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Can the Borneo States show Malaysia a way out of its religious and racialised gloom?


8 December 2021


Malaysia's Sarawak state goes to the polls this month, in a nation ravaged by the pandemic and political turmoil. James Chin asks, can the Borneo state's contrasting talk of unity show Malaysia a way out of its religious and racialised gloom?


As a big and critical part of a nation at the centre of Southeast Asia, the state of Sarawak has always played a distinctly different reality in Malaysia's 13-state federation, along with its neighbour Sabah on Borneo Island. Most people have known Sarawak as a backwater, sleepy state spanning the northern end of Borneo Island, facing the now-contested waters of the South China Sea.


It's also the place now busy with the start of possibly the most important elections in the state's history, with polling scheduled for 18 December, in 12 days.


There's a lot of romanticism attached to Sarawak as it was ruled for a century by the Brookes, an English family which tried to establish a new kingdom and dynasty during the 19th century's era of exploration and colonisation. Known globally as the 'White Rajah' of Sarawak, this kingdom would probably still exist today had it not been for the small matter of the Second World War and the Japanese invasion of the region. After the war, the British pushed Sarawak and other colonies in the region into what we know today as the Federation of Malaysia.


For the first half-century, Sarawak (and Sabah) were largely ignored in the Federation, with politicians of the Malayan peninsula disdaining their Borneo counterparts as politically underdeveloped. Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in particular, in his first stint as prime minister of 22 years, centralised all the powers of the federation in his office. He ignored the public sentiment in the Borneo states as he was a man in a hurry to build an industrialised country. The Borneo states, and their natural resources, were there for peninsula Malaya to exploit, and Sarawak's corrupt politicians were kept in check by Putrajaya with some economic rent and opportunities thrown their way.


Dr Mahathir left internal Sarawak affairs to Taib Mahmud, who became, in reality, the new 'Rajah' and who ensured that Sarawak was a loyal supporter and unquestioning ally of Mahathir and his UMNO party. In return for such loyalty to Mahathir's national vision, Taib was granted an unusually high degree of political autonomy from Putrajaya and the dominant UMNO never intruded into Sarawak. Sarawak to this day remains the only state where UMNO has no presence.


For such reasons, Sarawak has remained cut off from mainstream Malaysian politics for the past 50 years and has developed its own distinct Sarawak political culture. Taib ring-fenced Sarawak from the toxic Malay-and-Islamist politics found in other parts of the federation. Of course, there was a political price for this state of affairs, with Sarawak effectively dominated by 'Rajah' Taib Mahmud. The political culture Taib and others have promoted are state pride and nationalism, or in today’s terminology, Sarawak identity politics. Based on the notion that Sarawak is truly multiracial and multireligious in practice, unlike other parts of Malaysia consumed by ethnic and religious tensions between the Malays and non-Malays, this has largely been true. Sarawak remains the only state in Malaysia where the entire political class agrees on one thing: Keep the Malayans out, especially its type of polarised peninsula politics.


When the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost power at the historic federal elections of 2018, the first time UMNO lost government since Malaysia was formed in 1963, it was a watershed moment. The ruling coalition in Sarawak, hitherto called the Sarawak BN, saw its chance to break free. The night in May 2018 when the federal BN lost power in Putrajaya, Sarawak BN announced it was now called GPS (Gabungan Parti Sarawak or Alliance of Sarawak Parties), discarding its decades-old 'BN' branding. GPS was no longer hiding – the leader of GPS proclaimed that GPS had only one political philosophy: “Sarawak First”. GPS did not give a hoot what happened at the federal level as long as they got what Sarawak wanted.


Putting this philosophy in practice was easy. In February 2020, when the Pakatan Harapan (PH) federal government led by Dr Mahathir imploded, GPS swung its support to Muhyiddin Yassin to form the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government. Without the votes from the 18 GPS federal parliamentarians, there would be no majority for the new PN coalition. This trick was repeated in August 2021 when Ismail Sabri had to rely on GPS' 18 MPs to get his slim coalition majority to rule as PN version two in federal parliament.


GPS and Sarawak nationalism was at its pinnacle. And GPS is now the kingmaker in Malaysian politics.


For these reasons and more, the implications and importance of the 18 December state elections are enormous.


First, this is the first election where GPS is asking for a direct mandate from Sarawakians. The last state poll was held in 2016, when GPS was still known as Sarawak BN. If GPS wins big, this will be a clear public endorsement by Sarawakians that they want GPS’ 'Sarawak First' to be implemented in every facet of Sarawak life.


Second, if GPS wins big, it will be seen as a big win for Sarawak nationalism as well. In practice, this means an even tighter ring around Sarawak, stopping Malayan political culture from entering, and reinforcing the notion that Sarawak is unique in Malaysia's federation.


The Sarawak Assembly, called Council Negeri, is the oldest in the federation. In 2016, Sarawak BN (GPS) won 72 of the 82-seat august house. GPS is aiming to repeat this feat. On paper, GPS is all-dominant as the opposition is hopelessly divided.


The remarkable feature of this state election is the presence of parties that openly promote the secession of Sarawak state from the federation, or at least argue for the first steps towards Sarawak independence. In any other Malaysian state, such parties and groups would be swiftly arrested and charged for sedition. Yet in Sarawak, they are on the ballot paper. Incredible but true.


The major grouse these groups have are historical grievances rooted in what is commonly known as MA63, or the Malaysia Agreement 1963. When Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo (now Sabah) agreed to establish a new federation with peninsula Malaya called Malaysia in 1963, the Borneo states were promised a high degree of autonomy; however, the promises of autonomy were paid lip service as Putrajaya consolidated powers in the federal government. After the fall of federal BN in 2018, many groups emerged from the shadows and proclaimed that the breaches were of such magnitude that Sarawak had no choice but to break free from the federation. What these movements don't realise is that they are indirectly supporting GPS’ 'Sarawak First' ideology. These movements have captured the imagination of many Sarawak youth, who think that secession is a long-term possibility, and that GPS’ proposal in the short-term offers the best political solution.


For scholars, this Sarawak election provides a challenge to our understanding of how federal-state relations have worked in Malaysia for the past half-century. Studies in this area almost always concentrate on how the federal government has centralised powers at the expense of the states. Yet the Sarawak example has clearly shown that even in a highly centralised federal system like Malaysia, local political culture and state nationalism can provide a robust challenge to the current system.


The federal government is almost powerless to do anything at present. Prime Minister Ismail Sabri relies on GPS to stay in power so he cannot attack the 'Sarawak First' mantra. He cannot arrest or take direct action against all the state nationalist groups as it will incite further anti-federal sentiment on the ground. In any case, the new prime minister is more worried about the looming federal elections (GE15) expected next year than current rumblings among the secessionists in the jungles of Borneo. He knows as long as GPS is in power with a large majority, there will be no concrete moves to leave the federation. The only thing he has to worry about is GPS’ super-majority in the upcoming Sarawak polls will mean GPS can extract even more concessions from the federal government.


In sum, the upcoming Sarawak elections is really a referendum on GPS’s political moves to create a 'state within a state'. GPS wants Sarawak to be distinctly different from the rest of Malaysia. It has the political capital to do this, and it has been doing this for a while. Now all it needs is a clear endorsement from Sarawak voters on 18 December, so that they can take this to the next level.


For those interested in Malaysia, perhaps this is the time to look to Borneo for political innovation. Malayan politics may be mired in endless political tensions between the Malays and non-Malays. In Sarawak, they have chosen another way.


Professor James Chin is professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania. He is widely regarded as the leading scholar on contemporary politics in Sarawak and Sabah.