Borneo: Change is not loose change the West can spare

·6-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

SEPTEMBER 22 — In March 2008, events unfolded fortuitously for East Malaysia. Predictably, it was triggered by a general election. However, not in the usual way.

As it was unrelated to Sabah and Sarawak’s election results. Of Borneo’s 57 parliamentary seats in GE12, Barisan Nasional (BN) won all but two.

Ironically, West Malaysia results rerouted East Malaysia’s future.

An unformalised Pakatan Rakyat — the precursor to Harapan — ended BN’s era of two-third ownership of Dewan Rakyat and opened Pandora’s Box. New reality. BN Borneo flips, Peninsula’s BN loses power.

It triggered Anwar Ibrahim’s failed goal to displace BN by September 16, 2008, via party-hopping. Similar to what transpired successfully in Sabah in 1994 — with Anwar’s presence.

This was the start of our present state of perpetual uncertainties. Fourteen years of hopping, any Dewan Rakyat majority — which was always in doubt — as frogs leapt at will.

The recent passed anti-hopping law notwithstanding, expect a GE15 Peninsula deadlock to drip-feed Borneo appeasement as a spectator sport. Individuals cease to move parties, but whole political groups can move between coalitions — Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) or PAS to illustrate the situation.

Today, the column concerns itself with not why, but rather how much Borneo really needs. The actual quantum.

If inadequate, and it is, it’s purely window-dressing to win votes by deceit. The water does not run, and the school bridges creak over rivers. These are not euphemisms.

If close to the ideal mark, which incidentally coincides with when pigs fly, would transform Sabah and Sarawak.

Currently, it is at best a fraction above basic.

It was disclosed in Parliament late last year, nine of the 10 poorest districts in Malaysia are either in Sabah or Sarawak. The other being the Orang Asli zone, Lojing, in Kelantan’s periphery beside both Pahang and Perak.

[It is indeed a great time to be an aboriginal person in Malaysia!]

The gulf between Sabah and Sarawak’s provincial districts and far more affluent Klang Valley tells the fuller story.

Bring the cash in larger sacks

For his Malaysia Day address, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Ismail highlighted that RM5-6 billion development expenditure per Borneo state is a clear indication of support.

As outlined above, is it enough?

Comparisons help, and Germany at under 400,000sq kilometres is close to Malaysia’s size.

When Germany reunified in 1990, West Germans began paying solidarity taxes to aid the east to fast-track. For 30 years, West Germans paid over €330 billion. Experts place reunification costs to be €2 trillion, or about RM9,000,000,000,000 — 12 zeros.

It is safe to surmise there is a gulf in thinking in what Germany thought was needed by its poorer region as opposed to Malaysia, even now.

Be mindful, East Germany was less developed but still an industrial zone under Soviet control at the end of 1989. The gap between West and East Malaysia cannot be more pronounced.

And thirdly, Germany’s east makes up only a third of the country, for Malaysia its east is 70 per cent of the country in landmass.

There is a fourth. While literally a wall separated west from east in Deutschland, Malaysia’s west has the world’s largest sea separating itself from the east. A flight of at least an hour and more is necessary to hop over either way.

The sheer magnitude of the challenge is never discussed. It’ll make those responsible for rectifying the malady sick. No real estimate of the whole cost to bring Borneo to speed has ever been released. It’s papered over.

Which is why most in charge go with the PR strategy — PowerPoints of White Papers rather than armies of forklifts, tractors and civil engineers.

How to solve the problem when the iceberg is colossal and those in charge close their eyes and look away? Lucky them, it's not them onboard. It’s them simple minded, poor and oppressed who are on this Titanic.

Projects underway, conscience a sea away

There are civil societies in Borneo. They are heroic. Asked to fight an unending war with shovels. Some bullets get stopped.

External help arrives. Duly associated with political parties, initiatives with start-up names invest in those communities. A small hydro-electric engine in Upper Moyog, a leaner environmental enclosure for elephants, run schools for the illegals and ladders to help students get Internet from treetops.

This is half in jest and not about the victims.

Private ad hoc efforts can only go that far. This war needs battalions, not platoons.

Which returns us to the question of national burden.

The real decision makers to end this travesty do not live in Borneo.

They are the voters in Peninsula — controlling 165 parliamentary seats — whether they can find it in their conscience to support the other half of Malaysia.

Any real commitment to Borneo would be considerable and over time.

This is the reason why all debates about Borneo from a Peninsula vantage point are only shop talk.

West Malaysians are keen to be charitable to East Malaysians but charity is not going to get this done.

West Malaysians have to share the pain in order for East Malaysia to adequately rise.

Which means better schools, better hospitals, more federal government present in the east and broad investments in critical infrastructure.


Kelantan legally objected to Malaysia’s formation in 1963. It felt if Malaya was to enter into an arrangement with Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Brunei, the various states have to be consulted and consent before being party to this reconstructed nation.

The court ruled otherwise and here we are 59 years later.

West Malaysia may argue East Malaysia was left at its doorstep by the British and it has done what it can. Crudely speaking, both east and west are equal, except one part is more equal than the other just because in the majority’s opinion.

The East would argue it’s given as well if not more with its natural resources, and those ringgit are represented by the skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur City Centre rather than in Semporna’s schools.

What is not arguable is the choice in our collective hands. There is no rewind in this movie.

Rather than endless discussions over the tens of millions of ringgit passed to Borneo, a more comprehensive financial investment plan has to be made, one in the tune of hundreds of billions of ringgit over a decade. One that hurts West Malaysia. Would we?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.