Autonomy and what it means to Sabah


Julia Chan, Malay Mail Online

Call it what you will — autonomy, empowerment, self-determination, Sabah rights, devolution, or decentralisation — but a subject that was laughed off and dismissed as ludicrous a few years ago is now the business of every politician, activist and man on streets of Sabah and Sarawak.

In fact, the call for greater autonomy in respect of the 1963 Malaysia Agreement memorandums signed between Malaya and the Bornean states — the 18-point (Sarawak) and 20-point (North Borneo or Sabah) agreements — has even in recent months led to budding movements campaigning for the two states’ secession from Malaysia if Putrajaya does not heed their requests.

The threat immediately caught the attention of country’s political masters.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition had scraped through Election 2013 largely because of support from its two east Malaysian strongholds. Losing Sabah and Sarawak could mean losing its half-a-century-long chokehold over Putrajaya.

Putrajaya initially introduced an illustration of seditious tendencies as a call for secession in proposed amendments to the Sedition Act 1948, but deleted the illustration before the amendments to the colonial-era law were passed in Parliament on April 10. Demands for secession, however, continue to be deemed seditious despite the removal of the example.

In the months that followed, BN leaders worked harder to cosy up to their allies in Sabah and Sarawak. Two months ago, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak told a national-level gathering in Sarawak that the call for secession was just “stupid talk” and that his administration will give both Bornean states the empowerment they wanted.

What is autonomy?

In Sabah, BN components like Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) and the United Pasok Momogun Kadazandusun Organisation (Upko) say autonomy is to have more authority to implement development projects efficiently, although they do not go into the specifics of what and how.

“There’s a lot which has been said on the topic, but the thinking is along the same lines. The emphasis is to go back to the Malaysia Agreement and look at it holistically and practically,” said Sabah deputy chief minister Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan.

According to him, the question of autonomy that Sabah wants is answered in the 20-point memorandum, which gives the state authority over its religion, language, immigration, citizenship, finance and tariffs, representation in Parliament, land and forest and local government.

While some of these have been incorporated to varying degrees in the Federal Constitution, leaders here, both those in Sabah BN and secessionists, have argued that aspects of it, such as citizenship, immigration, finance and representation in Parliament, have been eroded over time.

Others have also contended that autonomy should not be defined by the 20-points argument but should nevertheless be addressed to fit current needs such as policies on the environment, cabotage, housing, agriculture, religion, transportation, welfare and roads, among others.

Autonomy to what end?

Former chief minister Datuk Yong Teck Lee, a longtime advocate of autonomy for Sabah, said the state should be accorded full jurisdiction over all matters except for foreign affairs and defence.

“In the context of the Malaysian government framework, it is really just a matter of transferring them from the Federal Constitution’s Ninth Schedule Legislative lists,” he explained to Malay Mail Online recently.

The lists, divided into Federal, State and Concurrent, denotes which jurisdiction each matter falls under. Essentially, it spells out who has power over what. Matters like defence, transport and finance and education, for example, come under federal jurisdiction while the state has power over land, native laws and customs, and forestry, among others.

For a start, Yong said all subjects under the Concurrent list — things like museums and libraries, town and country planning, animal quarantine — should be moved to the State list.

This process, he said, will get rid of overlapping functions between state and federal government agencies — like tourism, the works department, fisheries, housing and local government, which all serve the same purpose.

Once the Concurrent list is cleared up, areas covered by the Federal list should be scrutinised further to see what can be moved to state jurisdiction.

“Until gradually, all but national defence and foreign policies is left for the federal government to take care of,” he said.

Not everyone agrees, however, with Yong’s ideas on autonomy for Sabah.

Political analyst Arnold Puyok from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, for example, believes that Sabah may not have the human resources or capability to handle being fully autonomous.

What he prefers is just a rearrangement of jurisdictions.

“We already have special privileges accorded to the two Bornean states in the Malaysian Constitution. We just need to ask for what we want, but we can still work with the federal departments, just with more consideration for the state,” he said.

Still, if advocates like Yong were to get what they are asking for, what will the Sabah administrative framework look like?

Here are some examples:

Immigration and Citizenship

At present, both Sabah and Sarawak have liberties in granting entry to visitors under Section 66 of the Immigration Act.

