2011 saw the ‘awakening’ of Sabah

The breeze of change which stirred through Sabah in 2011 saw ripples of revelations that threatens the 18-year-old Barisan Nasional regime.

(Free Malaysia Today) – 2011 will in all probability go down in Sabah’s history as the year of ‘The Awakening’. This is the year when the first hints of a breeze of change began to stir through Sabah, also known as the ‘land below the wind’.

Aptly there was no ‘gust’ of wind, just a steady breeze, enough to stoke the slumbering Sabahans into seeing the realities of the 18-year old Umno-led Barisan Nasional regime.

Several events that took place this year looks likely to echo into the new year and test the state’s political stability and its economic progress.

The pain of a global business slowdown combined with austerity measures put in place by the federal government and already being painfully felt in Sabah, will also start to intensify while state leaders remain preoccupied with retaining power at the expense of the state.

In Sabah 2011 saw widespread uneasiness and revelations.

Illegal immigrants

The perennial issue continued to be the main focus of citizens angry that their leaders had failed to adequately explain the dramatic increase in population of the state and take those involved to task.

Politicians on both sides of the fence continued to point the finger at a decades old secretive national agenda to change the racial and religious demographics of the Christian-majority state into an overwhelmingly Muslim one with the help of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Southern Philippines and Indonesia.

The accusations were lent credence by disclosures in Wikileaks that senior Malaysian officials had acknowledged the scheme that was implemented during the government of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad.

A parliamentary panel hurriedly put together by the federal government following deafening calls nationwide for electoral reforms, recommended that a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) be set up to investigate claims that thousands of illegal immigrants had been granted citizenship and quickly placed on the electoral rolls.

The recommendation added further pressure on Umno leaders who had dubbed the state their “fixed-deposit” – a phrase coined to boast the party’s dominant position in the state in perpetuity.

Umno-Sabah linked businessman, Mohd Akjan Ali Muhammad, rattled the state political establishment earlier this year crowning himself Sultan of Sulu. He was later arrested and released in quick succession.

In the finals weeks of December 2011, Akjan riding on his position as Sabah Perkida (a Muslim welfare organisation) chairman and Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s overt approval of national-level Perkida, brazenly rejected government-approved calls for the RCI warning that it would incite racial troubles.

Political power-play

Troubles that had begun to emerge in the ruling state Barisan Nasional coalition in 2009 continued to unfold with the focus being on Chief Minister Musa Aman.

Elements within Umno said to be aligned to Musa turned their guns on smaller coalition members like LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) who in turn called for him to step down.

Within Sabah Umno itself, talk emerged of a power struggle with Shafie Apdal, the powerful Umno warlord from the east coast of the state, going head-to-head with billionaire Musa.

A money-laundering investigation initiated by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in 2009 continued unabated with several alleged close associates of Musa being questioned by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

To ward-off increasing criticism, Musa unveiled a RM4 billion budget with a pledge to boost economic growth in a state believed to have the highest number of poor.

Autonomy demand

The state opposition’s prodigal son, Jeffrey Kitingan, having quit politics a year ago to form his NGO, United Borneo Front, went on a statewide campaign dubbed ‘Tea Parties’ to drive home his message of political autonomy for Sabah and Sarawak.

They were well-received and prompted calls for him to form a new party to push the ‘Borneo Agenda’.

Activists from the state also travelled to Europe and former colonial master, Britain, to appeal for support for a reappraisal of the Malaysia Agreement (1963) that they claim has been ignored by the Malaysian government.

Kitingan rounded off the year by announcing he was rejoining politics through the Sarawak Reform Party (Star) which would form an alliance with his UBF and fellow locally based parties like SAPP, Usno and the Sabah People’s Front (SPF) party to contest in the impending 13th general election.

Kitingan also called on local BN parties to abandon the ruling coalition and join his Borneo alliance to fight for the state’s autonomy.

Oil and gas hub

After years of neglect, the state started making efforts to boost its presence in the nation’s oil and gas industry apart from being a mere exporter following further large discoveries of the resource off its coast.

However, the RM2.4 billion job to build a fuel terminal in Kimanis, just outside the state capital, caused widespread criticism among local politicians and industry players who questioned the federal government’s commitment to helping develop the state.

They were particularly angered that companies based in the peninsula and Sarawak were awarded projects in Sabah and local companies sidelined.

