With Malaysia’s 14th general elections (GE14) set to be held in the next six weeks, one issue not widely discussed enough is the role played by the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Unlike other states, Sabah and Sarawak are physically located in Borneo, far away from Putrajaya. These two states have a very different history, demography and social history from the other 11 states in the Malay Peninsula, or Malaya.

Politically both states were unimportant to ruling Barisan Nasional’s (BN) leadership as voters in both states regularly voted for the BN. In every general election since the 1990s, BN won more than 70 per cent of the parliamentary seats in Sabah and Sarawak. The results were so predictable that the ruling party regularly referred to both states as BN’s “fixed deposits”.

There are 222-seats in the Malaysian parliament and the magic figure is 112. In the 2008 elections, when BN won 140 to the opposition’s 82 seats, Sabah and Sarawak contributed 55 of the 140 BN MPs. In the 2013 elections, the BN won 133 to the opposition’s 89 seats. This time Sabah and Sarawak contributed 47 BN MPs. In other words, the UMNO-led BN government would have lost power without the MPs from Sabah and Sarawak.

UMNO soon realised that without support from East Malaysia’s BN, they would be out of power.

THE BIGGEST POLITICAL issue by far in Sabah and Sarawak is the Malaysia Agreement, commonly referred to as MA63. This was the agreement signed by the founding states of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, which led to the formation of the Malaysian Federation in 1963. Hence many Sabahans and Sarawakians are of the opinion that Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak (and Singapore before its expulsion from Malaysia in 1965) were the original founders of the Federation.

They feel that Sabah and Sarawak should not be merely treated as one of the 13 states in the Malaysian Federation but as two of the three founding entities. This distinction is important for Sabah and Sarawak nationalists as they argue that both states should enjoy more autonomy from the federal government in Putrajaya.

In the negotiations leading up to the formation of the federation, North Borneo (as Sabah was then called) and Sarawak were given special autonomy in areas like Islam, immigration, local government issues, education and language, and the composition of the civil service (collectively called the “Twenty Points”). Today, the majority of the population in Sabah and Sarawak think, other than immigration, powers are concentrated in Putrajaya. Mahathir was the chief architect of this concentration of powers in the federal government.

Since 2008, with the power equation in the BN shifting to Borneo, politicians in Sabah and Sarawak have been calling on Putrajaya to return all the powers that were agreed upon in 1963. These nationalists’ movements come in all shades, including many who are openly calling on both states to secede from Malaysia and declare independence.

When Najib Tun Razak became prime minster in 2009, he understood the political danger immediately. He appointed a record number of ministers from Sabah and Sarawak, and gave the Speaker’s position in the Malaysian Parliament to a Sabahan. He even added an additional public holiday called Malaysia Day on 16 September. Previously Independence Day was celebrated on 31 August, the date Malaya became independent, rather than 16 September when the federation officially came into being.

After the 2013 elections, Najib poured even more money into Sabah and Sarawak. He announced the go-ahead for the Pan-Borneo Highway, a highway linking Kuching all the way to Tawau in Sabah via Brunei. Sabahans and Sarawakians have been asking for such a highway since the 1970s. He also gave a “special allocation” of one billion ringgit (A$340m) each to both states.

On top of that, Najib agreed to establish a cabinet-level committee on the devolution of powers back to Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. Although the work of the committee was completed at the end of last year, Najib has so far kept silent about the results. He is widely expected to announce some major concessions to Sabah and Sarawak during the upcoming GE14 campaign to help the BN parties in Sabah and Sarawak. The BN in Sabah and Sarawak have repackaged themselves as Borneo Nationalists since 2008, arguing that they are the only ones who can bring back autonomy. The irony of course is the fact that it was the same BN governments in Sabah and Sarawak which allowed Mahathir to take away their powers in the 1980s and the 1990s.

IF NAJIB WINS big in the peninsula – in the region of 100 or more seats – with the addition of the seats from Sabah and Sarawak, BN will have a total of more than 140 seats. Under this scenario, Najib will no longer be dependent on the BN from Sabah and Sarawak to stay in power. He will thus likely slow down any moves to devolve powers back to Sabah and Sarawak, and redirect resources promised to Sabah and Sarawak back to Malaya to reward his Malay base.

All this will be done quietly behind the scenes. He will maintain his rhetoric on recognising the special position of Sabah and Sarawak in the federation. But realpolitik dictates that he must reward the Malay ground that supported him in Malaya.

This will, of course, lead to more unhappiness in Sabah and Sarawak. It will strengthen the hand of the nationalists. Thus far, other than Dr Jeffrey Kitingan from Sabah, candidates from hardline state nationalist parties have all lost badly, often losing their deposits. The big problem here is that the mainstream parties – both the BN and PH coalitions in Sabah and Sarawak – have adopted many state nationalism mantras, leaving little or no political space for the hardline state nationalists such as Sabah’s Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (Homeland Solidarity Party) or Sarawak’s State Reform Party (STAR).

But no matter the outcome of GE14, the nascent nationalists’ movements in Sabah and Sarawak will endure. The people of both states know they were treated badly and marginalised by the federal government for the first 46 years of the federation. The social media age has allowed them to spread their message widely and they will remain a permanent feature of politics in Sabah and Sarawak going forward, no matter who is in power.