Bring on a national debate on the Malaysia Agreement

MARCH 4 — The federal government recommits to the spurned 1963 Malaysia Agreement. Partly because it was an election promise, mostly because the Borneo seats sustain Pakatan Harapan’s power despite Umno’s race provocations.

The measures will be inevitably piecemeal. Taken as a whole, correctional policies will be unwieldy and too far reaching to be executed in a single term of five years.

Will Malaysia be better with this move, or does it only appease East Malaysia’s interests?

Those two questions have to be amplified equally in a national debate.

The discussion must happen even if the decision is moot. Acts without stakeholder deliberation invite attacks. 

Sabah and Sarawak, its sons and daughters should grab the opportunity to present the case to fellow Malaysians, not to seek validation but to broaden comprehension.

To bring what transpired to the cold light of day.

For many in Semenanjung feel Sabah and Sarawak just want their pound of flesh thanks to their electoral advantage. So, if how the stratagem bolsters the entire federation is not articulated, a sense of inequality permeates the air, at least from a Semenanjung perspective.

The appropriate venue for the debate is a select committee to mull the matter to the full breadth of its size.

The doors must be opened to MPs, Senators and civil society, both from East and West, to ponder about the choices, or even formulate the choices.

What failed, and what needs renewal. And even consider if what is possible today must be a morphed version of the original.

If done right, it can result a bipartisan resolve — and agreements on both sides of the South China Sea — to be consented by the Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara.

Then it would be a Malaysian effort to give Borneo what is right rather than seen as extortion by the East upon the West.

The numbers determine

For the uninitiated, the Malaysia Agreement document shaped the nation 55 years ago.

The agreement spells out a variety of rights and protections which none of the other 12 states possess. They were thought necessary to safeguard Sabah and Sarawak emerging from a different level of development and confidence.

And West Malaysia reneged shortly after formation, viciously over stages. The oppressor and oppressed narrative has dominated Semenanjung and Borneo relationship since.

Now, Putrajaya seeks to reverse the actions of over half a century.

However without discourse, it’ll be merely horse-trading with the Mahathir Mohamad administration on the left, and the discomforted four — Sarawak’s Pakatan MPs with eyes on state power, Sarawak’s ex-Barisan Nasional government, Sabah’s Warisan government which sits in the Pakatan Cabinet and Sabah’s coterie of pro-state opposition (read Star, Parti Bersatu Sabah and SAPP) — on the right. 

At a time when Umno Sabah remains dismembered, where members flee to Mahathir’s Bersatu Pribumi or float on with state chief Bung Moktar Radin.

Borneo must speak to the nation, for its own interest. A national discourse coupled with private negotiations can be potent rather than just leaning on Borneo unanimity over the matter.

If Pakatan pushes these parliamentary reforms only to fulfil manifesto obligations without a buy-in, there’s a chance the legislative efforts may be limited or largely rhetoric. 

Najib Razak’s administration did the same with hudud, offer support for it to gain broad conservative Muslim support and refuse to table it to placate the rest of Malaysians.

Separately, Mahathir can water down claims to match his own strategies. If the neglect of Borneo by way of ignoring the Malaysia Agreement is not a premise recognised by most Malaysians, the prime minister buys time. 

It is no mystery, he believes in cultural assimilation for Borneo into a Bersatu Pribumi view of Malaysia and autonomy through the revitalising of old agreements negate his goals. 

The PM has moved from verbal overtures to launches of Bersatu Pribumi Borneo, this is not a move for more autonomy as much as it is a manoeuvre to raise the Malayanisation game’s stakes.

Parliamentary approval will happen, because all of Pakatan is for it — on the face of it — and so is all of Borneo. The measure is bound to yield two-thirds in Dewan Rakyat, or more than 148 votes but what will it actually pass, and how much will be followed through?

Parliament must be emboldened and the civil service instructed in order for the changes to materialise in those states. Will Mahathir comply if he senses the demands are only regional?

Without political will, it may end up stillborn. And the will is firmly with the Malaysian Cabinet.

Which would be the clarion call to the more extreme forces in those states that negotiations with West Malaysia never works and other approaches are necessary.

It can destabilise Borneo.

Longevity

The spirit of the Malaysia Agreement can’t be in the details alone, of what services to Borneo-nise, physical autonomy and immigration control. It has to possess intellectual zeal and purpose, coupled with rationale, so it is palatable to all Malaysians, and supported by them.

This is why the national discourse on it is vital.

Already STAR Chief and Keningau MP Jeffrey Kitingan has asked for impossible demands like change to the flag and national wealth divided three ways. His intentions are obvious, to outdo other Sabahans in a display of state devotion.

Can state devotion exist in isolation from national love? Mr Kitingan’s approach is singular and unrepentant, and certainly short on consideration for the whole of the federation. 

But it appeals to a demographic. The more a reinforced Malaysia Agreement lacks grit, the higher his appeal will grow. Him and every other isolationist loony.

So what is apt and just in a federation?

Weigh that in a national and open examination of the relevance and importance of the Malaysia Agreement for both West and East Malaysia.

Thrusts from only one side will dislocate the endeavour.

Bills in Parliament are great, but broad support from Malaysians east and west even if disproportionate, will breathe life into the Malaysia Agreement.

Otherwise, it will be a mangled public relations exercise to present another false dawn for Borneo. After 55, they’ve had enough false starts and prophets.

 * This is the personal opinion of the columnist.