In the quest for a better future, the separate entities of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak came together as a larger community called Malaysia.
The separate communities finally saw their dream of converging into a new independent nation, with the expectations of progress, peace and prosperity, come to fruition 58 years ago.
However, Singapore left the independent federation two years after its formation because its dream of a better future did not somewhat gel with that of the larger set of entities.
As a political construct, Malaysia requires deep commitment to nation-building and conscious nurturing of a sense of belonging to this partnership on the part of the communities and their leaders. Peoples from the various entities need to feel and think Malaysian as a way of fostering much-needed national unity.
As a symbolic act of forging national integration, then-Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad changed the Malaysian Standard Time – after passing the Malaysian Standard Time Act of 1981 – between the peninsula on the one hand and Sabah and Sarawak on the other effective 1 January 1982.
Fostering unity among the peoples of these entities obviously requires more than just standardising Malaysian time. It demands mutual understanding, respect and better communication between the peninsula and the two Borneo states, which at the beginning of the formation of Malaysia were considered equal partners to Malaya.
There are obstacles to achieving the objective of unity satisfactorily. For one thing, the politics of race and religion, prevalent in the peninsula, can be too toxic and divisive for the people of Sabah and Sarawak, who generally celebrate diversity in their society. Certain peninsular politicians can be so parochial and bigoted in their mindset that they often disregard the sensitivities and concerns of their brothers and sisters in East Malaysia, especially regarding religion and race.
Indeed, racial bigotry and religious extremism impede meaningful communication, understanding and respect among peoples of diverse backgrounds.
People of various ethnic and religious backgrounds generally intermingle harmoniously in the two Borneo states so that differences and diversity are not easily turned into convenient political capital by unscrupulous politicians, many of whom are found lurking in the political arena of the peninsula.
This is why the Malaysian nation may stand to benefit substantially if politicians of high calibre from the two Borneo states are appointed to lead ministries of national significance.
For example, the Ministry of National Unity. A Sarawak or Sabah politician of inclusive outlook and positive exposure to diversity in life would be cut out for the job.
Similarly, a Borneo politician helming the Ministry of Education may well make a significant difference and contribute to the welcoming way schoolchildren look at differences and diversity in society. The schoolchildren may be more exposed to the peoples of Sarawak and Sabah and their diverse cultures in the school curriculum. This would promote better understanding and appreciation of ‘the other’ in society.
More emphasis should also be given to the cultures of minorities in the peninsula, such as the Orang Asli, so that a sense of belonging to the Malaysian nation is cultivated in a systematic manner in schools. Such a sense of belonging cannot be fully realised if there are people who feel they have been marginalised or even forgotten.
Sabah folk, in particular, have a bone of contention with the federal government, as well as their own leaders, given that their state is one of the poorest in the federation, despite being ironically blessed with natural resources such as oil and gas.
The federal government – in consultation with state leaders – needs to tackle the problems associated with the unequal level of development in the two Borneo states in the interest of justice and the welfare of all Malaysians.
To be sure, the current pandemic has also bared the harsh reality of poverty and other forms of economic hardship that have struck Malaysians in the peninsula, irrespective of race and religion.
Rampant corruption in government and other sectors of society also hampers the overall development of our society, particularly the poorer segments. This unsavoury trend must be arrested.
While we celebrate Malaysia Day, the dream of a better, progressive and harmonious Malaysia should not be an unrealistic hope, particularly for the needy and those who deserve justice. – The Malaysian Insight