Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Moving Towards A Unified Malaysian Identity

Written by johnleemk on 7:16:57 am Jan 10, 2007.

About two days ago, I received a comment on my earlier articles concerning the situation of federalism in Malaysia and the position of Sabah and Sarawak. I will reproduce it in full here so I can make a full response. Interested readers can continue the discussion at the forums.

Hi John,

I stumbled upon your article and took great interest in it as it concerns the position of the East Malaysian states in the mainstream politics of Malaysia.

There is no doubt that there has been a lot of grumble from the east Malaysian side concerning whorish treatments from the federal state government ever since the creation of the federation. You have outlined a few general reasons on why this whinning (as you seem to describe it) surfaced and also stated with reasons on why the discontentment is largely exaggerated and we (I'm from Sabah) should be more appreciative of our current state, especially politically.

I didn't suggest that the whining is an overreaction - merely that the East Malaysian states don't seem to realise that West Malaysian states are treated like the federal government's whores as well. A frequent complaint is that Sabah and Sarawak are colonies of Kuala Lumpur. In reality, the whole damn country is the colony of those big shots in KL/Putrajaya.

I do not wish to start on the agreement in which the federation was created upon in 1963. The question on the current position of Sabah whether as a state of the federation equal to Selangor or a member equal to that of Malaya is obsolete. I would like to argue your point on the automy rights which Sabah and Sarawak still have control of. I sense your feeling of injustice that these rights, being granted to the east Malaysian states but not to the others. I cannot see how these autonomy, if granted to the other states would prove significant. Let's take immigration for example, which the eastern Malaysian states still have authority over. Would the immigration policy in Selangor be any different if it was under the control of the state government? With the overflow of illegal Filipinos immigrants and the remaining thousands of Filipino war refugees, the same cannot be said for Sabah.

Um, considering the number of illegals in East Malaysia, I don't think devolving this power to the states there has done that much good either. My point (in the main) was that the power to make such policies as education should be devolved to all states, and that purely domestic issues should remain domestic issues in states. Presently, the federal government is quite persistent in stepping on the toes of state governments whenever they make their own policies - as I said, the states are basically colonies of the federal government.

At any rate, I personally think it's a bit silly to permit individual states to make immigration policy. As far as I know, we are one of the few federations in the world that do this. We do not have citizenship in our respective states; we are all citizens of Malaysia. It does not make much sense for the respective states to set policies for entering and exiting the country through them - this policy should be standardised by the federal government. When an illegal enters the country, this has an effect on the whole country, and not just the state he enters in, so some intervention by the federal government is warranted.

(As an aside, I'm well aware that our horribly incompetent federal government would screw up immigration policy in East Malaysia, were it given the chance. In this article, I mainly deal with my ideal world, where we have a decent federal government. In the real world, many policies that would be clearly unwarranted otherwise such as petrol subsidies are justified, simply because of how bad our government is.)

You have left out a very important point on why East Malaysia wants to strongly maintain its identity separate from that one of West Malaysia. You didn't even elaborate on the term identity which led me to assume that you mean cultural identity. You also didn't elaborate on the Malaysian identity itself.

Yes, I assumed it was understood that by identity, I mean cultural identity. I did not see the need to elaborate on what the Malaysian identity is, because I felt it would be understood that you have a Malaysian identity if you view yourself as first and foremost a Malaysian.

First of all, east Malaysians never deny themselves as a Malaysians.

I'm sorry, I was given to understand by many East Malaysians that they're quite unhappy with this "forced union" between them and West Malaysia, and that if possible, they would seek independence. I'm not sure one could call oneself a Malaysian if he seeks to quit the federation of Malaysia. (I am of course aware that many, many East Malaysians are perfectly fine with being Malaysian, and that they have been done a grave injustice by many West Malaysians who seem to think Malaysia = West Malaysia.)

Second, there are great flaws on your concept of the Malaysian identity. The great "Malaysia for Malaysian" identity as formulated by DAP is idealistic yet practised by few. From the east Malaysian point of view, the notion of the current general identity of the West Malaysians is that "we are Malaysian Chinese/Malay/Indian and live in harmony alongside Chinese/Indian/Malay" because that's generally how West Malaysians see themselves. And the grand question is, where do we, East Malaysians, come in this equation? Is Sino-Kadazan an understandable term?

