-level fights, emergencies and tense political stand-offs. KL only entertains and supports leaders that are pliable and who are willing to be co-opted into the federal BN mould. As noted in the work of a young academic, Dr Faisal S. Hazis (2008), KL only entertains leaders in Sabah and Sarawak who are willing to a) safeguard national interests; b) maintain Malay-Muslim dominance; c) ensure the federal BN’s continued dominance of state and parliamentary elections; d) transfer the rights to extract natural resources to the federal government; and e) provide political stability within the federation. Complicating matters is that these co-opted local leaders then are allowed a relatively free hand to also greedily exploit the resources of their respective states of Sabah and Sarawak. Thus, although local, these Sabahan/Sarawakian leaders (and their business cronies) are seen as political and economic agents of KL, who are promoted and protected by KL power – which adds to the continued perception problem of an emotional dis-connect.
Sixth, Peninsula Malaysia society remains largely ignorant of the socio-political, economic and cultural realities of Sabah and Sarawak society. Why so? Again, the Umno-led federal government is partly responsible given their desire to mould Malaysia in their own narrow ethnic world-view. But at the same time, the national mainstream media are also responsible since they have long taken their media cues from the federal government. This historical lack of a dynamic media scene which provides a critical and comprehensive view of national life has contributed to a deep-seated national bias in the country where focus on the peninsula takes precedence within the federation over that of Sabah/Sarawak. Such media messages have led to the construction of an imagined reality such that many (although not all) West Malaysians perceive West Malaysia as “Malaysia” while Sabah and Sarawak are perceived as being part of a “foreign land”.
Seventh, the existence of regional-based political parties in Sabah and Sarawak (many members of the BN) like PBS, LDP, PBB, SUPP, PRS, SNAP, SAPP, etc not only maintains a regional-based worldview (i.e. us in Sabah/Sarawak versus them from West Malaysia) in their overall political outlook but they also make it a central-plank of their election campaigns to ask Sabahans and Sarawakians to vote for their own regional parties and not for West Malaysian parties. This regional outlook of Sabah/Sarawak political parties thus contributes to a deep sense of division; often inflaming sentiments of regional-sectarian differences between Malaysians for electoral gain and cheap political mileage. Put differently, such political parties divide instead of unite. Just as race- and religious-based political parties in West Malaysia are responsible for contributing towards the deepening problem of ethno-religious sectarianism in the country, so too regional-based parties in Sabah and Sarawak contribute towards a deepening sense of deeply divisive but vacuous regional-sentiments. This kind of political parties only promote a “tempurung” (coconut shell) kind of thinking.
Finally, immigration control between Peninsular Malaysia(PM) and Sabah/Sarawak. Although agreed to by the decision-makers in 1963, I think these controls have served to divide us and our common imaginings of a united nation. Where in the self-respecting democratic world – apart from Malaysia – does a country have internal immigration controls that limit the rights of movement and rights of citizens to work? Such controls not only run contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and arguably also our Federal Constitution) but also have a negative impact upon the psyche of those who travel between PM and Sabah/Sarawak. They only reinforce the perception of division and difference instead of unity.
Immigration controls in Sabah/Sarawak may have been perceived as necessary back in 1963 because Sabah/Sarawak feared being overwhelmed by an influx of immigrants from PM. And yet, the statistical record suggests that more Sabahans and Sarawakians have travelled to the peninsula over the years to work and settle down there than vice-versa. So, why do the state governments of Sabah/Sarawak continue maintaining immigration controls when they don’t even serve the original purpose they were enacted for?
As well, times and thinking have changed. Restricting the movement and work of Malaysian citizens in an era of globalisation is potentially suffocating for the economies of Sabah/Sarawak and Malaysia as a whole. How do you attract talent to help develop local economies if Malaysians are treated as foreigners in their own country having to renew their work permits every year or once every two years? In the meantime, retired pensioners from Europe, Australia and Japan are given 10-year Malaysia My Second-Home Visas to settle down in Sabah and Sarawak without all the immigration hassles! Further, what does this say to citizens and pensioners from Peninsular Malaysia who wish to settle down in beautiful Sabah and Sarawak? Presently, under the immigration controls, this right to settle down in Sabah/Sarawak is not available to West Malaysians even if we have worked here for decades.
