In Sabah, fresh hopes for return to Malaysia Agreement under Pakatan

Workers walk past the Jalur Gemilang in downtown Kuala Lumpur August 11, 2016. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Workers walk past the Jalur Gemilang in downtown Kuala Lumpur August 11, 2016. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KOTA KINABALU, Sept 15 — For Sabahans, this Malaysia Day represents a unique chance for the state to reclaim its position as prescribed in the Malaysia Agreement 1963, the document underpinning the formation of the federation 55 years ago.

With both the federal and state governments politically-aligned and of the same view regarding the document, political analyst Arnold Puyok felt there was a real opportunity to right past wrongs, especially with the ruling Pakatan Harapan and Parti Warisan Sabah both new.

“The new government is in a better position to look at this and start to make things moving now. They campaigned to implement the MA63, so expectation is high, and they have to fulfill their promises,” Puyok said.

“They had won over voters in Sabah with their promise of restoring Sabah’s rights under the MA63 and it would reflect badly on them if they fail to deliver their promises, like all the others before them.”

The Malaysia Agreement that brought together Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia), Sabah, Sarawak and, briefly, Singapore, held the four territories to be equal partners in the federation, but Borneo states have for decades felt this was not honoured.

While the East Malaysian states still maintain autonomy over matters such as immigration, education, and native matters, they have become just one of the 14 states and federal territories that make up Malaysia.

This has made state autonomy, the devolution of powers concentrated in the federal government, and the restoration of the two states’ positions popular platforms for politicians here.

Been there, done that, paid the price

The issue of reinstating Sabah’s rights emerged as early as the 1960s, spanning Tun Fuad Stephens’s time as chief minister to Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan’s tenure and beyond.

“Then trend is, when state leaders do not get what they wanted, they would harp on the autonomy issue to win support or use it as a bargaining chip. The federal government responds by either replacing the state leaders, changing the state government or forcing the state to toe the line.

“The results are stunted development and growth, east-west acrimony, and sentiment against the federal government.

“Harris tried a different approach by being more pro-federal but he got the backlash from state leaders who accused him of federalising Sabah at the expense of state autonomy,” said Puyok in reference to former chief minister Tan Sri Harris Salleh (1976 to 1985), known for ceding the island of Labuan, which used to be part of Sabah, to the federal government.

Tan Sri Musa Aman, Sabah’s longest reigning chief minister who held office for 15 years until this May, had cultivated his own style, having learned a bitter lesson from the previous leaders that it does not pay to antagonise Putrajaya.

Puyok suggested that Musa had let the public and civil society take the lead in demanding more rights for the state, but was hamstrung by the view that he was subservient to Barisan Nasional and, ultimately, Umno.

During Musa’s time and amid repeated promises from the BN government, the clamour for state rights rang out among many groups upset by the failure to observe the letter of the MA63 and Putrajaya’s failure to fund development in the state.

This briefly culminated in a growing separatist movement that later led to tougher sedition laws to specifically deal with the problem.

The dissatisfaction is also credited along with unhappiness over rising costs and lack of development for BN’s unexpected loss of the state in the general election.

A drop of honey

Puyok said that the new government is starting on good footing and should learn from predecessors’ mistakes, along with avoiding a confrontational stance that has historically fared poorly.

“They must be willing to work with the experts and not listen too much to public sentiment. It is not the time to be popular, they must be strategic if they want to address this issue,” he said.

Negotiations must be practical but precise, and this meant distinguishing between “lost rights”, “eroded rights”, “non-fulfillment of the MA63”, or whether we are “an equal partner” in the federation.

“Sometimes we tend to lump all these into one — that’s why we are neither here nor there.”

“Our rights are strongly asserted in the Federal Constitution. As a result of the signing of the MA63, we are a special state within the federation. We should first look at the ‘low hanging fruits’- the rights that are already granted to us.

Puyok pointed out that many erroneously blame the federal government for the departures from MA63, such as the introduction of an official religion and language for Sabah when there had been none before.

“In fact it was a state decision that decided to change the constitution some time ago and it is up to the new state government to decide whether to go back to the 1963 arrangement and have the new decision endorsed through the State Assembly.

“The issue is with the decentralising federal power in Sabah.

“The technical committee can start its work by identifying which recommendations in the Inter-Governmental Committee Report/Cobbold Commision report that they want placed under the state jurisdiction.

“Then it can identify which federal agencies in the state has functions with overlap with that of the state agencies’. They can decide whether to totally do away with the federal agencies by letting the state agencies to run the show. The aim here is to prevent the overlapping of tasks and to optimise the use of resources,” said Puyok.

Puyok said the most relevant ones to the state at the moment would be rural development, culture and heritage, areas where local context was more important.

“We understand our terrain, geographical background and people. We should have more say in determining how we want to develop these areas according to our local context,” he said.

The issue of contention now is there are some recommendations in the IGC/Cobbold Commission that may not be incorporated under the state jurisdiction/or being inadvertently included under the federal power.

“This should be addressed by the technical committee established. Some specific examples, having our own police force, our fire brigade, or even our own home ministry.

“But really, we need to ask ourselves: Do we have the capacity, capability and financial means to manage all these? Are these really our priorities now? For me, our priorities are infrastructure i.e. road connectivity, access to clear water and electricity.

“The whole idea here is to be strategic, to know what we want and to have a detailed plan on how we can achieve it,” he said.