Sarawak awakens in a new Malaysia

Sarawakians are now very aware of their part in the formation of Malaysia. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Sarawakians are now very aware of their part in the formation of Malaysia. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 16 — These are interesting times to be Malaysian, and perhaps more so if you come from Sarawak.

Fifty-five years into the birth of Malaysia, the pride Sarawakians have in their state has never been stronger.

Walk down any street in the state of almost three million people and you are bound to see vehicles with stickers expressing it.

Among the most common are those with the words “Sarawak for Sarawakians” and “Dum spiro spero”, which is Latin for “While I breathe, I hope”, Sarawak’s motto under the rule of the White Rajahs.

In the news, not a week goes by when there is not someone talking about increasing Sarawak’s oil royalty or restoring the state’s rights under the Malaysia Agreement 1963, the covenant upon which the country was formed.

So yes, you can call it a Sarawakian awakening.

We are now very aware of our part in the formation of Malaysia, what our state has contributed to the country’s progress and in the same breath, what we continue to lack.

You don’t have to look far to see why we feel short-changed. The Pan Borneo Highway was envisioned during the formation of Malaysia and only recently is it about to be fully completed!

But at this juncture, it should be pointed out that all this Sarawakian zealousness is a relatively new thing.

There have always been some dissatisfaction with Federal government policies but the spark was really lit in 2005 when former PKR rep Dominique Ng pulled what was then seen as nothing more than a political stunt.

He commemorated the country’s birth at the Padang Merdeka in Kuching — where the Proclamation of Malaysia was read in 1963 — and then the police came and bundled him and his small band of supporters away for participating in an illegal assembly.

It was perhaps only in the last 10 years or so that the state’s plight really struck a chord with the people and “Sarawak for Sarawakians” became the unofficial slogan of the movement.

Realising that there was no stopping the growing public support, the now defunct Sarawak Barisan Nasional jumped on the bandwagon and gave the movement some legitimacy after the Opposition tried to milk it.

It reached its high-point when the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem was chief minister from 2014 to 2017.

He spoke up for Sarawak like no other leader has — at least not anyone in the government of the day.

He spoke of renegotiating Sarawak’s oil royalty, the devolution of powers from the federal government, restoring the state’s autonomy and boldly chided federal leaders for their uneducated announcements.

And in 2016, the Sarawak government finally gazetted July 22 — Sarawak’s independence day — as a state holiday.

Yes, Sarawak was an independent country for 56 days on the understanding that it will be party to Malaysia’s formation on September 16, 1963.

Now, I have had the opportunity to know Adenan and I am absolutely convinced that he had a deep love for Malaysia but a Malaysia where Sarawak has its rightful place as an equal partner, not just as a state.

“Sarawak did not join Malaysia. Sarawak, Sabah, Singapore and Malaya formed Malaysia,” he had said many times.

And I believe many Sarawakians feel the same way as Adenan; we too love Malaysia.

Any talk of leaving Malaysia is just ludicrous to me. I think it is important to look past the political rhetoric and recognise that the people’s wishes are justifiable.

Being born in the 1970s and having seen the upheavals in our neighbouring countries, I cannot imagine being anything but Malaysian, especially after I have lived on both sides of the South China Sea.

Sure, there are many differences between Sarawak and Malaya but that is what we Sarawakians are good at — celebrating diversity and just getting along with people who are different from us.

My family is perhaps an example of that. When mum and dad wanted to get married, it was at a time when no self-respecting Chinese family would accept a native as a son-in-law, what more a betel nut chewing Kayan from a longhouse along the Tutoh River up north.

The only link to the longhouse is by boat about half a day’s travel from the closest town, which is about a thousand kilometres from Kuching where mum is from.

Despite the initial resistance from their families, mum and dad became the glue that brought two worlds together.

In many ways, we wish peninsular Malaysians were more like us. No leader who spreads hate and bigotry will ever be accepted by Sarawakians.

And while we wish that there will be greater acceptance and appreciation for the diversity in our country, we also look at Kuala Lumpur and wish we could be as well off.

After all, it was Sarawak’s timber, oil and gas, and even talents that played a big part in fuelling the country’s growth.

So what is wrong with Sarawak asking for well-tarred roads, electricity and water supply in our villages, or improved schools and quality education for our children?

What is wrong with wanting a better quality of life, access to better health care, higher salaries and more jobs as well as opportunity to hold higher positions in the civil service?

And what is wrong with Sarawak demanding nothing more than what were expressly agreed to be our rights when Malaysia was formed?

I’m certainly hoping that this new Malaysia will indeed be a new beginning for Sarawak and the country we so love.

Dum spiro spero Malaysia!