Opinion

Borneo Tales: What’s with Sabah/Sarawak Immigration?

Erna Mahyuni

Native Sabahan Erna is (not) Malay but loves Malay literature. Her hobbies: cats/gaming/blogging at ernamerin.com/Tweeting at @ernamh.

APRIL 11 — There’s always this one burning question people from the Peninsula often ask. (No, it’s not “Why do you still support Barisan Nasional?” Though we get that a lot from Pakatan Rakyat supporters.)

“What’s with the autonomous Immigration controls for Sabah and Sarawak?” I hear that so often I wonder if I should just carry little note cards to hand out in answer. I got asked that recently in a thread on Reddit where the discussion was quite polite.

You see, the problem with Malaysian history teaching is the inaccurate general perception that the Malaysia agreement meant that Sabah and Sarawak were “absorbed” into Malaysia and that both states were no different than say, Pahang, Perlis or Kedah.

Sabah’s 20-point agreement and Sarawak’s 18-point agreement basically give the states autonomy in certain respects. Immigration, for Sabah, is placed under Point 6: “Control over immigration into any part of Malaysia from outside should rest with the Central Government but entry into North Borneo should also require the approval of the State Government. The Federal Government should not be able to veto the entry of persons into North Borneo for State Government purposes except on strictly security grounds. North Borneo should have unfettered control over the movements of persons other than those in Federal Government employ from other parts of Malaysia into North Borneo.”

Now, some of you look at it and think: “That’s not fair! Why do the Sabah and Sarawak people get unfettered access to the Peninsula but we could get barred?”

Let’s put it this way. There were severe disadvantages to letting West Malaysians come into the East Malaysian states without monitoring or permission while Sabahans and Sarawakians proved no threat to their counterparts across the sea.

Were East Malaysians ever in a position to, say, come in and reclaim vast tracts of land in Selangor, displace locals and supplant them by taking away their jobs? In the first place, few East Malaysians could even afford to come to the peninsula. As much as we fantasise sometimes of running amok and cutting off your heads in the tradition of our ancestors, we neither have the numbers nor the inclination. Also, loin cloths chafe.

Where education and infrastructure was concerned, then and now, East Malaysians were at a disadvantage.

In a way, being cut off from the peninsula geographically helped us socially. East Malaysians are generally more tolerant and have less of the racial and religious polarisation that is just so pervasive in the peninsula.

Take, for instance, how difficult it is to build a church in the peninsula. Many churches in the Klang Valley are based in shophouses because it is just so difficult to get the necessary permissions to build a church. All the Christian scaremongering going on now doesn’t help. In Kota Kinabalu, churches stand big and proud along with other houses of worship but Sabah is certainly not a “Christian state”. It’s just the non-Christians here are far less uptight.

But getting back to the original point: Besides protection from the looming threats from Indonesia and the Philippines, Peninsular Malaysia didn’t really have much to give the East Malaysian states. So it made sense to give them more autonomy, especially when they were at a disadvantage.

You know what the sad thing is? 50 years on, they still are.

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

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