Tuesday, March 19

Grievance over perceived inequality behind growing hint at separation


WOULD Sarawak and Sabah be better off if they parted ways with peninsular Malaysia?

There are many people who think they would, judging by the thousands of member profiles and posts on Facebook groups, supporting such a move.

These rumblings of discontent online and offline have prompted at least two local politicians to express separation anxieties in recent months, going so far as to declare such calls as well as those to review the Malaysia Agreement as tantamount to treason.

However, it should be pointed out that politicians in Sarawak are just as guilty of playing up anti-Malaya sentiments when it suits them, even as their West Malaysian counterparts continually trumpet rallying calls for certain segments of the population to unite under ethic and religious-centric bodies to protect against the “others.”

Capitalising on insecurities and redirecting them to a specific target is a centuries-old tried and true political ploy used to rally support and force people to do something they otherwise might not. After all, there is nothing quite like a perceived common threat to draw people together and silence dissent.

During the early 1960’s, it was the threat posed by a belligerent Indonesia keen to impose its vision of a Greater Indonesia which led to Sarawak and Sabah deciding to come together with Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia.

In Sarawak, politicians are not above utilising the widespread tacit perception that West Malaysian-based political parties and by extension, all the negative connotations associated with Malaya politics — need to be kept out of Sarawak.

They argue the rakyat need to support them because they are the only defence Sarawakians have in safeguarding their rights and also the only voice capable of articulating their concerns in the hallowed halls of parliament and Putrajaya.

Quite often too is the excuse given that the federal government is somehow solely responsible for the lack of development funds needed to improve East Malaysia’s relatively backward, sparse and deteriorating infrastructures and facilities.

However, a national political culture predicated on an “us-vs-them” mentality over the decades has opened up a Pandora’s box of racial and religious negativities which have and are continuing to cause resentment and an increasing inability to recognise and empathise with the humanity in the so-called ‘others’.

There has been much talk of reconciliation since the general elections ended but in the months since, there has only been an escalation of destructive sentiments, fuelled by the divisive and increasingly abusive tones of certain parties — sadly, some claiming to speak on behalf of the government.

The deafening silence on the part of certain leaders in the face of such extremism only serves to reinforce the perception among Sarawakians that these leaders tacitly support such pressure groups.
After all, a government, touting itself as a just and inclusive multi-cultural one, will surely not allow any one particular segment of society to bully those who cannot defend themselves, much less for such a government to allow itself to be perceived as lending support and protection to the segment concerned.

And surely, the default reaction would not be to label any voices of dissent as traitorous without at least investigating the possibility that these voices might be making a valid point.

Summarily dismissing all criticisms and objections without valid reasons further exacerbates old wounds and creates a multitude of new ones. Speaking up against inequality or making retribution for past injustices only when it is politically expedient to do so itself only allows injustice to flourish.

I believe the unhappiness encapsulated by the renewed surge of Sarawakian nationalism and pride reflects the refusal of the people in the state to be continually sidelined from the national discourse and their growing desire to have an equal say in the decisions which affect them.

It is illogical to say what happens in West Malaysia will not affect East Malaysians and vice versa. Rather than churning out sugarcoated half-truths to placate angry voices, what is important is actually providing a viable solution to not only the apparent socio-economic disparity we are seeing between East and West Malaysia but also the growing divisiveness between the various races and religions.

Sarawakians and Sabahans should not be regarded only as fixed deposits. We are individuals with rights and opinions which must be respected and protected, on par with what is assured under the Federal Constitution and with their fellow Malaysian brethren.

But I fear that the goodwill of East Malaysians are once again in danger of being taken for granted in the name of political expediency, and once again, it will be those who are most vulnerable and least able to speak out for or defend themselves who will pay the heavy price.

The Allah issue is just the latest proverbial straw amongst a haystack of others balanced precariously on the camel. Whether it is enough to break the camel’s back remains to be seen but contrary to what some extremist elements are purporting, it will not lead to a violent backlash from the Malaysian Christian community as history has borne out.

In the wake of the 2010 church firebombings as well as the more recent arson attacks, as well as in the aftermath of the Court of Appeal’s ruling that Allah was not an integral part of Christian worship, the community’s response has been to appeal for understanding and pray for justice and truth to prevail.

More recently, moderate Muslims in West Malaysia have gone out of their way to reassure the Roman Catholic community that the former do not see the latter as foes – an act deeply appreciated and welcomed by the Malaysian Christian community as a whole.

More and more Sarawakians want leaders who will speak out firmly and decisively for them on the national stage, not just on the Allah issue but also on the long-standing list of disparities and grievances, particularly over their rights to be treated equitably as full-fledged Malaysians.

Politicians must learn they cannot have their feet in both camps — preaching a united Malaysia but instigating division in the same breath.

If they will not speak for the people, they have no excuse to cry treason if they are rejected come the next general and state elections.