East Malaysia, not east of Malaysia

SEPTEMBER 10 — In 2016, the aftershocks from 1MDB inside the Cabinet forced the then-prime minister to axe Shafie Apdal.

Then, the highest ever ranked Bornean minister in our federal system.

The former Umno-VP was sent home with his tail between his legs, but his parting words pivoted to the east.

“But I will continue my struggle for Sabahans and fight for us against any wrongdoing in the country.”

Shafie picked his fight. What he felt was his truer path, and in 2018 his new Parti Warisan won Sabah at the first asking.

Today, skullduggery forces him back to a premature state election.

While Peninsula observers may point to the open fights in both Sabah and Sarawak — likely to hold polls by mid-2021 — they cannot miss the writing on the wall.

State love, Federal battle

There are more than twenty parties to contest in both states, crowding the field. Despite their differences, however, they are steadfast with their state not federal agenda.


All Sarawak’s Barisan Nasional (BN) parties exited in 2018 to Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), committed to state first and remain ambivalent to federal government.

Parti Sarawak Bersatu picks up steam to contest 2021 against GPS but equally commits to state first and the expected ambivalence to federal government.

Warisan’s campaign — now with DAP using its logo for the state polls — commits to Sabah and yes, is ambivalent to Putrajaya.

Ex-chief minister Musa Aman tussles for Sabah Umno with Bung Mokhtar, but both pull heartstrings based on state sentiments and restrain their federal credentials.

The other parties share the state first, and federal only for strategic purposes ethos.

They are all clear on how they see Malaya, and their place in Malaysia.

The way politics materialises on either side of Malaysia is alarmingly different. Peninsula politics is about the race to secure federal power and treat the states as subsidiaries thereafter. 

Borneo politics has become about securing state power and negotiating terms with Kuala Lumpur. 

Illusions of pathways for Bornean leadership in Putrajaya have all but faded, as Shafie found out. Instead, replaced by Bornean scepticism — carve a pound of flesh from Peninsula’s continued stalemates, and then another pound.

How does this augur for the long-term future of the Malaysian Federation?

Mindful, this is not due to concerted efforts of state parties poisoning their voters to eschew federalism for regionalism. In fact, the politicians by large are reacting to their peoples’ sentiments. 

A sense of inequality inside the federation, cultural displacement prevalent throughout federal structures and administrative condescension from their in-power western partners, all of it have accumulated and is breaking the camel’s back.

So, yes, be ready for every Borneo politician to clench fist for state and denounce the west as often as they can in the coming months.

Still in the rut

The 2019 Household Income and Basic Amenities Survey Report by the Statistics Department lists the 10 worst districts by median household income to be either in Sabah or Sarawak. Borneo does not dominate the bottom, it is the whole bottom.

Worst in the list of the worst, is Sabah’s Pitas district with the median household income of RM1,999 per month.

Pitas is worst of the worst and this is where Kampung Bilangau Kecil sits. Other than being an hour's drive to Kota Marudu, the village is where Veveonah Mosibin hails from. The girl who stayed on a tree to take her university exams only to be accused of being a fame seeker only for the accusing deputy minister to be trolled by thousands of young people for his uncouth ways, and only for him to apologise and now forced to explain the source of his own academic credentials.

Things move at breakneck speed in Malaysia Baharu.

But Veveonah’s predicament is only the tip of the problems plaguing the majority of Borneo. 

In Sabah and Sarawak, while there are millionaires or even billionaires, the everyday inhabitants, the overwhelming majority, eke out subsistence living beside commercial gas pipes and logging trucks pass them on dirt roads.

Cynics posit that national economic calculations group all Bumiputera together, to highlight the whole community’s economic weakness — as compared to the Chinese for example — which dilutes Borneo’s poverty. 

If the numbers were separated between Semenanjung Malays and Borneo Bumiputera, it would lift the prevailing household income of the former and present the dire lack of wealth among the latter.

Since formation, hundreds of thousands migrated to the Semenanjung for low-paying jobs which are still higher than Borneo wages. The professionals who’ve also left sit in their apartments in Semenanjung’s west coast and wonder how can their people be systemically denied when there’s the promise of an equal federation? 

The small complicit uber rich community travel back and forth, enjoying their wealth and ruing nothing.

Even more depressing the departures settle elsewhere and are unlikely to relocate back to Borneo; relations frayed by time and new roots in greener pastures keep them away.

The whole philosophy to two substantial portions is deeply flawed.

The central economy think affects the two Borneo states most since distance mounts the difficulties. It’s quicker from Kuala Lumpur to nine other Asean capitals than to Kota Kinabalu. The manner in which the federal government resents more demands from the east, underlines how Putrajaya wants the Borneo states to behave.

The Semenanjung-centric think to culture and entertainment further places Borneo in the fringes. The textbooks minimise Borneo in our intellectual traditions, even Universiti Malaya, the best Malaysian university as the university boasts enough times has a Chinese department — also a China Studies Centre — and an Indian department, but not Borneo studies department. 

It seems if Borneo wants to preserve its thousands of years of traditions, it has to do it on its own. Others quietly quip: why can’t the Borneo people just adopt and accept the ways of the Semenanjung.

This Malaysia Day

A federalist writes this column, but I fear there’s too little concern about the ideological framework to which both sides of Malaysia can work with and work on.

Borneo can be the economic and political colossus for Malaysia, but only if it’s a priority, not a means to raw resources and political seats in the federal parliament. Indonesia said as much by initiating its transfer of capital to the island.

Kuala Lumpur has in the past, to ensure Umno dominance, played its hand to rupture Sabah and Sarawak governments.

The toxic culture to dominate and to force submission from opponents, borne in Malaya, has spread to all parts of the country. The mutated version played out in the east is far more vicious and drains their psyche and fills them with only suspicion of Malaya. Can they be blamed? They live the unfairness.

But, if emotions and soft-liberal arguments don’t appeal to the powerful, then there’s the cold facts. 

Manipulating the people on a piece of land larger than the west and letting them have less of the federation in power, in economy and in social relevance will fester as a gaping hole. And be made worse by the world’s largest sea separating east and west.

The way back will be made difficult by past mistakes and it would require time.

The last country to have an east and west land bank physically separated was Pakistan. It did not work out too well. The solidarity of Asean insulates Malaysia from neighbours despite misgivings in Sabah and Sarawak. However, we can do better, much better.

We must match the aspirations of East Malaysia, not seek ways to contain it. Words won’t do soon, actions and defence of principles by the federal government will. All of Malaysia must commit to all of it as equal concerns.

Selamat Hari Malaysia to all of my countrymen.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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