Thus, immigration controls in Sabah/Sarawak no longer serve any meaningful purpose. If anything, they only serve to 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 if we truly believe in the idea of 1Malaysia. Otherwise, we perpetuate division. But obviously, the dull thinking of our politicians (and judges) have not changed much since 1963 since they maintain immigration control for reasons best known to themselves and justified by their own unfathomable logic. After all, Parliament has amended our constitution numerous times over the last 46 years to suit evolving times and situations. Thus, to claim that we cannot remove immigration controls because it is a 1963 constitutional provision is a genuinely lame excuse. Like I said earlier, times and thinking have changed.
Q: There have been assertions that the people of Sabah and Sarawak were not too keen on joining with Malaya when the idea was first mooted in 1963 at the time the Cobbold Commission went around to survey their opinions. It has also been suggested that the two states were pressed to join largely because of the relationship that Tunku Abdul Rahman had cultivated with leaders from these two States. This view postulates that in reality, the commission’s findings showed that a majority of the populace did not want to join. Could this be the main reason why there has been no real and substantive affinity between the people of the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak?
A close reading of the merger literature shows that there was no conclusive majority agreement by the citizens of Sabah and Sarawak to join Malaya, Singapore and Brunei in forming Malaysia. It was the British who twisted the arms of leaders in Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya to form Malaysia via merger in their haste to decolonise from the region.
Nonetheless, 46 years of nation-building have passed. If there exists little substantive affinity between the people of the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak today, we should not continue to blame history. It’s a bit pathetic to do so. If at all merger and the formation of Malaysia was perceived to be “a mistake” or an “unwilling compromise”, then surely 46 years is a long enough time period to correct that “mistake” and rebuild the trust and bonds between us, right? Thus, the perception of low affinity between our peoples today should really be attributed to our hitherto inadequate attempts at forging a genuine sense of nationhood, of national identity, one that is inclusive of all our diverse backgrounds and respectful of all our values and dreams.
Q: I interviewed historian Khoo Kay Kim and he says that the formation of Malaysia was mainly initiated by the British through Tunku Abdul Rahman. The Brits had wanted to ensure that Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Singapore were not gobbled up by Indonesia as Sukarno at the time was flirting with Communism. So he believes though the populace of Sabah and Sarawak did not really consent to joining Malaysia, it was in retrospect preferable to both States being absorbed by Indonesia. The country already owned Kalimantan and could have easily have marched into Sabah and Sarawak. Do you feel that in the 60s, Sabah and Sarawak could have had a different and better future than joining either Malaya or Indonesia, or was joining either inevitable?
I think this is a moot question for us today. Decolonisation has always been at best a difficult process. Many tiny countries throughout the former British Empire have succeeded at making a go at nationhood and nation-building despite having a small population and little resources. But not all have succeeded equally while some have failed. Similarly, many large countries have managed to make a go of nationhood and nation-building but others have not succeeded as well. Thus, maybe Sabah and Sarawak (had they formed their own country back in 1963) could have made of go of things on their own. And maybe not. Who knows? Does it matter anymore? Why look back at what could have been instead of working concretely with what we have now and where we want to go as a nation?
Q: If it is true that the East Malaysian populace is resentful of being constantly maltreated by the peninsula-centred BN Federal Government, why do election results show consistent support for BN parties? Why is Pakatan Rakyat, whose pledges include appointing a deputy PM for the region and more equitable treatment for the two States, rejected by voters?
I think it is inaccurate to suggest that the whole East Malaysian populace is resentful of being constantly maltreated by the “Peninsula-centred BN Federal Government”. Not all East Malaysians are resentful about their treatment by the BN Federal government. Large segments of local Sabahans and Sarawakians have made huge fortunes and built good professional careers with the help of the BN Federal government since 1963. Hundreds of thousands of Sabahans and Sarawakians have benefited in one way or another.
And yet, this said, there are still hundreds of thousands, who feel a deep-seated sense of deprivation and loss; who sense maltreatment at being neglected, marginalised or treated as second or even third-class citizens in their own land. This is undeniable.
