Happy birthday, Sarawak!

This was published in the Malaysian Insider on July 22, 2013

By Wong Chin Huat

Today is the 50th anniversary of Sarawak’s independence from Britain. Well, some may argue that Sarawak never made a declaration of independence, unlike Singapore and Sabah, both of which declared their independence from Britain officially on August 31, 1963 when the formation of Malaysia was postponed.

What happened on July 22, 1963 was the swearing in of Sarawak’s first Chief Minister Stephen Kalong Ningkan and his ministers. While the UK did not relinquish her claim on Sarawak’s sovereignty until 56 days later, i.e. September 16, July 22 1963 was nevertheless a great day for Sarawak.

For centuries, Sarawak had been a property that changed hands from the Brunei Sultanate to the Brooke Family to the Japanese Army and then to the English crown. For the first time in its history, on this day 50 years ago, Sarawak had a government that her people could call their own.

Although there was no fireworks, no declaration of independence, I consider this day half a century ago the birth of Sarawak as a sovereign state.

For some, talk of recognising Sarawak and Sabah as a state would be the first step towards separatism, for the two Borneo states to part with Malaya, like Singapore did. For them, there is only one country or “Negara”, Malaysia.

Deliberate efforts in fact have been undertaken to erase evidence of the nationhood of Sarawak and Sabah. Point 18 of the 20-Point Agreement on Sabah joining Malaysia was in fact about the title of the Governor – “Yang diPertua Negara”, much like the “Yang diPertuan Negara” of Singapore during 1963-65. This title was replaced by Yang diPertua Negeri by the 13th year after Sabah joined Malaysia.

Till 2009, Malaysia Day was celebrated only as state holidays in Sabah and Sarawak, and funny enough, in Sabah, it was celebrated as the official birthday of the Yang diPertua Negeri.

Anyone with common sense would ask, why should the wedding anniversary be celebrated by only one party, says, the wife, and in Sabah’s case, that even the wedding is not mentioned in the celebration?

The answer is not hard to guess: some people apparently believe that the only way for East and West Malaysia to stay united is for East Malaysia to be Malayanised.

They want to erase the history that Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore were at least for a transitional period of 56 and 16 days respectively independent or self-governing before forming Malaysia with Malaya.

They want to erase the fact that Sarawak, Sabah (and Singapore) were once Negara, not just Negeri like the 11 Malayan states.

What’s wrong with calling Sarawak and Sabah countries? Read the official documents of United Kingdom, and see how they address England (kingdom), Scotland (kingdom), Wales (principality) and Northern Ireland (a rump province of a former kingdom) – COUNTRIES.

UK is a union of four countries. Terrorist attacks were waged to fight for the union of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland will have its referendum on Independence in 2014.

Despite the imminent threat of disintegration, no one in UK would say, let’s reduce Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to Regions equivalent to the English Regions, to check separatism. Everyone knows, equality does not cause divorce, but inequality does.

To me, a Malayan with no Borneo familial ties or economic interests, recognising the real history of Malaysia – not the Malayan-centric propagandist version of it – is important for all Malaysians, not just the Borneoans.

While its seed might be traced to the Federated Malay States (1895-1946), the Federation of Malaya was really born out of the stillbirth of the Malayan Union (1946-48).

While many countries choose federalism over unitary state to promote inclusion and diversity, this was not the case of Malaya.

Federalism was chosen by default as the opposite of a unitary state, the form of the Malayan Union. As ethno-nationalists, Umno did not believe in decentralisation. That explains why our federalism is one of the most centralised ones in the world.

Instead of facilitating multiculturalism and inclusion, federalism in Malaya was in fact to preserve the Malay states as ethnocracies of the Malay-Muslims.

This explains why the eligibility of menteri besars in the Malay states includes an ethnic and gender criterion, which is clearly not compatible with the idea of democracy.

In that sense, the federal government is actually inclusive as there is no ascriptive criterion in the eligibility of prime-ministership.

The calls by some Malay ultra-nationalists to make prime minister a Malay prerogative is in that sense an attempt to turn the Federation into a larger ethnocracy modeled on the Malay states.

Similarly, the argument that Malaysia should be an Islamic State because Islamic laws (alongside Malay customs) were applied before the entry of the Western colonial powers is also premised on the historical origin of the Malay Sultanates as the ethnocracies of Malay-Muslims.

Shouldn’t the Federation of Malaya restore the old political order and rebuild an ethnocracy for the Malay-Muslims? Don’t people like former judge Mohd Noor Abdullah and Malay-wannabe Ridzuan Tee Abdullah have the right to advocate such ideals in a democracy?

I would defend their right to do so, but they cannot do so without advocating the separation of Malaya or any Malayan states from Malaysia.

Like it or not, the Federation of Malaya – together with any justification to restore the old ethnocratic order – was buried like the briefly independent states of Sarawak and Sabah when the Federation of Malaysia was created.

Malaysia was not created to be an ethnocracy or a theocracy. No one can change that inclusive nature of the Malaysian federation without first changing its boundaries.

While the merger of Malaya with Sabah and Sarawak was very much a crude calculation of communalism and cold war geopolitics, the formation of Malaysia has turned out to be a beacon in our democratic history, more than the independence of Malaya.

As a Malayan, I therefore want Sabah and Sarawak to enjoy as much autonomy as promised in 1963. It is great if the Malayan states too can be freed from the suffocating centralisation and be equal to Sabah and Sarawak, but in no way, Sabah and Sarawak should be reduced to be the equal of the Malayan states.

As a Malayan, I like to thank my Sarawakian brothers and sisters, as well as my Sabahan ones, for building with us Malayans a great country and staying together. Without Sarawak and Sabah, there will be no Malaysia.

So, happy birthday, Sarawak! And life begins at 50. – July 22, 2013

* Dr Wong Chin Huat is a former journalist and now an academic with the Penang Institute.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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