It’s time we got to know you, East Malaysia


Our Borneo brethren can teach us a thing or two about living in diversity, while we can certainly give them the attention they deserve.

Malaysia Day has not been celebrated with much gusto in Malaysia for many years now, and it was no different last September 16. The festivities were perfunctory… but there was one pretty special exhibition in KL.

In exploring what it meant to be Malaysian, the fortnight-long exhibition in a shopping mall was refreshingly candid. One particularly thoughtful installation was by a young Sabahan artist, Yee I-Lann, who pulled no punches in putting across her views.

Using only a smattering of words in her visual installation, she nevertheless spoke volumes about the neglect suffered by the states in East Malaysia.

Hundreds stopped to view the blackand- white photographs of the four national leaders which she put up on a glass wall. Taken at the declaration of the formation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963, the photographs did not come with captions. Most people had no problems recognising Tunku Abdul Rahman, while some hesitated at the photograph of a young Lee Kuan Yew. But many failed to recognise Sarawak Chief Minister Stephen Kalong Ningkan and Sabah Chief Minister Fuad Stephens.

That comes as no surprise. For one thing, most of the visitors to the exhibition were from Peninsular Malaysia where there is woeful ignorance about the other half of Malaysia. And secondly, Sabah and Sarawak get only perfunctory treatment in our school textbooks, as Yee illustrated through her installation of a row of secondary school blue pinafores with blank name lapels.

This was one exhibition that would never have garnered much interest previously, but times have changed. Sabah and Sarawak have become an undeniable part of Malaysian consciousness, and their future is now one of the country’s hottest political issues. And while Yee is one of Malaysia’s most articulate voices on the unequal relationship between East Malaysia and Peninsular Malaysia, she's not the only one.

This is, of course, the outcome of the political turmoil stirred up by the general elections of 2008 and 2013. Soon after the 2008 election upended Malaysia’s staid political scene with the dominant ruling BN coalition almost losing power, the Borneo states came under the spotlight because their population seemed to entertain political thinking that was vastly different from that which had become apparent in Peninsular Malaysia – while West Malaysians voted for the opposition in overwhelming numbers, East Malaysians remained staunchly supportive of BN. Why was this so? This question has stirred up intense debate.

Dr Jeniri Amir, a political scientist from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, agrees that the political centre of gravity has indeed swiftly shifted to Sabah and Sarawak. Politicians have quickly realised that these two states hold the key to Putrajaya. Win Them, Win All. Opposition veteran Lim Kit Siang recently said the political future of Malaysia in the 14th general election “hinged on Sabah and Sarawak.”

“Sabah and Sarawak's status as ‘fixed deposit states’ (for BN) means that more strategic attention is now being given to East Malaysia,” says Dr Arnold Puyok, a political scientist also with Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

He also notes that cheaper flights in recent years mean that more people from the peninsula have been able to visit Sabah and Sarawak, and more students from West Malaysia have enrolled in East Malaysian universities. “They seem to like Sabah and Sarawak's ethnic diversity and tolerance,” he adds.

Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building.

So, for a variety of reasons, primarily political ones, consciousness of Borneo has been heightened. Many in Peninsular Malaysia suddenly realise that there is actually another Malaysia across the sea filled with real people with real lives, not just exotically-costumed dancers. This is accompanied by the realisation that Malaysia’s rapid economic development has often come at the expense of Sabah and Sarawak, which provide much of the natural resources but receive few of the benefits. This new consciousness quickly manifested itself in an outpouring of efforts to redress the developmental gap. The last few years have seen a mushrooming of fundraisers and initiatives by volunteer groups, such as micro-systems to provide electricity and clean water to villages.

This soon took on a more political perspective and morphed into a heated debate on the neglect of East Malaysia, progressing into a discussion on the legal and political position of Sabah and Sarawak within the federation. Most Malaysians aren’t aware that both states were once independent nations, albeit briefly, before they joined Malaya and Singapore in 1963 to form Malaysia. The “oath stone” in Keningau, a small town in Sabah, quickly shot to fame. People began sharing photographs of the stone etched with the guarantees given to Sabah when it became part of Malaysia.

At the same time, Sabahans and Sarawakians too have become more conscious of their own history, with grassroots movements like the Save Atkinson Clock Tower group springing up to preserve their heritage.

Pull this all together and there is more than enough evidence of a sea of change in Malaysia’s social dynamics. It is now impossible to return to the old days when East Malaysia played second fiddle to the peninsula.

There are limits, of course. “There is still a lot of ignorance among West Malaysians about Sabah and Sarawak,” says Jeniri. “A lot more needs to be done to enhance national integration and mutual understanding.”

Malaysia’s political parties have responded in a somewhat predictable fashion: both sides have lavished Borneo with promises galore to address its developmental woes. Since 2008, the Malaysian Budget has been packed with billion-ringgit allocations for basic infrastructure in East Malaysia. In December 2013, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced that a 100km road linking Kanowit, Song and Kapit in Sarawak was about one-fifth completed. (Currently, these places are only accessible by river). This RM722mil road is just one of the many being built to criss-cross these two states.

Najib’s government also finally made Malaysia Day – September 16 – a public holiday. This is intended to signify that the formation of Malaysia is as important as Merdeka Day on August 31. Last year, after the election, he packed his Cabinet with a record-high 13 ministers drawn from East Malaysia. Even the coveted Works portfolio was granted to East Malaysia.

Not to be outdone, opposition Pakatan has made its own set of promises to the Borneo states, including a guarantee to increase oil royalties from five per cent to 20% and to provide a heftier budget for their developmental needs.

