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Peninsular Malaysia lost the moral high ground in Sabah & Sarawak under Najib

Letter from Kuala Lumpur

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As we celebrate the 56th anniversary of Malaysia we can take great pride in the various achievements towards uniting the two disparate parts- the Peninsula on one side and Sabah and Sarawak on the other. The country has been largely peaceful and has handled the old issue of extreme poverty rather well.

The realisation of Malaysia was an astounding achievement by a young Federation of Malaya which in those early days had leaders and civil servants of the highest integrity, vision, humility and honesty. When it did not work out satisfactorily they had the honesty and courage to eject Singapore which went on to become a grand success.

Separating the two parts of Malaysia is the stark reality of 600km of the South China Sea which accentuates the physical distance. It remains however a rather blasé and benign body of water; it has not become a busy waterway between the two parts although there is heavy usage by commercial cargo vessels plying the route between the Straits of Malacca and China’s eastern seaboard, Korea and Japan. Between the two Malaysian territories there is hardly any passenger sea-traffic to speak about.

The Peninsula-based federal leadership, particularly the present government, has to be congratulated for the various measures taken at the highest levels to bring to a higher level the standard of living and also the equality of partnership between the two Borneo territories with the Peninsula. Pakatan Harapan represents the best hope that there will be an equal partnership and equitable participation in the management of the nation’s destiny.

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Undoubtedly in the early years, partly because the peninsula had attained independence much earlier there were, in terms of manpower, more professionals, trained specialists, administrators, teachers, health and medical personnel and other qualified people in the peninsula. More virgin jungle in the peninsula had also been opened up for agriculture, rubber and palm oil production.

Some five decades later both these largest states have built up a pool of their own professional, specialised and trained manpower and are in a position to offer their subjects to head most federal institutions. It is encouraging that we have recently had a Chief Justice who hailed from Sabah. It is essential that the political sophistication, management experience and maturity attained by Sabah and Sarawak is also acknowledged, respected and recognised.

From 1963, for some four decades the Peninsula had the moral high ground in the relations with both Sabah and Sarawak. That position was earned by the pioneer corps of federal leaders in Kuala Lumpur who, on account of their high integrity and their being above petty or profound levels of corruption, could command the respect and loyalty of all their cohorts.

The Peninsula lost that important edge about a decade ago because a prime minister became directly embroiled and implicated in kleptocratic activities and began seeking unashamedly the complicity of his political cohorts in both Sabah and Sarawak for a so-called ‘fixed deposit of parliamentary seats’ to ensure the tenure of his party’s rule and his own office. That former prime minister is the third person in Malaysia’s history and the first from the Peninsula to be implicated in this kind of the most egregious, outrageous and scandalous accumulation of private wealth.

The first two personalities widely known to have had access to inordinate private wealth and a fondness for ostentatious lifestyles were not from the peninsula. There was, for instance, a long time ago a reference to a ‘playboy prince of Borneo’ and, more recently a reference to a prominent patrician pillager.
Najib’s prime ministership was an aberration. Before his tenure the leadership in the Peninsula which has been predominantly Malay/Muslim was, at its core, punctiliously proper in observing some norms of probity and good governance.

There have been in the past few weeks preceding this Malaysia Day, daily reports of the most serious allegations against Najib. They are being made in our respected Courts of law. Disclosures of this nature would have been unimaginable because they were simply not possible in the Malaysia of yesteryears . These widely reported proceedings provide an insight into an overt abuse of power in an overly prime minister-centric system where senior civil servants could be bullied, bribed and bamboozled or even risk being banished.

Instead of being guardians and watchdogs of the nation’s treasuries they succumbed to a bland buccaneering style of doing business and working winningly with a powerful predatory princeling. One must not forget that Najib’s father had been the second prime minister of the nation.

One of the principal casualties of this former prime minister’s despicable misconduct is the disfiguring of the substance and the subtle structure of relations between the Peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak. Rather regrettably because of the enormous timber resources in Sabah and Sarawak two first generation politicians had taken undue avaricious advantage and placed their states in a disadvantageous situation.

It took foreign journalists from the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, the Sarawak Report, the Wall Street Journal and officials of the US Department of Justice to turn the spotlight on the malpractices and misconduct of these powerful politicians.

Since the Pakatan Harapan Government assumed the leadership of Malaysia in May 2018 the compliant civil service in the country has come under much deserved scrutiny. This has happened partly because there is currently still some residual expectation that there would be greater transparency and the delivery of goods and services would improve. There is also a relatively higher reliance on the civil service as there remains much distrust of elected politicians on account of their known inclination in the recent past to abuse their office.

