Last Saturday Malaysia celebrated her 56th year of independence in Dataran Merdeka in central Kuala Lumpur.
Many people in East Malaysia, however, may not be celebrating. Why? 31th August is the date of independence for Malaya but not the Malaysian federation. The fact is, the federation of Malaysia was proclaimed on 16th September 1963, and the federation of Malaysia is 50 years old, not 56. This simple fact is often ignored by Putrajaya much to the annoyance of East Malaysians.
When Najib Tun Razak became Malaysia’s prime minister in 2009, he declared that 16thSeptember is be called “Malaysia Day” and added it as a public holiday in the country. Prime Minister Najib’s concession was no doubt linked to the 2008 general elections when voters from East Malaysia helped Barisan Nasional to retain power when voters in the peninsula abandoned the BN.
While recognition of 16th September is welcomed in East Malaysia, the bigger issues for most East Malaysians are the ‘20 Points’ and political recognition that East Malaysia should treated as an equal partner, not merely two of the 13 states in the federation.
Prior to the formation of the federation in 1963, Sabah (or North Borneo as it then called) and Sarawak wanted a set of guarantees before they would agree to form the proposed Malaysia Federation with Malaya, Singapore and Brunei (Brunei was to withdraw at the last minute). Four meeting were held under the Malaysian Solidarity Consultative Committee (MSCC), leading to the Commission of Enquiry, North Borneo and Sarawak (better known as the Cobbold Commission) and a joint British-Malayan committee, the Inter-Governmental Committee (better known as the IGC Report), was established to ensure these concerns were reflected properly in the new Malaysia Constitution. These set of guarantees, commonly referred to as the 20 Points, gave Sabah and Sarawak a large degree of autonomy in areas like immigration, language, religion, Bornenisation of the civil service and representation in the Federal Parliament.
The autonomy was needed to allay fears of a takeover by Malayans and Singaporeans who were deemed more developed than East Malaysia. In terms of history, culture and demography, there was nothing in common between the peoples of the peninsula and Borneo, other than all were ruled by the British.
Since then, many East Malaysians, especially Sabahans think Putrajaya has not adhered to the 20 points and infact, has purposely breached the guarantees in order to forcelly impose politically on East Malaysia a political framework, essentially an UMNO-led Malay-first political system.
This is clear from the testimonies given at the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) in illegal immigration into Sabah for the past four decades. The RCI has been told numerous times that the highest levels in the federal government, during the Mahathir era, gave thousands of Muslim Filipinos and Indonesians Malaysian citizenship to ensure that Sabah became a Muslim-majority state in less than a decade. From 1970 to 2010, Sabah’s population increased by 390 percent! This was to guarantee Muslim political hegemony and ensured that the native Kadazandusun, previously the majority in Sabah, will never be able to politically challenge a Muslim-led leadership, both in Kota Kinabalu and Putrajaya. One witness, a civil servant who issued the Malaysian identity cards illegally, openly told the RCI he saw it as his duty to ensure Muslim dominance.
The same pattern is repeated in the civil service. Despite a promise that, when British expatriate left their positions in the public service after 1963 they would be filled by Sabahans and Sarawakians, it did not happened. Most of the current senior civil servant positions are filled by Malays from the peninsula.
The other big issue that annoys East Malaysians is Putrajaya’s refusal to acknowledge the special status of Sabah and Sarawak. East Malaysia saw themselves as one of three different political entities (Borneo, Singapore, Malaya) that came together to form the Federation back in 1963. This means they were not equal to the states in Malaya, and this was acknowledged in the original first article of the federal constitution that was promulgated on 16th September 1963. Later amendments were made which lump Sabah and Sarawak as the same category as other states.
The big fear among East Malaysians is that after 50 years of the federation, their entire socio-political environment is mirroring what is happening in Malaya. Prior to independence, Sabah and Sarawak had one of the most plural population with little or no racial and religious tensions.
Today, there is intense political competition and constant tensions between the Muslim and non-Muslim population in both states, and racial tensions so prevalent in Malaya is starting to manifest in East Malaysia. The younger Muslims from East Malaysia are starting to distance themselves from their non-Muslim neighbours and becoming super sensitive to all issues pertaining to Islam, mirroring the breakdown of racial relations in the peninsula.
A lot of this can be attributed to the current education system where large number of Malay teachers and civil servants are sent to serve in East Malaysia, bringing with them their ethnic and religious prejudices. Students are also not taught the true history of Sabah and Sarawak in the national curriculum.
Blame must also go to the non-Muslim state leadership in Sabah and Sarawak who are afraid to speak up. The indigenous leadership in both states, representing the non-Muslim bumiputera, are broadly more interested in keeping their positions than fighting for their communities, since 1963. In the past decade this has changed somewhat, especially among the younger educated Ibans and Kadazandusuns, who are now more vocal about the failed leadership in their communities and the need to protect their status as the majority indigenous peoples.
In reality, however, the boat has sailed and it is too late for the non-Muslim indigenous leadership to do anything substantial to slow down Muslim hegemony in both states. The rise and rise of right-wing Islamic politics in the peninsula means that will use federal power to impose their will on East Malaysia. The tragedy is that the good ethnic relations experienced in East Malaysia for the past fifty years will be nothing more than a distant dream.
Professor James UH Chin teaches at Monash University (Malaysia campus) and is currently a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) .