In reflecting upon the status of Sabah and Sarawak in the Malaysian Federation during a Malaysia Day celebration at Padang Merdeka Kota Kinabalu on 16 September 2018, Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad made some significant observations which should shape our understanding of how the two states relate to Putrajaya.

It is true that Sabah and Sarawak together with Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia were deemed to be four equal partners in the formation of Malaysia in 1963. This was recognised not only in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 (MA63) but also under the original Schedule 1(2) of the Federal Constitution. However, what the merger of four entities meant in the actual structure of governance and in the delineation of powers within the Federation was not really clear. It was further complicated by the tensions generated by the acrimonious exchange between the national elite under Tunku Abdul Rahman and the Singapore leadership under Lee Kuan Yew starting early 1964 which resulted eventually in the separation of Singapore from the rest of the Federation on 9th August 1965.

Partly because of the Singapore episode, the Federal Government became more concerned in the subsequent years with the consolidation of the State. This was more important to the national leaders than giving meaning to the notion of equal partnership in building the nation. Economic and administrative realities in a sense — as in other similar situations — drove the national leadership in the direction of greater centralisation of power.

It was not surprising therefore that in July 1976 under Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn, the Federal Constitution was amended to change the status of Sabah and Sarawak. They became states in the Federation like the other 11 states from Peninsular Malaysia. Of course, they retained the special grants and some of the rights bestowed upon them in 1963 such as control over immigration.  Similarly, various constitutional provisions pertaining to the distribution of legislative powers and the structure of the judicial system remained. It is worth observing that almost all Members of Parliament from Sabah and Sarawak present in the Dewan Rakyat voted for the constitutional amendment. We can safely assume that it will not happen today.

A significant segment of the populace in Sabah and Sarawak appear to be unhappy with the dominance of the Centre over the two states in matters such as control over their own oil resource; the administration and management of public education; and the appointment and promotion of state officials in certain spheres. There is a general feeling that Sabahans and Sarawakians  do not have as much say over those aspects of governance  that impact upon their lives as they had hoped for at the time of the formation of Malaysia.

These are genuine grievances which have to be addressed. A sincere attempt on the part of Putrajaya to understand and empathise with the woes of Sabahans and Sarawakians  would be key in the quest for solutions. At the same time, the people in the two states should realise that sometimes in asserting one’s rights one should also be conscious of the need to concede and compromise in the larger interest of the nation as a whole.

When the rights of Sabah and Sarawak are respected and this respect is translated into tangible policies and programmes that benefit the vast majority of the people, they would begin to feel that they are equal to their sisters and brothers on the peninsula. There would be no need to amend the Constitution to recognise Sabah and Sarawak as equal to Peninsular Malaysia. It is through improvement in the socio-economic status of the masses, underscored by respect and empathy for the people and their cultures and their heritage that Sabahans  and Sarawakians will be bonded to the folk on the peninsula.

In this bonding not only will respect for cultural and religious diversity play a major role; a firm commitment to inclusiveness would be fundamental. Inclusiveness and respect for diversity have been so integral to the value system of the people of Sabah and Sarawak for centuries. These are also values that the majority of Peninsular Malaysians cherish — though sometimes they are pushed to the margins by small groups of exclusivists in different communities.  Nonetheless, inclusiveness and respect for diversity hold us together, in spite of the vast expanse of the South China Sea.

It is to ensure that these two supreme values in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society remain at the forefront of the national psyche that some of us continue to espouse the re-affirmation of the Rukunegara as the nation’s ideology. It is a move that resonates with a lot of our sisters and brothers in Sabah and Sarawak.

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