Under the previous Najib Administration politicians heading parastatals such as Tabung Haji and Felda had not only abused their positions but also run up huge losses due to ineptitude, poor management skills, nepotism and corruption. Two members of the previous cabinet are facing income tax evasion penalties and, with time, there will probably be more such cases.

The course of these prosecutorial actions is uncertain as it appears that the courts seem inclined to adjudicate these cases fairly on the basis of evidence, proceedings and an unabashedly newly found streak of judicial propriety and independence.

The conviction of those political prima donnas who have been charged is still a far off thing but most Malaysians are appreciative of the effort to prosecute them. Some are relishing and enjoying the spectacle of the trials.

Two years ago such trials would have been considered unthinkable, impossible and preposterous.

In that sense Malaysia has shown an unprecedented act of courage and accountability.
Currently the sixteen-month-old government is attempting to fulfil the near impossible task of delivering on its some of its 14th General Election manifesto pledges. The reality is that the Pakatan Harapan leadership did not expect to win that election against Najib’s formidable seemingly foolproof election machinery and hence was perhaps rather unrealistic and overoptimistic about its pledges. The issue now is that the electorate is holding them up to their pledges.

The civil service seems clueless, befuddled and marginalised as a result of the near cosmic changes that have swept the country. It would seem that there is not one senior civil servant to speak authoritatively about happenings in the country. Some of the top layer of bureaucrats are no longer there. A reasonable expectation is for the new civil service heads to come out of their comfort zones and state what they can do and are capable of doing to lift the country out of its current malaise.

The current situation is one in which the prime minister is making all the calls. With a few exceptions, ministers are generally perceived to be below par in spite of being in their portfolios for fifteen months. They make good announcements which raise expectations and in some cases cause distress and upheaval. Real actions and results are awaited.

The Attorney General’s Chambers and the Judiciary are two of the nation’s bright spots. With the help of the Police and the Anti Corruption Commission the AG’s Chambers and Judiciary have been impressive in providing convincing evidence that they are functioning well and law and order will prevail.

The monopolies on certain goods and services held by certain individuals and business houses seem to have become entrenched and the government seems to be somewhat ineffective in bringing down the cost of their products.

Daim Zainuddin, a former finance minister has been recycled in the new administration as the analyst, commentator and a kind of a shadowy grand economic vizier. He does not seem to have a formal government position which can mean many things in Malaysia.

The country is desperately in need of a great economic and social uplift which would involve reinventing the Education, Health and Medical, Welfare, public transport and National Unity services and systems. There is a need to revamp public education, create jobs, provide affordable housing and alleviate the suffering of those affected by extreme poverty.

There is also a need to include and engage more people, some of them highly qualified, including those from Sabah and Sarawak in every sphere of national activity, including the federal government’s regulatory, planning, service and enforcement organisations. At least one federal minister is known to have scrupulously removed every suspected Sabahan and Sarawakian from an organisation under the minister’s purview. This is not only discriminatory but detestable as it shows a pathetic and parochial mindset.

Surely after 56 years of Malaysia there must be the awareness that patriotism and public service is not the natural monopoly of any one group, majority or minority. Recently, on the occasion of Merdeka, our popular Agong(King of Malaysia) had made a powerful call for national unity and it does seem appropriate that Peninsular Malaysians should embrace and accept as kith and kin their brothers and sisters from Sabah and Sarawak.

It is also time that Sabah and Sarawak also showed greater acceptance of their compatriots from the Peninsula.

There have to be repeated and recurrent calls to Malaysians to renounce hate speech, be inclusive and encourage participation in every activity, sports, service, soldiering and state projects.

All Malaysians should shed their provincialism and embrace all Malaysians as being of one family. Sabah and Sarawak are unique and exemplary due to their capacity to have multi religious families where family ties and friendships transcend religious strictures and are not the obsession of the state’s religious bureaucracy , or peer pressure. Malaysians must also learn to accept different kinds of practices within their own religion.

Malaysia has traditionally been accommodative to the various cultures and this inclusive incorporation of cultural diversity had been one of the country’s strengths. Today two Opposition parties are working to sow dissensions and divisiveness and seem to sometimes prevail in imposing their negative narrative. Their talk of unity is the most ominous and implicit threat to the peace and equality that currently exists among Malaysians.

Much constructive and corrective work is badly needed to restore the ambience of a vibrant, diverse, united, peaceful and harmonious society. There is certainly no room for communalism, chauvinism, hate speech or barbarous bureaucratic behaviour. No group should be allowed to act as the chosen ones anointed to impose their hegemony.

PH remains the best hope for Malaysia but some of their power-crazy and power- conscious leaders have to work hard to show a humble, kindly face of compassion and humanity, not their haughtiness or high status.

God bless Malaysia!

Dato’ M Santhananaban

Dato’ M Santhananaban, a retired Malaysian ambassador has 45 years of public service experience.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore.
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