Monday, June 23, 2008

So much for Malaysian unity

So much for Malaysian unity
24 June, 2008


Sarawakians are proud to have kept Barisan Nasional's (BN) biggest component party out of Sarawak. 'We don't want them here because they tend not to share power and spoils,' said one official.

By Cheong Suk-Wai, The Straits Times

SABAHAN rice farmer John Jinus has two daughters working in West Malaysia. But he is not fond of the welcome he receives in the peninsula when he visits them.

'They keep asking me: 'Bila awak datang ke Malaysia? (When did you come to Malaysia?)'

'And I keep asking them: 'Am I not Malaysian? Is Sabah not part of Malaysia'?'

The irony is thick, especially since Sabahans and Sarawakians are about as Malaysian as they come. People in the two territories have intermarried for generations, so it is hard to tell if a person one meets here is Malay, Chinese or one among East Malaysia's many indigenous peoples.

More often than not, they are all of the above. Sabah and Sarawak are the embodiment of real Malaysia: multi-racial and, for the most part, peaceful.

On Sept 16, 1963, Sabah (known then as North Borneo) and Sarawak merged with Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia. The two Borneo territories, each almost the size of a country, became Malaysian states.

Singapore, of course, ceased to be one in August 1965. But it is worth remembering that Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaysia in large part because of Singapore. Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaya's prime minister then, had refused to consider merger with Singapore unless the Borneo territories were part of the deal, so as to maintain racial balance.

The British went along with the Tunku's demands and encouraged Sabah and Sarawak to join Malaysia.

At that time, coming under the Malaysian umbrella was welcomed by most in the two territories. The Philippines claimed Sabah and Indonesia under Sukarno eyed both. There was also an on-going communist insurgency in Sarawak.

But Sabah and Sarawak have diverged much in their attitudes towards Malaysia since then.

It is not just that Kota Kinabalu, Sabah's capital, is as shabby as Kuching, Sarawak's capital, is sophisticated.

It is not just that many Sabahans drive cars with West Malaysian numberplates, because they can only afford to buy second-hand vehicles to ply the state's rocky and unstable roads.

Toyota, in the meantime, recently celebrated the sale of its 100,000th Vios model in Sarawak.

And it is not just that Sarawak has been built up with investments from giant oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, while 98 per cent of the enterprises in Sabah are small- and medium-sized, according to Malaysia's Deputy Trade Minister Liew Vui Keong, a Sabahan.

In negotiating the Malaysia Agreement, Sarawakians insisted on autonomy in four areas - the civil service, local government, land and immigration. These, along with the financial independence they gained from exploiting vast natural resources, have enabled them to cock a snook at 'Big Brother Umno'.

Sarawakians are proud to have kept Barisan Nasional's (BN) biggest component party out of Sarawak. 'We don't want them here because they tend not to share power and spoils,' said one official.

That is not to say that everyone is happy with the status quo in Sarawak. Lawyer Wilfred Gomeze anak Malong complained: 'In the State Legislative Assembly, no one, including the opposition Democratic Action Party, brings up issues like how Sarawak's oil revenue is being used.

'Instead, they ask what the government is going to do about dirty drains and other small matters.'

And dig deeper and one would find that the veneer of racial harmony is thin at best. 'The Dayaks would sooner trust a Malay than a Chinese. The Malay is a bumiputera at least,' said a Sarawakian who was in his teens when Malaysian was born.

Such resentment is partly due to the fact that few Dayaks have the money to stand for elections and agitate for change. Most political activity in Sarawak was, and still is, funded by the Chinese, which gives them a rather large say on important issues.

Sabahan leaders had tabled a memorandum of 20 Points in 1963, insisting on safeguards for Sabah on matters of immigration, religion, language, education, forestry and so on.

Today, despite all that early bluster, the state has a voice only in forestry and land matters. All else requires consultation with, if not approval from, the federal government in Kuala Lumpur.

Sarawakian officials crow about how their Chief Minister, Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, has been in office for 27 years, while Sabahans have rotating chief ministers. It was ex-premier Mahathir Mohamed who introduced that peculiar feature of Sabah politics.

The rotation system was meant to give each race in Sabah a turn at governing. But critics say the musical chairs was a tactic to check the influence of chief ministers, particularly since the once-powerful Kadazandusun-based Parti Bersatu Sabah broke away from BN in 1990, only to return in 2002.

Indeed, the need to change chief ministers every two years has scared off many Chinese businessmen in Sabah. As one put it: 'Nobody knows if today's policies will be around tomorrow.'

'Semenanjung' - which is what East Malaysians sometimes call the federal government, 'semenanjung' being the Malay word for 'peninsular' - often raises the hackles of East Malaysians.

Even Sarawakians such as Datuk Amar James Wong, the timber tycoon who was among the original negotiators of the Malaysia Agreement, complain today that the federal government will give aid to mission, Chinese and other independent schools in the state only if they sign over their land to it.

But Mr Wong has no regrets he helped Sarawak join Malaysia. 'Thank God for Malaysia,' he said. Sarawak would have 'burst out in bloodshed' if it had not joined, he told The Straits Times. Its peoples were too diverse, restive and politically immature to fend off the communist threat.

Ironically, in the recent general election, it was 'out of sight, out of mind' East Malaysia that voted overwhelmingly for BN, thus enabling the coalition to form the government. That is perhaps why Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi visited Sarawak twice within a week this month, first to announce a multi-billion-ringgit package of development projects for the state and then to attend its annual harvest festival celebrations.

He also gave Sabah a generous package, leading Mr Taib to gripe to reporters: 'Sabah and Sarawak are about the same size in population...But Sarawak got less than half (what Sabah got).'

So much for Malaysian unity, even between these two immediate neighbours.

East Malaysians are not enamoured with the way West Malaysia is going, especially its emphasis on ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) and the Malay agenda.

Indeed, as Mr Gomeze put it: 'The federal government cannot blame our people if we are anti-Malaysia. We are not anti-Malaysia per se, but we are against a system that advocates the supremacy of one race.'

Spoken like a true Malaysian.

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