Snubbed equal status Bill, Sarawak’s missed opportunity?

A boatman paddles his water taxi on the Sarawak river in Kuching, on April 8, 2017. ― AFP pic
A boatman paddles his water taxi on the Sarawak river in Kuching, on April 8, 2017. ― AFP pic

COMMENTARY, April 10 — At the Tabuan Jaya commercial centre in Kuching recently, a sticker plastered on a four-wheel drive drove home for me how far we have come since Sarawak’s quest for equal status in Malaysia began in earnest.

“Sarexit,” it said, obviously a play on the word “Brexit.”

And if there was any doubt as to what the vehicle’s owner’s beliefs are, there was another sticker that declared: “Sarawak for Sarawakians.”

While what these stickers suggest might seem ludicrous, it is not difficult to see where it all stems from and Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) failure last night to amend the Federal Constitution on the status of Sarawak and Sabah as equal partners pulls everything into view.

At the time of writing, it is still not known who the 59 parliamentarians are who abstained from voting on this “historic” amendment Bill and effectively foiled its passage.

Presumably they included all of my fellow Sarawakians from Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), who vehemently voiced their objections when the Bill was first presented in Parliament last Thursday by de facto law minister Liew Vui Keong.

And why wouldn’t they?

After decades of having the state’s powers chipped away and its wealth sucked dry, it is hard to believe that a Bill so brief in clauses that are arguably dubious is going to finally set things right.

There have certainly been plenty of arguments about how the proposed amendment to Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution should have been worded but what is perhaps more crucial is what is not stated in the Bill.

What’s more, the Cabinet Committee on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), which forms the basis of Sarawak’s and Sabah’s desire for equal status, is still in negotiations.

However, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, when tabling the Bill yesterday, explained that it was only the “first step” in realising the wishes of the people of Sabah and Sarawak in line with MA63. 

“This is part of the process that will be implemented after the MA63 review is completed. This is the first step in the implementation of this matter,” he had said, recognising that the Cabinet Committee has not completed its task.

Now, the prime minister’s explanation seems reasonable enough; we have to start somewhere, so why not now and with this Bill?

But the way Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Abang Johari Openg puts it is that the Bill is premature.

On Saturday, he said that while the state agreed that the Federal Constitution should be amended when it was proposed at the Cabinet Committee’s first meeting, there was no discussion on the actual contents or wording of the Bill.

He pointed out that the state believed that to amend Article 1(2), the definition of the word “Federation” in the Constitution must also be amended as it made no reference to MA63.

Moreover, he said that it was agreed during the meeting that no piecemeal amendments will be made, revealing further that the committee had aimed to table the amendments during the third sitting of Parliament in October this year.

Makes sense?

After the Bill was snubbed last night, one of my editors asked if GPS was only making excuses because if it had gone through, it would have lost an issue that could galvanise Sarawakians behind the state’s ruling coalition against the government.

It is a “missed opportunity” for Sarawak, he said.

I fear he might be right but what if PH was actually trying to pull a fast one?

Do we even know when or what the next step would have been if the Bill had passed?

It is hard not to suspect that Sarawakians are being made pawns in a political game, and a dangerous one at that if the sentiments of the people are not kept in check.

Let’s face it. PH has not done too well in keeping its election pledges and the frequency of their leaders stepping on each other’s toes does not exactly elicit confidence.

So, perhaps the Bill is but a diversionary tactic or a smoke screen, an opportune one too with the Sarawak election due in barely two years?

Indeed, time will tell if the PH government is sincere in restoring the equal status of Sabah and Sarawak or if all this is just a ploy.

Similarly, the opposing MPs need to look beyond politics, face their fears and ensure that their states get the best deal simply because there might not be another opportunity.

And although the temptation is there for PH to demonise MPs who did not vote for the Bill yesterday, this is one situation where everyone must emerge as winners as this is not just about Sarawak or Sabah but Malaysia.

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