Sarawakian voice for a more meaningful Malaysia Day

“WHAT are you going to do on Malaysia Day?” the man sitting at the next table suddenly asked his friend, casually but the eyes were condescending.

“…,” his friend sitting across the table fell into a long silence – his eyes were as cloudy as his ‘kopi-C’. He obviously had not expected that question.

But what answer are we expecting?

Go and watch the state celebration? Go have a beer? Organise a house party? Set off some fireworks?

But rarely were there more spectators than those functionaries, invited attendees and performers at the state gala. There wasn’t any pub or café offering a countdown merriment, any plan to host a barbecue will have to be put off because of mosquitoes. And who would risk annoying their neighbourhood by setting off fireworks on this day?

The politicians’ rhetoric excepted, the general Sarawakian public does not think that one is more patriotic if he celebrates the Malaysia Day, or he is less patriotic if he does not. After all, Sarawakians are probably the only ones in this world celebrating ‘722’, ‘831’ and ‘916’ for nationhood. If nationhood is ‘essentially a psychological conception’ as some would articulate, we are suffering a ‘celebration fatigue’ – if there is such a term.

But this day is most welcomed. The weekend has gotten longer; no anxiety racing with the sun to see who wakes up earlier. The breakfast of ‘kolo mee’, ‘laksa’, ‘nasi lemak’ and ‘roti canai’ are somewhat special. They are not just to fill one’s stomach, but we can leisurely enjoy the taste and appreciate the craft of the chefs in the company of our families. A full day at Friendship Park catching Pokemon – why not? It is, after all … a public holiday.

At some stage, the online news reporting from Tawau and Bintulu, and the debates over social network will kick in and tell us that there are some commemoration of nationhood in the distance. Still, the unexceptional festivity eccentrics at the celebration venues, laced with the now common ‘sick and tired’ reminders, will as quickly draw the curtain for the day.

Why the political grouses and public apathy or indifference to nationhood, amongst Sarawakians?

My learned friend, Dr Wong Chin Huat, remains the persistent lone voice calling for revisiting federalism in nation-building when Malaysia celebrates our nationhood. Every year, for the last many years, the political scientist and civil rights activist will enthusiastically write about federalism and suggests how it can work for Malaysia.

For federalism to work, Dr Wong argues that it must have a meaningful arrangement of ‘shared-rule’ in the hands of the national or federal government; and ‘self-rule’ in the hands of the sub-national or state governments.

“This is to ensure national unity and regional diversity, so that distinct identities and group interests may be accommodated, preserved and promoted within a larger political union,” he wrote in his article ‘Making Federalism Real’.

Questioning the Malayan-centric nation-building and centralisation of power in Kuala Lumpur, even after the Federation of Malaya had amalgamated with Sarawak and Sabah to become the Federation of Malaysia, it is argued that it is dependent upon Sarawak and Sabah for institutional changes to make federalism works for Malaysia.

It is an interesting, but difficult proposition, in historical and all other contexts. Sarawakians were never given their voices, on nationhood, until this day.

Sarawakians had have no say when the British first conceived the ‘Grand Design’ in1942 – a confederation of their five dominion territories of the federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Sabah (North Borneo) and Brunei, with the setup of the office of the governor-general (later commissioner-general) of Southeast Asia.

It was the British plan to stop Southeast Asia from turning ‘red’, the Federation of Malaya’s anxiety that Singapore was a hot bed for communism and threats to its power that the self-ruled island state must be brought into the Federation (Lee Kuan Yew was, at the same time, eagerly supporting the ‘merger’ for his reign), but Tunku Abdul Rahman was uneasy with the huge Chinese population in Singapore. To bring Sarawak and Sabah (with their population being majority indigenous communities) on board was therefore the pre-condition and predominant consideration for the Federation of Malaya. It culminated to the significant plan of ‘Greater Malaysia’ announced by Tunku in May 1961.

