August 31–Malayan or Malaysian Independence Day

September 24, 2016

James Chin: Looking Back on August 31–Malayan or Malaysian Independence Day

31 August marks Malaysia’s independence. But not everyone is celebrating the federation, writes James Chin.  Najib Razak can no longer take Sabah and Sarawak for granted with provincial nationalism on the rise in East Malaysia

Today Malaysia celebrates Hari Merdeka or Independence Day. But, the 31 August anniversary again raises the old debate about the actual date of independence and what the Federation means to the peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. It’s a discussion that has happened this time every year for much of the past decade.

Most banners in Malaysia have ‘59’, marking when Malaya became independent in 1957. The ‘53’ comes from 1963 — the year when the Federation was formed.

For many years, the federal government in KL/Putrajaya did not take the difference in years seriously. The situation changed in 2010 with the creation of another public holiday — Malaysia Day — to be celebrated annually on 16 September and commemorating the formation of the Federation.

Image result for Najib Razak

The sudden acknowledgment by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak was no doubt in part to the increasing assertiveness of leaders in Sabah and Sarawak. Before 2008 Sabah and Sarawak were seen as a reliable ‘fixed deposit’ for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN). The number of BN MPs elected from the Bornean states gave the BN a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The situation is markedly different now. The current Najib administration is holding on to power with a wafer-thin majority of 18 seats (as at July 2016). There are 47 BN MPs from Sabah (22) and Sarawak (25).  Najib would be out of a job without the BN MPs from East Malaysia.

To show his appreciation and to reflect the rise of East Malaysia, he appointed more than 15 Federal Ministers and Deputy Ministers from the two states. In fact, the second largest party in the federal BN is Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) from Sarawak, not the uni-racial Malaysian Chinese Association as is widely believed.

Najib’s perilous political position is made worse by the fact that UMNO does not have single MP from Sarawak. In fact, under a deal made during former Prime Minister Mahathir’s tenure, UMNO is not allowed into Sarawak.

Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), the local Muslim party, is the de facto UMNO of Sarawak. It has ruled Sarawak since 1970 with a coalition that is beholden to it. PBB could easily rule Sarawak on its own, but the state’s diverse population requires it to keep a coalition government, the Sarawak BN, for political stability.

Image result for Nationalism in Sabah

Image result for Nationalism in Sabah

Unlike Sarawak, UMNO is in firm control of Sabah and UMNO Sabah’s boss, Musa Aman, is the state’s Chief Minister. His brother is Malaysia’s Foreign Minister, Anifah Aman.

The noisy debate in East Malaysia over ‘53-vs-59’ reflects the wider issue of Sabah and Sarawak’s status in the Malaysian Federation. Many Sabahans and Sarawakians are of the opinion that Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak (and Singapore before its expulsion from Malaysia in 1963) were the original founders of the Federation. Hence the argument that Sabah and Sarawak should not be merely treated as one of the 13 states in the Federation but as one of the three founding states.

This distinction is important for Sabah and Sarawak nationalists as they like to argue that both states should enjoy more rights compared to others. These rights, as the argument goes, are part of the original promises made by Tunku Abdul Rahman and other Malayan leaders when they approached Sabah and Sarawak back in 1961 to establish the Malaysian Federation. They further argue that many of these rights, collectively called the ’20 Points’, have been watered down over the last half century.

With UMNO relying on East Malaysia to stay in power, Adenan Satem, the chief minister of Sarawak, has been especially vocal in demanding more autonomy for the state. Just in the past week, he met Najib to pressure Petronas, the national oil corporation, to implement a Sarawak-First policy in hiring its workers in Sarawak. Najib also promised to appoint a representative of the Sabah and Sarawak governments to the Petronas board.

Adenan’s move was widely applauded in Sarawak, so much so that Netizens are asking why Musa Aman, Sabah’s Chief Minister, has been keeping quiet when it comes to state rights. It is not lost on Sabahans that Musa belongs to UMNO Sabah and Najib is his party chief.

The firm push for more autonomy for the two East Malaysian states comes at a time when various movements are actively seeking a referendum on the future position of Sabah and Sarawak in the Malaysian Federation. Many of these groups, active on the social media, and especially Facebook, harbour dreams that one day Sabah and Sarawak will be independent states.

Image result for The Assertive Sarawakian

The Unfulfilled Promise to Sabahans and Sarawakians

In Sarawak, some of these groups are covertly supported by the Sarawak BN. The Sarawak BN sees these groups as useful in helping to split the opposition vote and, more importantly, help Sarawak BN contain the threat represented by the opposition DAP and PKR. These two parties have some support among the local population and labeling them as ‘Malayan’ parties out to ‘colonise’ Sarawak is attractive rhetoric if you claim to be a Sarawak nationalist.

All four parties that make up the Sarawak BN — PBB, Sarawak United Peoples Party (SUPP), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) — are local. They all claim to be Sarawak nationalists, despite the fact that on the very day they were established all of them joined the federal BN. But as they say, facts are irrelevant in politics; it’s perception that counts.

Image result for The Assertive Sarawakian

Until the next general election, we can expect Adenan (pic above) to take the lead in negotiating with Najib to ‘take back’ some of the bureaucratic powers lost to Putrajaya during Mahathir’s tenure. Sabah will take a back seat for the simple reason that any deals for Sarawak will have to apply to Sabah as well. Both Adenan and Najib are hoping that Adenan’s ‘victories’ in securing more powers will lead to a massive win for Sabah and Sarawak BN in the coming general election.

At the grassroots level, the nationalists will be given a lot of leeway in promoting ‘Sabah for Sabahans’ and ‘Sarawak for Sarawakians’ as long as they are useful in painting the federal opposition as ‘outsiders’. In any other states in the peninsula, they would be arrested immediately for sedition.

