KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 30 ― Any punitive action on Sabahans and Sarawakians asking for a vote on staying or leaving Malaysia will backfire on the federal government, state opposition lawmaker Datuk Jeffrey Kitingan said last night amid a growing rumble of discontent in Borneo.
Kitingan, who heads the Sabah chapter of the State Reform Party (Star), urged the Barisan Nasional (BN) government to adopt a softer stance in dealing with proponents of a Borneo referendum instead of threatening unhappy citizens with criminal defamation and sedition charges.
“It certainly won't dampen the spirit of the people, because the situation today is not the same as 10 years ago. In fact, it will create the opposite reaction,” he told reporters after a late-night forum here on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 organised by civil society group, Negara-Ku.
“You can see it on the internet. Young people today are not afraid of being arrested because of their beliefs and convictions,” he said, adding that their fervour was fuelled by an idealism to address the inequalities they saw between in a country separated into east and west by the South China Sea.
Kitingan said there were two parallel movements pushing a signature drive in support of a petition seeking a United Nations hearing for Sabah and Sarawak to be allowed a referendum on whether or not they should remain in Malaysia.
He said the localised movement, jointly run by NGOs Borneo Heritage Foundation (BHF) and the Sarawak Association for Peoples' Aspiration (Sapa), has so far collected 20,000 signatures.
The other signature drive is being handled online by a group calling itself Sabah Sarawak Keluar Malaysia (SSKM), mooted by a Sabah-born political activist and lawyer based in the UK, Doris Jones. Kitingan said he had little knowledge of SSKM's operations.
The Bingkor assemblyman said the BHF-Sapa signature campaign is still a long ways off its target of 300,000 signatures, but claimed that the government crackdown has helped their cause.
“In fact, it has accelerated,” he said of the signature campaign.
“Arresting people is not the way to handle the problem. Instead, the government should listen to them, and understand why they are unhappy,” he added.
He urged the federal government to review the Malaysia Agreement that had led to the country's founding with Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners with the Malay peninsula and to consider drawing up a new Malaysian Constitution “because the old one is more or less invalid”.
Kitingan has long been a proponent of self-determination for Sabah, a position that lead to his detention under the now-defunct Internal Security Act in the early 1990s.
Supporters of self-determination argue that the allegedly Malaya-centric federal government has largely disregarded the 1963 Malaysia Agreement and the 20- and 18-point agreements pertaining to the special rights of Sabah and Sarawak, respectively, when Malaysia was formed.
Putrajaya recently pinpointed several people they believe to be involved in a movement to have Sabah and Sarawak secede from the federation, with Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar both issuing stern warnings against those behind the movement.
Earlier this month, police announced that they have identified three Malaysians involved in the secession movement, adding that they will be investigated under the Sedition Act 1948 and for criminal defamation.