Winds of Discontent over Borneo

Since the general election last May, UMNO has been redefining it’s electoral base as ‘Malay’ and native groups across the country, merging them under the umbrella of ‘bumiputra’. If UMNO can successfully capture this constituency, it would garner enough votes across the nation for the party to continue governing Malaysia into the foreseeable future.

A recent statement by Sabah Mulfti Bungsu @Aziz Jaafar calling for the government to classify all Muslim indigenous people as “Malays” seems to support this view. This has attracted criticism from some local components of the ruling state Barisan Nasional coalition, as it ignores the differing histories and elements of cultural identities of peoples of the Peninsula and Borneo, and creates many complications around native land ownership because of provisions in state constitutions.

This is all occurring at a time where discontent in Sabah and Sarawak is becoming more and more public. On the eve of a conference organized by the Borneo Heritage Foundation (BHF), former Sabah Chief Minister Harris Salleh personally entered into the debate through the local media, saying all Sabah leaders are responsible for the current situation.

This led to a public reply by the charismatic  State Reform Party (STAR) chairman Jeffrey Kitingan, saying that Harris Salleh himself should be to blame for what he sees as Sabah’s down trodden and subservient position vis a vis Putra Jaya as the 12th state of Malaysia. 

The BHF organized International Forum on Malaysia 50 years on: expectation vs. reality, attended by more than 300 people in Kota Kinabalu, discussed and debated many of the issues related to the Sabah Putra Jaya relationship. At the centre was the “Malaysia Agreement” and Putra Jaya’s adherence to the 20/18 points memorandum, supported by a long list of grievances including the “Malayanization” of the civil service, Labuan, Project IC and illegal immigrants, border security, the oil agreement, freedom of religion, and native land rights. All were highlighted as reasons why there should be an urgent change in the relationship between Sabah/Sarawak and Putra Jaya.

The forum affirmed that Sabah and Sarawak didn’t enter Malaysia, but rather they were equal parties along with Malaya and Singapore, forming a new entity Malaysia. Consequently, Sabah and Sarawak are equal rather than subservient partners within the Federation of Malaysia. The relegation of Sabah and Sarawak to being just states within the Federation in 1974, is seen as effective ‘colonization’. Consequently according to Jeffrey Kitingan, Malaysia day on September 16th is a ‘day of shame’ rather than celebration for Sabah.

Kitingan emotionally and forcibly stated to an equally emotional audience that it is now time to re-evaluate the Sabah/Sarawak, Putra Jaya relationship to bring back the original intentions and assurances given in the ‘Malaysia agreement’.

If one travels around Sabah and Sarawak talking to people, it will quickly become apparent that many of the sentiments highlighted in the forum are of concern to people of all walks of life.

In much more subdued Sarawak, where open discourse is much more low key, similar sentiments also exist, even within high ranks of the civil service. Although the older generation is loyal to the leaders, the younger generation much more widely exposed to the outside world as they have left longhouses to work in cities and heavily use social media, are coming back home during festivals and sharing new ideas and values with the older inhabitants staying at home.  Together with the dissemination of information from Radio Free Sarawak, this is beginning to have some impact on rural areas. In addition there have been major changes in electoral demographics in the urban areas of Sarawak in the last two elections.

However within Sarawak, many of the up and coming civil servants and politicians themselves are seeing these changes and aware of the issues behind them. They are looking at remedies and discussing strategies for transformation in the future. If this goes to plan, the current government will for a long time remain the dominant force in Sarawak politics no matter what the opposition does.

However there is still some discontent with Putra Jaya over administration and policy issues in regards to the governance of Sarawak. On July 22nd the Sarawak Government organized a re-enactment of Liberation Day where the state received independence from Britain, a very symbolic gesture to indicate Sarawak’s sovereignty.

However in Sabah, the state is governed primarily by UMNO, the same party that dominates the federal coalition. Some see this as a compromise to Sabah’s interests and ability to express its own aspirations. Although many members of the government and civil service grow tiresome with some of the attitudes of the Putra Jaya administration, they just tend to ‘grin and bear it’. This complacency has also been blamed for the erosion of Sabah’s rights.

So the vanguard of discontent is led by the evergreen ‘old guard’ of Sabah’s politics and public life, who include people like Tan Sri Simon Sipaun, Lim Heng Seng, and Datuk S.P. Yong Teck Lee, once a chief minister of Sabah, accompanied by a group of influential businesspeople including the flamboyant Paul Voon, under the guise of the Borneo Heritage Foundation and other NGOs.

The problem seems to be that there is no dialogue going on and this is leading to greater frustrations among those who want a ‘new deal’ for Sabah and Sarawak. Rather than any engagement, anonymous sources within the government indicate that if the current talk continues then stern action may be taken.  Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein Onn has already stated that his ministry will render all assistance possible to the Home Ministry to identify anti-Kuala Lumpur groups in Sabah  who are advocating succession. In addition, investigations are underway in an attempt to associate Jeffrey Kitingan with the Lahad Datu incident that occurred earlier this year.

The Sabah/Sarawak and Putra Jaya relationship is something that needs immediate attention., Although some quarters have called for succession, the large majority would be very happy for some recognition of the problem by Putra Jaya. Any further escalation of discussion on this matter could be used as a trigger for the government to move in and stifle discontent, as has been done before.

This issue is putting the very fabric of the Malaysia project under stress, where the old adage “a stitch in time may save nine” may be the course of action.

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. As well, he is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship and development. Read other articles by Murray.