Home 2012: 8 From the ‘Borneo Agenda’ to a ‘People’s Agenda’

From the ‘Borneo Agenda’ to a ‘People’s Agenda’

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In our cover story, Faisal S Hazis says that the people of Sabah and Sarawak need a government that puts people at the forefront of its development struggle instead of championing a so-called ‘Borneo Agenda’ that does little to analyse and reform unjust power structures.

In December 2011, Sabah maverick politician Jeffrey Kitingan declared the formation of the United Borneo Alliance (UBA), a coalition of local opposition parties and NGOs that aimed to restore Sabah and Sarawak’s 1963 status within the federation.

A couple of months later, Kitingan pressed further his call for autonomous Borneo states when he boldly brought up the sensitive issue of secession when proposing the formation of a Malaysia Borneo nation (Free Malaysia Today, 4 May 2012). But Kitingan has not been the only one pressing for regional autonomy for East Malaysian states. Both local and national Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders have also raised the prospect of regional autonomy as a bait to capture Sabah and Sarawak.

In 2010, PKR Deputy President Azmin Ali promised to give ‘full autonomy’ to Sarawak if the opposition coalition wins the next general elections (Malaysiakini, 13 December 2010). He reiterated that the PR would honour the 1963 agreement in which Sabah and Sarawak helped to form Malaysia. Indeed, Azmin’s promise is largely a response to the strong undercurrent that exists in both states among local PR leaders who hold strong views about their ‘perceived inferior status’ within the federal polity. Hence, their desire for ‘full autonomy’ as a way of restoring their equal position within the federation.

And on 16 September 2012, Pakatan Rakyat Sarawak got the national leaders of Pakatan Rakyat namely Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang and Abdul Hadi Awang to sign a Kuching Declaration, which basically reiterated the demands of ‘full autonomy’ for Sarawak and Sabah.

The ‘Borneo Agenda’ is thus the name of the political game in Sabah and Sarawak. It has become a key rallying call for the local opposition to break Barisan’s stranglehold on the East Malaysian states.

Paradoxically, opposition forces in Sabah and Sarawak are split over the issue of regional autonomy. Local opposition forces led by Kitingan’s State Reform Party (STAR) have criticised both the federal government and opposition parties from ‘Malaya’ for not honouring the 1963 agreement. Thus, they reject ‘Malayan’ leaders from both sides of the political divide as they feel that they have been “internally colonised” by all ‘Malayan’ parties (Borneo Herald, 9 May 2012). This sentiment is similarly held by the PR opposition in Sarawak.

Hence, although local opposition forces have expressed a willingness to cooperate with Pakatan, they are also poised to head to the polls on their own if they fail to strike favourable terms.

From special rights to two of 13 states

The opposition’s calls for Sabah and Sarawak’s autonomy stem from their growing frustration and anger towards the federal government for marginalising the once powerful states. When Sabah and Sarawak helped to form Malaysia in 1963, they were accorded ‘special rights’ (known as ‘20 points’ for Sabah and ‘18 points’ for Sarawak), which gave them more autonomy than the other 11 peninsula states. Conceivably, these ‘special rights’ were in recognition of their status (with Malaya and Singapore) as co-founders of the new Federation of Malaysia in September 1963.

However, the powerful Umno-led federal government soon eroded most of these rights, turning Sabah and Sarawak into merely two of thirteen states that presently constitute the Federation of Malaysia. Worse, over several decades, Sabah and Sarawak have been played like ‘chess pieces’ with BN employing dubious tactics to turn both states into its electoral fixed deposits, by establishing strongmen rule that perpetuate abuse of power and corruption; granting citizenship to illegal immigrants and later registering them as voters in order to win elections; espousing Malay-Muslim dominance that led to the emergence of racial politics in states that had long been known for practising multi-racial politics; and politicising development as an inducement to secure electoral support.

