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MGG: 'Keep off' sign in Sarawak election
By M.G.G. Pillai

2/10/2001 11:12 am Tue

Monday October 1

'Keep off' sign in Sarawak election

MGG Pillai

2:25pm, Mon: More worrisome about the Sarawak state elections last Thursday is not the state Barisan Nasional's sweep of 60 out of 62 constituencies but the widening political, cultural, racial, religious divide between the Borneo states and the peninsula.

The voters in Sarawak eschew peninsular-based political parties, in government or opposition; amongst the losers was Umno - in other words, an early warning for Kuala Lumpur that all is not well in not just Sarawak but Sabah as well.

In this elections, the major opposition was from peninsular parties - DAP, Keadilan, PAS - and the former federal defence minister, Abang Abu Bakar Mustapha, the Umno Malay vanguard in the state.

Umno backed him - it was an open secret that he was its man in the elections; but it had to repudiate him when the state BN forced it into a corner. The one or two small local parties which fielded candidates were inevitably swept aside in this unmentioned battle between the snake and the mongoose.

This fear had to do with what happened. The vote was as much against DAP, PAS and Keadilan as Umno. In fact, this fear of Umno, more than the opposition parties, led to this unseen call to arms. The main native groups in the two states, either animists or Christians, could live with Muslim political parties with federal help, but not when Umno, if ever, set up shop to ensure that future chief ministers, as it appears in Sabah, would be Muslim.

The attack on PAS for its religious stance backfired, if only because it is BN that forces the dominance of Islam in Sarawak. Linking terrorism with PAS, and frightening the voter with linking PAS with Islamic terrorist groups made them even more supportive of the status quo.

Signs of trouble

Like in Sabah, Umno wanted more than a toehold in the state, working with the Malay minority in the state to cut down the increasing influence of the Muslim Melanau such as returning Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. It did so without the backing of the most important Iban native group, as in Sabah. The Ibans, when the chips are down, wanted to deal with the devil they knew than the angel they did not from across the waters.

In other words, if peninsular political parties do not change in regard to Sarawak and Sabah, more dangerous confrontations are in the offing. In Sabah, Umno's dominance and its leaders holding on to office with federal support throw politics out of gear. And it alienates the native groups not just on politics but religion as well.

No federal political party, including Umno, knows what it wants in Sarawak, and Sabah, nor about this widening cultural, religious and political divide. All each wanted was power, and mould the state into their image as viewed from Kuala Lumpur.

But it is more than bringing two states with a total area larger than Peninsular Malaysia (Sarawak alone is about as big) into line with Kuala Lumpur. What Kuala Lumpur did, in the years since Malaysia was formed in 1963, was to reduce Sarawak and Sabah to two states of the Malaysian federation, when Malaysia was formed as a union of the Federation of Malaysia, Sarawak and Borneo. The solemn agreements signed then were cheerfully ignored, with federal satraps, with talk of federal perfidy rampant until now.

The constitutional safeguards it got, including 40 percent of the seats in Parliament, were dismantled in the rise of the Malay state, the opposition in the two states ignored or removed in constitutional coup d'etat. The first of that challenge came two years later, from Sarawak's first chief minister, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, and he was quickly marginalised. It was about this time, Singapore also left the federation. Both were signs of potential trouble in the federation, but ignored in the rush to Malay dominance.

Hurt pride amidst federal neglect

As Ningkan in Sabah, Mustapha Harun was replaced as chief minister in Sabah in 1974 when federal apparatchiks, one of whom the same Abdullah Ahmad who is now editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times, and a new coalition formed to take office. But the internal squabbles between the Kadazans and the Muslims came to the surface quickly enough that it split into the two broad groups in Sabah - the Muslim groups behind Umno and the Kadazan groups behind the Parti Bersatu Sabah.

The Ibans and native groups fear this would repeat itself in Sarawak if Umno and opposition federal parties are allowed to dominate their lives. They are more afraid of Umno, with its federal clout, than all the opposition parties combined. The federal government leaders take command of elections, and in Sarawak, it is resented. Not just amongst the native tribes, but by others as well.

In other words, more confrontational issues could well take prominence in future. There is much in the air of the problems inherent in the undivided Pakistan that led to the civil war in what is now Bangladesh. What caused that are similar: the distant feeling of hurt at being shortchanged. The more those in Sarawak and Sabah are enveloped in hurt pride amidst federal neglect, the more the problems multiply.

For this, both the federal BN and opposition are at fault. Both have the arrogant assumption that they can do what they want in Sarawak and Sabah without wanting to know if it is what the locals want.

Federal-state divide

The half-hearted attempt to restore the constitutional balance as when Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaysia, especially the 40 percent of seats in parliament, is for the narrow cynical reason that the two states are more likely to vote for the federal BN than the opposition. It does not address the inherent issues that cause the federal-state divide.

It is Malaysia's tragedy that no serious study is undertaken on issues like these. When the brother of the then chief minister of Sabah formed one study group, he eventually landed in prison under the Internal Security Act; he was among other charges accused of plotting secession. The federal fear at any attempt to understand the federal-state relationship as an act of treachery is compounded by no serious federal study.

When concerned citizens are discouraged from doing so, people are caught unawares when the problems spill over on to the public domain. As happened, when the just sacked deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was arrested, beaten up by the then Inspector-General of Police, and the resultant public furore caught everyone, especially those in government, by surprise. The government is still trying to right itself over that three years later.

The Sarawak elections therefore is a wake-up call that all is not well with the Malaysian federation, that those who should understand do not, that unless this divide between Kuala Lumpur and the two states are looked at with understanding and respect, the overwhelming victories BN got, as was seen in Kelantan and Terengganu, could turn turtle in an unexpected election. But is anyone listening?

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