SANDAKAN, Sabah: In a school hall filled with hundreds of Sandakan residents and voters, Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal issued a rallying call that drew the loudest cheer of the evening.
“Sabah is not like the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis. We want to remind the younger generation that when Malaysia was formed, Sabah was formed as a wilayah (territory),” said the 62-year-old.
“We were not just included in Malaysia, we helped to form and shape the country,” he paused, as the crowd roared in approval.
Mr Shafie was campaigning for Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) Vivian Wong, who ultimately won the Sandakan by-election by a landslide margin last Saturday (May 11).
At the crucial point of the campaign, Mr Shafie’s message was clear - vote for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government because it is committed to restore the status of Sabah as an equal partner with the Federation of Malaya, as enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).
This would mean the state would receive “fair royalty” for its oil from the federal government and would have jurisdiction over the administration of state matters and resources, said Mr Shafie.
But not everyone in the hall cheered along.
For businessman Lim Chien Yee, PH’s failure to pass the Federal Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2019 last month was still fresh on his mind.
“During the general election last year, PH vowed to give Sabah and Sarawak equal footing with peninsula Malaysia. But it has been one year and they haven’t managed to make any changes. Are we second-class citizens to them?” said the 43-year-old businessman.
Mr Maximus Ongkili, the president of Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) - whose candidate Ms Linda Tsen lost in the Sandakan by-election added that the PH government is “just talk with no action” on matters concerning Sabah and Sarawak.
Dr Ongkili said the government, and the DAP in particular, has made promises to the people of Sabah, but have not kept them.
He recalled how DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng had, during the last general election, promised to “increase oil royalty to Sabah from the current five per cent to 20 per cent”.
“Yet, until today, not a single cent (has been fulfilled) on that commitment. This goes to prove that DAP is not a party of its words,” Dr Ongkili said.
The second reading of the Bill was tabled by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Apr 9, but it was shy of 10 votes to meet the two-thirds threshold of 148 votes in the 222-seat parliament.
This was an attempt to pass an amendment to the first article of the Malaysian Constitution. If effected, this amendment would have brought the wording in Article 1(2) back to the original phrasing when the federation was established.
Article 1(2) of the Constitution, following an amendment in 1976, currently says:
“The States of the Federation shall be Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor and Terengganu.”
At the second reading, the bill to amend Article 1(2) - with changes made to the wording in the original bill following objections - read:
“The States of the Federation shall be - the States of Malaya, namely Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor, and Terengganu; and the Borneo States, namely Sabah and Sarawak.”
Another Sandakan resident, medical doctor Richard Lai told CNA that the wording of the Bill put forth by PH needed to be more specific on what are the rights that would place Sabah and Sarawak on equal footing as peninsula Malaysia.
“What are specific areas that we will get autonomy on? Is it religion? Must Islam be the main religion in East Malaysia too? What about language - can we make English our official language here? We should be able to do these things for the change to carry any meaning,” he said.
Following the failed bid in the parliament, the Sabah state assembly unanimously endorsed an amendment of the Constitution to put Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners with the peninsula. Mr Shafie said it was important for the state to give its endorsement with the intention to push the matter again at parliament level.
Separately, the Sarawak state assembly also approved a motion to seek comprehensive amendments to the federal Constitution to protect state rights and safeguards under MA63, including its legislative and executive powers, revenue sources and financial autonomy.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Liew Vui Keong was quoted as saying that a fresh Bill on the amendment would not be tabled in Putrajaya anytime soon, unless there was assurance of support from the 59 MPs who had abstained from voting.
“AMENDMENT HAS TO BE FINE-TUNED”: SARAWAK MP
Among those who chose not to vote were 18 MPs from Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), which is friendly to the PH coalition.
Ms Rohani Abdul Karim, who is Batang Lupar MP, was quoted as saying that the proposed amendment needed to be "fine-tuned in detail” and not “simply state that Sabah and Sarawak are equal partners”.
"We cannot give our support blindly because we fear that this would result in the erosion of our rights as an equal partner, which have yet to be spelt out in detail," she said.
Associate Professor Ahmad Marthada Mohamed, political observer from University Utara Malaysia, echoed the sentiments of GPS members that the Bill was rushed through by PH without taking stakeholders’ viewpoints into consideration.
Political analyst Dr Wong Chin Huat from Sunway University, on the other hand, opined that GPS was forcing PH into negotiations so that it could use this to gain credit from voters for Sarawak’s upcoming state polls, which must be called before September 2021.
BLOW FOR UMNO, PAS SUPPORT IN EAST MALAYSIA: ANALYST
While PH has taken flak for its failure to pass the Bill, it has blamed opposition parties like United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) for putting up a roadblock.
“The Act was brought to parliament for voting, and that’s our interest, the people of Sabah’s interest. But PAS and UMNO members abstained. They don’t have your interests at heart, we do,” Mr Shafie told the crowd at the rally.
Ms Maslina Rahmat, who sells vegetable at Sandakan’s wet market, told CNA she is having second thoughts about supporting UMNO after she found out all Barisan Nasional (BN) MPs abstained from voting.
“It lacks integrity. When BN campaigned here during the general election last year, they told us they wanted to fight for our rights and give us back our rightful status. But when it comes down to voting for it in parliament, they became egoistic,” she added.
Of the 25 federal seats in Sabah, BN currently holds 10 seats. PH, which consists of DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, has six seats while Mr Shafie’s Parti Warisan Sabah has eight seats. PAS contested for eight federal seats in Sabah in the last general election, but lost all of them.
Assoc Prof Ahmad Marthada warned that the actions of opposition MPs could come home to roost when the PAS-UMNO alliance attempts to win enough federal seats in East Malaysia at the next polls to take over Putrajaya.
In the meantime, Ms Wong from the DAP has pledged to prioritise fighting for the rights of the people of Sabah when she debates in the House come August.
“We want our rights back. It will allow us to have a better life, and this is a huge concern for the people in Sandakan and Sabah,” said the Sandakan native.
“These are among the things I can influence, and I want to try.”