But the provisions in the law for east Malaysian states have still failed to control the influx of illegal immigrants into Sabah, an age-old problem that is said to have vastly altered the state’s demographics over the years.

Yong said one way to stop this is to employ more locals at the borders as a state native would know better how to differentiate between a Sabahan and an immigrant.

“Besides staffing its borders control with local officers… Sabah may consider a do-over with a new Sabah IC, recalling the MyKads which have been tainted with unlawful processes over the decades,” he added.

The Sabah IC, a proposal supported by BN component parties and some opposition leaders, would involve revoking all current Sabahan MyKads (those with the number 12), and re-issuing new identity cards to only genuine Malaysians in Sabah, with valid documents like a birth certificate.


Education has always been a focal point in the east Malaysian argument for autonomy.

What the state might do if given full power to control the sector, Puyok said, is to create its own syllabus, replacing the current one that is seen as too “west Malaysian-centric”.

“We should be able to include more about Sabah’s history and culture for our younger generation,” he said, adding that the safeguards of Sabah’s special privileges in the Malaysian constitution should allow it.

“Making English the official language for school is also something that can be done at the state-level, at the state assembly, should they want to do it,” he added.

School infrastructure is also a major area of concern.

Pairin said Sabah’s rural schools in particular are in dire need of attention, from maintenance to upgrades, teaching staff and brand new buildings.

If given full autonomy, the PBS president said the state would no longer need to seek the Education Ministry’s nod for allocations.

“Right now, even hiring a cleaner or caterer at a school needs to be vetted by Putrajaya, it’s ridiculous,” he said.


Yong said Sabah should form its own Transport Ministry, which would have total control over state roads and the public transportation system and matters like cabotage, a policy long blamed for soaring prices of goods and living costs.

Under the 1980s policy, all domestic transshipment of goods from the peninsula to east Malaysia are required to be done using Malaysian-flagged ships, which is said to have contributed to higher shipment costs as well as reduced the capacity for exports from Sabah industries.

By having its own Transport Ministry, Sabah would abolish the policy, Yong said, allowing freer movement of shipping vessels and creating a more competitive industry, which will benefit consumers by way of cheaper prices.

“We also do not need the federal department to take care of routine procedures and processes within the Road Transport Department, Puspakom and CVLB. We can have our own people staff a similar functioning agency, with similar policies.

“Likewise, we should be able to figure out our own public transportation and road systems to help ease traffic congestion, without the help of consultants from west Malaysia to approve plans,” he said.


Point 11 of the 20-point agreement states that Sabah and Sarawak should retain full control of their own finances, development funds and tariffs, and should have the right to work up its own taxation and to raise loans on its own credit.

Since then, however, these matters have mostly been put under federal control. Part III of the Tenth Schedule of the Federal Constitution, for example, limits what taxes the states may collect.

“To be able to run any of its sectors independently and efficiently, it’s important that financial autonomy should be given to the state. Sabah will continue to pay taxes to the federal government,” Puyok suggested.

“However, this autonomy and taxes will not exempt the 40 per cent reimbursement of all revenue collected by the federal government, which will amount to at least RM30 to 40 billion when backdated to 1974,” said Yong.

The 40 per cent entitlement is stated in a clause in Schedule 10 Part 5 of the Federal Constitution, which implies that two-fifths of the net revenue from Sabah to the federal government should be granted back to the state .

Yong said that with this across-the-board financial independence, all project proposals would go through one channel — the state development office — doing away with the federal departments and other layers of bureaucracy to get the job done quicker.

Whatever way, restructuring needed

The issue of autonomy stems from the impression that Sabah is underdeveloped, compared to its West Malaysian counterparts, despite the wide variety of resources available to them.

The unifying voice across all divides is that too many decisions lie with the federal government – from the minute to the massive – and more of often than not, these decisions don’t involve the state enough.

Opposition leader and Sabah rights activist Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan said that although it may be a complex administrative exercise, it was necessary to go back to the drawing board, review the Malaysia Agreement and rewrite the Constitution as how he claimed it was originally intended.

“The current structure doesn’t work because it is based on a takeover of Sabah and Sarawak by Malaya as colonies,” said Jeffrey. “Almost everything is centralised making Malaysia a unitary system instead of a federation.”