Why do election results show consistent support for BN parties? Well, partly because the BN has delivered somewhat in Sabah and Sarawak. Infrastructure has been built, housing, utilities/amenities and public services have improved, and incomes have risen. But so too poverty has deepened and income inequality has increased. This too is undeniable. 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 levels of income. In other words, the BN has delivered a very bitter-sweet form of development-deprivation in East Malaysia. As well, to ensure it wins as many seats as possible in every election, the BN has consistently bullied, bluffed and bribed their way to victory. They have always had the money, the media and the machinery of an incumbent government to assist them in elections. Indeed, the BN has never fought an election on a fair basis in both states in recent history.
And then, there is the question of a credible opposition. Pray tell me, where is the credible opposition today in Sabah and Sarawak? Former opposition parties SUPP and SNAP (in the 1960s) and PBS and PBDS (in the 1980s) once flourished. But once they joined the BN government, they lost all credibility and are now weak shells of their former selves. There is presently no opposition worth talking about to even begin contesting elections here. The ethnically-inclined DAP has weak and limited appeal because it is only interested in playing to the Chinese gallery in urban areas. PKR presently is also weak. They may have big dreams of winning future elections but so far, they have only managed to showcase how disorganised they are in Sabah and Sarawak. They have little idea as to how best to move forward with a politically viable programme. As well, PKR presently attracts more BN political discards and former wannabe political clowns into their ranks than genuine quality people. Maybe things will change in future, I do not know.
Taking all these factors together, it’s not hard to understand why BN has won so many previous elections in Sabah and Sarawak.
Go it alone
Q: Those who I interviewed were enormously attracted to the idea that both states go it alone now, whether in terms of more autonomy or complete secession from the Federation. This way, they would be able to keep their petroleum and timber revenues and shake off BN interference. What are the benefits or shortcomings to such an idea? Or do you feel Sabah and Sarawak’s destiny is still with Malaysia?
I think Sabah and Sarawak’s destiny is still with Malaysia. What we have achieved in terms of development over the last 46 years should not be dismissed just because we have numerous serious problems currently facing our respective societies. And yes, many things could have been done better. But I think we should not throw the baby out with the dirty bath water.
Still, since we are a democracy, if East Malaysians want to articulate the idea of going it alone (be it via limited autonomy or via secession), then they should be free to do so with no restrictions imposed upon their person. Neither should they fear being detained under the draconian ISA. Any self-respecting democracy wanting to forge strong bonds of nationhood should be mature enough to handle this discourse and debate. Indeed, why can’t we have a healthy debate about this? Who knows? It may be that we all end up understanding each other better and growing closer instead of growing apart.
As for petroleum resources, I think they should be shared more equitably between the federal government and ALL state governments (including Terengganu and Kelantan) as a matter of right and not charity (wang ehsan). If a higher percentage is thought fairer, then let’s have a substantive debate in parliament. But along with a more equitable division of petroleum resources, I would also like to see greater accountability and transparency in the disbursement of all petroleum resources by all governments, be they state or federal. As for timber revenues, they are already in the purview of each state government.
Q: What would you prescribe to close the East-West Malaysia divide?
If we want to enhance the sense of belonging, of being Malaysian among Sabahans and Sarawakians and to “close the East-West divide”, I think we must move beyond the “tempurung-thinking” promoted by all Sabah’s and Sarawak’s regional-based political parties. We would also need to address the existence of other like-minded “tempurung-thinking” race- and religion-based parties in West Malaysia for they too act to divide instead of unite us as a nation. In place of these “tempurung-thinking” political parties, we need a political environment that is more ideologically-based, i.e. political parties that actually articulate substantive political-economic and socio-cultural electoral platforms that outline policies which transcend race, religion, regionalism, gender, etc. and which focus on human welfare, community well being and environmental sustainability.
Q: Some have said that a return to the 20-point agreement and re-instituting the points that have been changed over years (bringing back state-controlled education and more control over finances) would be a good starting point to heal the rifts. What do you think?
You mentioned the immigration barriers being one of the reasons for the divide between the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak . When I re-read some of the other points in the agreement, some of them – state-controlled education, English for official purposes and independent financial control – seemed to be aimed at granting more autonomy. Yet these points could, like the immigration controls, deepen the differences between the two regions and its peoples. What do you think?
Let me address both these questions together. But before I answer these questions, let me make a few points.
