Unequal treatment breeds secessionist ideas in Sabah

Four successive governments since 2018 have made numerous promises about MA63, but little progress has been made on revenue sharing.

Joe Samad, FMT

Former Sabah chief minister Harris Salleh warned recently that dissatisfaction in Sabah may invite secession ideas. He said current sentiments and grievances suggest that, if a referendum were held today, it is possible that a substantial majority of Sabahans, potentially exceeding 80%, will opt to leave the federation.

The accumulation of dissatisfaction and the perception of unequal representation have evidently fuelled this inclination towards seeking independence, said Harris.

In November 2021, another veteran politician, Jeffrey Kitingan, warned in Parliament that some 60% of East Malaysians are calling for Sabah and Sarawak to leave Malaysia as they are disappointed with the development funds allocated in the budget.

He said that it is important for the federal government to listen to the voices from Sabah and Sarawak and save the country from breaking up.

Going by these ballpark figures, the percentage of Sabahans wanting to leave Malaysia has grown considerably in the last two years. Malaysia is in for a rough ride.

Many Peninsular Malaysians are not aware that Malaysia is 60 years old as Merdeka Day has continuously overshadowed Malaysia Day celebrations.

Overshadowed by Merdeka Day

The Malaysia Day celebrations are confined to Sabah and Sarawak, separate from the 11 federated Malayan states who celebrate their Merdeka Day one month earlier. The bigger Merdeka celebrations in Kuala Lumpur are a major stumbling block to national unity, causing great angst in the Borneo states and adding fuel to the secessionist idea.

However, the main grievances are related to the disparities in development funds for the Borneo states. Despite being partners, East Malaysians feel that they are getting the short end of the stick.

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s recent “Kembara Kenali Borneo” tour highlighted the treacherous roads of the Borneo states and how the people have put up with poor infrastructure over 60 years. Sabah is still the state with the highest poverty rate in Malaysia despite being rich in oil resources.

Sharing tax revenue

The federal government’s decision to finalise the formula for Sabah’s tax revenue sharing by July next year, as announced by Upko president Ewon Benedick, has sparked a backlash

Revenue-sharing is already in the Federal Constitution, and Ewon’s announcement was seen by Sabahans as another federal delaying tactic.

Many Sabahans are wondering why it will take 10 more months to decide on a formula. As Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has said on numerous occasions, it’s time for implementation and not for more procrastination.

When the federal unity government was formed, there was a promise that all issues related to the Malaysia Agreement (MA63) would be resolved within a month. That deadline has passed and the MA63 promises are nowhere near to being implemented.

The current government is the fourth successive government to have made numerous promises to fulfill MA63 but with little progress being made on revenue sharing.

Jeffrey’s formula

In October 2021, Kitingan said the people of Sabah have waited over half a century for Sabah to get its rightful revenue, and that it is Putrajaya’s obligation to ensure that the wait does not extend further.

He also said the RM400 billion development fund under the 12th Malaysia Plan must be distributed in the ratio of 50:25:25, with the peninsula receiving RM200 billion and Sabah and Sarawak receiving RM100 billion each.

That ratio was based on the fact that Sabah and Sarawak were equal partners in the formation of Malaysia.

Ewon created more anger when he and 11 other Sabah Pakatan Harapan representatives announced they were withdrawing their originating summons on the non-fulfillment of the tax revenue share.

Pinning hopes on SLS

Two Sabah political parties criticised the withdrawal as being highly suspicious. Although Ewon and his group have withdrawn, the Sabah Law Society’s (SLS) application for a judicial review will continue.

The Sabah people’s hopes are now with SLS and not with the politicians they elected to fight for the MA63 promises.

Robie Anslang, a local activist, commented: “When they begin enjoying their positions and perks, Sabah leaders tend to succumb to KL’s pressures. They should use their Cabinet positions to fight for Sabah’s rights. It’s good that SLS and others like the Sabah Action Body Advocating Rights (Sabar) are continuing the fight for the people of Sabah. We can’t depend on our politicians to deliver the promises of MA63.”

Why are Sabahans (same for Sarwakians) hung up on secession? They have seen Singapore, which left Malaysia in 1965, go on to become the world’s fourth most competitive economy in 2023.

What LKY didn’t do

They rue the fact that, if Lee Kuan Yew had not betrayed the Borneo states and instead had invited them to exit at the same time, with all their oil resources, they could have been as successful as Singapore. After all, Sabah and Sarawak’s oil resources make up 80% of the nation’s oil reserves.

The Philippines have not dropped their claim on Sabah, and recently, China has extended its maritime border close to the Borneo states in their 2023 standard map.

“Unfortunately the federal government has treated us as just one of the federated states over several decades and reneged on the MA63 promises. They seem disinterested in developing the Borneo states and development is focused only on Peninsular Malaysia,” said Robie Anslang.

We can’t wait for our compromised politicians to deliver the MA63 promises.

Maybe it’s time to give the people of the Borneo states another referendum, the second since 1963, to state whether they wish to stay as partners of Malaysia. Timor-Leste, a smaller entity, became the first sovereign nation of the 21st century, why not Sabah?