The rise of regional politics

(First appeared in theSun on 14 May 2015, here).

THE second biggest piece of news emerging from the UK in the last two weeks (the first being the arrival of Princess Charlotte, according to some social media feeds) was not just that the Conservatives were returned to 10 Downing Street in the British elections, but that for the first time, Labour was unceremoniously all but wiped out in Scotland.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 out of 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland, in a surprise election result defying most pollsters’ predictions. Post-election analysis has varied, but one thing is clear: the face of national politics will rapidly change in the need to accommodate ever-increasing regional demands. The SNP supports and campaigns for Scottish independence, and although the “No” vote prevailed in the 2014 referendum, this is a sign Scotland will now seek even more autonomy than it presently has.

Closer to home, the issues seem to mirror those of Sabah and Sarawak that I encountered during my continuing journey across the country under our IDEAS National Unity Youth Fellowship Programme. During the visits, local community and political leaders we met shared their frustrations with the federal government for being too caught up with issues in Putrajaya and the Klang Valley. In fact, there is a growing sentiment of mistrust among locals against leaders from Peninsular Malaysia, whom they suspect of eroding the constitutional rights of Sarawak and Sabah.

First, both Sabah and Sarawak, despite being two of the richest states resource-wise in Malaysia, have rural pockets that suffer from poor access to basic amenities like water, electricity, and infrastructure. It does not help that in Sarawak, natives are said to have their customary land taken from them and resettled outside of their ancestral riverine areas in unsustainable environments, without appropriate compensation (there are many ongoing court cases), and timber companies responsible for large tracts of virgin rainforest deforestation, allegedly work closely with the political powers that be.

State developmentalism, with its focus on the national industrial vision and cold black and white economic figures and statistics, is seen as disconnected from the aspirations, needs and concerns of the indigenous people, and detrimental to their way of life and cultural identity.

In this regard, the Sarawak state assembly passed a resolution last year to increase the oil royalties paid to Sarawak from 5% to 20% in a bid to increase state wealth. This emerges out of a deep dissatisfaction that the federal government has deprived the state of its rightful access to resources obtained off its shores. Neighbouring Sabahan leaders have also begun to demand the same.

Of course, it is equally important to question both Sabah and Sarawak state governments as to their governance systems and management of internal fund distribution itself. For instance, one academic we spoke to said local Sabahans and Sarawakians, while criticising the federal government, should also not absolve themselves from the responsibility of developing their own states. In addition, allegations of conflict of interest of the previous leadership in Sarawak, raise questions about the propriety of decision-making, in the implementation of the industrialisation aspirations of Vision 2020.

Second, a bigger problem seems to be the exporting of peninsular-style racial and religious politics into Sabah and Sarawak. Many cited religious controversies in Selangor, for example, as having an impact locally, especially cases related to the Malay Bible confiscations, the dispute over the term “Allah” and others.

Communities in Sabah and Sarawak are heterogeneous, and it is not unusual to have an extended family with both Muslim and Christian members. This causes some tension during family gatherings, which would not have arisen otherwise. This is especially the case in Sabah. In February this year, a Christian rubber tapper made news when he was reportedly about to sue his 16-year-old daughter’s secondary school for converting her into Islam without her parents’ knowledge.

In short, any misgivings Sabahans and Sarawakians have towards the Peninsular stem from feeling like they have not been treated as equal partners. Sabah and Sarawak were nation states and therefore separate political entities before they formed Malaysia with Malaya in 1963. Local leaders often quote the 20-point and 18-point agreements (for Sabah and Sarawak respectively) that set out terms for their agreeing to come together, when demanding their rights are restored. In Sabah, these demands are literally carved in stone, in the Keningau Oath Stone.

The irony is that Sabah and Sarawak could provide valuable lessons on unity and social cohesion to us on this side of the South China Sea. They are a patchwork of cultures and ethnic backgrounds, people groups that are extremely comfortable with diversity. Sarawak has more than 40 sub-ethnic groups, while Sabah has more than 30. More importantly, the identities are mixed, where bumiputra are both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Umno Sabah has bumiputra members who are non-Malay, non-Muslim and both. Perhaps someone should remind some Umno leaders that these members do in fact exist.

The relationship between Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak has not always been smooth, but when asked what they think about the future, most leaders replied to say they still believe in a united Malaysia but would like greater autonomy. Yet others are urging for more drastic measures like secession. There are problems that obviously need to be ironed out urgently, in economics (providing jobs, access to education, basic infrastructure), social issues (undocumented migrants particularly in Sabah, native customary land rights, the environment) and politics (building local capacity, fighting corruption and stopping Peninsular-style racial and religious politics from seeping in).

But in the long run, if there were concerted effort from all stakeholders, communities in Sabah and Sarawak would be better empowered, with more developed economic sectors of their own without having to depend on the government. Whether or not a version of the SNP that argues for independence would take off in these states, however, remains to be seen.

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