Unity is a common theme every year on Malaysia Day, the holiday celebrated last week that marks the day Malaysia became a federation in 1963.
That year, Britain agreed to relinquish control of most of its remaining colonies in Southeast Asia — Singapore, North Borneo (now called Sabah) and Sarawak. They then joined with Malaya, which had gained independence from Britain in 1957, to form a new nation called Federation of Malaysia.
The legal instrument to form the federation is called the Malaysia Agreement (MA63).
Yet, for the people of Sabah and Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo, the agreement left many with mixed emotions. Some people in these states have long desired secession and, in recent years, the drumbeat of separation has only grown louder.
This issue is now a key political issue in the Sabah state election this weekend and upcoming the Sarawak elections, which must be held before the end of 2021.
Source of historical grievances
In a nutshell, most people in Sabah and Sarawak (also known as East Malaysia) are unhappy with federation because they think it has not delivered on two main promises made in 1962 — high levels of autonomy and economic development.
In the first area, the federal government has stripped away a lot of local powers in Sabah and Sarawak in the last 57 years. On top of that, the federal authorities have tried to impose the same toxic racial and religious politics found in Malaya (also known as West Malaysia) to the eastern states.
East Malaysia is much more ethnically and religiously diverse compared to the west. For example, the Malay population is a minority in both Sabah and Sarawak; in fact, no ethnic group constitutes more than 40% in either state. As a result, political Islam has not taken root here.
In fact, one of the defining features of East Malaysia is intermarriage among the different ethnic and religious groups. The divide between Muslims and non-Muslims is reasonably insignificant — a marked difference from the often suspicious attitude Islamic leaders have toward non-Muslims in Kuala Lumpur.
In terms of economic development, Sabah remains one of the poorest states in Malaysia. And the infrastructure in both Sabah and Sarawak is vastly underdeveloped compared to the west of Malaysia.
To add insult to injury, more than half of Malaysia’s oil and gas production comes from Sabah and Sarawak. The common joke is that all the iconic infrastructure in peninsular Malaysia, such as the Petronas Towers, Penang Bridge and Kuala Lumpur international airport, was built with money from East Malaysia.
Britain’s hand in the federation
In recent times, one of the biggest grievances in East Malaysia comes from the process of decolonisation administered by the British after the second world war.
There is clear, documented evidence that back in 1962, the colonial office in London used its powers and influence to get the local leaders in Sabah and Sarawak to agree to the formation of Malaysia.
The British wanted a clean exit from Southeast Asia and to ensure its former colonies did not turn to communism. So the British conceived the idea of a “Federation of Malaysia”, where its former territories would come under a single political entity.
Activists in East Malaysia say if the British had not supported the formation of the federation, it was highly unlikely local leaders would have agreed to it. Many would have instead preferred independence or a federation consisting of Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei (which gained independence from Britain much later, in 1984).
What Sabah and Sarawak want
All these historical grievances have led to a growing movement in Sabah and Sarawak advocating for secession from the federation.
With elections upcoming in both states, all local politicians — including those serving in the federal government — are now claiming to be MA63 nationalists trying to keep “Malaya out” of Sabah and Sarawak.
Social media is one key reason the secessionist movement has taken off in East Malaysia. It is now much easier for advocates to organise and magnify their grievances.
What the Sabah and Sarawak people want, at the very least, is a constitutional amendment to recognise the special autonomy of both states. But a significant minority argues the whole federation has failed, and thus secession is the only way forward.
Currently, the secessionist groups pose no real threat to the federation. But if enough people buy the secession argument in the future, public sentiment may be too strong for the national leaders to ignore.
How should the federal government respond?
There are basically two options available to the federal government.
The first is the ostensibly easy option — the political route. This would require the federal government to recognise the historical grievances and try to resolve them.
However, this is not as simple as it seems. The government is reluctant to grant real autonomy to the two states, worried this will end up weakening federal powers in the other 11 states of the federation.
There was an attempt to reword the Constitution last year to symbolically recognise the special status of both states, but it failed.
