By : NILAKRISNA JAMES
Xenophobia is a morbid fear of foreigners. At the heart of Sabah and Sarawak lies a deep distrust of foreign people, foreign cultures and foreign intrusion. It has formed the backdrop of our policies and Federal-State relations the past half a century; a crippling phobia that may never end and which may mar the judgments of all present and future political representatives that we send to parliament. This will be the downfall of the Borneo states.
It is this deep distrust of foreigners that made us afraid of Malaya in the first place but when it came to the White People ('Orang Putih'), we treated them as rajahs or masters. Yet, one of the same colour and stock can never be our superior and to this day the descendants of head hunters and migrants refuse to bow to a brown authority.
These descendants will continue to demand autonomy and rights and a Borneo Agenda and some have gone as far as asking for a similar exit as Singapore, even going so far as thinking that our former colonial caretaker may still have pity for us and take our woes seriously.
Federal Agenda Vs. Borneo Agenda
I was asked whether Malaysia is made up of three separate nations under one federation or a federation made up of 13 states. Good question but I ask humbly, what difference does it really make?
I stand by the premise that the Malaysia Agreement stands paramount as the document which binds this nation together and gives the country, known as Malaysia, legitimacy.
In its paramount status, it can neither be revoked nor amended nor breached. In the Malaysia Agreement, four separate territories stood on equal grounds to agree to an amalgamation that respected the equality of these territories, neither one being less equal than the other. Britain was merely a signatory to release her obligations as caretaker. Singapore eventually exited.
Three separate territories remain, with the United Nations clearly recognising that these three territories have gained independence from Britain, with two independent territories—Sabah and Sarawak—gaining their independence by joining Malaya, a country that had already gained its own independence six years earlier.
The United Nations and the Commonwealth now recognise these three separate territories as one nation, which in 1963 agreed to call itself Malaysia. Sabah and Sarawak were officially “swallowed” into one nation and henceforth lost their separate and independent status as territories in their own right.
It is the Federal Constitution, which has been amended no less than 650 times, which makes Sabah and Sarawak merely “States” in the entire Federation. This officially and legally makes us two separate States out of 13 in the Federation; an arrangement agreed to by our forefathers; men who were clearly not in any position to argue otherwise. Herein lies your answer.
We are a federation made up of 13 states, nothing more, nothing less, because the Malaysia Agreement allows us the freedom to determine our status via a Federal Constitution in accordance with the recommendations made in the Cobbold Report of 1962.
It is even more chilling to note that though the Borneo Agenda may have been a crucial part of the negotiation process in 1962, Appendix F of the Cobbold Report of 1962 reinforced the recommendation that the principle of a strong Central Government must never be prejudiced by the safeguards demanded by the Borneo territories and I quote directly from that Memorandum:-
“The Committee, of course, is of the opinion that whatever safeguards might be provided for the Borneo territories must conform with the expressed wish of the Borneo people themselves but that such arrangements should not prejudice the principle of a strong Central Government or curtail the fundamental liberties of the nationals of the Federation of Malaysia.”
Therein lies the true motive of Malaya and the final scenario wherein the Federal Agenda must never be compromised or prejudiced by the Borneo Agenda. In this respect, we have deliberately drafted a Federal Constitution that would prioritise forever a situation that would be very much in line with Prime Minister Najib’s 1 Malaysia concept. It hopes for unity on the premise that the rules of the Federal Government are complied with fully.
Way Forward: Increase Borneo Parliamentary Seats
Of course, we could be romantic and start a process of wishful thinking and hope that the fragile nature of our Federal Constitution (which can be amended anytime) may one day create a scenario where a new Government could reverse that whole motive and bow to the demands of the Borneo States.
That will only happen if the Borneo States end up in a better bargaining position because West Malaysia remains so hopelessly divided that they have no choice but to look towards Borneo for extra political leverage. We can’t always bank on West Malaysian disunity though.
