Malaysia is geographically split into the East and West. Across the South China Sea from the Malay Peninsula (West) are the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak (East) that share the island of Borneo with Indonesia’s Kalimantan. Malaya gained independence from the British on 31 August 1957, and the Crown Colonies of Singapore and British Borneo were then encouraged to merge with Malaya if they desired self-governance.
As part of the merger deal, Sabah and Sarawak retained autonomy over several key areas such as religion, immigration and language. Residents of British Borneo were allowed to reside and work freely in Malaya, a privilege not reciprocated to West Malaysians in Borneo. (Today, West Malaysians are still only granted a 90-day visa upon entry to Sarawak.)
The Malaysia Agreement was signed in London at Britain’s prompting and the Malaysia Act 1963 was subsequently passed to merge the territories of Malaya, North Borneo (later renamed Sabah), Sarawak and Singapore into a new country on 16 September 1963.
And thus Malaysia was born.
But the significance of Malaysia Day and the Malaysia Agreement has been, up until recently, largely lost on the people of West Malaysia.
“Malaysia Day was not even mentioned in history textbooks until recently,” said Professor James Chin, Director at the University of Tasmania’s Asian Institute.
Prof Chin, who is a specialist on Sabah and Sarawak affairs, said that Malaysia Day was not even celebrated as a national holiday until as recently as 2008, when the ruling National Front (or BN) coalition suffered its greatest electoral losses. It was votes from Sabah and Sarawak that kept the coalition from losing its decades-long grip on power.
“The focus was always on 31 August 1957 for the simple reason that the history textbooks are written with certain objectives in mind. The [Education] Ministry never thought of Malaysia until the 2008 General Elections when East Malaysia became crucial to the survival of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
“From then onwards you see 16 September being declared a public holiday,” he said.
The notion that Sabah and Sarawak have always been treated as second-class members of Malaysia is not new, and has been long brewing amongst local politicians and activists.
As an oil producing country, Malaysia’s main source of income comes from taxes paid by the state-owned oil company Petronas, which has on many occasions also served as the government’s personal “piggybank” to make up for ballooning annual budget deficits.
Oil and gas production mostly come from the fields of Sabah and Sarawak. As with all other oil producing states, except the northeastern state of Kelantan, both Sabah and Sarawak only get a paltry 5% royalty in return.
To add salt to injury, Sabah and Sarawak constantly top the national charts as the country’s poorest and least developed states, despite the abundance of natural resources in both states.
According to the Economic Planning Unit, Sabah has the highest poverty rate in the country, followed by Sarawak and Kelantan. The Khazanah Research Institute further confirmed that poverty is the highest amongst the native populations of Borneo, after the Orang Asli indigenous tribes in the Peninsula, while Sabah has the lowest average monthly income.
This has led many in Borneo to question whether they got the wrong end of the bargain as one of the four founding territories of Malaysia.
The struggle for relevance
Whispers of secession and independence in both Sabah and Sarawak have long existed, fuelled in part by the sense of helplessness many locals feel with regard to their role in the Malaysian narrative.
However, with the exception of a few political leaders in the past seeking to remind West Malaysians of Sabah and Sarawak’s position as enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement, efforts to stoke the fires for independence have been largely isolated and short-lived.
The closest Sarawak activists got to some form of recognition by Putrajaya was when former Chief Minister Adenan Satem supported the state opposition’s proposal to increase oil royalties, while refusing to indulge in divisive West Malaysian policies such as the banning of the Malay-language Bible and the usage of the word “Allah” by Christians. But Adenan passed away early this year, taking with him any real chance of a bolder Sarawak in national politics.
Prior to Adenan’s reign, previous attempts by state “nationalist” leaders to stand up against federal government leaders were met with the full force of the “Galactic Empire”.
Sarawak Chief Minister Stephen Kalong, a fierce advocate of land reforms in his state, was deposed in 1966, while Sabah’s Chief Minister Donald Stephens died in a mysterious plane crash in 1976 after rejecting the Federal Government’s 5% oil royalty offer.
Coincidently, both leaders had also grown disillusioned with the merger with Malaya after Singapore was unceremoniously booted out of the Federation.
The death knell for Sabah’s autonomy movement was the 1994 state election, where the ruling UMNO party from Malaya made its entry into the state at the behest of Muslim leaders against what was perceived to be a pro-Christian incumbent, Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), led by Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
PBS scored a narrow victory against a well-oiled BN election machine. But as soon as Pairin was sworn in as chief minister, his assemblymen were enticed to defect en masse to BN, and Sabah has remained a strongly pro-BN state ever since.
Futile but necessary
Secession and independence chatter still exists in both Sabah and Sarawak, but only in small pockets. Activists’ plans, however, remain unsustainable, said Prof Chin.
“There is no provision under the [Federal] Constitution for a referendum, so that is out. What you have is only a signature campaign [for secession] like in Sarawak,” he said.
Dr Wong Chin Huat, a political analyst and researcher at the Penang Institute think-tank, says the fight for independence is futile, for now at least.
“Fights for secessionism work only through two ways: armed struggle or electoral gain. Borneo has neither,” he said.
“There is no one willing to even risk imprisonment to openly advocate on Malaysian soil for independence. You can’t lead a revolution by making strong statements overseas.”
Part of the problem also lies with the people’s general acceptance of their fate. “After 54 years of union, no matter how imperfect the union is, most Bornean Malaysians want to remain in Malaysia,” said Dr Wong.
“They just reject Malayan supremacy or colonialism. They don’t reject Malaysia. They are not prepared for their own statehood, let alone being part of Indonesia or the Philippines.”
But Dr Wong says while the efforts are doomed to failure, the fight for autonomy and independence is a crucial one, if only to continue reminding the federal government not to take Borneo for granted.
Prof Chin says their efforts have not been all for naught, as the federal government recently set up a committee to look into giving more power to Borneo.
“The final paper is with the Cabinet now and is expected to be announced before GE14 [the coming general election],” he said.
Looking beyond autonomy
Apart from being a key source of resources and finances, Sabah and Sarawak has always been recognised as a valuable “fixed deposit” of votes for the ruling coalition come election season.
To appease unhappy politicians from Borneo, the federal government appointed more Bornean leaders to be represented at federal cabinet positions after the 2008 elections, although “important” portfolios still remain with West Malaysian lawmakers.
Dr Wong believes that politicians in Sabah and Sarawak have been too “insular” in their demands.
“They often just ask for their state to be left alone, but with more petroleum money. They have forgotten that they should seek more power, not just ministerial perks, at the federal government to make Malaysia more open and fairer,” he said.
According to Dr Wong, the advocacy of separatism has so far been a fairly successful tool to extract concessions from Putrajaya, but the long-term plan for Bornean activists must be to advocate reforms and fight for greater inclusiveness in the federal government, particularly during the drafting of policies.
“The real salvation for Sabah and Sarawak is to fight for a democratic, de-centralised and truly federal Malaysia. Sabah and Sarawak should really ally with states like Penang, Selangor, Kelantan, Johor to pressure the federal government to devolve powers to the states,” he said.
“Instead of daydreaming exit, Borneans should step up and offer themselves to lead the country when West Malaysians are making it messier day by day.”
If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please join New Naratif as a member—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!
Clarence Chua is a Kuala Lumpur-based writer who believes that Malaysia is on a slippery road to become the “sick man” of Asia. He was a former reporter with The Star, Malaysia's most-read English-language daily, and had produced radio and TV news features for Indonesia's Asiacalling.