Sept 16 – national integration is a long and winding road


MOST Malaysians would welcome Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s announcement that Sept 16 will be a public holiday to commemorate Malaysia Day.It is an official recognition that the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah did not merely join Malaysia, but helped to found the new Federation of Malaysia as equal partners with the Malayan Federation and Singapore in 1963.

It is also a gesture from the federal government that they are now more empathetic to the sufferings of the people of Sarawak and Sabah.

The prime minister was probably motivated to give greater attention by the new political reality in Malaysia. Sarawak and Sabah have 56 of the 222 seats in parliament, and they are mostly in the hands of the Barisan National (BN).

Najib has described the BN’s massive political capital in these two Borneon states as the ‘fixed deposit’ for the national BN government. Indeed, with the votes among the three major ethnic groups in West Malaysia more or less evenly divided, BN’s stranglehold on parliamentary and state seats in Sarawak and Sabah is what props up the BN government in Kuala Lumpur.

With the opposition parties in these two states in a state of disarray, continued BN dominance in these two critical East Malaysian states will ensure Umno rule in Kuala Lumpur for a long while. The declaration of Sept 16 as a national public holiday is the BN’s gesture of appreciation for the contribution of Sarawak and Sabah to nation-building.

Sarawak and Sabah are also exemplary for the West Malaysian states in that race relation is excellent on this side of the South China Sea. Thirty per cent of the marriages in these two states are across racial line. Sarawakians and Sabahans of mixed parentage are a common sight everywhere. Most Sarawakians and Sabahans speak more than a few languages.

Racial integration in the Land of the Hornbill and the Land Below the Wind has been real, starting even before Merdeka.

But the chasm between Sarawakians and Sabahans and West Malaysians is still deep and wide. From our perspective in Borneo, the kind of racial narrative that filled the West Malaysian public space is often arrogant, belligerent, and too aggressive for our comfort.

Likewise, West Malaysians’ obvious and often condescending ignorance of the people and the land of Sarawak and Sabah feels hurtful to us. It is not unfair to proclaim that we are very far from integrating into one Malaysian people by any stretch of the imagination.

Part of the resentment on the part of Sarawakians and Sabahans is the perceived failure of the federal government to develop these two states to give them socio-economic parity with the rest of the Malaysian nation.

For decades now, Sarawakians and Sabahans have grumbled to no end how their states with vast land mass and rich natural resources end up as two of the poorest states in terms of per capita GDP.

Of particular concern is the backwardness of infrastructure development in Sarawak and Sabah, especially in the remote interior rural areas. While Sarawak and Sabah have contributed to the national coffer in no small way through their bountiful oil and natural gas, East Malaysians often feel slighted in receiving reciprocal allocation of federal funds to improve the economy and the social amenities in their states.

Even BN MPs have grumbled aloud in parliament how Sarawak and Sabah have been sidelined in national economic development. Often, the federal government is seen to be not doing enough in promoting tourism, in attracting FDI, and in helping the growth of the SME in Sarawak and Sabah!

The economies of these two states are so illdeveloped and sluggish that many young Sabahans and Sarawakians have opted to move out en masse to Singapore and West Malaysia in search of better pasture and better job opportunities.

Because of the socioeconomic backwardness in Sarawak and Sabah, many local people are feeling like ‘anak angkat’ in the big Malaysian family.

While the recognition of the importance of Sarawak and Sabah is achieved through the declaration of Malaysia Day as a public national holiday, we are still very far from actual national integration on many fronts.

For the true 1Malaysia to come to fruition, real attention and political will for regional socio-economic development in Sabah and Sarawak must be shown through integrated development programmes from Kuala Lumpur.

With the opposition Pakatan Rakyat in Sarawak and Sabah growing in strength, the federal BN government have their work cut out for them, to make sure they would not lose their ‘fixed deposit’ in East Malaysia.