At some point, West Malaysian leaders will tire of our Borneo demands and will learn to bridge their own divides to keep Borneo MPs under control. Politics isn’t about holding your peers and opponents to ransom. It is about negotiating your values for the greater good.
I asked what difference this all makes because ultimately the only way our fate in Borneo will take a turn for the better is if we increased our parliamentary representation significantly so as to be able to actually make a difference in policies and at least protect further erosion of Borneo’s interests through unfair legislation.
We need AT LEAST 35% of MPs to come from Sabah and Sarawak who could en bloc (it is hoped) exercise their power of veto and at least think in one mind when it comes to Borneo’s interests.
The current situation is this: 222 seats in parliament; 56 for Borneo (25%) and 166 for West Malaysia (75%). The total number of MPs from Sabah and Sarawak do not even make up 35% of parliament to allow us the right to veto a Bill or an Act of Parliament, even if such legislation to be passed were to the detriment of the two Borneo states.
Even if we were granted 35% representation, our Borneo MPs are so deeply fragmented between political parties whose interests and loyalties are so fundamentally rooted in the Federal Agenda that it still ends up being a far-fetched dream. But it would be the first step forward.
The Cobbold Report 1962 suggested that the number of MPs from Sabah and Sarawak, respectively, must be determined by taking into account the population, size and potentialities of the two States.
In 1963, the population of Malaysia was 8.9 million. 13% lived in the Borneo States: 5% lived in Sabah and 8% lived in Sarawak.
In 2010, the population of Malaysia was 28.2 million. 20% lived in the Borneo States: 11% lived in Sabah and 9% lived in Sarawak.
60% of the total land area of Malaysia is in Sabah and Sarawak but only 20% of the population live in Malaysia’s Borneo States, an increase of 7% in population since 1963.
Logically, I would have assumed that as 25% of parliament was allocated to Sabah and Sarawak since 1963 to date, they would have increased the seats to 7% by the 2013 General Election. No other demographics have changed except the vast oil and gas potential of Sabah and Sarawak and of course the population size.
So, you see, there really isn’t any excuse to deny Sabah and Sarawak 35% of parliamentary seats in this country.
Will The Borneo States Seek Independence?
I read it now often in various blogs and am often questioned by so many different people, who are so sick of the political situation and lack of prospects for their families in this country, if there is a way out of Malaysia.
There was a time when nobody dared to raise this issue for fear of being thrown into indefinite detention without a fair trial under the Internal Security Act. Lately though, people have become bold, more vocal and more willing to risk their freedom to find a solution because nearly all the people who ask me this question want to migrate to another country but simply cannot afford it.
So, when left in a rut without choices, these people feel angry, frustrated and dissatisfied. The majority turn their anger towards new migrants who threaten their political legitimacy and, probably, may also be doing better financially, but quite a sizeable few are now taking their anger onto the streets, the NGOs and political parties, and they will vent this anger towards the ruling government of the day.
The thought of Sabah and Sarawak being on their own in the hands of present leaders who are also accused of corruption and wrong-doing quite frankly scares me more than an annoying Malaysian environment. Within seconds of freedom, they would be at each other’s throats trying to be the next Sultan!
In any event, even if these angry people took their case to the International Courts, the United Nations and the Commonwealth, the demands for independence would require the mandate of the majority of the residents of Sabah and Sarawak by way of a State Government led referendum.
This scenario may not be entirely impossible but is highly unlikely to succeed given the fact that the majority of the people of Sabah and Sarawak consider themselves to be secure, financially stable and relatively at peace in the system that Malaysia has built for them the past 50 years.
We can be frustrated with the political chaos in this country but level headed people would understand that this is a natural evolutionary process in politics when a civilised bipartite system begins to form and not necessarily a situation that would justify an exit from a country they have grown to love.
By nature, Sabah and Sarawak people are unwilling to challenge the status quo they have grown accustomed to since 1963 and though our native forefathers may have willingly chopped people’s heads off, our natural instinct is to be a migrant like our ancestors and run away from revolutions and wars by jumping on the next boat out to sea. Ultimately, we just want to live a settled and prosperous life. We are no different to the aliens.
