International Asia This Week Malaysia: A powerful message emerges in Sabah, of unity & inclusiveness

Malaysia: A powerful message emerges in Sabah, of unity & inclusiveness

Letter from Kuala Lumpur




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The biggest and most intrusive event unfolding in Malaysia currently is the Sabah election. It is scheduled for September 26. One would hesitate to call it a state election because its reach and reverberations portend and possibly herald something greater, extending easily to every Malaysian home. Attesting to its overwhelming significance all the political heavyweights from the peninsula have attempted to put up a lasting appearance there.

Unflustered, Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, the once besieged caretaker Chief Minister of Sabah has however attained almost iconic presence there. That presence was partly secured with a simple but penetrating message that he seeks “ to develop the nation, not a particular race, religion or region.”

The theme suggests that it is the overarching business of his government, and specifically his own Warisan Plus Party, to develop the entire country, not promote and protect a specific community or conclave. It is a refreshing, almost revolutionary attempt to reach out and inform the electorate that the business of the state and the nation is to unify the people, serve every citizen equally, fairly, impartially and efficiently.

This powerful and precious message from the much sidelined Sabah people is breathtakingly brilliant and superbly timed. It represents a clear and deliberate departure from the unimaginative mediocrity and superficiality of the messaging that Peninsular Malaysian leaders have become noted for in the past three decades.

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There was the illusory ‘ Vision 2020’ phase, a hollow Islam Hadhari phase and the final openly obscurantist and bankrupt one Malaysia odyssey of the grandest larceny.
Shafie’s simple messaging has the promoters of these meaningless cliches scurrying to find every conceivable fault with him. Shafie has cleverly upped the ante.

One convicted former prime minister associated with the odious 1Malaysia debacle is one of those leading the charge to rent asunder Shafie’s magisterial message. Shafie has finally said what should have been said and done all along. The business of the government is to state plainly and simply there are challenges of unity and development to be met and how should they be addressed.

This messaging bucks a dangerous trend that was gaining traction when the most representative Pakatan Harapan was ousted in late February.
This messaging by Shafie is particularly apposite as a non mainstream regional religion based party has, with its rather narrow religious narratives, introduced unprecedented tensions and divisiveness into the country’s national governance system. That party, PAS, has acted arbitrarily and intimidated not only the non-Muslims but the largely peaceful, moderate and urbane Muslim population in the country.

PAS leaders have been a disruptive and divisive force, dividing and segregating the population. Their irresponsible rhetoric has been callous, coarse and corrosive but the mainstream components of the government including Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin are tongue tied on the issue as they are dependent on PAS for the survival of the weak government.

The Sabah caretaker Chief Minister’s message of speaking of the full equality and entitlement of every Sabah citizen is a positive move to unify the people. To overcome the current challenges that Malaysia faces the country has to make conscious efforts to ride out of the current six-month- old us-versus- them nexus.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a form of bandaid for this backdoor government. This us-versus- them monologue predates the Muhyiddin Government but it has assumed a rather toxic tone with PAS, aided by some Bersatu ministers turning their backs on their multihued PKR, Amanah and DAP allies.

The country has to move forward from an inappropriate race based system of empowerment to a comprehensive all inclusive needs-based system where all Malaysians, especially those of Sabah and Sarawak are prioritised and provided with the best education, training and equipped to face life’s challenges.

In this new phase Malaysia’s peninsular leadership ought to let the Bosniaks worry about Bosnia and the Malians about Mali. Let there be no illusion that charity begins at home.

Much Catching Up To Do
Through the leadership of the country’s three first prime ministers Malaysia have pursued a realistic policy of developing the basic infrastructure of providing access to modern living to the largely rural population by providing road access, water pipelines, electricity, schools and health clinics.

In the past four decades settlement demographics have changed with nearly four fifths of the population moving to live in urban and semi urban settings. Urban poverty characterised by poor housing, low wages, inadequate public transport, crime and overcrowding is a reality.

