Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The East Malaysian Question: Part 2

Written by johnleemk on 9:39:08 am Dec 31, 2006.
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This is the the conclusion of a two-part series; if you haven't already, read Part 1. This is a controversial issue, so a special thread on the forum is dedicated to this.

Let's not forget that many of the East Malaysians' gripes are by no means unique to them. Remember that sneaky trick with the emergency declaration used to topple the state government? Kelantan got the same treatment in the late 1970s. That problem with oilfield revenue? It plagues states on the Peninsula as well (again, Kelantan). Being ignored and/or rejected by the federal government? Well, I think almost every non-Malay Peninsular Malaysian can feel your pain. After all, how many times has Malaysia been described as a "Malay state" or its government as a "Malay government"? (It's a true assessment, by the way; our laws have been unconstitutionally modified to suit the Malays, and the non-Malays in our government are "eunuchs", as Lee Kuan Yew once put it.)

Let's look at some problems that East Malaysia doesn't have. For one thing, they don't have a problem with being underrepresented in Parliament. In 1963, the number of Parliamentary seats they received was double the amount they would have had if the allocation had been proportional to their population. Guess who the losers were? That's right, Peninsular Malaysians - and not just any old Peninsular Malaysians, mind you. Those who got hurt the worst were those in Selangor (which, incidentally, happens to be my home state), where the government perfectly malapportioned our Parliamentary seats.

In 1970, Sabah and Sarawak were supposed to relinquish their excess seats, but the federal government so generously allowed them to keep them. In 1974, they made up for this by carving out the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur from Selangor. The new allocation of Parliamentary seats discriminated even more against denizens of KL. As a result, while the more populous states of Peninsular Malaysia are now underrepresented in Parliament, Sabah and Sarawak have a louder voice than they ought to have.

Shades of the West Lothian question, anyone? Due to the centralised nature of our "federation", not only are MPs from East Malaysia allowed to vote on issues affecting only Peninsular Malaysia - they also have more votes than they would have if the proportions were allocated fairly. The only reason that Peninsular Malaysians tend to get a fairer shake than they might otherwise get is that the federal government has been terribly good at cowing its opponents - be they East Malaysian or otherwise - into submission. Fortunately for us Peninsular Malaysians, the federal government (for practical purposes) is almost entirely made up of Peninsular Malaysians.

Sabah and Sarawak have also been granted a lot of autonomy which would be insignificant in most other contexts, but relative to the other states, is as rare and precious as platinum. Sabah and Sarawak were initially exempted from the language policy of the Peninsula which emphasised Malay, to cite just one example. In many matters, East Malaysians have been able to resolve their own problems in their own ways - which is more than can be said for the rest of the country.

So what am I driving at here? That Sabahans and Sarawakians should be grateful to the federal government for letting them have some autonomy, and stop complaining about purported "colonialism"? That if Sabahans and Sarawakians really hate being part of Malaysia, they should sod off and form a Borneo Federation of their own? Certainly not - although if a majority of East Malaysians really feel they don't belong here, there is no reason to use force to keep them in Malaysia.

What I am getting at is that we need to make this federation a real one - not just a federation in name but a unitary state in practice. The problems Sabah and Sarawak have are those that every other state in Malaysia faces - a lack of regional jurisdiction over our own internal problems. Essentially, we are all colonies of the federal government - that's how we are treated, after all. The federal government sets educational policies without regard for the unique conditions of each state (or even each district - as Dr. Bakri Musa has pointed out, there's a huge difference between Ukay Heights and Ulu Kelantan, yet schools in both localities follow the same educational system). We may have state legislative assemblies, but they are all controlled by lackeys of the federal government - and at any sign of possible dissent, the federal government has no qualms about using morally dubious and arbitrary means to exert its control.

What should be done is that each state must have the same amount of autonomy granted to Sabah and Sarawak - if not more. The federal nature of our nation must be respected, and the federal government should mind its own business at the national level. It should have absolutely nothing to do with issues which are confined to a single state. Furthermore, state governments should not be the final stage of devolution - local authorities should have the authority to tackle matters of not just administration but also policy, especially for issues such as education, which tend to be highly specific to particular areas. To complete this devolution of powers, local authorities should be directly elected instead of being appointed by the state government.

None of these recommendations, of course, will solve the basic problem of the gulf which separates West and East Malaysians. Until we learn to think of each other as part of Malaysia - part of a single federation - this gulf will never go away. But cultural issues aside, at the political level, let's be fair to all the states, and devolve autonomy to the states in West Malaysia as well. Let's go even further than that, and give our state governments and local authorities the leeway to make internal policy, instead of just being administrative agents of the federal government. This may not close the gulf between East and West, but it'll at least be fairer to all parties involved.


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