In addition to this, the voices of those who are angry are moderated by the voices of new migrants who have happily settled down in the Borneo States. In Sabah, at least, the new migrants are now apparently in the majority and they will not be voting in favour of an exit from Malaysia.
We are angry because it is alleged that these new migrants came through illegitimate channels in droves for a more sinister political reason aimed at neutering our local political voice. We can afford to be angry when these methods are illegal.
So, in recent months, we have attempted to challenge their legitimacy in the Royal Commission of Inquiry, yet I frankly believe that even if their status is confirmed to be illegal, the Government would take years and millions of tax payers’ money to resolve this situation. Their status as new migrants would probably not be resolved in time for the next General Election.
And while we continue to complain and bicker and blame these new migrants, the Federal and State Governments would have amicably found a proper way to streamline and legitimise migration into Sabah and Sarawak for more people to settle permanently in the Borneo States. In the long run, new migrants will outnumber old migrants and they will have a legitimate reason to cast their votes in future general elections.
Our best option in Sabah and Sarawak is to accommodate old and new migrants, legal or illegal, and increase the population and power bargaining status of our two States so as to eventually demand a reasonable increase in our parliamentary seats and our Federal budget. With so many mouths to feed in Sabah and Sarawak we could finally justify a bigger annual budget.
Many natives would not want to be drowned by the political voices of groups from Indonesia or the Philippines but the reality is that as our borders worldwide become more porous, humans will move and migrate between various nations to seek a better life, more economic opportunities and better infrastructure.
People only form political parties in this country when they feel their racial groups need representation or when they feel disenfranchised. So the more we reject new migrant groups and insult their very existence or their religion the more likely they are to retaliate and create descendants who are more than willing to form their own vocal NGOS and political groupings. By then the native population would have been reduced even further so as to render us completely irrelevant. This ultimately is where the real danger lies when it comes to native xenophobia in Borneo.
The future of Sabah and Sarawak lies in peaceful co-existence with migrants. By treating them as stray animals we deny our own humanity and risk our own future legitimacy.
If we therefore continue to see ourselves as being separate from the rest of Malaysia by drawing upon our racial divide, we run the risk of self-extinction. If we absorb new migrants as one of us, we become a stronger political force and can continue to exercise certain controls and demands even if the Borneo Agenda ceases to be relevant.
The End Of Racial Politics And A New Malaysia
With these realities, Sabah and Sarawak will remain in Malaysia and the racial demographics will change in the next 50 years as racial groups continue to inter-marry as a matter of economic and political survival.
The new racial demographics will break down political barriers and eventually lead to a more acceptable form of civilised politics that can transcend beyond race and religion.
One day only two parties will be acceptable to the Malaysian people who see themselves first as Malaysians, race as second. Those parties will have no necessity for component race based parties and will have no place for racism.
They will be multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic and above all, progressive and issue-based. If mosquito parties should exist, they, too, will be issue-based to represent policies which perhaps the two main parties are unwilling to resolve or discuss. By then political racism will be passé, illegal and completely unacceptable.
If we continue with racial polarisation and refuse to react to the pulse on the ground and pacify the budding seeds of discontent, this country will descend into anarchy and revolution.
Everything we have worked so hard to achieve will be demolished within a decade. It is this fear that has driven millions of Malaysian talents to seek their fortunes overseas and, ironically, it would be Malaysians who end up roaming the planet as new migrants.
This country will one day grow up and embrace the reality of happy citizens who were all once of migrant stock; of white, of black, of brown, of bloods that bear one colour: Red. We will eventually also honour the reality of their dual love and dual citizenship for their country of origin and their country of adoption.
Until such time as we have leaders of integrity and worth, the road continues to be a rocky one.
“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt
(NOTE : Nilakrisna James is a Sabah-based lawyer, writer and activist who co-founded the apolitical NGO United Borneo Front (UBF) in 2010. She left the group in 2011 and remains a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional.)