Opinion

Somewhere only we know

SEPT 16 — Somewhere along our journey as a nation, we forgot why we set out to travel together in the first place. 

Where once our society was the embodiment of tolerance and mutual respect, we are today broken, polarised and racially tense. Simple things like sitting down to eat together or even picking a place to dine are now sensitive matters. 

Let’s not even try to say anything yet directly on race and religion.

So, while some things have changed, some have still stayed the same — and both not necessarily for the better. We still hear Malaysians referring to our country as “Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.” I’ve personally been in a conversation with a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur who, upon knowing I was from Sarawak, proceeded to ask politely if I “visited Malaysia often.” 

Talk about 48 years of marriage and not knowing your spouse. Is it any wonder that some are asking if this is a marriage worth saving?

As a Sarawakian involved in the MyConstitution Campaign who’s had the wonderful opportunity this past year to interact with so many Malaysians from all over the country, I can tell you the typical responses I’ve heard when the topic of Sabah and Sarawak crops up in our discussions.  

From the older generations in Sabah and Sarawak, I tend to hear laments of despair. “How did we become like this today?” “Things used to be better, everyone got along with everyone else.”

From younger Malaysians, two very different and opposing views. On the one hand (and usually from the Sabahans and Sarawakians): “We should get out of the Federation. Be free, make it on our own. We have the resources after all. Leave all this petty politics to the Orang Semenanjung. It’s all their doing anyway” versus the Peninsular Malaysians’ “Why do you have all these special protections? Shouldn’t all states be equal in Malaysia? Why do you Sabahans and Sarawakians have additional privileges that the rest of us Malaysians don’t have?”

Sadly, in all our national campaigns to promote patriotism, none actually does anything to foster deeper and meaningful relations — and by that I mean real understanding — between our two states and the peninsula. Ironically, most if not all of these campaigns are antitheses to everything that Malaysia was supposed to represent. 

The catch-cry of all these campaigns — Satu Bangsa, Satu Bahasa, Satu Negara — is on the face of it, noble. But look closely and you’ll realise that simplicity comes at the cost of diversity. Because what we have in the end is the promotion of a unitary state and the creation of a people with a singular identity. 

Surely, these are things we’re not. And these are certainly not what Sabah and Sarawak envisioned when we agreed to form Malaysia with Malaya and Singapore in 1963. 

My own state, for example, has more than 40 sub-ethnic groups whereas Sabah has 32. Each one of these groups has its own culture, language and lifestyle. Add to this already rich myriad of colours our different religions and our peoples’ political affiliations and personal aspirations, and you begin to get an idea of the diversity that our two states contribute to the Malaysian landscape. 

More beautiful of course was how all these different things came together and fit seamlessly.

So, from the very outset of our negotiations going into the Malaysia project, we knew that diversity was our asset. And yet, it was a fragile thing — easily shattered and easily lost — something that had to be protected.

These concerns were foremost on the minds of our representatives and in their consultations with the Cobbold Commission and later the Inter-Governmental Committee in 1962 to 1963 leading to the formation of Malaysia, they made sure that in the final compromise of power between the incoming central government and the two state governments of Sabah and Sarawak — adequate protections would be in place to safeguard them.

For instance, in the matter of immigration, we were worried that there would be a mass migration of people from Malaya and Singapore into our sparsely populated states and that this would adversely affect our local communities. As a compromise, the federal government gave up some of its powers over immigration and border control to us. These enabled us to retain control over who could come here to live and work.

Religion was also a concern. It was agreed that although the religion of the federation should be Islam, there would be no state religion in Sabah and Sarawak.

In education, we knew frequent and hasty changes were bad, and so, although education would be a federal responsibility, its direction and control in our states would belong to our governments.

We also felt strongly that the natives of states be accorded the same special position as the Malays in Malaya. Hence provisions were made to ensure that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as Head of the Federation be tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding this position by reserving licences, permits, scholarships, places in universities and our public service in allocations that His Royal Highness deemed as reasonable. 

The federal government ceded its own powers to us in order that we be able to raise our own revenue through fees and taxes, make our own state laws with regards to native and customary matters. Sabah and Sarawak are also excluded from national land policies so that we chart our own plans for development.

These are just a few of the powers, specific to Sabah and Sarawak, that would become enshrined under Part XIIA of the new Federal Constitution of Malaysia and also in other federal laws. They afforded us a certain degree of autonomy over our own affairs and allowed us to progress socially, economically and politically at a pace of our own choosing.

While I may have explained how and to some degree justified why these protections for Sabah and Sarawak came about, what I really wanted to write about was nothing more than a reminder of what we once had. 

This 48th Malaysia Day, as we ponder once more the meaning of real integration and unity, perhaps we can move forward by first looking back to a time when we had a government that knew how to give and take, exercised mutual respect, consultation and compromise for the greater good of the country. 

The special protections our two states continue to enjoy today are proof of that. 

And perhaps also those who seek to promote national unity take a look at Sabah and Sarawak. 

Forget that myopic version of us as a country of three main races and one national language. Instead, understand the simplest truth all of us should embrace in the cause of nation-building: In diversity, we find strength.

Isn’t that why we’re all on this journey together?

I look at the clock. It’s ten past one in the morning. 

And yes, it’s Malaysia Day. 2011.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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