This is the only way to keep the federation together, however. The federal leaders need to agree to recognise the special status of Sabah and Sarawak and grant them wide autonomy in the Constitution, as envisaged in the 1963 Malaysia Agreement.
The second option for the government is to play a wait-and-see game. Politically, this is dangerous, as the final outcome could very well be secession.
By way of comparison, the push for independence in Catalonia was similarly based on historical grievances that mushroomed into a mainstream political movement and eventually an independence referendum — declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court.
At the very least, what is happening on the ground in East Malaysia suggests the decolonisation process in Southeast Asia is not yet complete. This colonial legacy is not merely history, but is clearly reflected in the present reality.
Malaysians are rejoicing the news this week that former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been found guilty on seven charges related to corruption and abuse of power, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Many people want to see him (and his wife) jailed for the 1MDB financial scam, in which billions of dollars went missing from a government investment fund. Whether Najib will eventually end up in jail, though, is unclear. He will next file an appeal and the process could take more than a year to play out.
But there is a bigger question not being addressed in Malaysia. Does this verdict represents a watershed moment in Malaysian politics? Will Malaysian politics, or more precisely Malay politics, fundamentally change as a result of this monumental victory against corruption?
I would argue no.
A system built on Malay supremacy and discrimination
At its core is the belief Malaysia is Tanah Melayu (Land of the Malays) and ethnic Malays are the true indigenous people. As such, even though at least one-third of Malaysia’s population are non-Malays, Malays must be first in every facet of Malaysian life — from politics to government to religion to culture.
This philosophy has been institutionalised since 1971 under the government’s New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP dictates that bumiputera (the official term for indigenous Malays) are given preference in all socio-economic spheres, including entry to the civil service, quotas in university intake, mandatory shareholdings in listed companies and exclusive business licences.
You can even get a 7-15% discount for buying a new house under the “bumi discount”, in addition to the government’s bumi quota for new properties.
In the religious sphere, Islam is widely considered the official religion of Malaysia, even though it accounts for just 61% of the population. In practice, this means people of other faiths are faced with discrimination and stringent restrictions.
For example, it is a legal offence for anyone to proselytise Muslims, but not the other way around. In fact, there is no legal mechanism for a Muslim to leave Islam. If one is born an ethnic Malay, the constitution defines that person as Muslim. As a result, many Muslims, especially the younger ones, believe Islam is superior to all other religions.
In February, the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) government fell, just two years after wresting control of the country from the Barisan Nasional, which had ruled Malaysia since independence.
The new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government that came into power in March was unashamedly “Malay First”, with Ketuanan Melayu Islam at its core.
So, what’s this got to do with the Najib verdict?
The short answer is the Najib verdict will not be allowed by the PN government to be a catalyst for real reforms or a reset of the Malaysian political system.
As long as the governing system is built on the notion of racial and religious superiority and discrimination, Najib’s verdict will be seen by the Malay elite as a story of personal greed rather than a failure of the system that allowed Najib to carry out the 1MDB scam.
The Malay elite wants to keep the current system because it allows them to wield power in the name of Ketuanan Melayu Islam and reap the economic benefits.
More importantly, it allows the Malay elite to stay in power by divide-and-rule over Malaysia’s plural population. The divide-and-rule policy (or divide and conquer) was set up by the British colonial rulers to maintain their control. The policy ensured each ethnic and political group did not cooperate with other groups to challenge the British authorities.
Is it any wonder the Malay elites are still using the same methods today?
Another important point to remember is the current system ignores the basic rules of economics. By setting up a system based on racial preferences, market forces are often ignored in economic policies in the name of “Malay share”.
Thus, anyone questioning shady deals involving the government are told to shut up as the normal rules do not apply to what is often referred to as the “Malay agenda”.
Najib was able to hide the 1MDB scandal for so many years precisely because nobody dared to question him. He claimed 1MDB was a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund and everyone in government understood it to mean a way of supporting the “Malay agenda”.
Khazanah Nasional, the real sovereign wealth fund, is tasked with ensuring the Malay stake in the economy, so it is not unreasonable for people to assume 1MDB was doing the same.