The debate over state rights in Sabah and Sarawak could have long-term consequences for the Malaysian Federation. It is instructive to note that in the 1980s, Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) used the state rights appeal to win several state elections in Sabah. This tactic directly led to the establishment of UMNO in Sabah, and the state’s politics were forever changed.

While the likelihood of UMNO entering Sarawak is remote now, this situation can change with the results of a single election. UMNO is playing ‘nice’ now because it needs Sarawak to stay in power. When UMNO is strong, it will behave in an entirely different manner. Any powers given back to Sarawak can easily be taken away as long as the centre (Putrajaya) in the Malaysian federation is all powerful under the federal constitution.

For lasting state rights, the leaders of Sabah and Sarawak must come together and insert autonomy into the Malaysian Constitution. Otherwise what we have is merely a bureaucratic maneuver that is only good until the next state or federal elections. 

Professor James Chin is Director, Asia Institute, University of Tasmania. Readers who are interested in exploring this issue further can read the author’s recent book (co-edited with Andrew Harding), 50 Years of Malaysia: Federation Revisited (2014).

13 thoughts on “August 31–Malayan or Malaysian Independence Day

  1. Honour Tunku Abdul Rahman’s promise. Give our East Malaysian compatriots the right to run their own affairs and a fare share of national wealth. After over 50 years, they deserve some autonomy. –Din Merican

  2. Hate to write comic character but with power come great responsibility. The issue of uneven development in Sarawak and Sabah is UMNO failed their responsibility with them the way they still failed with their own Malays who are addicted to Ketuanan and religo- hallucinated.

    Any suggestion of changing those in power should not be done without more accountability.

  3. One cannot beg for own rights underwritten in the Constitution. Never a beggar be even on incremental basis.

    Go for the jugular. Sabah and Sarawak should put up a joint candidate to become the next PM. Start talking with BN and the Opposition now. Who ever backs your proposal, join forces with them to win the next GE. UMNO will no longer be the only party to self appoint the PM perpetually.

    Part of the negotiations could be for Sabah/Sarawak joint candidate to be PM for one 5 year term to be extended for another term (on winning the following GE), with a likewise follow-up with a Peninsula PM candidate. It would be nice if both camps can pre-announce their PM to-be candidate before GE for transparency and avoidance of any back-door dealings.

    This would re-instill the original spirit of Malaysia, giving Sabah and Sarawak equal stakes in governing the wider nation. It would also restore the status of both as 1 in 3 Units (Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak) and not as 1 of 13 states (including Federal Territories?). UMNO’s treachery in whittling down the status and power of the 2 resources rich States should be stopped.

    If CMs for Sabah (and Sarawak too?) can be rotated by fiat why not the PM?

  4. Sabah and Sarawak deserve every rights stated in the “Malaysia Agreement”.
    They are EQUAL PARTNERS & STAKE-HOLDERS to Malaya, forming the Federation of Malaysia, Not merely Colonialised shareholders.

    Benefits and responsibilities are to be EQUALLY shared with Malaya.
    Sarawakians and Sabahans should stand up and be counted for their rights.
    It is long overdue !

  5. 31-8-1957, 1953, 1959, 16-9-1965, is just a number.

    More Importantly,MPs and Assemblymen from the divide,
    Your R.I.G.H.T.S. is Critical in Achieving and Defining a Better Future, not just for Sabah and Sarawak in Posterity, but for All in Malaysia.

  6. One possible way to expedite the realisation of full state autonomy for Sabah and Sarawak is for them (the State Parties) to leave the BN and support the government from outside in order to maintain stability at least for the short term. UMNO leaders will scramble like headless chickens. Open your negotiations strategy thereafter as suggested in earlier comment.

  7. East Malaysians were taken for a ride and disregarded for too long. Their demand for their rights is not treasonous. Abuse of power to steal from the rakyat to line one’s pockets is treasonous.
    It’s time to treat and accord all Malaysians the same rights and dignity they deserve as rightful citizens. Enough of special privileges for only certain groups of Pendatangs!

  8. By now these two states should be as rich as West Malaysia. August 31st is Merdeka Day and September 16th is Malaysia Day.

  9. “Many Sabahans and Sarawakians are of the opinion that Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak (and Singapore before its expulsion from Malaysia in 1963) were the original founders of the Federation.”

    That would make ‘Malaysia’ a Triune Federation, ya? Some sort of Trinity, if not a Triad. Cannot..! Not in accordance to the Syariah. 20 points or whatever, if fully implemented will result in utter chaos and an ungovernable Bollocksia, according to the Hududizers..

    Play all you want, but this article is about why Malaise politics is actually this:

  10. Not only Sabah and Sarawak citizens deserve their rights. We West Malaysians could do so much better without these two states given our current state of malapportioned electoral system. Given our existing sorry states, it is in everyone’s best interest for the states to break apart so that we could have a functioning society, rather one governed by lies, and greed. This is one time that secession really makes sense, when the State broken apart would be more valuable collectively to all than being held together by a few who thinks they are Rajahs. #YesToSabahSarawakSecession or no to #MalapportionmentInMalaysia

  11. We should claim back Singapore which was a part of Johore .
    Abdul Jalil,

    You want to go to war.Singapore is a sovereign nation. This kind of statement is provocative and irresponsible. What is your motive in making it? Do something about our mess.–Din Merican

  12. I am trying to incite because I believe most of the commentators here are keen to see chaos in Malaysia.Though I dont agree with what’s happening in Malaysia I still would not want these minor issues like when we should celebrate Merdeka or which states should have this and that autonomy which may end up be the end of Malaysia.Just look and see what is happening to Syria,Libya and Iraq one has to be wary of these types of sentiments and the agent provocateurs

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