Unsurprisingly, resistance against the domineering federal government soon emerged in a ‘Borneo Agenda’ that in attempting to retrieve the rights that were lost also sought to give voice to local opposition forces in both Sabah and Sarawak.

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The Borneo Agenda: Can it deliver progress for the people?

But is this ‘Borneo Agenda’ really what it purports to be, namely an appropriate response to put right all that is wrong in Sabah and Sarawak? Is this ‘Borneo Agenda’ really addressing the human needs of Sabahans and Sarawakians or merely a rallying call by opposition politicians to capture Sabah and Sarawak en route to Putrajaya? Or a plan by local Pakatan politicians to displace local Barisan Nasional (BN) strongmen so that they can place themselves at the helm of the states?

Some locals even criticise the campaign for the ‘Borneo Agenda’ as irrelevant. According to Sabah-born journalist Philip Gollingai, “so much water has passed under the bridge since Malaysia was formed that advocating the 20 points is like promising that Singapore will come back to Malaysia” (The Star, 29 July 2012).

Relevant or not, the ‘Borneo Agenda’ has clearly sidetracked other more pressing issues plaguing both Sabah and Sarawak. Today, they have high poverty rates, deep inequality, high unemployment, high costs of living, and poor public infrastructure. Abuse of power, corruption and nepotism are also rife. This then is the peril of the ‘Borneo Agenda’.

Rich resources but poor people

For many decades, the most serious issue in Sabah and Sarawak is the alarming rate of poverty and inequality despite the states’ rich natural resources. Sabah is still the poorest state in Malaysia in spite of the government’s efforts at reducing poverty from 58 percent in 1976 to 16 percent in 2002 (Ragayah 2011: 510). Notwithstanding this huge ‘success’ in eradicating poverty, it is believed that the ‘real’ poverty level in Sabah is much higher than the official figures. This perception is somewhat justified when the World Bank’s Malaysia Economic Monitor 2010 report estimated that 40 percent of the population in Sabah were poor. Among them, the Rungus in the north and the Sungai and the Suluk in the east. Some quarters even claimed that poverty in Sabah stands at 60 percent of the population (Free Malaysia Today, 8 April 2010)!

Sarawak suffers the same problem as its neighbour. Although poverty has been reduced drastically from 56.5 percent in 1976 to 5.8 percent in 2002 (Ragayah 2011: 510), some quarters argue that the ‘real’ poverty level is much higher. Re-visiting the poverty line income calculation in Sarawak, Philip Khoo estimated that over 30 percent of Sarawak families were below the poverty line (Aliran, March 2011). If we apply Khoo’s argument to Sabah, the ridiculously high 60 percent poverty level does not seem too far-fetched. Like in Sabah, the poor in Sarawak are mostly rural dwellers, in Sarawak’s case those Ibans, Melanaus and Bidayuhs living in the interior. Further, not only does poverty have an inter-ethnic dimension, it also exhibits an intra-ethnic dimension where significant numbers of urban Chinese and Muslim Bumiputeras in both states are also poor. Ironically, in the midst of championing the ‘Borneo Agenda’, the plight of the poor are completely ignored. Where is the agenda of the poor?

Another critical issue in Sabah and Sarawak is the glaring urban-rural divide which leaves many rural communities in a quandary. Rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak are vastly different from the Peninsula where the former are much more isolated and under-developed. Many households in rural East Malaysia still do not have basic public amenities like water, electricity, roads and phone coverage.

In spite of the NEP…

The crux of the problem is the federal government’s margina-lisation of the Sabah and Sarawak Bumiputera who make up the majority of the rural populace. This remains so in spite of 30-plus years of the NEP and various follow-up plans.

