Sabah and Sarawak, 26pc of Borneo but how many per cent Malaysia?

APRIL 8 — Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the gigantic Soviet Union were countries in 1963 when the Federation of Malaysia was formed.

They are no more today, discarded in history’s ash-heap.

Pakistan, Ethiopia and Sudan kept their formation names despite losing substantial territories — now Bangladesh, Eritrea and South Sudan — over time.

We experienced self-mutilation at the start.

Malaysia removed Singapore in 1965 but steadied into nationhood. However, nations must always be perpetually vigilant, lest to suffer history’s fate.

Nations can be born from pre-existing religious-racial ties or shared values, colonial boundaries or strategic purposes, but their endurance relies on the continued widespread reinvestment into it by its very people. It is not about dominant parts determining for the rest.

In short, citizens have to believe in it, not be bullied into it.

Nations can be born from pre-existing religious-racial ties or shared values, colonial boundaries or strategic purposes, but their endurance relies on the continued widespread reinvestment into it by its very people. — Reuters pic
Nations can be born from pre-existing religious-racial ties or shared values, colonial boundaries or strategic purposes, but their endurance relies on the continued widespread reinvestment into it by its very people. — Reuters pic

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The key lesson from the past 30 years has been that restive areas tend to leave successfully in the Post-Cold War era.

This comes on the heels of Pandikar Amin Mulia’s statement this week that if Sabah-unfriendly policies like cabotage are brought back, it may cut short the state’s stay in the federation.

The cabotage issue is not the only issue dividing views on either side of the South China Sea.

And Pandikar is not an outsider to Sabah power. Almost 40 years in state and federal politics, second longest serving Dewan Rakyat speaker, president of the reformed Usno Baru (United Sabah Nationalist Organisation), and now BIMP-EAGA Sabah adviser and special envoy appointed this year by the Perikatan Nasional state government.

It alarms more since BIMP-EAGA has two significant parts, BIMP (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines) and EAGA (East Asia Growth Area).  The organisation seeks to increase mutual economic wealth shared by the zone, which is more accurately all of Brunei, Indonesia’s Kalimantan, Malaysia’s Borneo and South Philippines.

The cabotage rule by large, benefits Semenanjung and disadvantages our Borneo states and impedes the growth of the east Asean zone.

Thus, the column title. Sabah and Sarawak are a quarter of Borneo, but how much of Malaysia do they own? Are they equitable partners or merely outposts to serve West Malaysia’s economy and power needs?

Lessons from the Pacific

The United States has two physically distant states, tropical Hawaii and arctic Alaska.

They are the closest example of territories separated without land connections from its national capital; Kuala Lumpur in our case.

Even if a more advanced federation, in that the bulk of America was forged over three centuries, it does not take responsibility for the two states lightly.

Alaska is resource-rich and people-scarce. It gives its residents, every man, woman and child, over US$1,000 (RM4,143) a year to be there. The resource gains are channelled back to the people.

Hawaii is the headquarters of the US Military in the Pacific. The economic well-being of the state is paramount linked heavily to US power from California to the Philippines.

The attitude to the two states is hardly reluctant.

Even if they are just two of 50 states, their physical separations are not underestimated nor their worth undervalued.

States are not allowed to fail as richer states are obliged to assist via the federal government. Burden share is the cornerstone of federations.

Reinforces the argument for perpetual vigilance. To care for the weakest links.

Borneo’s fringe role

Malaysia is discussed through Semenanjung’s interest. The whole political debacle of three years revolves around whether Pakatan failed/threatened Malays and Perikatan Nasional’s early joys of Malay leadership unified giving way to Umno’s apprehension and Bersatu’s insecurities.

The whole circus moves and operates without factoring Borneo, and they are a flight away.

As it stands, no Borneo person can be prime minister.

Equally, every passing Agong — rotated among the nine royal houses in Semenanjung — has no natural link to East Malaysia. It is a standard approach to ensure a national monarchy relates to all territories. 

The British monarchy spends time and effort to appear connected to the hips of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish, so that it is a United Kingdom. 

Regardless of outcomes or cynicism, they aspire to be the royal family for the whole country. They have to, because countries are ultimately concepts, and every important component cannot exclude any part.

Compound that to the oft-repeated occurrences of decisions weighted to the West’s interests before the East here in Malaysia, the incredulity is palpable.

Some of it can change or none of it can change; yet as it stands, it lends to the feeling of conceptual separation.

What Borneo wants

Respecting Malaysia Agreement and constitutional guarantees are crucial but for residents in the two states with 19 of the poorest 20 districts in the country, economic advancements trump all.

From discernible investments in traditional educational facilities and innovative teaching vehicles for rural communities together with actual comprehensive and mobile healthcare, to hard investment in economic activities which translate to wealth distribution through wages, these if witnessed would win over so much of the electorate.

Can Semenanjung consciously operate with less, to sacrifice for the other half of Malaysia?

Then to the political impasse.

Economic autonomy is the key multiplier to speed up Borneo’s advancement, which every Putrajaya government is wary of passing over.

The circular fear that extending more power in order to win over distant territories and therefore entice them to remain, may fail for the very reason too much autonomy will lead to separation which the initial step was not to unlock. 

The classic case of the right measure ends up hurting the initiators.

To which trust matters. To believe greater autonomy will be acted upon in good faith by Sarawak and Sabah, and not as a delicate chess game to procure more power at every turn.


When small villages disagree on where to have their annual kenduri, imagine the levels of complexity and co-operation involved for a federation divided by a sea.

But being forced to negotiate is a boon not a bane. It takes getting used to and a culture of facilitation; that after all the speeches, decisions must be done and they will discomfort some. 

They will lead to disagreements, but they also because of the fear of disgruntlement institutionalise circumspection and the ability to consider the other party more than just being obsessed with self-interest. In order to avoid draining stalemates.

The real objective in regards to Sabah and Sarawak, and Semenanjung too, is for all the valid concerns to be addressed and considered in view of the integrity of the federation.

It is not merely about Sabah and Sarawak getting more, putting it in percentages, whether to area size, or population or race-religious divides. It is to feel inclusion, that all of Malaysia’s — Sabah, Sarawak and Semenanjung — problems are seen through the same lens.

There’s a bias currently. So, mistrust reigns. East Malaysians are unsure of how much of Malaysia is theirs.

They should not be after 58 years. All of it is theirs. All of Malaysia belongs to all Malaysians.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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