All’s not lost for Sarawak, Sabah MPs who abstained on equal status Bill, say analysts

Participants get ready for 2018 Malaysia Day Celebrations at Padang Merdeka in Kota Kinabalu September 16, 2018. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Participants get ready for 2018 Malaysia Day Celebrations at Padang Merdeka in Kota Kinabalu September 16, 2018. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KOTA KINABALU, April 11 — Lawmakers who abstained from voting on the Federal Constitution amendment Bill can expect to face a backlash as they appear to be hindering the desire of Sabah and Sarawak to be on equal footing as the peninsula, analysts say.

They believe that disappointed east Malaysians may well vent their frustrations on the MPs who contributed to the government’s failure to obtain the necessary two-thirds support in the Dewan Rakyat on Tuesday night for the passage of the Bill.

However, they also felt that the decision of the lawmakers who refused to vote on the Bill were within reason and the Bill’s failure should not spell the end of efforts to restore the rights of both states.

“Would there be a backlash against those who abstained? Definitely, but they must explain to the public their reasons for doing so. It would be a difficult task but one that they must do,” said Universiti Teknologi Mara political lecturer Raheezal Shah.

He said it was clear the Opposition MPs, especially from Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), wanted more than just a verbal commitment from the prime minister during the second reading of the Bill, but they have to convince people that their reasons were strong enough to warrant their abstention.

“The Opposition’s major issue was the process. They believe that the amendment should not be rushed but instead be discussed at the respective State Assemblies and then brought to the steering committee where the implication of the amendment will be studied in detail.

“Tun Mahathir has given his commitment that more amendment will follow suit to reflect the provisions contained in the MA63 but it's obvious that the Opposition, especially GPS, wants more than just verbal commitment,” said Raheezal, referring to the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

Another Sabah-based political analyst who wanted to remain anonymous said that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) federal government will now be able to use the failure of the Bill against Sabah and Sarawak governments, particularly the latter.

“They will use the public sentiment now, which is that it was a golden opportunity presented to east Malaysia and the Opposition turned it down due to their own political game and they were never sincere in their struggle to attain equal status.

“The public may be confused, because the different sides are all blaming each other. The issue will be used as a political weapon by both sides,” he said.

He observed that the current situation is that many people are unhappy about the outcome and they believe it should have been supported, even though it did not meet everyone’s demands.

But other east Malaysian analysts disagreed and said that the government was not convincing enough in assuring the MPs on why they should support the amendment to Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution.

“They were not convincing enough in explaining why the amendment was necessary and how it will pave the way for achieving the ‘equal partnership’ status. They should have just stated that they want to reinstate the original Article in fulfilling the spirit of the MA63 and the intention of the founding fathers,” said University Malaysia Sarawak political science lecturer Arnold Puyok.

“The problem is when you equate Article 1(2) with equal partnership status. In what way are we equal, constitutionally and politically speaking? This is where the government has failed to explain,” he said, adding that under the circumstances, it was understandable why the opposition MPs did not support the Bill.

He also said that fortunately, the failure of the Bill will unlikely affect their support on the ground as most people were not aware or knowledgeable enough about the amendment and its relation to the states’ autonomy.

University Malaysia Sabah’s Lee Kuok Tiung also agreed, saying that the issue was close to the hearts of Sabahans and Sarawakians and could not be passed without question.

He said that Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad should have explained better in his winding up speech how the Bill would affect the status.

“If it’s clearly written there, I’m sure all will give their solid support. It’s better that the wording in the Bill reflect Sabah (and) Sarawak as equal partners as that’s the objective and goal of the amendment,” he said.

Lee also rubbished talks of Sabah missing its “golden opportunity” and it will take a few more decades for the government to table such a Bill again.

“To move forward, they need to sit down again, improve the Bill, and table it in Parliament. Simple as that. There’s no rule that says we only can table the Bill in 55 years. They can table it in the next sitting. Why give the impression we have to wait so long?” he asked.

Some 59 MPs from the Opposition had abstained from voting after a seven-hour debate on the Bill.

Sarawak MPs had asked for the amendment to be postponed until existing issues are ironed out, with some suggesting that it be discussed in a special parliamentary select committee first.

Other MPs, however, called on them to put aside their political differences and vote in favour of the proposed amendment, bearing in mind the well-being of the residents of Sabah and Sarawak.

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