Saturday, May 25

Elephant in the room

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For them, investment in their education is the best investment.

SINCE the change of the federal government a year ago, politicians, in power and outside it, and non-governmental organisation activists have been vociferously championing the cause of Sarawak – restoration of Sarawak’s rights over its territory, oil and gas; demand for money due to Sarawak from federal government as of right; more seats in parliament; etc.

The campaign was started a couple of years earlier by nebulous non-governmental organisations, rallying under the catchy banner of ‘Sarawak for Sarawakians’. It caught the imagination of many people in the country, so much so that local politicians jumped on the bandwagon. It would have been daft of them not to turn a popular sentiment to advantage anyway.

I’ve been quietly watching what has been going and keeping tabs of daily developments.

In their campaign to get back Sarawak’s rights, these champions have been flogging the Malaysia Agreement 1963 relentlessly. Everybody else followed suit, whether or not they have read the document itself. Especially if they haven’t, by the sound of some of them!

Then they turned to the Constitution – the Federal Constitution – but ignoring the Sarawak constitution, never looking at its provisions. For instance, if government policy relating to special native rights had been equitably implemented on the ground, the present situation could have been different in terms of progress for the Natives of Sarawak in education, economy, and business. Somehow this important freedom has not been fully taken advantage of by the successive governments of Sarawak.

Now the politicians want the Federal Constitution amended so that Sarawak’s position would be restored to its former status before the amendment to the constitution in 1976. What it was, not every one seems to agree for sure. I’m staying out of that particular controversy for now.

To me, however, it does not matter so much wherever you place Sarawak on a piece of paper and call it by whatever name. What matters most to the Natives of Sarawak is the application of the existing law – the supreme law of the country.

I have not read about a focus on the interests of a large portion of the population of Sarawak, namely the indigenous people – their rights under the law.

In their exuberance to defend and restore Sarawak’s rights, the champions have forgotten about the rights of a large number of Sarawakians as opposed to Sarawak’s rights. Two different things. They have missed the wood for the trees.

They know that the Federal Constitution exists. Article 153 states clearly states, “153. Reservation of quotas in respect of services, permits, etc., for Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak.

“(1) It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.

“(2) Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, but subject to the provisions of Article 40 (Yang di-Pertuan Agong to act on advice) and of this Article, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall exercise his function under this Constitution and federal law in such manner as may be necessary to safeguard the special position of the Malays and the natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and to ensure the reservation for Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak of such proportion as he may deem reasonable of positions in the public service (other than the public service of a State) and of scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities given or accorded by the Federal Government and, when any permit or licence for the operation of any trade or business is required by federal law, then, subject to the provisions of that law and this Article, of such permits and licences…”

And yet … pause here. Get a drink or something, so you can think quietly.

The rest of the provisions of this Article are consequential. However, read it through to 153 (10). That sub-article says, “The Constitution of the State of any Ruler may make provision corresponding (with the necessary modifications) to the provisions of the Article.”

In Sarawak’s Constitution, I think, it is Article 39. Please correct.

The governments – yes, successive governments of Sarawak, not ‘those guys in KL’ – should have taken the initiative. The Constitution did grant them the liberty to fix quotas for the various native groups.

If sufficient attention had been paid to this provision by way of a government policy of reserving quotas for the natives in Sarawak, it could have made a significant difference to the educational and economic conditions of those natives.

Skirting the law for more than half a century for fear of being accused of being discriminatory in favour of the natives of Sarawak, the governments of Sarawak have done a disservice to the vast majority of Sarawak’s indigenous peoples. Benign neglect didn’t redress the economic and educational imbalances among the races, even among the native groups themselves. The law was designed in 1963 as discriminatory – in a positive way. Malaysians in other parts of the country have been enjoying the benefits of the Affirmative Action programmes based on Article 153 while Sarawak has had a policy of benign neglect for far too long.

If the Natives of Sarawak are complaining about the lack of “this and that and the other” in terms of services, permits, business licences, scholarships, and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities, go and study the history of Malaysia. Sometimes, we have to admit that many of us, me included, have been lacking in resourcefulness and determination to compete for a share of the cake. We lack clout.

We tend to blame our leaders for their seemingly lack of concern about our welfare but we do not realise that even though they have been walking in the corridors of power, they lack the bargaining power and clout outside Parliament (in America they call this Washington Culture). They leave the others to do the thinking – assuming that these others are full of understanding of our problems and will not let us down. In the real world it doesn’t work that way.

State civil service

Goodwill and understanding aside, it is necessary for the Sarawak government, present or future, to take note of the words in parenthesis in Article 53(2) of the Federal Constitution, for policy formulation and implementation. Why? Because the Federal Constitution does not provide for the Natives of Sarawak the reservation of quotas for positions in the Sarawak civil service. It is for Sarawak to be proactive.

As a result, policy in native privileges has been akin to the situation narrated in George Orwelles’ book ‘Animal Farm’ – “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

Unless and until this omission is pointed out to the powers that be, talks on Sarawak’s rights without stress on the rights of the vast numbers of Sarawakians are no more than talk; an exercise in futility as far as the Indigenous people of Sarawak are concerned.

During two recent fora, Dayaks were complaining about not having enough engineers, not enough civil servants, not enough government contracts, not enough this and that and the other. They should have consulted both constitutions. That could have been the proverbial elephant in the room.

Don’t blame anybody but ourselves for not daring to touch it. Even the much-maligned politicians have insufficient clout. Increase that clout – political clout- before we can talk terms with other Malaysians on an equal footing.

But don’t panic. Our best hope for co-existence in this country is to see that our children go to school at all levels – preschool, kindergarten, primary, secondary, tertiary (university), and that those schools are of good quality. The children must be encouraged to go for training in various skills everywhere.

I know this is easier said than done. I cannot resist the temptation to talk and talk even if it is off-tangent to many people. My weakness.

Of course, the handicap accorded to us by the Sarawak Constitution should be taken advantage of, if, one day, those be made available. But even then, don’t wait for the special privileges to roll out. Be proactive.

Most Sarawakians including many natives have made the grade in politics, business, and the various professions, without the aid from the government or having to invoke constitutional rights. Let their examples inspire the rest of us.

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