Professor Wang Gangwu, the illustrious living legend of East and Southeast Asian history, in the introduction to “Malaysia: A Survey”(Pall Mall, London and Dumbow) published in May 1964 makes two pertinent points about the then newly formed nation. The first is that after fighting Communism for two decades “ through Malaysia, it hoped to find a more permanent solution to this threat. There is thus the question of the survival of the state, of a set of political values and of a political identity.”
The revered professor concludes the introduction with a reference to the concept of Malaysia, “ not as ‘Melayu Raya,’ but as a strictly political decision to find a more permanent place for democratic institutions in South-east Asia.”
These quotes are invaluable in attempting to understand the hot and humongous election campaign currently being mounted in Sabah. With the rather forced elections scheduled for September 26 there is extremely biased coverage by the mainstream media of the political platforms of the various candidates and the opponents of the caretaker chief minister, Dato Seri Shafie Apdal.
Consequently, the powerful and peaceful message of Shafie, his poignant plea for peace, unity and reasonableness is not getting the coverage it richly deserves.
Brief Tenure As Chief Minister
To start with, this was an extravagant and extraneous election forced on Shafie in the twenty seventh month of his 60-month term. Shafie came to power on May 12 2018, not with complete reliance on popular mandate or his small Warisan party, but because the country was on an inexorable momentum of escaping from the crippling clutches of both corruption and kleptocracy.
He effectively brought to an end the stranglehold of a 24-year-old asymmetrical UMNO-dominated and controlled state government. Kuala Lumpur was clearly complicit in the corruption and detriment of that BN government. Shafie’s tenure seemed unshakable initially as the chief minister he succeeded was engulfed almost instantaneously in allegations of corruption and money laundering. Lately these charges were dropped.
New Government & Covid-19
At the capital in Kuala Lumpur at the end of February 2020 a legitimately elected government led by the seasoned El Supremo, Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself collapsed through political intrigues involving rabid race and religious issues. Drawing invidious inspiration from these changes UMNO, with its largely tainted leadership attempted to foist a similar backdoor realignment exercise in Sabah. Shafie preempted that eventuality by dissolving the Legislative Assembly.
This election is being held in the sixth month of the Covid-19 pandemic when the ravages of unemployment, a contracting economy and a clampdown on business, tourism and trade are taking a heavy toll on the nation. Sabah is deeply affected by a fall in tourism and external receipts and no sane head of government would want to test his or her popularity in this situation. However Shafie has had little choice.
His campaign themes can be summarised in simple terms- its essence is that of protecting and preserving the intrinsic indigenous political identity and integrity of his state- the very same foundational fundamentals – so presciently stated by Professor Wang Gangwu in 1964. Shafie is pleading for a mandate with his people and the leadership of the peninsula for appreciation and understanding to uphold the following principles:
1. Identity: In 1960 the population of Sabah was 454,000 and that of Malaysia (excluding Singapore) was￼￼ under 7.5 million. Today Malaysia’s population is 32.7 million while that of Sabah is approximately 3.9 million. Sabah’s population has increased nearly ninefold while that of Malaysia has only had an under fivefold increase. This is something abnormal. Shafie’s plea is to utilise more of the resources of the state for his people, not to import foreigners and distort and disturb the balance that exists in Sabah.
2. Income: Sabah contributes substantially to the federal coffers with their oil, timber and palm oil production. Shafie’s plea is to allow the state to keep a larger share of these proceeds for his state’s development. A significant segment of his people, almost 20 percent, are on barely sustainable incomes although Sabah is the sixth largest contributor to Malaysia’s GDP.
3. Islam: In 1960 the proportion of Muslims in the state was 37.9 percent. Today it is closer to 60 percent. A Muslim himself, Shafie’s plea is that the state should maintain its own rich multihued character, equilibrium and sense of community.
4. Infrastructure: Sabah desperately needs roads and better connectivity. This has to be prioritised especially in the context of a widely dispersed population and much needed broadband coverage. This is a fair request coming almost a quarter of a century after the Peninsula’s famously flaunted Multimedia Super Corridor. Shafie has also alluded to the poor state of of his state’s education provision and the quality of their schools. He wants to have a stronger say in educational matters.
5. Innate Values: Sabah and, for that matter, Sarawak, have many positive values of strong mutual respect and regard within their respective plural societies. Shafie, who is married to a Peninsular Malay is pleading that those inbuilt convivial community mechanisms and strengths of Sabah be recognised. He is apprehensive of the kind of divisions that have surfaced in the peninsula in recent years.
Are These Fears Justified
These apprehensions and legitimate fears are well grounded on account of two significant developments.
The first is that PAS is in the saddle of the federal government since early March 2020 sitting astride the weakest government in Malaysia’s history.
The PAS ministerial components are using the bully pulpit at the federal level to harangue non-Muslims and Muslims. The Muslims in Malaysia are largely of the broadest mindsets and openness. PAS does not have the avuncular face that it had under Tok Guru Nik Abdul Aziz but has morphed into something sinister with the departure to Amanah of its best people. Shafie is in the best position to assess the situation as he is married to a lady from Kedah, a state under constant threat of being ruined by PAS like Kelantan and Trengganu.
The other pertinent issue that must be highlighted is that it is certainly not the average peninsular Malay who is responsible for the deplorable state that Sabah and Sarawak are in. Rather the average Malay remains a rather reserved, respectable and responsible individual. The Malays are not acting as a monolithic bloc unfairly extracting the dividends from the Borneo states. Rather it is clearly the members of the UMNO elite and its political cohorts, including its breakaway splinters, who have been habitually milking the whole country for the past 38 years. PAS is only a late addition to this group.
Secondly the federal government does not seem to find anything wrong or repulsive in permitting a convicted person, Dato Sri Najib Abdul Razak to go and campaign in Sabah. The reality is that on July 28 the noxious former prime minister was convicted with a dozen-year term of imprisonment for several offences and a fine of nearly a quarter billion ringgit. It does seem incomprehensible that his Barisan Nasional Plus collaborators can parade him in Sabah in his Barisan Nasional blue outfit like some principled blue blooded princeling. It must not be forgotten that Shafie was one of the whistleblowers who was penalised and sacked for highlighting the heist that Najib had singlehandedly perpetrated. For Barisan Nasional to plead virtuousness now after their excesses for decades have been widely exposed in court proceedings is ironic, to say the least.
The Way Forward
Shafie is now faced with the difficult uphill battle of convincing his people that the only way to achieve political stability, good governance, peace, unity and development is for him to be re-elected the chief minister of Sabah. He is the least tainted and most qualified to lead Sabah. That would allow Sabah to retain its intrinsic character and identity.
It is equally important that the peninsula is perceived more as a preferred and trusted partner in Sabah’s development process than as a proactive predator. The federal government must engage Sabah, not impose its blighted narrative and narrow agenda on this senior or coequal state. This is not 1967 or 1977 but 57 years after the reality of Malaysia’s formation on clearly agreed sacrosanct principles. There is now indisputably a new and better informed environment where people are generally a lot more educated with a keen sense of awareness of their basic position and possibilities.
Putrajaya would be wise to recognise this radically changed reality. There has to be a dialogic relationship with Sabah, not a kind of a didactic, pedagogical or dictatorial one. We are way past that phase.
Putrajaya must respond promptly to this wake up call.
Dato M Santhananaban
The writer is a retired ambassador