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COMMENT: Set right, straighten swiftly 60-year solidarity with Sabah and Sarawak

0 month ago, 16-Sep-2023

The formation of Malaysia in 1963, following the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957 offered Britain a safe, sustainable and honourable exit from rather profitable but awkward colonial possessions. – Malay Mail photo

THE pioneer leaders responsible for the formation of Malaysia must have had a nicely thought out and noble vision of unity, shared universal values and deep mutual respect between the people of the various component parts of the new nation. They had inherited a number of multiethnic British administered divide-and-rule entities located in the heart of Southeast Asia.

Britain, until WW2 the worlds greatest seafaring power viewed the whole region as of great strategic, commercial and navigational importance.

The formation of Malaysia in 1963, following the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957 offered Britain a safe, sustainable and honourable exit from rather profitable but awkward colonial possessions.

Tunku Abdul Rahman and his first foreign affairs minister, Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman must have been acutely aware of the advantages and challenges of taking on this enormous enhanced responsibility. It would provide peninsular Malaya much needed gravitas. The initial soundings made by Malayan leaders had had good or reasonable resonance from key leaders of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore and they proceeded with much care and caution on this highly ambitious enterprise.

Today sixty years later a sense of Malaysianess has certainly taken root.

Malaysianess Minus Magnanimity

But there are unmistakable signs that even some seasoned leaders have not attained the maturity to appreciate the overarching significance, substance and symbolism of that noble Malaysian endeavour. They fail to understand that the whole is far greater than any of its component parts. They seem to often fall for and favour a parochial approach which will fuel friction, feuding amongst the citizens of the country and also force a kind of hierarchy based on ethnicity, religion and region.

Sometimes these irresponsible politicians espouse raw racism.

They question or mock a Malaysia-First identity as if it is a defect. They seem to forget that that is the fundamental basis of the modern nation-state.

The reality is that there is a notable disparity in the development of key essential infrastructure, iconic health and educational development projects and industrial facilities between Sabah and Sarawak on one hand and the peninsular region on the other. The west coast of the peninsula which accounts for more than two thirds the nations population has seen a frantic pace of development accompanied by a sharp and steady increase in incomes and standards of living.

The Klang Valley and its surroundings in particular have grown impressively in the past five decades especially with the development of the administrative centre in Putrajaya and the airport in Sepang.

These dramatic developments inevitably draw comparisons with the situation in resource-rich Sabah and Sarawak that have dispersed settlements with relatively poor access, transport and communications facilities.

The Development Gap

Love, loyalty and the lofty ideals of a sense of nationhood can be attained by realising a shared sense of equality, equity, equal treatment and mutual respect. Much work, it would seem, remains to be done to attain that shared sense of well-being and belonging.

While the importance of affirming unalloyed loyalty to the Yang dipertuan Agong and the nation is clearly upheld senior political leaders seem to be usurping roles related to the countrys sovereign rulers in certain matter relating to the official religion. When Malaysia was conceived it was specifically agreed, as stated in the constitution, that the Yang dipertuan Agong and the Malay Rulers were to be accorded the honour and discretion of deciding on matters relating to the official religion.

It is pertinent at this point to also affirm that the prestige and respect for the Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong is at an all time high in both Sabah and Sarawak following the recent eleven-day( September 3-11) Kembara Kenali Borneo.

Further, in the pursuit of a rather narrow religious agenda there has been a resort by some politicians to hate and heretical speech based on a nonexistent hierarchy of different religions.

Sabah & Sarawak Are Exemplary

Yet Malaysians have to be in awe of the sane way in which the leaders of Sabah and Sarawak have meaningfully managed their diverse communities.

More than any other part of our beloved nation it would seem the most sophisticated, circumspect, convivial and complete concord exists, without doubt, in Sabah and Sarawak today. At the other extreme we have the states of Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Trengganu where popularly elected leaders seem to have regressed somewhat and openly question and sometimes dispute the norms and lifestyles of a multiethnic and multicultural society. Further, by lately recruiting Dr Mahathir Mohamad to their unsavoury cause they espouse the most bigoted and blas indifference to the loyalty, equal citizenship status and culture of some communities in their midst.

Against such a background again the leaders of those two Borneo regions have done exceptionally well in safeguarding the harmony, sense of equilibrium and mutual respect and trust among the various peace loving communities. They have fostered a rather unique blend of identity of family, belonging, inclusiveness and participation. They have created an oasis of harmony, peace, mutual trust and law and order that is reminiscent of the old Malaya.

The leaders of these two regions have to be lauded for creating such a splendid sane, symbiotic and superb mutual trust environment. It is something remarkable. The values of compassion, humanity and unity are deeply embedded in these two regions as they observe the diamond jubilee of their association with their accepted equal partner, peninsular Malaysia.

The perception is that the latter behaves more like an officious Big Brother than an obliging older brother.

For far too long powerful forces of vested interest, including mainstream media have assigned the two Borneo regions a lesser or an underdog status.

A number of courageous and consummate leaders including Mohamad Fuad Stephens, Khoo Siak Chiew, Ong Kee Hui, Stephen Yong,Joseph Pairin Kitingan and Adenan Satem were the most assertive in identifying with the aspirations of the region. Stephen Kalong Ningkans attempt was perhaps a bit ahead of his time and that set back Sarawaks quest for greater autonomy by decades.