DAP has gone even further, encouraged as it is by significant inroads it has made into East Malaysia since 2008. After making further gains in the 2013 general election, the party launched an ambitious “Impian Malaysia” (Malaysian Dream) campaign in both states. Its aim is to use volunteers to carry out small projects in remote villages to provide basic amenities such as water and electricity supply, repair infrastructure and undertake programmes to boost incomes. It is an astute move to win the hearts of the rural folk. These projects are to help foster a sense of independence among the people which DAP hopes will lead to independent political thinking, and which it thinks will then benefit the party.

Whether or not it will work remains to be seen. Political analysts have noted that opposition presence in East Malaysia is still patchy and seasonal, and BN’s grip remains formidable. At the same time, political awareness has crept into these states whose voters once rarely distinguished between the government and the BN coalition. Now, says Jeniri, they know that the government and BN are not the same thing, having seen the remarkable changes in the peninsula over the last two elections.

Time is short, though. The Sarawak state elections must be held by 2016 and the 14th general election by 2018. Some pundits don’t believe that a change in government in either state is possible yet.

Chinese man in Kuching, Sarawak.

But in wooing the people of Sabah and Sarawak, politicians have generally limited their focus to material benefits, goodies and infrastructure development. There has been much less focus on national integration, the need to embrace Sabah and Sarawak (and their inherent diversity) as equal partners. “Development is one thing,” says Jeniri. “But we need to establish better understanding between the two halves of Malaysia.”

There’s also still not much attention paid to upholding the Malaysia Agreements, which spell out certain guarantees for the autonomy of Sabah and Sarawak. This has long been a sensitive political issue. It also became effective election fodder last year as opposition politicians led the clamour for the Borneo states to get a greater share of the resources and stronger control over their destiny. In November, opposition PKR MP for Penampang Darell Leiking came under fire for asking for a review of the Malaysia Agreements following controversies such as the Allah ruling, transfer of judges from Sabah and Sarawak, and the continuing debate over oil royalties. He said he raised these issues because the people of Sabah and Sarawak had begun to voice their disappointment and anger in the social media space over being thrown into the “realms of inferiority”. This got him a sharp rebuke from the government and a warning that he was moving into seditious grounds.

Puyok, however, noted that this agenda must be pursued according to political realities. “Some parties want to go back to the pre-Malaysia period,” he says. “Others blame the federal government for the erosion of Sabah/Sarawak's constitutional rights. But the country really needs to move forward.”

He said while Malaysia's federal structure was far from perfect, it did help to ensure that differences were accommodated – be they political, social or economic ones. “The issue of autonomy is meaningless if it is not discussed within the context of the Federation of Malaysia.”

Analysts suggest that one can begin by truly integrating Sabah and Sarawak into the federation, in full cognisance of its ethnic diversity. Embracing East Malaysia is not just about infrastructural development but also about acknowledging and respecting its uniqueness.

There is much West Malaysians can learn from East Malaysia. Sabah’s and Sarawak’s ethnic diversity is mindboggling compared to West Malaysia’s limited triumvirate of Malay, Chinese and Indian with a sprinkling of Orang Asli and Others. By some counts, Sarawak has 27 ethnic groups and Sabah 30, at least. Inter-marriages have created an even greater range of ethnicities such as Sino-Kadazans. With racial diversity comes religious diversity. Again, there are the faiths that West Malaysians are familiar with, but also many that most have no idea about.

Putting all this into the mix, Malaysia’s population will begin to look far more diverse and it will certainly alter the way Malaysians see themselves. So far, the country has dealt with this diversity by simply having two systems. The Allah issue is a prime example. After the court ruled that the word “Allah” is exclusive to Islam, the resulting outcry drew a promise from the government that Sabahans and Sarawakians will be allowed to use “Allah” to refer to the Christian god in Borneo. After all, they have been using the word “Allah” for a long time, including in their Bibles in Malay and local languages.

But this right disappears once they set foot on Peninsular Malaysia. “In Sabah and Sarawak, we are surprised by this,” says Jeniri. “I’m Muslim and 99% of my family is Christian. I understand how they feel. It’s really a non-issue with us.”

This “solution” is an awkward one, as people use the same Bible whether they are in East or West Malaysia. Furthermore, increasing contact between the two halves of Malaysia will, in the near future, mean that more and more Sabahans and Sarawakians will end up working or living in Peninsular Malaysia.

“There are thousands of Sabahans and Sarawakians in West Malaysia who worship at Borneo Evangelical Mission (SIB or Sidang Injil Borneo) churches,” says Puyok. “Will the state monitor the use of the word ‘Allah’ in all the SIB churches throughout West Malaysia?”

Lest we forget.

It may not be a bad thing for West Malaysians to adopt the easygoing tolerance of East Malaysians, where racial and religious squabbling is rare. But this will be a long journey. There’s still a lot of ignorance among West Malaysians about how East Malaysians live, and let live.

But it’s no longer business as usual when it comes to East Malaysia. For better or worse, the social and political dynamics between the two halves of Malaysia have changed a great deal, thanks mostly to politics and travel. Many have become more aware of East Malaysia’s unique social structure, demographics, politics and way of life. People have also grown more aware of how far East Malaysia is lagging behind Peninsular Malaysia in economic terms.

Partly because of its huge geographical size and partly due to neglect, much of the interior of Sabah and Sarawak lacks the things that urban Malaysians take for granted, from clean water to roads to electricity to schools. Much needs to be done to address this deficiency, but a full and proper relationship between East and West Malaysia must go well beyond that. National integration also means learning more fully about East Malaysia and embracing the two states as full partners.

“Sabah and Sarawak will chart the future of Malaysia,” says Jeniri. “Isn’t it only right that Malaysians pay more attention to them?”

Cynthia Hoo is a journalist who is trying to learn more about the small corners of Malaysia and its people.

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