KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 17 — A Sabah Catholic bishop has questioned if a 49-year-old federal agreement to uphold religious freedom and other native rights and customs has been kept as Malaysia marked the anniversary of its founding yesterday, signalling rising discontent at Putrajaya’s seeming neglect of the state over the years.
Bishop Datuk Cornelius Piong gave a reminder that 49 years ago leaders from the federation of Malaya promised the people of Sabah they would progress together and have their basic human rights protected, in a pitch to convince them to join forces and form the country, now known as Malaysia, with partner states Sarawak and Singapore.
The three key pledges, Piong (picture) highlighted, were guarantees that Sabahans would have freedom of religion, their native land would be safeguarded by the state government, and the federal government would respect and protect Sabah local customs.
“Are these promises still being respected and honoured?” he asked in his Malaysia Day message published yesterday in the latest edition of the Herald, the country’s sole Catholic paper.
“The agreement was carved on an oath stone (Batu Sumpah Peringatan) which is still visible read and remembered,” said the bishop, who is in charge of the Catholic diocese of Keningau, which is the oldest and largest district in the interior of Sabah.
He added that the oath stone still stands in the compound of Keningau district council’s administration centre.
The Catholic Church has grown increasingly vocal on issues of social injustice in recent years, more so since Election 2008 when it was forced to take to court a dispute over its right to use the word “Allah” to also refer to the Christian God after the Home Ministry forbade it from doing so and invoked the law under the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) to ban the import of Malay-language bibles containing the word.
While the Church eventually won its case in a 2010 landmark ruling in the High Court, it has effectively been blocked from using the word pending the Home Ministry’s appeal, which has been left to languish for the past two years at the Court of Appeal.
Sabah and Sarawak form the bulk of Malaysia’s minority Christian population who make up an estimated 10 per cent of the country’s total 28 million people.
Keningau alone is home to some 117,000 Catholics out of 419,000 people, or nearly 28 per cent of the total district population, according to the latest statistics from the Catholic Church’s Malaysian Dioceses Directory.
Malaysia’s two easternmost states also rank among the country’s top three poorest states — Sabah’s overall poverty is the nation’s highest at 19.7 per cent, while Sarawak is third at 5.3 per cent, according to official statistics from the 2009 National Household Income Survey Report.
Opposition parties have been gaining a foothold in these two states, which are still regarded as the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s “fixed deposits” for votes during general elections due to perceived widespread corruption, unresolved native land issues, lack of basic infrastructure and breach of constitutional safeguards as contained in the 20-Point Agreement for Sabah and 18-Point for Sarawak over the past decades.
Piong, the country’s first indigenous bishop, alluded to these issues in his Malaysia Day message as he urged Catholics to remember their constitutional rights.
“As we celebrate the 49th National Day, let us renew and strengthen our unity and our faithfulness to God in our daily life.
“Without God we cannot bring development and progress that is just and fair to all people,” he said, quoting from a passage in the Bible.
Federal seats in Sabah and Sarawak are deemed crucial for the ruling BN pact to maintain its hold over Putrajaya.
In Election 2008, BN lost its customary two-thirds parliamentary majority due to significant losses in the peninsula, where it won 85 seats while the opposition swept 80 seats.
BN’s saving grace was in Sabah, Sarawak and the federal territory of Labuan where the coalition trounce the opposition and made a near-clean sweep, winning 55 parliamentary seats to the opposition’s two.
However, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition pact has been gaining strength in east Malaysia, Sabah especially, as several veteran BN politicians have been switching their political allegiances in the run-up to the 13th general election that must be called by next April, and which is seeing the most intense race for federal power in the country’s 49-year history.