First, when the Federation of Malaya became independent in 1957, it was a federation of eleven states on the peninsula with clear demarcation of constitutional powers between federal and state governments. Similarly when Malaysia was formed in 1963, there were clear demarcation of powers enshrined in the constitution between the federal government and the state governments of Sabah and Sarawak. Over the years, however, there have been strong political forces that have slowly but surely eroded state-powers and made Malaysia a more centralised state, with KL being dominant over all (and not only over Sabah/Sarawak).
Much of the original state powers in Sabah/Sarawak that were significant have since been eroded by constitutional amendments pushed through by the federal BN government but with the full agreement and compliance of the then BN state governments in Sabah/Sarawak. For example, the Petroleum Development Act of 1974, 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) is a case in point. Both Sabah and Sarawak BN state governments at that time fully supported the handing over of their petroleum resources, voted for it in parliament and then voted for amendments to their own state constitutions to this effect. Similarly, like it or not, Labuan’s handover to the Federal Government in 1984.
Second, the 20-point agreement was never enshrined as a constitutional document. Instead, it was more of a gentleman’s agreement between Tunku and the then Sabah/Sarawak leaders with elements of the agreement (like education, temporary use of English, issues of religion and civil service) written into the 1963 Malaysia Agreement. Since then, however, numerous constitutional amendments and administrative procedures have watered down many of those elements.
Now to answer your questions.
In my view, much of the issues in the 20-point agreement are highly-emotive and politically-charged having being used over the last four decades more as political rhetoric to advance the prospects of the various regional political parties in Sabah/Sarawak; the leaders of whom have gone on to enrich themselves after gaining power. In turn, the substance of the 20-points has been largely ignored by the federal BN government in its hegemonic desire to makeover East Malaysia within a West Malaysian mould. The 20-points has seldom – if at all – featured as a platform to alleviate the plight of the ordinary people of Sabah/Sarawak or even to benefit them.
Thus, I am not convinced that returning “state-controlled education and more control over finances”, or indigenising the local state civil services, etc. would even begin to address the issue of the East-West Malaysia divide and deepen our sense of a common Malaysian identity.
Like I said previously, times have changed. Globalisation has swept over East and West Malaysia and we have to look to the future instead of the vacuous past of political rhetoric if we want to make headway in forging a real Malaysian identity. After all, what does the 20-point agreement mean to the poorest and most marginalised in Sabah and Sarawak? I think their needs are more urgent than mere political rhetoric.
Thus, what we do need today are better policies (i.e. more just, respectful and with better delivery) and more development funds that deliberately aim at overturning the hitherto neglect of both Sabah and Sarawak in the national development agenda. This neglect has been going on for far too long. After all, the key reason that “persuaded” the then leaders of Sabah and Sarawak to agree to merger in 1963 was the promise of development funds to help develop both states within Malaysia. Instead, 46 years on, despite having huge natural resources, Sabah is the poorest state in the federation! Sarawak is not far behind with deep wealth and income inequalities along with the country’s worst environmental track record! We need to address this to ensure that in our rush to development, we do not leave whole communities (like remote rural communities – e.g. the Penan, the disabled and the stateless children) behind or end up destroying traditional legacies like ancestral native lands or even displacing whole communities (i.e. in Sabah) with a massive influx of foreign migrant workers.
Development policies must also be more inclusive of minorities and be professionally-implemented. They must also comply with the normal democratic demands of transparency and accountability at all levels. Corruption is currently a curse that cripples much in our country. We need to do things more professionally with less leakages in the implementation of development policy.
As well, national 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. Further, recognition of the main languages of Sabah (i.e. Kadazan-Dusun) and Sarawak (i.e. Iban) have to be officially institutionalised at all levels if we are serious about addressing the East-West divide. In other words, our nation-building outlook has to be more multi-cultural and accepting of our rich diversity instead of being so mono-hegemonic in its current form. Inclusiveness, respect and equality should be the new keywords of Malaysian-building. Additionally, there is a need to educate West Malaysians about the peoples of Sabah/Sarawak. There is currently just too much ignorance about Sabah/Sarawak in the peninsula. This has to be part and parcel of any revised national approach to forging a new Malaysian identity.
As I see it, these would be better starting points to healing the current East-West Malaysian rift than talking about the 20-points.
Dr Andrew Aeria is Assoc Professor of Politics in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. Sheridan Mahavera is a journalist who used to work with a major mainstream newspaper.
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