Today there is an urgent need for Putrajaya to smoothen and strengthen cooperation with both Sabah and Sarawak so that the relationship acquires a more equal, equable, harmonious, honest and stable character.

A modicum of some equilibrium can then be attained.

Yet we must concede that over the past four decades critical assets of the Borneo region have been chipped and frittered away. National leaders have liberally used oil and gas earnings from these Borneo territories to indulge in all sorts of esoteric enterprises, experiments and projects.

Some leaders and politicians bent on playing king and kingmaker in the political scene have crudely carried out a fire sale of important assets of the region.

Oil, marine and forestry resources have been lost to many adroit adventurers. The culprits came from both without and within; one particularly powerful interested party attempted the mischievous task of even changing the demography of Sabah.

Diminished Diamond

The remains of the old, whole uncut diamond that was the Borneo region is still an impeccable and integral part that gives Malaysia prestige, considerable weightage and integrity.

In the early 1960s when the idea of the formation of Malaysia was first officially mooted the Federation of Malaya, under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra had some resemblance to the Sabah and Sarawak of today. Fresh out of formal colonial rule in the 1957-1960 period the Federation of Malaya was a fledgling nation-state with an excellent civil service, a remarkable rural development programme, a threatening but contained internal insurgency, rather widespread but declining poverty levels, a well run education system and a first rate university that attracted the worlds best scholars and had several other good attributes.

Malaya had such promising prospects as a well run and administered nation.

It was those attributes that made interested parties such as the leaders of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore see some advantage in an association or merger with Malaya.

Whither Peninsular Malaysia

The question to ask today is whether peninsular Malaysia has a similar reputation, standing or that same positive feel.

It has grown economically, is well industrialised and nearly 85 percent of its population live in urban areas which have excellent infrastructure, modern amenities, connectivity, good health and leisure facilities and well funded school facilities. But is the education that is being provided of a world class standard?

What have we to show for four decades of the Look East policy. Socially the various communities seem to increasingly live in distinct silos and there seems to be a trend of schoolchildren not mixing as they used to. Housing areas seem to be somewhat identified with particular ethnicities. In the 1960s rapid urbanisation led to encroachments on traditional kampong areas but that did not prevent interracial integration and socialising.

The peninsular Malaysia-dominated government and public service must surely be aware of this fissiparous fractiousness in our country. Is this not something that has to be addressed. Then there are the problems of endemic corruption, especially elite corruption, the corrosion of age-old core Malaysian values of simple living and good neighbourliness. Bizarre traffic congestion in certain parts of our urban areas is a growing challenge. There have to be incentives for people of different ethnicities to live in common areas and attend the same schools, play the same kind of sports and participate in cultural activities and different hobbies.

We had all these wonderful advantages in the period before the 1980s.

We have to ask ourselves how it is that we are now splintered into silos. One tertiary institution has announced plans to segregate students by gender during concerts and other cultural activities.

The integrity and quality of our civil service, especially the teaching profession and the academia, has to be restored. With that it is realistic to anticipate that civic mindedness, law enforcement particularly the reduction of corruption and white collar crime can be attained somewhat.

Here, in the peninsula, it is reasonable to suspect that we are attempting to enter a pathetic and parochial province with greater emphasis on orthodox, almost antisocial, religious teachings.
More important than all these issues is the need to build bridges and better connectivity and consensus with Sabah and Sarawak.

As we observe the auspicious 60th anniversary of Malaysia it is perhaps appropriate to pause, reflect and appreciate the relatively advanced, reassuring and ameliorative leadership of Sabah and Sarawak leaders.

Malaysia – A survey

Soon after Malaysia was formed eminent Professor Wang Gungwu edited a collection of essays called Malaysia- A Suvey (1964, Pall Mall Press, London) which provides a comprehensive coverage of the various political entities that constituted the new nation. A recurrent theme that several contributing -scholars (including R S Milne, R O Tilman, Robin W Winks) raised was how these different political entities would fit into Malaysia.

Zainal Abidin Wahid, another contributor, makes the point (on page 368) that under Malaysia, Malaya will lose its identity. There will no longer be a state known as the Federation of Malaya. How then could it be possible for Malaya to colonise the Borneo territories?

Tom Harrison makes the pertinent point (on page 164) that Borneo is not a Malay country in the Malaysian sense, and for the successful achievement and survival of Malaysia, it is very necessary to face this fact clearly and at all times.

It is essential to remember these assertions that were made more than sixty years ago and live by the gems of wisdom they contained.

Long sidelined Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, perhaps cut off from the beautiful but biting and bruising realities of a normal life for ten years, must initiate this course correction with Sabah and Sarawak before Nusantara rises like a posh people-first Phoenix of enlightened inclusiveness, virtue and vision in our East.

A good start may be made by enabling both these resource-rich Borneo regions to attain a per capita GNI that is comparable to the Federal Territory and other affluent areas although that may fall well short of that of Brunei and Singapore.

On Malaysia Day let us also pause and remember our Nations Founding Father, Tunku Abdul Rahman, a god-fearing man who had the magnanimity of character to attract the rarest and most remarkable talent of the region for his promising Malaysia project more than six decades ago.

Selamat Hari Malaysia.

*The writer is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.