Under the First Malaysia Plan (1966-70), the federal government allocated 28 percent of the total development expenditure for agriculture and rural development in Sarawak, but this was reduced drastically to a mere 0.2 percent in the Fifth Malaysia Plan (1986-90) (after the Fifth Malaysia Plan, the public development expenditure by state and sector was not made available, thus my analysis fails to include the more recent Malaysia Plans). In Sabah, the trend was quite the opposite. The federal government’s allocation for agriculture and rural development increased from 15 to 37 percent in the same corresponding Malaysia Plans. Although Sabah seems to be better off, its rural areas are still comparatively under-developed than Sarawak.

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In 2002, rural poverty in Sabah stood at 24.5 percent while Sarawak’s was at 10 percent (Ragayah 2011: 506). In terms of access to public amenities, rural Sabahans are much worse off compared to their counterparts in Sarawak. In 2005, 80.6 percent of rural Sabahans had access to electricity while 61 percent had water supply whereas 89.6 percent and 92 percent of rural Sarawakians had access to electricity and water supply respectively (Lee 2011: 433). This urban-rural divide has been further compounded by the state leaders’ policy of urban-centred development that often favoured their cronies.

Rural areas, on the other hand, have mainly had their rich resources, i.e. timber, extracted. David Brown (2001), in his PhD thesis, ‘Why Governments Fail to Capture Economic Rent’, alleged that Sabah and Sarawak leaders distributed state timber concessions among their family members and associates who later helped fund their election campaigns. Extracting timber from virgin forests that have displaced thousands of indigenous people is already bad enough. But doing it for the personal enrichment of state leaders, their families and their cronies just adds insult to injury!

Another PhD thesis that critically evaluates the developmental impact of East Malaysian states leaders’ pro-cronies policy is Andrew Aeria’s (2002) ‘Politics, Business, the State and Development in Sarawak, 1970-2000’. His valuable work points to the distribution of state rents to family, relatives and friends of Sarawak’s Chief Ministers who eventually end up monopolising the state’s economy.

Thus, when the local opposition leaders in Sabah and Sarawak overzealously champion autonomy for Sabah and Sarawak, do they not end up losing sight of the plight of the rural poor of the two East Malaysian states? So where is the agenda of rural and poor Sabahans and Sarawakians in the ‘Borneo Agenda’?

Rule of law or strongmen rule?

Sabah and Sarawak also have structural problems with their political systems dominated by local strongmen who have little regard for democracy and the rule of law. These strongmen have exploited state resources and the bureaucracy to accumulate personal wealth and to sustain their dominance.

The federal BN government is responsible for constructing this system. It elevates Muslim Bumiputera strongmen and provides support to sustain their rule. To federal BN leaders, local strongmen are expected to fulfil certain conditions (e.g. secure Barisan’s dominance in state and parliamentary elections; extend Malay Muslim dominance; transfer state resources to federal coffers; and ensure political stability). In return, the former allows the latter a free reign in both states.

In 1995, Asiaweek identified Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud as one of nine ‘political warlords’ in Asia. The influential magazine described Taib as follows, “he has no private army, but he runs the closest thing to a Malaysian political fiefdom. Kuala Lumpur leaves the Sarawak Chief Minister alone in return for keeping the state sweet at election time. Massively wealthy from timber concessions, he drives around in a Rolls Royce” (Asiaweek, 12 August 1995)

Unlike Sarawak, Sabah has not been dominated by a single leader for a very long time (Taib is only the fourth Sarawak Chief Minister while Musa Aman is the fourteenth Sabah Chief Minister). Hence political and economic control is much more dispersed among its local strongmen. Sabah’s first chief minister Tun Mustapha, for example, used its office to accumulate personal wealth at the expense of the people. According to Harris Salleh’s biography, “The Tun, his pockets bulging with Sabah timber money, was drawn to the lights of London and Beirut and he began to lavish large donations on his favourite casinos. The Tun purchased a gentlemen’s estate in England complete with an attached nine-hole golf course and lived the life of the landed gentry far from the dirt poor longhouses of his state” (Raffaele 1986: 172-173). It is also alleged that the highly criticised ‘Project IC’ (which granted ICs to non-citizens who subsequently became eligible to vote) started during Tun Mustapha’s rule and became widespread after the entry of Umno into Sabah.

