Commentary: The East Malaysia secession grapevine, an absolute headache for Malaysia Day
The Pakatan Harapan government faces its trickiest conundrum yet – keeping Sarawak and Sabah in the fold while resisting accusations it’s not protecting Malay rights, says James Chin.
HOBART: This coming Monday (Sep 16) marks Malaysia Day, a public holiday that commemorates the formation of the Federation of Malaysia – when the states of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore merged in 1963.
Prior to this holiday being gazetted in 2010, the country celebrated its founding day on Aug 31, the date the Federation of Malaya gained independence from British colonial rule.
For the past decade, the rise of state nationalism in Sabah and Sarawak, and deep historical grievances related to the 1963 Malaysian Agreement (MA63) have become the central political issue in East Malaysia.
This anti-federalism sentiment was so strong that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition had devoted one of its five key pillars in its 2018 election manifesto to this single issue. Pillar 4 promised to “Return Sabah And Sarawak to the Status Accorded by The Malaysia Agreement 1963”.
Slightly more than a year after the historic regime change, however, two of PH’s key policy moves on this issue are still works-in-progress.
First, PH tried to amend the Malaysian Constitution back to its original 1963 wording. It was supposed to be a token political gesture to please the East Malaysians, to symbolically restore the status of Sabah and Sarawak as equal states on par with Peninsular Malaysia, and allow PH to claim a fulfilment of its election promise.
It was meant to be a “sure thing” since it had no financial or administrative consequence for the federal government.
But the East Malaysians saw through this guise and wanted to hold the PH government to the full substance of its election promise.
So it was no surprise that this constitutional amendment not only failed spectacularly, but PAS, the main Islamic party and more than a dozen UMNO MPs, joined Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) in abstaining from the vote, ensuring its political death. Since then, there has been complete silence from Putrajaya.
Second, PH established a high-level Special Cabinet Committee to look into the implementation of MA63. In practice, this meant a decentralisation of powers, from the management of finances, the economy, immigration and language, to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu to implement certain parts of MA63 which were never executed after the federation was established.
The committee was said to have completed work by the end of August this year, but Putrajaya has since announced that agreement was only forthcoming on seven out of 21 issues. In other words, consensus on two-thirds of issues remain outstanding after eight months of negotiations.
All this is happening against the backdrop of an upcoming Sarawak state election, likely to be held sometime next year, a year earlier than scheduled, as PH Sarawak politicians’ talk about election strategy and seat allocation have heated up, suggested that the coalition is gearing up for political battle.
The thinking in GPS is that they need to hold a state election sooner rather than later to capitalise on the strong state nationalism and, more importantly, on the general sentiment that the federal PH administration is simply not delivering.
Over the past year, many surveys have shown a drop in support for PH, amid many controversies, including ongoing fighting inside PKR, whether Anwar will take over next year and the many U-turns in key policies in the past year, just to name a few.
Most in the Putrajaya intelligentsia circles see the Sarawak election as a litmus test of state nationalism and East Malaysian sentiment towards MA63.
GPS, the ruling coalition in Sarawak, proudly proclaims itself to be “Sarawak First”, espousing the mantra that Sarawak’s best interests can only be guaranteed by Sarawak parties, a not-too-subtle dig at PH Sarawak. The four parties making up GPS are all exclusively based in Sarawak.
The fanning of Sarawak nationalism includes giving permits for regular demonstrations and public forums by secessionist groups.
In the past year, there have been at least a dozen demonstrations held in Kuching promoting “Sarexit”- Sarawak Exit- a clear reference to breaking away from the federation. In any other part of Malaysia, the police would crack down on even the slightest hint of secession.
If the demonstrations were not enough, Parti Bumi Kenyalang (PBK), a Sarawak party, openly calls for secession and independence. Half a dozen other parties, including one in the GPS coalition, is calling for a referendum on the future of Sarawak in the federation.
The secessionists are also mounting a campaign internationally. At the end of September, Sabah Sarawak Rights Australia New Zealand (SSRANZ), an Australia-based NGO, will be holding a forum entitled “Is there a future for Sabah and Sarawak Under Malaysia?” in Melbourne, with the explicit aim of trying to show that MA63 was flawed and illegal under international law.
Like several other Sarawak and Sabah rights NGOs outside Malaysia, SSRANZ, was formed by Sabahans and Sarawakians living outside Malaysia. Some of their leaders have taken up foreign citizenship but are still passionate about what they perceive as the failure of the Malaysian federation.
In addition to the goal of implementing MA63, many of these groups argue that Peninsular Malaysia’s obsession with Malay supremacy and Islam does not gel with Sabah and Sarawak’s context, which has seen fewer of such fervent cleavages.
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Most main indigenous groupings in Sabah and Sarawak are, in fact, non-Muslims and are unhappy with Putrajaya’s attempts at managing racial and religious relations.
THE MALAYAN SHADOW
PH Sarawak wants to project itself as the true MA63 champion, advocating for development. It has poured money into its signature project, the pan-Borneo highway, which will link Sarawak to Sabah.
It has also tried to constantly remind Sarawakians that GPS is nothing more than a wolf-in-a-sheep’s clothing, and that GPS is merely a rebranded Sarawak Barisan Nasional (BN).
PH’s argument is that all the GPS parties had been part of the old Sarawak BN alliance and the current Sarawak chief minister Abdul Rahman Zohari had been in his position since 2017, before the make-over.
For years, Sarawak BN had also been dogged by allegations of grand corruption.
PH is betting big that the regime-change sentiment, fuelled by a rage against graft and malfeasance, which saw the federal BN tossed out of government can be repeated in the upcoming Sarawak polls.
The Governor of Sarawak Abdul Taib Mahmud, a former Sarawak chief minister and one of the longest serving parliamentarian in Malaysia, was accused of kleptocracy long before Najib Razak was given the same label.
As founder of Sarawak BN who has also said GPS can give Sarawakians a better shot at tomorrow, he has become a convenient target which the PH can use to tar GPS.
This year’s national-level Malaysia Day celebration will be held in Kuching, no doubt to burnish the reputation of PH as a MA63 champion. It is intended to show Putrajaya’s commitment to resolving the longstanding unhappiness and demonstrate high-level PH attention to Sarawak.
The intended message is that PH is serious about recognising Sarawak’s (and Sabah's) unique contribution to Malaysia Day.
The irony of course is that the public holiday, far from achieving greater unity between East and West Malaysia, will be a reminder that federal-state relations will remain under strain as long as these historical differences remain unresolved.
This coming Monday’s celebration in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, will do little to damper the strong state nationalism in East Malaysia.
The coming Sarawak elections will be the ultimate test of who the Sarawak polity believes as the better champion of state rights, PH or GPS.
Either way, we can expect demonstrations in central Kuching calling for secession to be held on a regular basis, at least until the state elections are held.
The conundrum faced by PH thus comes down to this: If PH cannot deliver most of pillar 4, then it will lose Sarawak to GPS, and more importantly, strengthen the hand of the secessionists.
Yet if PH delivers most of its promises, it will give political ammunition to the new PAS/UMNO electoral pact who can accuse PH of reverse discrimination against Malaya and the Malays.
Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.