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If an East Malaysian wind blows, what political change will it bring?

An East wind can make a difference in government and policymaking and implementation that comes after the next general election

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By Lim Teck Ghee

The recent and still ongoing drama and tension over ‘Socks-gate’ and related race and religion issues in the nation has led some observers to reflect on how politics in the nation can be positively transformed by an East Malaysia-led or influenced wind.

That this possibility is not an impossible dream can be inferred by these considerations.

First, unlike in the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak have historically been more tolerant and diverse in their racial and religious practices. This has enabled the state governments and society to resist and reject more easily pressure from racial and religious extremist forces. By promoting inclusivity and pluralism, an East Malaysian wind is envisaged to help mitigate the influence of extremist ideologies from whatever quarter.

Second is the much more multi-racial and polyglot communities in the two states and the absence of the traumatic May 13 racial chapter of history which transformed peninsula politics and society. Its dark shadow is still invoked by peninsula politicians to stifle the nation’s progress to a psychologically and mentally liberated society.

An important and third consideration is the forthcoming constituency exercise to redraw constituency boundaries. Presently, Sabah and Sarawak account for 66 or 25% of the 222 parliamentary seats. The next redrawing exercise will see the number of seats from the east increase to minimally 33% of the new total and possibly as high a figure as 50% of the new total number of parliamentary seats. This development definitely has potential to be a game-changing element in shaping politics and government in the country.

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How might an East Malaysian wind in the form of parties and leadership bring much-needed change to the current political landscape?

The possibilities run well beyond the ripple effects of implementing the Malaysia Agreement 1963 and realigning federal-state relations – which has been the focus of East Malaysian parties to date.

From social cohesion to inclusive economic development, environmental sustainability to native rights, education to infrastructure: there are many sectors where East Malaysia can lead the way in driving positive change.

This East wind cannot be successful on its own. The success of political transformation in Malaysia also hinges on the active participation of all stakeholders from East and West, especially the younger generation, including think tanks, professional elites, NGOs, media and businesses – both big and small.

It is only through collective action and collaboration that we can overcome the barriers to change and build a progressive, more inclusive and equitable society.

Collaboration among stakeholders from wherever they are – and not just from Putrajaya and the capital cities – is key for leveraging local and regional interests and driving national change.

Here’s a possible framework for how parties in East Malaysia could collaborate to form a cohesive bloc:

1. Identify common goals and priorities

Parties in East Malaysia should convene to arrive at shared objectives and priorities that resonate with the people’s interests and aspirations.

Common goals could include identifying and effectively addressing the root causes of racial and religious tensions; strengthening the everyday ways to fight against racism and injustice; and taking action against systemic discriminatory structures and policies that lead to inequalities in outcomes, and beyond.

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This includes the clamping down on extremism such as that we are witnessing with ‘Socks-gate’, which threatens the spirit of multi-racialism and affects the livelihood of innocent employees and their families.

If action is not taken against errant divisive forces, we will see a greater outflow of local and foreign businesses and a downgrading of the nation’s attraction to new investment.

Once this balance has been restored, only then can we progress, as other countries in the region have, without the distractions from extremists and polarising forces intent on imposing their narrowly constricted racial and religious values onto the rest of the country.

2. Hold dialogues among East Malaysian parties and stakeholders

Any ongoing dialogue and collaboration should be strengthened and expanded, allowing participating parties to engage other parties and stakeholders to discuss strategies, coordinate action and address differences constructively.

Collaboration should extend beyond political parties to include civil society organisations, community leaders and grassroots movements. By engaging with diverse stakeholders, the bloc can strengthen its legitimacy, broaden its support base, and ensure that its agenda reflects the needs of the people.

As a united bloc, parties in East Malaysia can then leverage their collective influence to advocate for policy reforms and legislative initiatives that advance the two states and national interest. The bloc can also then use its political weight to more effectively negotiate with other political stakeholders.

3. Coordinate electoral strategies

Political parties exploring opportunities for strategic collaboration to maximise their collective impact should begin discussion as early as possible to avoid potential problems and to start groundwork early on a common platform.

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If the election of election candidates can be agreed upon sooner than later, voters will be more inclined to decide on the right candidate on election day.

4. Commit to save Malaysia

East Malaysian parties now have the advantage of being courted on national issues and policies due to the evolving and fluid political environment.

With the current power dynamics, contrasting ideologies and competing interests in the peninsula, East Malaysian parties and politicians now hold the opportunity to drive bold messages and actions of reform and unity, which can contribute to a better – and not the same – Malaysia.

It is not only numbers that count. It will be the combination of quality, pragmatism and idealism in the East wind that can make the difference in government and policymaking and implementation that comes after the next general election.

This piece is drawn from a three-part series on East Malaysia and Malaysian politics by Lim Teck Ghee, Murray Hunter and Carolyn Khor.

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.

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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
21 Apr 2024 12.45am

So, East Malaysian states should not think of independence????

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