S’wak wants Federal govt to respect rights accorded when M’sia was born

By Stephen Then, The Star

MIRI: Sarawak is out to get an assurance from the Federal Government that the 18 “special rights” accorded to the state during the formation of Malaysia will not be eroded or diluted in any manner, especially the rights on religious freedom and practices.

Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan said top leaders, including Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud and himself, had pledged to defend these special rights in the interest of Sarawakians.

Speaking to leaders from the 13 churches during a Christmas dinner gathering here on Monday night, he said Christian leaders had met him recently to discuss their concern over various religious and racial issues that had cropped up of late in Peninsular Malaysia.

“I assured them that all Sarawak leaders have agreed to speak as “one voice’’ with our people. We will bring up these issues to the attention of the Federal Government,’’ said Dr Chan.

The special rights, popularly known as the “18-point Agreement” were given to Sarawak in 1963 during the formation of Malaysia when Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah came together to form Malaysia on Sept 16.

However, Singapore was kicked ou shortly after.

Sabah was accorded similar rights known as the 20-point Agreement” by the Federal Government.

These 18 special rights for Sarawak and 20 for Sabah gave the two states autonomy over the issue of religious practices, civil rights of non-Muslims, use of local languages, immigration and labour laws and control of natural land resources, among others.

Dr Chan said he and the church leaders discussed key issues on the latest developments in the country, which concerned the religious and civil rights of non-Muslims, justice, corruption, mismanagement of resources and the general environment.

“I appreciate the concerns raised. These matters will be brought to the attention of the relevant parties, including at the Federal level.

“Everyone must be willing to listen to others with an open mind, re-examine our ways, admit our shortcomings and make necessary changes for the good of all people.

“However, I believe Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has a right formula in mind (the 1Malaysia concept). It is just a matter of implementing it. We in Sarawak and Sabah have very special rights for our citizens, especially on issues surrounding religion, race and language,” he said.

“Sarawak leaders have pledged to uphold these rights and the freedom accorded to our people.

“We (the state leaders) know we must speak as one together with our people. We are one body and one voice and we will fight to defend that freedom.

“We do not want to go against any authority, but we must ensure that the freedom to practice our religion and our culture will not be diminished and that it must be preserved,’’ he said.

Dr Chan, who is State Industrial Development Minister and State Tourism and Heritage Minister, said church leaders had also expressed their concerns over certain current happenings in the country that have elements of extremism.

“Extremists in the country are only a small minority. The majority of the people are very moderate and reasonable.

“However, they cannot remain as silent majority. It is good that the leaders of the churches and the community are working closely with the state government leaders so that we can present a united front in preserving the rights for everyone,’’ he said.

Dr Chan said he feels encouraged by the Prime Minister’s speech during the recent Christmas tea party in Kuala Lumpur organised by Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur (Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam) on Dec 25.

“The Prime Minister said that 1Malaysia is for nation-building, for us to come together, for us to feel we belong to one nation, one people with one vision and that it (1Malaysia) is for us to march forward together to develop a truly prosperous, harmonious and successful 21st century nation.’’

The dinner gathering was to appreciate all those who had successfully organised the recent Miri City Christmas Parade that attracted a multiracial crowd of more than 10,000.