Najib’s guilty verdict will not bring even an iota of change to the country’s political and economic system. What is needed in Malaysia is the abandonment of the racist Ketuanan Melayu Islam ideology.
The recent police interrogations of six Al Jazeera journalists in Malaysia – five of whom are Australian – was not about shaping international reportage or a diplomatic rift.
Rather, it was part of a troubling pattern of crackdowns on the media and freedom of speech in the country, driven by the domestic concerns of an insecure government highly sensitive to criticism.
While the previous government led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was by no means consistent or perfect, Malaysia was hailed just last year as an example of a country improving on press freedom.
This started to change in March, however, as Muhyiddin Yassin’s new government came to power. Tolerance for criticism and dissent has since been in short supply.
Pattern of repression
The Al Jazeera journalists have been accused of sedition and defamation over a documentary about the government’s treatment of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysian officials and national television claim the documentary was inaccurate, misleading and unfair.
But these journalists are hardly the only ones to be targeted by the new government.
Steven Gan, chief editor of the trusted online news portal Malaysiakini, is facing contempt of court charges and could be sent to jail over reader comments briefly published on the news site that were apparently critical of the judiciary. Gan’s lawyer warned the case could have a “chilling effect”.
A book featuring articles by political analysts and journalists has been banned over the artwork on the cover that allegedly insulted the national coat of arms. Sukamaran and journalists from Malaysiakini have been questioned by police about their involvement.
Opposition politicians have also been questioned by police for tweets and comments they made in the media prior to the new government taking power.
Whistle-blowers are included in this, too. For example, the government this week cancelled the work permit of the migrant worker who was featured in the Al Jazeera documentary.
Why the recent crackdown?
Malaysia’s current coalition government – Perikatan Nasional – was controversially formed earlier this year. The alliance came to power via backdoor politicking and support from the Malaysian king as Mahathir’s dysfunctional coalition imploded.
The new government coalition includes the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party voted out of power in 2018 following a massive corruption scandal. This was the first time Malaysia had changed government in its 60-year history.
With UMNO now back in government, it is perhaps no surprise there are again more crackdowns on the media, as their previous rule saw regular attacks on journalists, activists and opposition figures.
Malaysia has also become known for its “cybertroopers” – social media commentators similar to “trolls” – who drive heated nationalistic and race-related agendas, and target government critics.
After the Al Jazeera documentary, these cyber-troopers provided fervent support for the government’s actions, arguing it had every right to round up migrants and evict them if it sees fit. Al Jazeera said its journalists were also targeted by cyber-troopers, saying they
faced abuse online, including death threats and disclosure of their personal details over social media.
Shaky government looking to firm up support
There’s another reason for the return of media crackdowns and online-driven activity beyond just the government’s desire to control the media.
It is also tactical as it allows government ministers to respond with firm statements asking security forces to intervene – enabling them to look strong, coherent and nationalistic.
Muhyiddin’s coalition is on shaky ground. It holds a slim majority in parliament and internal party factions have come to dominate political debate, with “party-hopping” becoming increasingly common. Malaysiakini even has a rolling news page regularly updated to track politicians’ changing alliances.
Malaysia’s parliament also finally resumed this week after a long and unstable hiatus, and was described as a “circus”. Politicians shouted over one another, with some trading racist and sexist remarks.
In this environment, politicians who don’t respond forcefully enough in the “culture wars” over documentaries and controversial artwork on book covers, or conform with the online mob on immigration, risk looking weak.
A ‘new normal’ settling in
A snap election won’t necessarily help Muyhiddin strengthen his position, as parties within the coalition can become rivals during a campaign for certain seats.
But no matter who rules Malaysia in the coming months, the result will likely be a government that is fragile, insecure and worried about its legitimacy. For Malaysians, this is their “new normal”.
The risk for journalists in this “new normal” is further repression and harassment of independent media. As we have seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, as well as in Australia, the state seems increasingly willing to use legal and regulatory pressure to make sure journalists and whistle-blowers are afraid to speak up.
