RECENTLY, there have been renewed calls for Sabah and Sarawak to assert their interests and rights within the federation of Malaysia. These calls, including by State Reform Party (Star Sabah) chief Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, have included proposals to consider secession. The same sentiments are also apparent in Sarawak. The Union of Sarawak and Sabah Nationalists has called on newly sworn-in Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem to fight for equal rights, or secede from the federation.
The Nut Graph speaks to political scientist Wong Chin Huat to find out what’s behind these calls for secession, and whether secession by any state in the federation would even be possible.
TNG: What is triggering these calls for secession in Borneo?
First, the sense of betrayal is growing stronger and stronger among most Sarawakians and Sabahans. The Malaysia project was meant to bring about decolonisation, which would lead to prosperity and dignity. However, many Borneans feel that they did not get decolonised after 1963. Rather it would seem that the colonial office was transferred from London to Kuala Lumpur – a claim initially made by Indonesian President Soekarno, who vehemently opposed Project Malaysia.
How can you blame Sabahans and Sarawakians for feeling this way? Sabah and Sarawak have the richest natural resources and yet, today, they are among Malaysia’s poorest. In Sabah, just about 200km from Kota Kinabalu, three villages in Pangi are connected to the next town, Tenom, by just a railway, not a road. Beyond the limited train service, the locals have to creatively transport themselves on “trolleys”. Is this “Sabah Maju Jaya Dalam Malaysia”?
The second trigger for renewed secession calls is Umno’s weakening hold of power in Malaya. This has emboldened the Bornean elite. At the same time, it also pushes Umno to play up ethno-religious issues, such as the “Allah” ban, in order to secure its vote base. This only enrages many Sabahans and Sarawakians, both Christians and Muslims.
Do you think the call for secession will gain traction in either Sabah or Sarawak? Should Putrajaya be taking these calls seriously?
The obstacle to Sabah and Sarawak nationalism – greater in Sabah than in Sarawak – is the Malaya-style ethno-religious politics imported since 1963. Sabahans and Sarawakians are generally proud of their harmonious and tolerant communal relations. But things changed fundamentally after the installation of Tun Mustapha Harun as Sabah chief minister in 1967 and Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub as Sarawak chief minister in 1970.
Umno laid down a new ground rule: the chief minister had to be a Muslim. While this built resentment against Kuala Lumpur among the non-Muslims, especially the Christian bumiputeras, it also tied the political interests of Muslims structurally. Being a Muslim is like holding a political lottery to the top job.
Umno created a captive market among Muslim Borneans through “Muslim supremacy”, hence keeping itself in power nationally and through its Muslim vassals at the state level. In Sabah, where Muslims were 37.9% of the population in 1963, Mustapha and later Tan Sri Harris Salleh actively converted non-Muslims to Islam. Later, under Project M, Muslim electoral strength was boosted with instant and en masse naturalisation of Filipinos, Indonesians and even Pakistani and Indian Muslims.
Just last year, the Sabah mufti called for Muslim bumiputeras to be categorised as Malays, indirectly admitting the political process of Malayisation: Non-Muslim bumiputeras → Muslim bumiputeras → Malays.
Sarawak is by and large spared from this Malayisation process because it hurts the Melanau ruling elites’ interests. If Malays became the majority, the Melanau would soon be out of the running for both the offices of chief minister and governor. But in Sarawak as in Sabah, entrenched “Muslim supremacy” creates incentives for some Muslims to vote for the Barisan Nasional (BN) no matter what. So, how can secession gain enough appeal to command a majority?
Putrajaya is not too worried about Bornean secessionism as long as the religious card still works. In the 2013 general election, Umno and Parti Pesaka Bumipetera Bersatu (PBB) – the only other Muslim-dominated BN component party – won 46% of seats, just 10 seats away from a simple parliamentary majority of 112. They did this with a mere 32% of total votes. If Putrajaya gets to increase seats in Sabah and Sarawak, you can bet that there will be even more Muslim-majority constituencies, keeping Umno solidly in power for two more terms. Then any talk of secession would just be a pipe dream.
For Sabah and Sarawak nationalists to be a real force to be reckoned with, even before any talk of secession, they must be able to present an inclusive discourse. This discourse must cut across the Muslim-Christian divide. So far, the Bornean nationalists have been disproportionally Christian. That speaks volumes.
Do you think this growing sense of dissatisfaction with and distrust of Putrajaya is stronger in Sabah or Sarawak?
