Lina Soo, leader of the State Reform Party (STAR) in Sarawak, and Robert Pei, a lawyer who has studied Sarawak constitutional law, spoke at a Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) forum this past Saturday. The talk focused on the document trail describing the formation of Malaysia and the incorporation of Sarawak and Sabah into the union. It also discussed the electoral dynamics operating in East Malaysia today.
In brief, Sarawak was an independent kingdom in the 19th century, ruled over by an Englishman who had been bestowed the title of Rajah by the Sultan of Brunei, in exchange for suppressing pirates and in some cases the natives. After the departure of the Japanese after World War 2, Sarawak was ceded to Britain by one of the Rajah’s descendants. The British accepted the offer partly to incorporate Sarawak into Malaysia as part of its friendly bloc of anti-communist nations, and partly for the natural resources.
The people of Sarawak waged a national liberation campaign which at times deployed armed guerilla tactics against the British. From the conception of the Malaysia Agreement up till today, the people of Sarawak were given little or no say over the merger decision and many internal self-government matters. The argument thus goes that Sabah and Sarawak are in fact subjugated colonies we inherited from the British, which the Malaysian state continues to exploit today.
On the election Soo was keen to point out that Sarawak has proportionately fewer seats relative to its size, and should not be blamed for being a ‘fixed deposit’ or ‘vote bank’ for BN. This comment raises two valid points. First, that voters should never be blamed for making the wrong choice. BN has retained government for 50+ years not because Malaysians are self-hating masochists, but because BN has played its corrupt patronage game well and strategically neutralised threats to its rule.
Second, is that given the way that Malaysia’s electorates are drawn out, the opposition will never capture government without swinging a significant number of rural Malay seats in its favour. There are more of these ‘safe seats’ on the mainland than there are in the whole of Sarawak. East Malaysia cannot provide a shortcut to winning government that bypasses the question of rural Malay seats.
Why no collaborations?
When asked about collaboration with Pakatan, Soo pointed out that STAR had already proposed such a collaboration in the past, first in late 2012 and once again in March 2017. This year’s proposal included a wish for a shared political platform, not just a guarantee of one-to-one contests. In both cases, Pakatan turned down proposals on the basis that the East Malaysian parties were too small or did not have enough support.
This is no way to treat local parties, especially if one is serious about forming political alliances. This casual disregard for East Malaysian issues among opposition parties and some NGOs has led to the view that the opposition only talks about East Malaysia to get votes, without really intending to do anything to help the locals. The onus is on Pakatan to give space for these parties to contest and to work out an agreeable and detailed manifesto for East Malaysian issues before making these sorts of judgements.
In turn, this has led to more dangerous and unhelpful political positions. For example some East Malaysian parties treat the government and opposition as being identical, and change sides in elections depending on who offers more goodies and positions. Others still are embracing regionalism which we will discuss below. Indeed, during the talk we noticed a strange admiration for the White Rajahs that once ruled Sarawak, which appeared to be based mostly on the fact that they weren’t total despots.
And the paper shall set you free
Everyone in the room understood that the ongoing legal mission to London sent by the Sarawak state government to ascertain the legality of the Malaysia Agreement is not going to produce any result on its own. Britain is at best uninterested in East Malaysian secession, and is likely to be concerned about Western economic interests in mining and lumber in Borneo. Malaysia, whether under a Pakatan or BN government, will have a strong interest in retaining East Malaysia for the same reason. While the case of Singapore leaving the federation is often cited as a precedent in legal circles, that was a unilateral decision made by Tunku Abdul Rahman to protect his electoral majority from ‘Chinese influence’.
Malaysia does not need to formally treat East Malaysia as a colony to extract profits from it and deprive its citizens of infrastructure. If the history of decolonisation is anything to go by, even if Sabah and Sarawak declare independence, the main result will be the formation of a new ruling class of Sabahan and Sarawakian businessmen, aristocrats and bureaucrats. This is especially given the largely agricultural nature of the states. The economic ties that have developed between corporations in both halves mean that Malaysia can still heavily influence what happens across the pond.
For this reason, the philosophy of regionalism that is being adopted by many East Malaysian parties, including STAR, is insufficient on its own. According to regionalism, getting West Malaysia out of decisions that concern East Malaysia is the main solution to Sarawak’s problems. As long as Sarawak is run by Sarawakians (which ones?), the problems will go away. Accordingly, one of STAR’s conditions when seeking a joint platform with Pakatan was the demand that the parties only contest seats in their half of the country. We would argue that the content of the shared platform and the candidate’s track record on supporting grassroots movements is far more important.
Trust means being willing to let go
In the original documents describing the cessation of Sarawak to the British, it was remarked that the British had a responsibility to rapidly educate the native population to prepare them for the task of self-governance. Clearly none of the British, or indeed the Malaysian government today, has any interest in that happening. As Soo lamented, the proportion of seats allocated to East Malaysia in the Dewan Rakyat is less that 1/3, which prevents even strong East Malaysian interests from being able to change the constitution on their own.
This leads to two important conclusions that activists should remember. First, is that a precondition for fostering unity between movements in East and West Malaysia is that we display solidarity up to and including unconditional support for self-determination. This simultaneously demonstrates that our wishes for a more democratic situation in East Malaysia are genuine, and also isolates the more conservative sections of the East Malaysian ruling class who are wedded to the Malaysian government.
The second conclusion is that legal and parliamentary methods will only deliver piecemeal improvements to East Malaysia. What scares the Malaysian government the most is not the semantic details of some papers stored in London or even the details of the cabotage policy, but a politically active voting population that organises around cost-of-living and native people’s rights on a day to day basis. Even the most politically backwards Sarawakians can be educated, even better if this is done so through political activity on issues they feel are relevant to them.