Muhyiddin Yassin has been sworn in as the new prime minister of Malaysia. Many people were surprised because 94-year-old Mahathir Mohammad, the oldest prime minister in the world, was widely expected to be reappointed for a third time.
Muhyiddin outfoxed the wily Mahathir, because Mahathir made two fatal errors. First, he had resigned, thus creating a vacancy. Second, he made a miscalculation about the king’s discretion. The Malaysian king appoints a person he thinks can command the majority in parliament – it has nothing to do with election results or how many MPs support you. In Australia, it’s called the “captain’s pick”.
The king picked Muhyiddin over Mahathir, and that’s that. The only way now to remove the new government is via a vote of no-confidence in parliament, which will take months.
The new ruling coalition
Muhyiddin’s new ruling coalition consists of three parties: United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM or United Indigenous Party).
UMNO and PAS were the defeated parties in the historic 2018 general elections that produced Malaysia’s first regime change since independence. UMNO had been the ruling party for nearly six decades before losing to PPBM and Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). Mahathir had established PPBM specifically to beat UMNO, and almost the entire PPBM leadership was ex-UMNO.
So now we have an interesting combination. UMNO and PPBM are essentially the same parties with similar ideologies, Malay nationalism, combined with PAS, which wants to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.
But what about the non-Malay and non-Muslim Malaysians who make up 38% of the population? Don’t they count?
The short answer is no. While the new administration will appoint a few non-Malays to the administration, make no mistake, this is an all-Malay government and its focus is on the Malay and Muslim community.
UMNO is still sore at the Malaysian Chinese and Indian population for voting en bloc against UMNO in 2018, which led it to lose government. Now it’s payback time. Expect more Malay-centric policies that will punish the Chinese and Indians.
Why are people worried?
Many are worried about the direction Malaysia may be heading in the short term.
First, there is concern that corruption trials relating to the infamous 1MDB scandal involving ex-prime minister Najib Razak may now go nowhere. Najib’s wife is also charged with corruption in a different case, along with several other ministers in the last UMNO-led government.
In fact, the UMNO president, Zahid Hamidi, who is facing 47 charges of money-laundering (the legal term for corrupt money), is trying to get a cabinet post in the new Muhyiddin administration. The attorney-general has resigned and his replacement will probably not go after high-profile UMNO individuals now that UMNO is back in government.
High-level corruption was one of the main reasons UMNO was defeated in 2018 and UMNO has not reformed. Now it’s back in government, most people expect “business as usual”.
There is credible fear that Muhyiddin cannot stand up to UMNO as UMNO is now the largest party among the three core parties. UMNO and PAS also have a political pact, which means PPBM will definitely not be able to stop the senior coalition partner if it insists on certain public policy.
Second, people are extremely worried about PAS. Since its founding in 1951, PAS has advocated the idea of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state. It has introduced huhud (Shariah) law at the state level in Kelantan and Terengganu, but cannot enforce the law because it conflicts with Malaysia’s federal constitution.
Now that PAS is one of the troika in power, will PAS push the new administration to amend the constitution? There is already talk that PAS will get the government to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, or RUU355. This will indirectly allow for hudud to be implemented.
Third, and perhaps most worrying, the new government has broken the political convention that it always has a significant number of non-Malay voices to represent the diverse population. This government was built purely on the concept of ketuanan Melayu Islam (Malay Islamic supremacy). Non-Malays to be appointed to the new administration will know exactly where they stand – as window dressing.
Where to now for Malaysia?
Despite its racial and religious tensions, Malaysia has always been seen by the international community as a modern, moderate Islamic country with strong Westminster institutions. It was always understood that the political elite would choose the middle path at the end of the day, no matter how heated the politics became.
This may no longer be the case.
If there is a lesson to be learnt here, it is that regime change does not guarantee progress. In May 2018, there was joy that Malaysia had finally joined the club of newly democratising countries via the ballot box. Almost two years down the road we are seeing a complete reversal via an elite game.
If there is one thing about Southeast Asia, it is that the votes of the ordinary people do not matter when it comes to power games. Power here is a zero-sum game and, in this case, the non-Malays and non-Muslims in Malaysia are the losers.