Malaysia: The Sarawak secession?

The Borneo state has won greater autonomy and holds all the cards for more concessions.

James Chin, The Interpreter

The ruling coalition in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Gabugan Parti Sarawak (GPS), has been assiduously working since 2018 towards the political goal of establishing the most autonomous state inside the Malaysian federation. This has raised concerns in the corridors of the administrative capital Putrajaya that, in the long run, it would result in some sort of independence from the federation.

The starting point is to understand the historical grievances of the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah and back in 1963 when they signed the Malaysia Agreement (MA63) which created the Federation of Malaysia. The Borneo states were promised political autonomy from the federal government in addition to safeguards from political interference from the centre. For the first half century, many of the safeguards were ignored by the centre as the Malay establishment in the peninsula sought to centralised power in the federal government. The Borneo states could not do much, especially during the long tenure of Malaysia’s strongman, Mahathir Mohammad, and his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Everything fell apart in 2018 when UMNO lost power and Malaysia underwent its first regime change.

There have been four administrations since then, the most recent of which is led by Anwar Ibrahim. What matters is that GPS was essential to the establishment of every administration. It might be argued that GPS gave all four administrations the necessary numbers to establish a government and provide the political stability.

This in turn allowed GPS to obtain political concessions from Putrajaya.

With the exception of a state-controlled security system, Sarawak will effectively have the organs of a “state within a state” as more and more federal powers are transferred locally.

First, the federal constitution was changed in 2021 to reflect the special status of Sarawak and Sabah and insert the word “Malaysia Agreement” into the constitution, thus cementing the safeguards given at the time of independence into the constitution.

Second, a Sarawakian was appointed deputy prime minister in 2022, the first time in the nation’s history.

Third, about half of the Malaysian cabinet comes from Sarawak and Sabah, although they only constitute less than 20 percent of Malaysia’s population.

Fourth, Sarawak renamed its chief minister to Premier to show that it is not merely a state in the federation. All the states in the peninsula call their top political office Chief Minister (Menteri Besar).

Fifth, the federal government has restarted special grants to Sabah and Sarawak. Sabah is separately pursuing a claim against the federal government for 40% of all revenue raised in Sabah. This was part of the MA63 agreement, but the federal government stopped paying the state its entitlement from 1974 onwards.

Sixth, Sarawak established its own oil company, PETROS, to take control of the oil and gas resources in Sarawak territory.

Furthermore, plans exist for Sarawak to assume state-level authority over health and education, which had been considered federal issues since independence. To the dismay of Malay nationalists on the peninsula, Sarawak has already declared that it will reinstate English as the official language of instruction in certain schools. Sarawak will have its own airline by early next year. With the exception of a state-controlled security system, Sarawak will effectively have the organs of a “state within a state” as more and more federal powers are transferred locally.

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