Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The East Malaysian Question: Part 1

Written by johnleemk on 11:02:26 am Dec 29, 2006.

This is the the first of a two-part series; you probably want to read Part 2 after this. This is a controversial issue, so a special thread on the forum is dedicated to this.

While casually fooling around on Google not too long ago, I stumbled on a rebuttal to a letter of mine published in Malaysiakini over a year ago. In my letter, I had argued that the precise date of Malaysia's independence is not important, but that even if it were, 31st August 1957 has a better historical claim than 16th September 1963 to the true date of the Federation's independence.

My reasoning was such: Malaya was an independent federation that merged with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia. Although the Federations of Malaya and Malaysia are clearly separate polities, it remains that Malaysia was and is an expanded and renamed Malaya, with special provisions for the new states. Malaya and Malaysia had essentially the same Constitutions, the same statute books, the same federal governments, and so forth - there was a clear continuity between them

Unsurprisingly, one person pounced on this suggestion, and launched into the usual diatribe about how the Borneo states are different, and ought to be treated differently from other states in the Federation simply because they could have been independent. The writer implicitly suggested that if one disagrees with this notion, one must therefore support the "colonialism" of Sabah and Sarawak by the central government in Kuala Lumpur. Well, cry me a river, but despite the injustices perpetuated by the federal government, it is a fact that Sabah and Sarawak are states in the federation, like it or not. If you chaps want to secede, that is another matter, but until you get around to dumping Peninsular Malaysia, you remain subject to the Federal Constitution and the federal government - just like every other state in this pitiful federation.

Now, this does not mean I am a proponent of a unitary state, where the central government essentially holds all the authority worth holding. To digress a little, it is my opinion that a federation of states should be just that - a federation. Not a highly decentralised confederation, and not a highly centralised unitary state.

The simple reason is this: each state represents a community of diverse interests which are likely to diverge from those of other states. As long as each state advances its own interests without directly infringing on the interests of other states, there is no reason for a nosy federal government to butt in. Each state knows what is best for itself domestically; if Kelantan wants to place Islam even more prominently in its public life, they should be free to go ahead to do so. If Sabah wants to make special provisions for the unique cultures of its communities (which are highly atypical of the rest of the federation), they should be free to do so. This freedom should naturally be extended further, to the local level of government.

At the same time, where the collective interest of the federation is involved (as in issues of national security), or where the interests of two states directly clash with one another, we should not be reduced to the petty level of inter-state squabbling. This is where the federal government belongs. It is important to note that several issues often assumed to be under the purview of the federal government in Malaysia, such as education, do not fit in this definition.

Back to the main subject at hand, I am certainly not going to deny that the federal government has a highly annoying knack for meddling in the affairs of the states. I am not going to bother with reciting the litany of insane federal interventions in East Malaysia, mainly because I can't recall them all, but it is worth noting that the federal government arbitrarily declared a state of emergency in 1966 to usurp the legislative powers of the elected Sarawak state assembly, just to appoint a Chief Minister more favourable to its views - just to take the most egregious instance.

I will not deny, either, that Sabah and Sarawak were recognised as equals with Malaya in the Malaysia negotiations, or that special provisions in light of this were made for these states. It of utmost importance, however, to recognise that Sabah and Sarawak are now states in the federation, with no more special importance than any other state, except for those special provisions (most of which have already expired and are being voluntarily continued, or which are due to expire). The essential idea at the time of the Malaysia Agreement was and is that Sabah and Sarawak will have to be integrated into the federation as equals with the other states. The special provisions were part of a quid pro quo trade-off designed to secure the agreement of Sabah and Sarawak to enter the federation - after which point they would be regarded as states in the federation, and not quasi-sovereign entities.

But nevertheless, the East Malaysians do have good grounds for griping. Their state governments have been rendered lapdogs of the federal government, the revenue from their oilfields has been usurped by the federal government as its own, and perhaps most annoyingly (and this is probably also the most justified complaint) Peninsular Malaysia tends not to include East Malaysia in its considerations. Come on, Peninsular Malaysians - when asked to describe Malaysia to foreigners, do you mention East Malaysia? When asked to describe the ethnic composition of Malaysia, do you mention the East Malaysian ethnic groups (not necessarily individually; a collective reference such as "East Malaysian bumiputra" might suffice), or do you just say "We have Malays, Chinese and Indians" - and perhaps stick in a reference to "dan lain-lain"? I know I'm as guilty of this as almost any other Peninsular Malaysian.

But honestly, integration is a two-way street. While Peninsular Malaysians have been exceedingly slow to accept East Malaysians as part of "Malaysia" as a whole, the East Malaysians at the same time have been focused on maintaining an identity separate from that of the rest of the federation. For instance, remember how you used to need a passport to enter Sabah and Sarawak? (I am not sure if that regulation is still in place.) And recall the East Malaysians who sit up and complain in Parliament about "foreigners" being brought in to man the civil service there? The rejection goes both ways.

In the conclusion of this two-part series, let's see how we can go about fixing the situation. I will not pretend that cultural or societal problems can be magically vanished at the tip of a magic policy wand, but at least, let's examine how we can address the problems of political (in)dependence, and in so doing, answer not only what I have dubbed The East Malaysian Question, but redress problems endemic to the Malaysian federation as a whole.

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