People’s power

Ordinary people in the state won a resounding victory when the government U-turned on a plan to build a coal-fired power plant in Lahad Datu following sustained protests by people from all walks of life.

They had united to block the project and their unrelenting campaign spearheaded by environmental groups and NGOs shook the government until it backed away from the project.

Locals had demanded to know why Sabah’s oil and gas resources were being exported and ‘dirty’ power production in the form of imported coal was being forced on them.

That victory helped spur ordinary citizens to protest against unpopular ecological and environmentally damaging activities in the state.

A plan to build a massive, multi-storey commercial complex a few metres from a famed, over 100-year-old clock tower that was deemed a heritage building raised a hue and cry that saw government authorities back-pedalling.

It spurred a group of city-dwellers to form Heritage Sabah, an NGO dedicated to preserving the last vestiges of the state’s history.

Two ordinary citizens gained wide support after they filed a suit against the city’s authorities for allegedly approving the project. The case is on-going while the authorities say no decision has been made yet whether the project will be allowed to go ahead.

The use of social media networks to pressure the authorities from pursuing unpopular projects also gained strength following the coal-plant and clock tower fiasco.

The Bersih 2.0 rally for electoral reform while not on the scale experienced in Kuala Lumpur was nevertheless marked in the state capital by scores of young activists some of whom were detained by police but remained undeterred.

Ghost of 1976

The plane crash that took the lives of Chief Minister Fuad Stephens and 11 others some 35 years ago on June 6, 1976 continues to haunt state politics and politicians.

The man who replaced Stephens, Harris Mohd Salleh filed a civil suit against former chief minister Yong Teck Lee for allegedly defaming him when he called for a reinvestigation of the crash following Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s revelation last year that he was asked to disembark the flight by Harris just before the doomed craft was about to take off.

Harris is claiming that Yong, a lawyer by training, and his party, SAPP, slandered him by calling for the re-opening of the crash files based on Razaleigh’s revelation as by doing so allegedly insinuates he was involved in the crash. The hearing is on-going.

Land grabs and religious conversions

Hundreds of native villagers, mostly poor farmers around the state are furious that the state government has given plantation companies preference in land applications especially in areas that they claim to have cultivated for decades and in some cases generations.

The government in turn claims that the villagers have encroached into state land and forest reserves and was forced to evict them. Several legal suits have been filed over native customary land rights and are pending in the courts.

In the scenic village of Tambatuon in Kota Belud district, the villagers are up in arms over a plan to build a dam which will submerge their villages.

The government claims that the villages must be sacrificed for the sake of turning the district into the rice bowl of the state with a steady supply of water.

The villagers said they will not move setting the stage for a confrontation.

Religious conversions have also been a a rising concern this year.

There have been increasing complaints concerning children in pre-school, primary and secondary schools in the interior of Sabah being pressured to convert to Islam. Many of these students have to live away from their homes and as such live in government run hostels where indoctrination allegedly happens.

Also the overzealousness of the state Islamic authorities has affected everyone. Over the years the state Mufti issued a fatwa (ruling) prohibiting non-Muslims from using 32 words in Bahasa Malaysia in their teaching and in the propagation of their belief. Some of those words are “Allah”, “Quran”, “Fatwa” and “Syariah”.

Earlier this year the federal government seized several titles in a Christian bookshop and bibles containing the word ‘Allah”.

Education, environment and wildlife

Sabah perennial problem of poor performance among its students has spawned loud calls for self-determination. BN state minister in charge fo education, Masidi Manjun in July, broke ranks and urged the federal-based Education Ministry to leave it to Sabah to handle their own educational development.

He claimed it was the only way to improve education standards in Sabah. Students in Sabah have one of the lowest in terms of achievement in the country. Much of this is due to the problems related to teachers.

On environment, the scores of palm oil plantation companies operating in the state have been accused of ignoring state laws in pursuit of profit increasingly isolating and endangering wildlife unique to Sabah including the pygmy elephant, orang utan and proboscis monkey.

Apart from failing to provide corridors for animals to move freely pocket to pocket of remaining rainforest areas in the Kinabatangan area, plantation companies have also been accused of clear felling forests right up to the banks of rivers, a practice prohibited by state environmental laws.

Such is the destruction that the Sabah Environmental Protection Association has suggested that the state authorities start enforcing the law stringently and imprisoning recalcitrant plantation managers to prevent the wanton destruction of the state’s remaining rainforests.