The question may not be the intensity of discontent per se, but its distribution. After all, we must not assume that Sabah or Sarawak, like any other state or nation, is a unitary actor. In Sarawak, there is general consensus across political parties to keep Umno out. The only exception may be a few Malay PBB leaders who want to end the Yakub-Taib Mahmud Melanau dynasty by setting up a Sarawak Umno. Former Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s success in keeping Umno out has also made many Sarawakians feel more distant from its threat.
In Sabah, Umno’s entry polarised the population. While many became more anti-Malaya, others found that their political and economic fortunes were tied to Umno.
Taib reportedly told his successor Adenan to keep Umno’s brand of politics out of Sarawak and to protect the state’s rights under the 1963 Malaysia Agreement. How able do you think Adenan will be in doing that?
Adenan will not do that. Neither will Taib actually want him to do that. Mustapha was once Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s darling and was allowed to run Sabah like his own fiefdom. Taib was no different in Sarawak. But when Mustapha’s head grew too big, Kuala Lumpur propped up a new party, Berjaya, and brought him down in the elections.
For Taib, all Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak needs to do is to get the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate more seriously the allegations of graft against him. And if even the 33-year reigning Taib didn’t challenge Putrajaya to protect his state, why should newbie Adenan risk his own political future?
A review would mean decentralisation and greater autonomy. This would mean greater political independence for the Bornean elite and possibly also their masses. This in turn would mean the BN losing its fixed deposit, or at least having to pay more for support from the East. Why should Umno risk this political suicide? Until Sabahans and Sarawakians can unite across ethno-religious lines, it would be foolish for Umno to make any concessions.
Singapore left the federation of Malaysia in 1965. So, we know from history that it is possible for a state to leave. From a political and legal point of view, what needs to happen for either or both Borneo states to secede?
Singapore did not secede. It was expelled because its ruling party, the People’s Action Party, initiated a second coalition, the Malaysian Solidarity Convention. This coalition consisted of allies from both Malaya and Borneo to challenge the Alliance Party. In Project Malaysia, the right to divorce is only one way. You can be ditched, but you can’t ditch.
In our Federal Constitution, there is only a provision for the admission of new territories (Article 2) but no provision for secession of the existing states. The 20- and 18-point agreements signed away the rights of Sabah and Sarawak respectively to secede. Former Sabah state secretary Tan Sri Simon Sipaun has said several times in public that Sabah locked herself into a prison and threw away the key.
But eventually, what will decide the matter is not the law but politics. If the idea of secession gains ground, and crackdown becomes too costly, then any federal government will have to deal with the challenge politically. If the majority of people want to go, how do you keep them?
For now, however, secession is but a self-indulgent fantasy for many Bornean nationalists.
Do you think calls for secession are treasonous?
I am against secession but all for the right to secede, in the same way that I believe in the right to divorce as a necessary condition for happy marriages. First of all, without the right to divorce, people have to stay in the same marriage even though they are unhappy. Secondly, if divorce is not legally possible, one party may be induced to abuse or exploit the other party, knowing well the latter cannot leave.
It would be mad if people married just to divorce eventually. But the vow to stay together until “death do us part” must be voluntary, not a blank cheque for one party to point a gun at another to stop the other from leaving.
Any breakup is hard and requires difficult negotiations. But this is not an excuse for a tyrannous union. Much as any talk of divorce cannot be construed as adulterous, talk of secession must also not be construed as treacherous. In fact, any coercive means to suppress the idea of divorce or secession is antithetical to the very idea of a celebrated union. If you’re sure of happiness in the union, why would you need to force people to stay?
Do you think secession would end the exploitation of Sabah and Sarawak?
If it does, then all Malaysians are morally bound to agree to the divorce should Sabah and Sarawak want it.
The truth is, however, likely the opposite. Even if we assumed that Sabah and Sarawak could remain independent and not be annexed by Indonesia or the Philippines at some point, independence may not end the exploitation of Sabah and Sarawak. Sabah and Sarawak suffer “double internal colonisation”, first by the Malayan elite in Kuala Lumpur, then by their own elite in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. And these rajahs may just have greater power when they no longer have a colonial master to report to.
To free Sabah and Sarawak from land grabs, rent-seeking and elite capture, you need democratisation, which must include elected governments at the division level. Sabah and Sarawak are so geographically wide and diverse that their divisions are like Malayan states.
Independence without real democratisation can be a recipe for greater disaster. But if you have real democratisation, Sabah and Sarawak may not need independence at all, as they may truly benefit from the union with Malaya.
Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and was a journalism lecturer prior to joining the Penang Institute, a Penang government think tank. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected]