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Putrajaya must set right 60-year surly solidarity with Sabah and Sarawak

Some seasoned leaders have not attained the maturity to appreciate the significance of that noble Malaysian endeavour


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By M Santhananaban

The pioneer leaders responsible for the formation of Malaysia must have had a well-thought-out noble vision of unity, shared universal values and deep mutual respect between the people of the component parts of the new nation.

These leaders had inherited a number of multi-ethnic British-administered divide-and-rule entities in the heart of Southeast Asia.

Britain, the world’s greatest seafaring power until World War Two, viewed this region as one of great strategic, commercial and navigational importance.

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

Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra and his first foreign affairs minister, Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, must have been acutely aware of the advantages and challenges of taking on this enormous responsibility. It would provide the peninsula much-needed gravitas.

The initial soundings made by Malayan leaders resonated reasonably well with the key leaders of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. They proceeded with much care and caution on this highly ambitious enterprise.

Malaysia-ness minus magnanimity

Sixty years on, a sense of Malaysia-ness has certainly taken root.

But there are unmistakable signs that even some seasoned leaders have not attained the maturity to appreciate the 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 often fall for and favour a parochial approach, which will fuel friction and feuding among the people and force a hierarchy based on ethnicity, religion and region.

Sometimes these irresponsible politicians even espouse raw racism. They question or mock a Malaysia-first identity as if it is a defect. They forget that this identity is the fundamental basis of the modern nation state.

The reality is that a notable disparity in the development of essential infrastructure, health and educational development projects, and industrial facilities exists between Sabah and Sarawak on the one hand and the peninsula on the other.

The west coast of the peninsula, where over two-thirds of the people live, has developed rapidly, accompanied by a steady rise in incomes and living standards. The Klang Valley and its surroundings particularly have boomed over the past five decades. This was helped by the development of the administrative centre of Putrajaya and the airport in Sepang.

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

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 remains to be done to attain that shared sense of wellbeing and belonging.

While senior leaders clearly uphold the importance of affirming loyalty to the King and the nation, several of them appear to be usurping roles related to the rulers in certain matter relating to the official religion.

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When Malaysia was conceived, it was specifically agreed, as stated in the Federal Constitution, that the King and the Malay rulers were to be accorded the discretion of deciding on matters relating to the official religion. Interestingly enough, prestige and respect for the King and Queen seem to be at an all-time high in both Sabah and Sarawak, judging from the reception they received during their recent 11-day trip to the two territories.

But, in their pursuit of a rather narrow religious agenda, some politicians have resorted to hate and heretical speech based on a non-existent hierarchy of the various religions.

Exemplary Sabah and Sarawak

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 that the most sophisticated, convivial and complete concord exists in Sabah and Sarawak today.

At the other extreme, in Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, popularly elected leaders seem to have regressed. They openly question and sometimes dispute the norms and lifestyles of a multi-ethnic and multicultural society.

The recent ‘recruitment’ of Dr Mahathir Mohamad to their unsavoury cause reflects their bigoted and blase indifference to the loyalty, equal citizenship status, and cultures of some communities in their midst.

Against such a backdrop, again the leaders of those two Borneo regions have done exceptionally well in safeguarding the harmony, sense of equilibrium and mutual respect among the various peace-loving communities. They have fostered a 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, symbiotic and superb environment of mutual trust. This is 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, the peninsula.

The perception is that the latter behaves more like an officious Big Brother than an obliging older brother. For far too long, powerful vested interests, including the mainstream media, have assigned the two Borneo regions a lesser status.

But several courageous and consummate leaders, including 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.

The attempt by Stephen Kalong Ningkan, Sarawak’s chief minister from 1963 to 1966, was perhaps a bit ahead of his time, and that set back Sarawak’s quest for greater autonomy by decades.

Today, Putrajaya urgently needs to smoothen and strengthen cooperation with both Sabah and Sarawak so that the relationship acquires a more equal, harmonious, honest and stable character. A modicum of equilibrium can then be attained.

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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 the regions’ important assets. Oil, marine and forestry resources have been lost to many adroit adventurers.

The culprits came from both without and within. One 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, Malaya, under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman, bore some resemblance to the Sabah and Sarawak of today.

Fresh out of formal colonial rule in the 1957-1960 period, Malaya was a fledgling nation-state with an excellent civil service, a remarkable rural development programme and a threatening but contained internal insurgency. Though poverty was widespread, it was declining.

It also had a well-run education system and a first-rate university that attracted the world’s best scholars.

The peninsula 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 the peninsula?

The question to ask is whether the peninsula today has a similar standing or that same positive feel.

Yes, it has grown economically. It is well industrialised and nearly 85% of its people live in urban areas, which have excellent infrastructure, modern amenities, decent connectivity, and good healthcare and leisure facilities.

It also has well-funded school facilities. But is the education provided world class?

What have we to show for after four decades of the “look East” policy? Socially, the various communities live increasingly in distinct silos. Schoolchildren are not mixing as well 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 inter-racial integration and socialising.

The peninsula-dominated government and public service must surely be aware of this fractiousness in our country. Surely, this is 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 and urban congestion in certain 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 kinds of sports and take part in cultural activities and a range of hobbies. We had these wonderful advantages in the period before the 1980s.

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How is it we are now splintered into silos? One tertiary institution even 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 academia, have to be restored. Without that, it would be unrealistic to expect civic-mindedness, law enforcement – particularly the reduction of corruption and white-collar crime – to be attained.

In the peninsula, perhaps we are drifting towards a pathetic parochialism with greater emphasis on orthodox, almost anti-social, religious teachings.

More important than all this is the need to build bridges and better connectivity and consensus with Sabah and Sarawak.

As we observe the auspicious 60th anniversary of Malaysia, let’s pause to reflect on and appreciate the relatively advanced, reassuring and ameliorative leadership of Sabah and Sarawak leaders.

Malaysia – A Survey

Soon after Malaysia was formed, eminent Prof Wang Gungwu edited a collection of essays called Malaysia – A Survey (1964, Pall Mall Press, London), which provides a comprehensive coverage of the various political entities that made up the new nation.

A recurrent theme that several contributing scholars (including RS Milne, RO Tilman and Robin W Winks) raised was how these different political entities would fit into Malaysia.

Zainal Abidin Wahid, another contributor, makes the point (p368) 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 (p164) 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 made over 60 years ago and to live by the gems of wisdom they contained.

Long sidelined, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, perhaps cut off from the beautiful but biting and bruising realities of a normal life for a decade, must start this course correction with Sabah and Sarawak. He needs to do this before Nusantara, Indonesia’s new capital in Kalimantan, 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 Malaysia’s resource-rich Borneo regions to attain a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) that is comparable to the federal territory and other affluent areas – though that may fall well short of that of Brunei and Singapore.

On Malaysia Day, let us also pause and remember the nation’s founder Tunku Abdul Rahman, a god-fearing man who had the magnanimity of character to attract the rarest and most remarkable talent in the region for his promising Malaysia project over six decades ago.

Selamat Hari Malaysia, happy Malaysia Day!

M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience

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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