SARAWAK, Kuching: Pressure is on for the Malaysian federal government to heed calls for greater autonomy for one of its most politically and economically vital states, Sarawak.
Sarawak alone holds almost 14 per cent of all the seats in Malaysia's parliament and ruling coalition Barisan Nasional relies on its support to maintain the status quo after losing ground in Peninsula states.
Both the opposition and BN's Sarawak-based parties used campaigning for Saturday's (May 7) state elections to decry the loss of empowerment and devolution of powers they say Sarawak was promised in 1963.
Back then, after years of colonial rule, the Land of the Hornbills agreed to join the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Singapore to form Malaysia under certain conditions.
Sarawak is also known as the "Land of the Hornbills". (Photo: Sumisha Naidu)
The merger got off to a rough start, leading to Singapore forming its own country in 1965. But while Sabah and Sarawak remain till this day, Sarawak feels the terms of the 1963 merger have not been honoured.
It is a cause Sarawak BN chairman and incumbent Chief Minister of Sarawak Adenan Satem has taken up - calling on the public to give him a bigger mandate so he can "speak up" to Putrajaya.
"In the Malaysia Agreement we signed, all kinds of powers were given to Sarawak but now the Federal government just takes and takes and takes," he told a cheering crowd at a campaign rally.
"I want those powers back as it was in 1963!"
LESS OVERLAP AND BROADER POWERS
Sarawak and Sabah already have special powers such as the right to control who can enter their territory, but Sarawak in particular wants less overlap and broader powers to run the state without federal interference.
Rich in resources, it is also pushing for a 20 per cent share in royalty from oil and gas, despite signing an agreement in 1974 agreeing to only 5 per cent.
A woman working the soil in the Bau village of Sarawak. (Photo: Syafiq Safian)
Dr Arnold Puyok, the head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak said this will not be easy to do, but the state is in a position to exert pressure.
"Sabah and Sarawak are in a better position politically ... they have more bargaining power," he told Channel NewsAsia.
"It's not an easy time for Najib, it's really difficult for him, to try and give concession to state leaders but he has no choice because he needs Sabah and Sarawak," he added.
Talks on oil and gas royalty have been put on hold as Prime Minister Najib said it is not the right time with low prices causing the country a RM40 billion loss of revenue. But in Kuching, he said discussions for greater empowerment for Sarawak will continue.
"Both sides have agreed to look at more complex issues based on the law and based on the agreement of Sarawak gaining independence in Malaysia, to study what were the principles and spirit of that agreement and whether we (the Federal government) inadvertently took powers from Sarawak or the people of Sarawak," the Prime Minister said.
Banners of Prime Minister Najib Razak with the caption "You will be Heard" displayed during the Sarawak election campaign period. (Photo: Sumisha Naidu)
Advocates for autonomy worry this could just be campaign talk with no real outcome, but the federal government may be proceeding with caution as momentum grows for greater independence for a state so important to Putrajaya.
"I asked this question to Adenan himself. I said, some people are concerned what he's doing is going to undermine the integrity of the Federation but he said, he's only fighting for autonomy, he does not want secession," said Dr Arnold.
Talk of secession is illegal, in any case, and analysts have said that Sarawak could not survive without the federal government. The mostly-rural state is still largely dependent on Putrajaya for security, defence and overall development.