A landslide to muddy Malaysia's future

By James Chin, Professor, Asian Studies – University of Tasmania

The incumbent GPS coalition's overwhelming victory at last weekend's Sarawak state elections indicates an overhaul of Malaysia's federation is underway, says James Chin.

Sarawak's incumbent coalition Gabugan Parti Sarawak (GPS) won by a landslide in Saturday’s state elections, taking 76 of the 82-seat state assembly. As I predicted, it was never a real election in the first place. It was more like a referendum on GPS’s continued efforts to create a state-within-a-state, shutting out all elements of peninsula Malayan political culture and nurturing a strong Sarawak identity and its state nationalism. The voters liked this approach and voted accordingly. This effectively means GPS, under its leader and chief minister Abang Johari, can do whatever he wants politically with no check-and-balances in the legislature or inside the government.

The one interested party that breathes a huge sigh of relief at the results is the federal government in Putrajaya. Two of the political parties that took part in this election openly advocated for Sarawak’s independence. The parties, Parti Bumi Kenyalang (PBK) and Sarawak People's Aspiration Party (Aspirasi), surprised everyone by putting up 73 and 15 candidates respectively. In fact, PBK was the party with the second largest number of candidates after the ruling GPS.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your politics, both parties failed miserably. All their candidates lost, most losing so badly that they lost their electoral bond. This cash bond will be refunded if the candidate gets 1/8 of the vote cast in the constituency. The idea is to stop frivolous candidates from standing. More than 90 per cent of the combined PBK/Aspirasi candidates lost their bonds, thus indicating they had no traction with the voters. The ‘product’ they were selling — secession from the federation of Malaysia — attracted a lot of attention during the campaign. But in the end, voters ditched them despite surveys showing many urban voters were generally supportive of the idea that Sarawak should work on becoming an independent nation.

So why did the secessionists fail?

In a nutshell, fear. Most voters in Sarawak understood clearly that the federal government was not going to accept the results had PBK won the elections. I am certain had PBK won the elections, the federal government would have declared a state of emergency in Sarawak, troops would have been flown in and Sarawak would be under martial law.

The Malay political establishment in Malaya had already decided long ago that they will not allow any state to break away from the federation. Many of them are of the opinion that it was an unforgivable mistake when Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first PM, allowed Singapore to exit the federation in 1965. Today Singapore is a flourishing first world country where the Singapore dollar is worth three times more than the Malaysian ringgit. More importantly, every day, the Malay establishment is reminded that Singapore’s meritocracy policy works, in stark contrast to Malaysia’s blatantly racist Malay Agenda policy. The Malay political establishment is willing to pay the price for Malaysia’s under-performing economy as long as it conforms with its Malay Agenda. What it cannot accept is another 'Singapore' on its doorstep, in this case Sarawak and potentially neighbouring Sabah state.

Moreover, Sarawak and Sabah are Putrajaya’s “cashcows”. Both these Borneo states are rich in hydrocarbon. About 42 per cent of total oil produced in Malaysia comes from Sabah, 26 per cent from Sarawak, and the remaining 32 per cent from peninsula Malaya. Sarawak produced around 61 per cent of Malaysia’s total natural gas production, followed by the peninsula at 26 per cent and Sabah at 13 per cent. Under Malaysia's Petroleum Act of 1974, all oil and gas found in any part of the country belongs to the federal government, vested in Petronas, the national oil giant. Another critical reason why Putrajaya will never allow Sarawak (or Sabah) to break free from the federation without bloodshed.

So is this the end of the secession dream?

Far from it. Experience in neighbouring places like southern Thailand, southern Philippines, and Indonesia's provinces of Aceh, Irian Jaya, and Kalimantan all point to a simple truth. The nation-building process in this region is still in its infancy and under-developed. Regional identity becomes stronger if there is suppression and violence involved. National governments in the region don't understand that you can have multiple identities and yet belong to a single political entity. After all, that's supposed to be a key feature of federalism.

The Malaysian federation was supposed to take into account the diversity of Sabah and Sarawak but along the way, Kuala Lumpur saw state identity as a threat to its mission to create a national identity.

The massive GPS victory last Saturday is a vote for GPS to further pursue its Sarawak identity agenda and complete autonomy despite Putrajaya’s misgivings. This involves pushing for decentralisation across the board and giving Sarawak the maximum autonomy, as envisaged by the framers of the Malaysia Agreement.

Putrajaya is now very weak politically because the Malay establishment is split three ways, and it has little choice but to go along with GPS. The Sarawak poll took place just days after the Malaysian Parliament pass a constitutional amendment, requiring two-thirds support, to amend clauses that clearly divided the states of the federation into two equal halves – the two from Borneo and the other 11 states in peninsula Malaya. The amendment was largely symbolic, but it signals a change in the mindset of the Malay political elite that they will have to accept that the Borneo states have consciously decided not to adopt the Malayan political model – and to seek their own more inclusive and diverse political setup.

As Sarawak, and to a lesser extent Sabah, fans the fires of state nationalism and identity, this may even teach Putrajaya a thing or two about decentralisation and the true meaning of federalism. Indonesia learnt this lesson after 1998 and today Indonesia is generally regarded as the most progressive country in the region when it comes to centre-periphery relations. Decentralisation, despite all its problems, is generally regarded as a success story of Indonesia's post-1998 political reforms.

The Sarawak elections last week is the start of an interesting experiment. This experiment deals with how a highly centralised federation like Malaysia, typical in the region, may have the potential to change for the better – by decentralising and allowing states a high degree of autonomy without using brute force to enforce a one-size-fits-all political model.

The Sarawak election results send a clear message to Putrajaya that the GPS non-confrontation  approach to unhappiness with federal-state relations is the acceptable path for most Sarawakians. Most Sarawakians are not willing to shed blood for independence yet. They obviously want self-determination but are willing to live with Putrajaya for now.

Meeting half-way with Putrajaya, like what GPS is doing, is far more preferable to what is happening to the recent experiences of Catalonia and the Balkans. Bangkok and Manila have learnt this lesson the hard way. Moving forward, the ball is in Putrajaya's court. Let's hope new prime minister Ismail Sabri and his UMNO-led government absorbs this lesson deep in the Malay psyche.

James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, a Senior Fellow of the Jeffrey Cheah Institute, Malaysia; and a Council Member, Australian Institute of International Affairs (Tasmania). He was previously Senior Visiting Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore; Salzburg Global Freeman Fellow (US & Austria). Prof Chin is the leading scholar on contemporary Malaysian politics, especially the politics of Sabah and Sarawak.

Banner image: The Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) flag is flown in the lead up to the recent Sarawak elections, Kuching City, Malaysia - December 16, 2021. Credit: abd_image, Shutterstock.