“Who has failed to recognise NCR rights of the people? It’s not federal leaders; it’s the state leaders.” Joseph Sipalan spoke to academicians from Sabah and Sarawak over the issue of autonomy.
As Putrajaya opens up to greater leeway for Sabah and Sarawak to manage their state affairs, pundits warn that the interests of the people of Borneo may be jeopardised unless there’s a mechanism to check and balance this autonomous power.
Political observers acknowledged that granting autonomy to the two states is in line with what was initially agreed to under the Malaysia Agreement when the country was formed in 1963, but stressed that the erosion of their rights was as much the doing of state leaders as it was the fault of the federal administration.
“The problem is not so much a lack of autonomy. If you compare to other states, relatively Sarawak has autonomy. Of course it has reduced over the years but what have the state leaders been doing to help the ordinary Sarawakians?” said Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Dr Faisal Hazis, who used the country’s largest state as an example.
Under the 1963 deal, Sabah, Sarawak, Malaya and Singapore were supposed to have come together as equal partners to form Malaysia.
Singapore, however, set out on its own after just two years, while Sabahans and Sarawakians have long complained that the original pact has not been respected by the federal administration.
Faizal stressed that in the case of Sarawak, state leaders can’t point the finger at their federal counterparts in many of the long-standing problems facing their constituents, such as the matter of native customary rights (NCR) land as it falls squarely under state jurisdiction.
“Who has failed to recognise NCR rights of the people? It’s not federal leaders; it’s the state leaders.
“If they fight for autonomy alone without restructuring the state, basically that will give state leaders a monopoly over the lives of the people,” he said.
Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s Dr Arnold Puyok echoed Faizal’s sentiments, stressing that calls for autonomy must come in tandem with an administrative revamp that affords better checks and balances to the powers of state leaders.
“Autonomy, yes, but it must be accompanied by a special mechanism to prevent abuse of power. For me, it is autonomy equals accountability,” he said.
Dr Oh Ei Sun of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore was less optimistic of the possibility of structural reform in the two states, which he said are afflicted by the “resource curse” where the abundance of natural resources feeds greed.
He noted that if a resource-rich state continues to suffer a “lack of democracy”, corruption is unavoidable regardless of whether it is federally ruled or an autonomous region.
“But the opportunity to push for autonomy doesn’t come by often, so they should grab it whenever plausible!” he said.
Despite the clamour for autonomy by Sabahans and Sarawakians, Faizal pointed out that the onus falls on the people of the two states to keep a level head and make sure their leaders agree to be held to account when the time comes.
“People have gotten emotionally caught up in fighting for it, but I would argue that people overlook a lot of fundamental problems.
“When emotion takes over reason, people don’t see the bigger picture,” he said.