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Brown also alleged that other Sabah Chief Ministers such as Harris Salleh and Joseph Pairin Kitingan who were thought to be ‘clean’ were also corrupt. Harris allegedly had one or more Swiss bank accounts to which he appropriated timber rents, while the Kitingan brothers hid timber money in Hong Kong. According to Raphael Pura, “once each of Sabah’s chief ministers assumed office, they simply became new crooks” (Brown 2001: 226). Current Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman is also not free from allegations of corruption. The popular Sarawak Report website alleged that the current Sabah strongman is linked to money laundering of RM40m, a charge which he has yet to deny.

Hence, when political elites of Sabah and Sarawak call for the ‘Borneo Agenda’, they ignore the deeper and more desperate structural problems of Sabah and Sarawak, namely poverty, inequality, lack of public infrastructure, lack of jobs, abuse of power and corruption.

Hence, if there is no change to the political structure and governance systems of the East Malaysian states, the old system that nurtures strongmen rule which neglects the real needs of the poor and the downtrodden will persist.

Towards a ‘People’s Agenda’

Where then is the agenda to restructure Sabah and Sarawak’s political and governance systems?

An alarming poverty rate, uneven development and weak governance are critical issues that are being overshadowed by the vacuous call of the elites for a ‘Borneo Agenda’.

Despite being given the mandate to protect the rights and interests of the people in Sabah and Sarawak, the BN has failed to perform as a responsible and pro-people government. In fact, the ruling government is responsible for the sorry state of Sabah and Sarawak. Similarly, the local opposition leaders also continue to demand recognition of a ‘Borneo Agenda’.

And yet, this ‘Borneo Agenda’ is meaningless if it continues to perpetuate poverty, inequality and abuse of power. Worse, it is easily used by irresponsible leaders as a tool to enrich themselves and strengthen their grip on the states.

What Sabah and Sarawak thus need is a ‘Peoples’ Agenda’, one that does not talk about vacuous issues of regional autonomy, of the 18 or 20 points but which focuses on the real needs, interests and well-being of the local populace.

After almost 50 years of nationhood, the people of Sabah and Sarawak deserve better than mere rhetoric like the ‘Borneo Agenda’. They need government that puts people at the forefront of its development struggle. They need a ‘People’s Agenda’!

Dr Faisal S Hazis, recently published Domination and Contestation: Muslim Bumiputera Politics in Sarawak (2012). He lectures in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.


  • Aeria, Andrew. (2002) Politics, Business, the State and Development in Sarawak, 1970-2000. PhD. Dissertation. London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London.
  • Brown, David. (2001) Why Governments Fail to Capture Economic Rent: The Unofficial Appropriation of Rain Forest Rent by Rulers in Insular Southeast Asia between 1970 and 1999. PhD. Dissertation. University of Washington.
  • Faisal S. Hazis. (2012) Domination and Contestation: Muslim Bumiputera Politics in Sarawak. Singapore: ISEAS Press.
  • Lee, Cassey. (2011) ‘Infrastructure and Economic Development’ In ISIS (ed.) Malaysia: Policies and Issues in Economic Development. Kuala Lumpur: Institut Kajian Strategik dan Antarabangsa.
  • Raffaele, Paul. (1986) Harris Salleh of Sabah. Hong Kong: Condor Publishing.
  • Rogayah Mat Zin. (2011) ‘Strategies for Poverty Eradication’ In ISIS (ed.) Malaysia: Policies and Issues in Economic Development. Kuala Lumpur: Institut Kajian Strategik dan Antarabangsa.
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Dr Faisal S Hazis, an Aliran executive committee member and co-editor of our newsletters, is the author of Domination and Contestation: Muslim Bumiputera Politics in Sarawak (2012).He is presently a senior fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas), UKM. His research interests include electoral politics, democratisation and rural informatics.
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