Four ways Sabah and Sarawak can lead in transforming Malaysia’s political landscape

The leaders in Sabah and Sarawak may not be perfect, but there are no other options since the peninsula leaders appear to have their hands tied and mouths gagged

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By Carolyn Khor, Murray Hunter and Lim Teck Ghee

Among the advantages of an East Malaysian-led or influenced government is its potential to reject pressure from racial and religious extremism.

Unlike the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak have historically been more tolerant and diverse in their religious and secular practices.

By promoting inclusivity and pluralism, an East Malaysian bloc can mitigate the influence of extremist ideologies in politics and the civil service. In its favour is the much more multi-racial and polyglot communities in the two territories and the absence of the traumatic May 13 racial chapter of history.

This painful episode not only transformed peninsula politics and society. Its dark shadow is repeatedly raised by peninsula politicians to stifle the nation’s progress to a psychologically and mentally liberated society.

To address the challenge of political transformation effectively, we have compiled a list of issues and assessed how East Malaysian parties and leadership can create and provide much-needed change to the current political landscape.

From social cohesion to economic development, from environmental sustainability to indigenous rights, East Malaysia can lead the way in driving positive change in many ways.

The success of political transformation in Malaysia also hinges on the active participation of all stakeholders from east and west, especially the younger generation, including think tanks, professional elites, NGOs, media and businesses – both big and small.

It is only through collective action and collaboration that we can overcome the barriers to change and build a progressive, more inclusive and equitable society.

Collaboration among stakeholders from wherever they are – and not just from Putrajaya and the capital cities – is key for leveraging local and regional interests and driving national change.

Here’s a framework for how parties in East Malaysia could collaborate to form a cohesive bloc:

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1. Identify common goals and priorities

Parties in East Malaysia should convene to arrive at shared objectives and priorities that resonate with the people’s interests and aspirations.

Common goals could include identifying and effectively addressing the root causes of racial and religious tensions and strengthening the everyday ways to fight against racism and injustice.

Another goal could be to take action against growing systemic racism by reforming structures, policies and practices that contribute to the wealth gap, socioeconomic disparities and inequalities in educational access, outcomes and beyond.

This includes clamping down on extremism such as that we are witnessing today with “Socks-gate”, which threatens not just the spirit of multi-racialism but also the livelihoods of innocent employees and their families. If unresolved, it constitutes a danger to the retention and influx of local and foreign businesses and investment and may even trigger an emergency.

Once this balance has been restored, only then can we progress, as other countries in the region have, without the distractions from extremists and polarising forces intent on imposing their narrowly constricted racial and religious values onto the rest of the country.

2. Hold continual dialogues among East Malaysian parties and stakeholders

Any ongoing dialogue and collaboration should be strengthened and expanded, allowing participating parties to engage other parties and stakeholders to discuss strategies, coordinate actions and address differences constructively.

The recent merger between the Progressive Democratic Party and Parti Sarawak Bersatu is one good example.

The United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation’s (Upko’s) current good relationship with the DAP and Pakatan Harapan are positive indicators for a more inclusive and forceful voice from Borneo at the federal level.

These parties must also prioritise building trust and solidarity among themselves. They need to recognise the diversity of perspectives and interests within the bloc to foster a strong sense of unity and purpose. And they can and must reach out to the smaller parties in the peninsula.

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Collaboration should extend beyond political parties to include civil society groups, community leaders and grassroots movements. By engaging with diverse stakeholders, the bloc can strengthen its legitimacy, broaden its support base, and ensure that its agenda reflects the needs of the people.

As a united bloc, parties in East Malaysia can then leverage their collective influence to advocate for policy reforms and legislative initiatives that advance the region’s and national interests. The bloc can also amplify its voice and effectively negotiate with other political stakeholders.

3. Coordinate electoral strategies

Political parties exploring opportunities for strategic collaboration to maximise their collective impact should start discussions as early as possible to avoid potential problems.

They need to start their groundwork early on a common platform. If the selection of candidates can be agreed upon sooner rather than later, voters will be more inclined to decide on the right candidate on election day.

4. Commit to saving Malaysia

The bloc can withstand any challenges or opposition from detractors by creating a strong force through cementing relationships and institutionalising cooperation.

This includes collectively winning as many seats as possible to empower the bloc to effect positive changes in Parliament.

The window of opportunity is now evident, considering the fragmented government formed after the 2022 general election.

The East Malaysian grouping can take heart that their current 25% share of the 222 parliamentary seats will increase substantially after the next redrawing of the electoral map.

But it is not only numbers that count. Is there the quality, pragmatism and most importantly, idealism in the East Malaysian leadership that can make a difference in policymaking and implementation that comes after the next general election?  We have seen PH, and many now conclude, fail in living up to the reform agenda.

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East Malaysian parties now have the advantage of being courted on national issues and policies due to the evolving and fluid political environment.

With the current power dynamics, contrasting ideologies and competing interests, East Malaysian parties and politicians can now drive bold messages and actions of reform and unity. These messages can contribute to a better – and not the same – Malaysia.

Immediate action can begin by East Malaysian activists and political parties taking the lead in organising parades, marches and similar events to bring home to Malaysians the diversity and unity that they are committed to protecting and nurturing.

See these videos as examples:

The leaders in Sabah and Sarawak may not be perfect, but there are no other options since the peninsula leaders appear to have their hands tied and mouths gagged.

An East Malaysian bloc may be able to break the peninsula-centric and ethnic Malay bureaucracy-dominant mould, which has long defined and continues to hold back Malaysian politics and national progress.

Collaboration among parties in East Malaysia with the West could transform the nation by bringing it back to its original secular roots and identity.

Lim Teck Ghee is a former senior official with the UN and the World Bank. Murray Hunter is an independent researcher and former professor with the Prince of Songkla University and Universiti Perlis. Carolyn Khor is a former ministerial press secretary.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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