Now, let me tell you what being "Sabahan" means. We see a bad motorist on the road as a stupid senseless human being and not a bloody rude Malay. We see fraud businessmen as swindling bastards and not some pork eating greedy Chinese. Excuse me, but that's what I have observed having resided in KL for many years(imagine the culture shock). My point is, as Sabahans, race and religion do not matter in our interaction with others. We do not see people as Chinese, Kadazan or Bajau. We keep that to ourselves. We see good people, bad people, pretty people, cool people, spoiled rich kids and that's how we choose our friends, because we play the same sport, have the same hobbies etc. I have friends that I don't even know of what ethnicity they are as it simply doesn't matter.

Speaking for myself, race is not an issue. I don't care what colour you are. I consider it irrelevant whether you're Martian or Sino-Kadazan. All I care about is your character.

Unfortunately, not many people share my opinion of things. It's probably common knowledge that West Malaysian politics is very racial and communal because of how the British and Japanese either pitted the different races against one another, or segregated them. I do not have first-hand knowledge of East Malaysian politics, but I have no reason to doubt the assertion that it is less racial than politics in West Malaysia.

You are very correct to argue that before we can construct a grand Malaysian identity to bring East and West together, we must first deconstruct our separate racial identities. There is no reason we cannot have one Malaysian identity encapsulating all segments of the population, whether East or West Malaysian, whether Malay or Iban. I do not think it is wise to say that because West Malaysians have a skewed sense of their Malaysian-ness, it is warranted for the East Malaysians to develop a different identity that is based not on racial background, but state of origin.

Another issue you brought up is the overrepresenting of East Malaysians in the parliament. And we should be grateful for that? You should contemplate on why the federal government had "allowed" (if you insist) this to happened when it could easily through their unofficial grip of SPR reduce it as they like. You should really check on whose seat has increased the most particularly after the state election in 94. Currently UMNO holds the most seats and compared to the peninsula, their seats in Sabah is the much more secure because there is little threat of opposition. It doesn't matter if Sabah is overrepresented in the parliament because the leaders from east Malaysia only serve only yes men and vote in favour of the federal government without having real influence in top party decision making. Notice how even with a large number of assemblymen, nobody from Sabah have come even close to one of UMNO'S top posts?

The point I was making to those who constantly grouch about East Malaysia ostensibly being under the heel of the federal government is that they have the power to change this by voting in MPs who will defend the autonomy granted to the East Malaysian states. The fact that UMNO is in power there speaks more, really, about how East Malaysians really feel.

Of course, the opposition in Sabah and Sarawak has the same problems it faces in any other Malaysian state. The point I was making is that if there is a real grassroots movement in East Malaysia (as a few East Malaysians have been implying) for independence, why can't they vote for candidates who won't be lapdogs of the government? Why can't they find pro-independence candidates?

In the first place, if they really wanted to exert the influence they have been granted since 1963 through the overallocation of seats, they could. That is what I have been getting at - that East Malaysia, despite all the injustices meted out to it by the central government, still has the recourse of Parliament to make their views heard. This comes, of course, at the expense of the West Malaysian states, who are under-represented in Parliament. (And incidentally, those states which are under-represented tend to be those which have a tendency to support the non-Malay opposition parties.)

From your article, you said Kelantan, being culturally different than KL and Selangor should be granted the same amount autonomy yet you justify the lineup of the cabinet being almost purely west Malaysian with the reason of being "practical".

I see that my original wording was not too clear. My intention was not to "justify" the federal government being composed largely of West Malaysians. I said: "Fortunately for us Peninsular Malaysians, the federal government (for practical purposes) is almost entirely made up of Peninsular Malaysians." The phrase "for practical purposes" was supposed to mean the same thing as "practically", i.e. the federal government is practically comprised entirely of West Malaysians. It was my mistake for not clarifying this originally.

Sabah and Sarawak have perhaps the least influence in top government decision making. The federal government is not KL or one state alone but made up of representative from the whole of the peninsula, so any policy made must have the agreement from all corners of the peninsula.

