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Sabah and Sarawak should step up to propel Malaysia’s reform agenda

The east wind can be the transformative catalyst for reforms

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By Lim Teck Ghee, Murray Hunter and Carolyn Khor

For years, there has been talk of a ‘third force’ to radically change the nature of politics and government in Malaysia.

The noble objectives included unity, opportunity and socioeconomic growth, while avoiding racial, religious and geographical divisions.

Although these principles have some general support, attempts at launching new parties have come and gone, leaving the race-based peninsula-based dominant party status quo intact and unchallenged.

Malaysia is losing its competitive position in the region. The economy is not evolving in a way to structurally prepare us for the future, and the wellbeing of the people is deteriorating.

These are undeniable truths which the great majority of the people of Malaysia of all ethnicities and sides of the political divide are in agreement.

The government needs to be run by people, with a clear intent of being for the people, and driven by a vision of a Malaysia that can evolve and cement an inclusive and cohesive nationhood that the people can be proud of.

This emergence can come from the political leadership of East Malaysia, who have repeatedly shown they are capable of transcending the ethnic and religious divide.

East Malaysian leadership can lead the change towards a new generation of younger leaders, with new ideas for policy development, with implementation by people who care about what happens.

The political leaders of Sabah and Sarawak have long governed with philosophies very different from what people in the peninsula have experienced. Adenan Satem stood out as a role model for a new united Malaysia, but unfortunately, he was not able to complete his mission with his premature demise.

The East Malaysian people have a sense of nationalism that others in in the peninsula have lost to other narratives. These narratives are perpetually causing division and regression at the cost of cohesion and advancement.

Many in Sabah and Sarawak also have a sense of patriotism, which has withstood the test of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 and the unequal relationship of the three component states of the federation. It has also withstood their status as stepchildren in budget and development allocations, and the many other ways in which they have been discriminated against by peninsula-dominant coalition governments.

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Frankly, it is time to look east to Sabah and Sarawak and for the peninsula-dominant political pundits to stop ignoring what is happening in the other half of Malaysia. It is time to take their principles, culture and lessons and incorporate them into an administration and government that governs for everyone in Malaysia.

The East Malaysian political leadership can unite and nurture Malaysia towards maturity and new hope. This is not to underestimate the challenge – as the society, economics and politics of Sabah and Sarawak are also diverse. Moreover, there has never been a strong and resilient Borneo perspective.

However, both territories have enough in common to provide a fresh look at where Malaysia should go. And this can begin with the next general election.

There are two basic strategies for this possibility to be rolled out and achieved.

  • Create a movement in the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak with local citizens, activists and politicians
  • Work with a bloc of existing parties in a coalition (a reverse takeover of the “unity government”). This would mean East Malaysia parties with peninsula partners becoming the largest bloc in parliament after the next election and leading a new government

It is indeed very possible for East Malaysia as a bloc to be the largest grouping in the next sitting parliament after the general election. The East Malaysian bloc will not just be the kingmaker in the next election, it can take the leadership.

Besides being established partners of past Barisan Nasional governments and the present “unity government”, coalitions such as Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) would fare even better if they continue to engage and form alliances with one another to present themselves as a united East Malaysian front in preparation for the next election.

This is so that, in the event, talks between Pakatan Harapan and Umno break down in the future, the East Malaysian bloc may continue to push for inclusive policies, including the Malaysia Agreement 1963 and other policies. In doing so this bloc could become a stabilising and positive factor in the fractured political landscape that is likely to emerge after the next general election.

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With 56 seats up for grabs in the next election, and perhaps more seats after the exercise to redraw constituency boundaries, GPS and GRS may safely hold at least 30 seats and may even be in a position to add more to their new partnership.

Should the constituency redrawing exercise result in expanding East Malaysia’s parliamentary representation to at least a third of the total parliamentary seats, this will greatly increase East Malaysia’s weight and participation in the country’s future.

It is evident that East Malaysian MPs have more gumption in matters related to ethnic and religious issues. In contrast, the peninsula-based parties are either too emotionally and financially invested to think straight or are just trying to score political points by fanning matters and issues to the extreme.

The issue of using the English language for communication with government departments was promptly shot down by Sarawak Premier Abang Johari Openg.

Similarly, the United Examination Certificate [to assess the academic performance of independent Chinese high school students] has been accepted by the Sarawak government since 2014 – whereas this remains a contentious matter in the peninsula.

Other than that, Tourism Minister Tiong King Sing regularly stands his ground when he broaches issues that no other non-Muslim MP dares to talk about.

Looking at the political situation today, the peninsula-based parties are all established and have little room left for improvement. This is especially the case, ever since reforms have taken a backseat to compromises and power-brokering, and procuring a larger slice of the political cake.

That being the case, smaller parties in the peninsula should also form alliances with Borneo parties such as Warisan.

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Although Warisan’s attempt to enter the peninsula fizzled out during the last election, it would be beneficial if there is communication between Warisan and some of the smaller parties of the peninsula, such as the Socialist Parti of Malaysia (PSM), Parti Rakyat Malaysia, Muda, Gerak Independent and the Green Party as soon as possible. This can be the foundation for strategically engaging other coalitions further down the road.

Some independent observers forecast a hung parliament after the next general election, similar to what happened after the 2022 general election.

Should this happen, there is opportunity for existing bloc to realign with an East Malaysian grouping leading to potentially more than a new coalition government. This bloc, led by East Malaysia parties and including parties based in the peninsula, can re-ignite reforms and lead to a new type of politics.

People from all communities are sick and tired of the same-old, same-old polemics of the past, and the next general election is the time to get it right. If the existing unity government needs a push in the right direction, it can only be achievable if the East Malaysian bloc unites and ‘serbu’ (charges into) the West Malaysia to keep the old guard on their toes.

We are confident that many voters will agree with the above premise. We recognise that some will see it as improbable or will scoff at the idea of an East Malaysian party bloc leading a future coalition. The pundits may dismiss or disregard the above proposition, but can they present a better alternative?

There is an urgent need for a new unity in the country. This can be shaped by the outcome of the next general election. The east wind can be the transformative catalyst.

Lim Teck Ghee is a former senior official with the UN and the World Bank. Murray Hunter is an independent researcher and former professor with the Prince of Songkla University and Universiti Perlis. Carolyn Khor is a former ministerial press secretary.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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