Malaysia Losing its Grip on East Malaysia?

The Barisan Nasional victory in Malaysia’s Sarawak state election may have, for the time being, taken pressure off Prime Minister Najib and emboldened him to strike at his UMNO enemies. But the longer term implications for Malaysian politics, indeed for the Federation of Malaysia, are unpredictable.

For the first time in many decades, Sarawak has used its position in the Barisan to extract major concessions from Kuala Lumpur which underline its separate status and also of Sabah. The two joined the Federation in 1963 on terms giving them in theory far more autonomy than enjoyed by original members of the Federation of Malaya put together in 1946 by the British imperialists.

For decades Sarawak and Sabah have been the subject of extreme levels of electoral gerrymander, with small electorates for the federal parliament and manipulated ones for state elections, which have ensured the dominance of local parties in league with the Barisan, in particular the PBB (Parti Pesaka Bumiptera Bersatu). In return for loyalty to the Barisan the local politicians have been given free rein to enrich themselves at the expense of the community. Sarawak’s former chief minister, Taib Mahmud, in power for 33 years, became a multi-billionaire through timber and other concessions and many other benefited too while the state’s level of income and development lagged far behind peninsular states despite vast its oil, gas and forest resources.

Part of the Barisan success was thanks to the disarray of the opposition. But Sarawak’s current Chief Minister Adenan Satem helped save the day for Najib by persuading KL to make significant concessions to the state’s autonomy, notably by allowing use of English as the language of instructions and Christians to use the word “Allah” for God as is the case in the Arab world and Indonesia but now outlawed in peninsula Malaysia thanks to its know-nothing religious leaders. (Muslims are a minority in Sarawak where they are only about one third of the population compared with around 40 percent mostly indigenous Christians. Ethnic Chinese account for 25 percent of the population. However, the Muslim Malay/Melanau group have more political power than their numbers indicate)

Adenan has also pushed also for a greater share for the state in the oil and gas wealth its generates. On this he has made no progress as KL has major budget problems thanks to the low oil price and declining output. But the issue is again on the table. Meanwhile Najib has had to promise big federal spending in the state including a highway linking in to Sabah.

Adenan also used the election campaign to remind Malaysians that the state government, like Sabah’s, has the right to exclude Malaysians citizens from elsewhere visiting the state. It was used to stop high profile opposition politicians from the peninsula visiting to campaign. Such action is rare and on this occasion may have been tacitly approved by KL. But it is one of several powers retained, at least in theory, by the two states in accordance with the treaty by which they joined Malaysia.

A roughly similar political situation exists in Sabah where ethnic/religious politics is even more complicated and resentment of KL lurks not far below the surface. Sabah is 57 percent Muslim but these are mostly indigenous, many having migrated over the past 40 years from the nominally Philippine Sulu archipelago in search of jobs, and relative peace. Sabah’s offshore waters are also the most exposed to a predatory China. If KL takes too much it will be easier for China to dangle the carrot of a bilateral deal and no arguments about sovereignty – as it has with Brunei.

None of this might not matter but for the Barisan’s dependence on their east Malaysia voters who are vastly over-represented in the Federal parliament. They are the main reason why the Barisan emerged from the 2014 election with 60 percent of the seats but only 47 percent of the vote.

Due largely to individuals’ self-interest, the two states have not used their bargaining power very effectively. Although they have little more than 5 million people between them – or just 17 percent of the total – they should be able to fight above their weight for reasons of their constitutional relationship with the federal government, their resources and their enviable lack of ethnic and religious discord.

But that past failure to use its leverage could be beginning to change as they become more aware of how far they have lagged in development, and how little their multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies have in common with the peninsula, where the division between Malay and Muslims and the rest has become increasingly stark and potentially dangerous.

Nor are these two Borneo states the only possible strains on the Federation. Although the Johor royal family has a mixed reputation nationally, members are not afraid to express their views. Its Sultan Ismail recently scorned the increased use of Arab- inspired dress, etiquette and terminology in place of traditional Malay ones as the religious establishment and the UMNO hypocracy (sic) bow to the Saudis. Another royal, Crown Prince Tunku Ismail, even raised the potential of Johor to withdraw from the Federation, as Singapore did in 1965. That seems rather far-fetched. Johor joined the original Federation of Malaya which the British rulers created in 1948 out of the nine sultanates plus Penang and Melaka which they ruled directly or indirectly.

Thus it is in neither the same position as Sarawak and Sabah nor Singapore which also only joined Malaysia in 1963 and left at the initiative of the Federal government. Nonetheless, Johor does have one curious relic of a glorious past – the right of the Sultan to keep a private army. That past puts it, at least in its own opinion, as the successor of the great Malay states of the past, pre-Islamic Srivijaya and early Islamic Melaka.

Size and proximity to Singapore (of which it was once sovereign) add to Johor’s own sense of importance. It is the second most populous state after Selangor – which is only first place because most of the suburbs of KL are within it.

None of this suggests that Malaysia is in any danger of breaking up in the foreseeable future. But it is a reminder of how a combination of endless power struggles within UMNO and endless corrupt and divisive maneuvers to keep it in Federal power have caused important national issues to be ignored.

Hence there is no foreign policy to protect its borders and no domestic policy to create unity among its peoples. Malay states have a history of being easily divided and thus ruled by foreigners – British, Thai etc. Thus far, no outsiders since Sukarno have directly challenged the Malaysian Federation. But they surely will if the Barisan system continues much longer.