Two prominent East Malaysian politicians have attempted to play down the desire expressed by some people for Sabah and Sarawak to leave Malaysia, but an academic and expert on the subject says the sentiment is fuelling an actual movement 51 years after the country was formed.
The politicians, Sarawak Minister of Land Development Tan Sri Dr James Masing and Sabah federal lawmaker Darell Leiking, claimed that the desire was more of a sentiment rather than an actual movement.
Leiking, who is Penampang MP, said the desire among young Sabahans for Sabah to secede is an accumulation of anger at how they have been treated by the Peninsula-based federal government.
However, Prof James Chin, an expert on relations between East and West Malaysia, believes that the movement to secede is real. However, it disguises itself because secession is treason under Malaysian law.
The fact that the sentiment is strong but can only be expressed through social media and away from official scrutiny also makes it difficult to tell whether it will have any electoral impact, said Chin.
“Today young Sabahans are saying let’s look at the agreements again. What they really want is a review of the Malaysia agreement,” Leiking, told a forum at a book launch of “50 Years of Malaysia: Federalism Revisited”.
“I think it is good because it shows an awareness among the young about the state of Sabah,” said Leiking.
“It will continue until Putrajaya decides to review the agreement,” he told an audience at the forum which was held at Sunway University, in Petaling Jaya.
This desire to break away from the 50 year-old federation among East Malaysians has mostly been expressed on the Internet and through social media groups such as SSKM (Sabah Sarawak Leave Malaysia).
But academics and East Malaysian groups have in the past admitted that the sentiment is real especially among the younger generation.
A Malaysian Insider straw poll done in the last week of July among 100 East Malaysians also showed that the largest number of those surveyed, or 43%, felt that Sarawak and Sabah could only solve their problems by leaving the federation.
The poll among both rural and urban East Malaysians found that more Sarawakians wanted secession compared to Sabahans.
Autonomy to self-govern was the second most preferred choice among Sabahans in the straw poll. The first choice was to work together with the current government to solve Sabah’s problems.
A main source of anger is the believe that successive Prime Ministers from Peninsula-based Umno have not fulfilled the terms of the 20 and 18-point agreements which Sabah and Sarawak signed.
These agreements allowed Sabah and Sarawak more freedom in managing state finances, the civil service and education among others.
Other East Malaysian leaders and scholars have said this deal was what persuaded the then leaders of Sabah and Sarawak to agree to form Malaysia together with Singapore and Malaya.
East Malaysians have long complained that Sarawak and Sabah do not get enough development funds despite the fact that it provides billions to Putrajaya through the sale of its petroleum.
However, Masing, who is the Parti Rakyat Sarawak president, told the forum that the sentiment was not as strong among Sarawakians compared to Sabahans.
“They want a review of the agreements but I am more moderate and would ask that we revisit them.
“If there are promises which have not been fulfilled, then let’s fulfil them,” Masing told The Malaysian Insider when met after the forum.
Leiking also told The Malaysian Insider that the threat of secession was not as bad as it seemed.
“I hear this (sentiment to secede) everyday in Sabah. But I believe it is really a desire for more autonomy and decentralisation.
“It’s a divorce. The couple may be so angry at each other that they think, let’s just end this. But there is always the option to reconcile instead of breaking up”.
Chin, of Monash University Malaysia, however claimed that there was actual grassroots work in Sabah and Sarawak to channel this anger into concrete action.
This included an online campaign to collect signatures for a petition to the United Nations and a plan to bring a law suit against the United Kingdom.
The principle behind the lawsuit against the UK government is that Britain had bungled the process of overseeing the merger in the 1960s and this had impacted the future of Sabahans and Sarawakians, said Chin.
“It’s the same as the Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Front) law suit against the UK government,” said Chin.
That suit claimed Britain did not provide enough safeguards to ensure that the minority Indian community would be adequately taken care of by the new Malayan government.
Besides the lawsuits, however, it is still unclear how much of an impact this anger makes in an election.
“You cannot really gauge it because no political party can come out and campaign for secession. It’s against the law.
“But there is a gut feeling among young Sabahans and Sarawakians that the federation experiment has failed them.” – August 23, 2014.