From the ‘Grand Design’ to ‘Greater Malaysia’, the gradual declassification of colonial official records in the Public Records Office and British Archives has presented a clearer picture of the transition between the end of the British rule and the ‘independence’ of four of the five British territories through Malaysia.

On the whole, pockets of Sarawakians (and Sabahans) were given the opportunity for minimal participation in the consultative process presented by the Cobbold Commission. However, it was the British and Malayan governments that had unanimously agreed that the Federation of Malaysia was in the best interests of Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), in 1962.

Largely the work of good colonial officers, with nominal contribution from a score of Sarawakians sitting in the sub-committees and attended the plenary sessions of the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC), the Malaysia Agreement was concluded in 1963.

Political reality, however, did not allow federalism to work in the Federation, especially after Singapore attained its independence through Malaysia – leaving Sarawak and Sabah much weakened territories to protect and safeguard their regional diversity, distinct identities and interests within the larger political union.

The last two years have been, however, momentous to Malaysia.

I cannot paraphrase nor verbalise it better than to say that God has a plan for Sarawak, over and above the grand designs and plans of men. And He is now giving Sarawakians an opportunity to voice on the future of Sarawak, in Malaysia.

The ‘Grundnorm’ or basic norm for the being of Sarawak in Malaysia must have been conceived before 1865, the year the Colonial Laws Validity Act was passe;, or latest 1895 when the Colonial Boundaries Act was enacted, to lay the foundation and decree the legitimacy of a nation state called ‘Sarawak’.

The political and legislative process had resulted to numerous other norms, some more superior than the others: The Sarawak (Alteration of Boundaries) Order in Council 1954; the Orders for Definition and Alteration of Boundaries (1958, 1960 and 1962); the Oil Mining Ordinance 1958; the Federal Constitution of Malaysia; the various Orders of Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 1969 notably to enforce the provisions of the Continental Shelf Act 1966 and the Petroleum Mining Act 1966 to Sarawak; the lifting of the Proclamation of Emergency in 2011; and the enactment of the Territorial Sea Act 2012 – all affecting the territorial integrity of Sarawak.

On other fronts, human frailty has seen the autonomous powers, special privileges and rights of the state being eroded and signed away, entrenching the Malayan-centric nation-building and centralisation of power in Kuala Lumpur and later, Putrajaya.

The Chief Minister of Sarawak must be commended for his resolves to stem the tide and to regain the state’s integrity in nationhood. There have been undertakings for the return of autonomy and devolution of powers to Sarawak as enshrined in the words and spirits of the Malaysia Agreement.

While it is still very much work-in-progress, the chief minister have shown that he is resolute in exercising his administrative prerogatives to further the Sarawak’s cause. The voice of Sarawak never rang louder before this.

It is time for the chief minister to take another step forward on this Malaysia Day. A firm and resilient representation to the federal government to amend or repeal the Territorial Sea Act 2012 and resume our rights to all the natural resources within our territorial boundary will ensure that the state will have the needed funds to finance the basic amenities and infrastructural development, to uplift the livelihood of all Sarawakians.

We must seize this opportunity to right all the frailties of the last 53 years, to return to the basic norm which was a divine-constructed more than 150 years ago – the basis that Sarawak could and should have built on and be the ‘Fairland’ much better than what she is today.

There is still hope. We can maintain positive and optimistic. Despite all the setbacks, there is still hope for federalism to work, that meaningful arrangement of ‘shared-rule’ can be worked out in accordance with the Malaysia Agreement that was reached in 1963; if Sarawak acts – today.

Not just for Sarawak (and Sabah), there is hope that the institutional changes will accord greater and more meaningful ‘shared-rule’ for all Malayan states to uplift the Federation.

Indeed, it is the challenge of this Malaysia Day. Let the voices of Sarawakians (and Sabahans) ring loud, to initiate and make federalism works for Malaysia.

From Sarawak, let us make Malaysia Day purposeful and glorious next year, like any other nations celebrating their nationhood.

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