The point of contention here, it seems to me, is whether the government uses consensus or a simple majority to make decisions. If it uses a consensus, all members of the cabinet must agree to a particular policy. If it requires only a simple majority, then only more than half of the cabinet must agree. In the former case, those from Sabah and Sarawak have a voice. In the latter, even if Sabah and Sarawak are on the losing end, chances are that other states will also be treated unfairly. (Of course, the possibility exists that Sabah and Sarawak will be marginalised by a tyranny of the majority, with the West Malaysians ganging up on the East Malaysians.)

Whichever the case, neither supports your argument that "any policy made must have the agreement from all corners of the peninsula" - through consensus, Sabah and Sarawak must consent as well. Through the simple majority, there is no need for a consensus amongst the Peninsular states alone.

I don't think anyone would disagree that Sabah and Sarawak are very marginalised at the federal level, though. However, looking at individual states, I also think that most of them are marginalised as well. Only a few, such as Penang and Selangor, get the bulk of government attention. After all, how much influence do you think Perlis or Negeri Sembilan have on federal politics? I don't think it's much more than the influence Sabah or Sarawak has.

As I said, this is not to say that it is justified to marginalise East Malaysia. Rather, it is clear that what is happening is a marginalisation of the states the federal government doesn't care about. In other words, our whole country is a colony of the federal government, which acts for its own petty business interests instead of those of the rakyat.

The cultural difference among the people of the peninsula is limited and incomparable with the ones in West Malaysia. We have 20 different languages and most of us are trilingual. Yet you make sure we have little say at the federal level and at the same time insist on having total control on our affairs ?

I am not sure why having a large number of different cultures would justify greater influence at the federal level. Sabah and Sarawak deserve a fairer shake, agreed - but I'm not sure how far this helps their case. After all, you can have the most diverse state in Malaysia with a hundred cultures and only two hundred people, but this would not justify giving this state more representation than it would otherwise get if its two hundred people all shared the same culture. (And as an aside, many non-Malay West Malaysians are trilingual as well - they speak BM, English, and Mandarin/Tamil. Many Chinese also probably speak another dialect of Chinese.)

The problem, I would say, is that despite Sabah and Sarawak being states in their own right, they have been treated as colonies of the government. The government, being accustomed to treating West Malaysian states as its colonies, probably applied the same cookie-cutter approach to East Malaysia. (The only reason East Malaysians chafe at this, I think, is because West Malaysians have grown accustomed to a distant federal government treating them as lackeys - East Malaysians, never having been part of the de jure federation, de facto unitary colonial state, would not be accustomed to the federal government's heavy-handed approach, and thus complain.) The appropriate solution is to restore the federal structure of our country, and appropriately devolve limited powers to the states.

We already think of ourselves as Malaysians. We just do not wish to adopt the mentality and society structure of the East Malaysians. We consider this as also part of our culture. We know you more than you know us. In a RTM talkshow with Mr Maximus Ongkili as a participant, a caller asked whether the currency used in Sabah is ringgit. It's not only about mentioning us to the foreigner. It's not only about acknowledgement. If you want us to be part of you, you should first fully accept us as part of you. You hear these moans because we complain. We complain because we desire for something better. Not only for us but for both East and West Malaysians. By complaining, we made our first step. Now, you can either act like a bigot, hear nothing from us and force us to submit to your conviction or sit down on level terms, admit that half of this wide gulf is on your part and work towards a solution. The ball is in your court.

I will assume you meant "mentality and society structure of the West Malaysians", because otherwise that doesn't make much sense. :) At any rate, I said nothing about forcing West Malaysian culture upon East Malaysia. My article dealt solely with political issues, except for slightly touching on cultural identity - and in that case, I don't see anything wrong with a purely Malaysian identity, where ethnicity and state don't matter.

As I said before in the earlier articles, I am well aware that West Malaysians have an annoying tendency to unconsciously speak only of Peninsular Malaysia when talking about Malaysia in general. East Malaysia has always seemed to be an awkward adjunct to Peninsular Malaysia, rather than a part of Malaysia in its own right. That has to change. That is why I spoke of an all-encompassing Malaysian identity.

The problem is not as simple as you made it out to be but from what you have written I'm sure we could make progress from there. I would love to discuss this topic further with you. You can start a topic at your forum if possible, I am sure to participate.


Certainly - anyone can start a topic, actually. We can continue the debate there.

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