Sabah and Sarawak, given their largest territorial share of the country and their relatively small population seem to be still trapped in the phase of providing access to their spread out and sparse rural population.

Obviously there is a sense of hurt and humiliation in these states especially with the lack of good IT access to areas with some fairly large settled communities. Shafie is echoing these concerns with cautious cadence. So far his campaign theme of prioritising development for all rather than a section has become a piece de resistance.

Shafie’s tack on highlighting development for all goes against the grain of past campaigns where leaders have tended to tailor their campaign themes to suit particular majority audiences.

In this regard Shafie has stolen a march on his peninsular counterparts who seem to have been unduly unctuous about religious and race issues. It is that kind of campaign tactics that have resulted in a narrow religion based party holding sway in the two most backward states in the peninsula. Having tasted power at the federal level PAS is possibly seeking to extend its stranglehold beyond the two East coast peninsular states.

Najib’s Conviction, New Chapter
It is important to note that this is the first major mandate seeking exercise since the conviction of the former PM Dato Sri Najib Abdul Razak on serious embezzlement and corruption charges on July 28. Up to the day of Najib’s conviction which carried a long term of imprisonment and a most hefty fine peninsular leaders have enjoyed some kind of a moral high ground in Sabah. With this serious kind of taint and turpitude affecting a former prime minister the peninsula has lost whatever moral advantage it could claim. In Sabah it is now certainly easier for Shafie to describe him as a common or uncommon criminal .

Sabah has gone through a scandalous financial phase with their own Tun Mustapha and other leaders before. But with a convicted person like Najib campaigning in the elections as if he was some squeaky clean personality imparting values of integrity and good governance it does seem deceitful and disgraceful. It seems to give the Sabahans scant respect for their innate integrity and value system.

With the number of candidates exceeding 440 for the 73-seat assembly it does seem a discordant, disordered and chaotic free-for-all contest. But it does underscore the vibrancy and great significance attached to the election. It is obvious that the well heeled peninsular- based political parties entering the fray are imparting narrow racial and religious rhetoric which will only divide the Sabahans along new lines. There are also obvious proxies of peninsular political parties with a more local tinge.

The Sabahans have generally been tolerant of these peninsular types making inroads there. Peninsular political bigwigs are often perceived in Sabah as promoting a particular class of predominance than a predisposition to bring much needed development.

Is Reverse Tutelage Taking Place
In this election however it is obvious that Shafie’s trademark message of inclusiveness is a process of conveying to the peninsula that there are many things the peninsula can learn from Sabah. Sabahans mix freely, a lot more freely than their counterparts in the peninsula. Members of one family espousing different religions do not let their religious affiliations affect their social and community togetherness partly because they share kinship and linguistic antecedents.

In the peninsula as a result partly of growing Islamisation from the 1980s such close interaction is becoming rare and is sometimes frowned upon. The Rulers who are the respected constitutional heads of Islam in their respective states have maintained their dignity by not unduly involving themselves in religious discourse. Left that way the peninsula would have been the way Sabah and Sarawak are. Unfortunately a federal agency called JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia) has usurped the administrative role of peninsular state legislatures. An institutionalised petty officialdom began assuming inappropriate moral policing functions which have wrought suspicion and division. In this regard the Sabahans and Sarawakians are a whole lot more accustomed to coexisting and commingling as a plural community.

The peninsula was like that in the old days till the education system, JAKIM, the role of Salafism and some token Arabisation began to creep into the lives of young and innocent children.

Outcome of Election
There is no prognostication on the election but Shafie’s message of inclusiveness is a hard to oppose theme. How can anyone realistically challenge such a peaceful and promising message. It transcends several of the artificial divisions that exist in Malaysia.

The way forward is the one being articulated eloquently by Shafie’s Warisan Plus allies that no particular race, religion or region should be prioritised. For Malaysia as a whole a pragmatic needs- based rather than a race-based strategy will yield more tangible benefits in terms of peace, development and national unity.

Dato’ M Santhananaban

The writer is a retired ambassador

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