Sarawak polls: Autonomy the word on everyone's lips

  • Nation
  • Saturday, 16 Apr 2016

A Kuching North City Hall employee cleaning the famous landmark in Sarawak's state capital of Kuching. - Filepic

KUCHING: George Chin, a lab technician in his 30s, never really took Sarawak autonomy issues seriously until recently -- bread and butter issues had dominated his daily life.
"After school I cared mostly about work. After starting a family, I was more concerned with earning a good income. My wife and I both work," says Chin.
While politics was discussed at home, it rarely ventured into territories like autonomy, which can be vague concepts. In other words, there was more talk on petrol prices and political gossip rather than matters like “the devolution of powers from federal to state”.
"Of course people here all feel we have been mistreated by peninsula Malaysia. There is lack of development obviously but people weren’t saying things like state empowerment."
Autonomy was the mainstay of the Opposition during elections, particularly PKR. In the 2013 General Election, PKR launched a "Kuching Declaration", which heavily focussed on autonomy featuring words like “Borneonisation”.
But for the most part, the Opposition’s campaigns were on easier to grasp issues like corruption, and tied the lack of development to low oil and gas royalties.
But in the run up to this state election, it seems autonomy is on everyone’s lips. Historical documents like the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) are being bandied about by politicians from both sides.
At the recent Sarawak for Sarawakians debate, MA63 was referred to as Sarawak's "Bible". Corruption and abuse of power were not even raised by the debaters.
Everything that was wrong with Sarawak is due to decision-makers not adhering to MA63, debaters said. Restoring the spirit of MA63 could solve everything -- from racism to the problem of MyKad-less rural folks, they added.
"This sentiment can be felt everywhere," says Dr Arnold Puyok, who heads the Department of Politics and International Relations at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.
Both the Barisan Nasional state Government and Opposition are playing up the issue.
"But the incumbent Government will gain more because it has the leverage of having negotiated with the Federal Government. Case in point is the return of the 13 administrative powers to the state Government,” he adds, referring to ongoing state-federal negotiation.
In January, Adenan announced that phase one (of three) of the negotiations had been completed. Among others, Sarawak legal officers now have more power to investigate and prosecute over state ordinances, while public housing projects would be jointly handled by state and federal authorities.
Sarawakian teachers working in peninsula would also be given more leeway to be transferred back. In later phases, Adenan has promised, would deal with oil and gas royalties.
All this focus on autonomy might come as a surprise to peninsula Malaysians, like the recent spate of immigration bans.
Dr Arnold says the issue of Sarawak and Sabah’s autonomy never used to feature in the national discussion.
"More voices from east Malaysia are being heard. The intensity of this state Election, the increasing role of new media, will mean more people in peninsula will understand why Sarawakians and Sabahans are making so much noise."
Decades of accumulated unhappiness are being rolled into one. The long list of grouses, Dr Arnold says, include "interference in Sarawak's domestic affairs, lack of appreciation of Sarawak's unique cultures and lack of development support”, just to name a few.
A recent Merdeka Centre survey found 54% of Sarawakians feeling mistreated by Putrajaya. This sentiment was strongest in urban areas, especially with highly educated young people.
In a more pointed question, those surveyed were asked: In your view, do you think Sarawak is better or worse off by joining Malaysia in 1963?
A surprisingly high 34% responded negatively. Forty-five per cent in the private sector said Sarawak was worse off; 43% of self employed respondents said the same. Only homemakers, retirees and those in the Government responded positively, with 55% to 65% saying Sarawakians are better off as Malaysians.
Crucially, 75% said they have heard about the Sarawak for Sarawakian movement, and that "seeking greater autonomy" was its main cause. (Comparatively, only 3% considered protecting social welfare of Sarawakians as the movement's duty.)
Most Chinese desired greater state autonomy for economic management, whereas most Muslim Bumiputras desired greater autonomy for oil royalty. Overall, 85% agree Sarawak should have more autonomy.
Chin is one of them. He believes more state autonomy will translate to quicker development. For some years now, Chin and his wife have been considering further study options as one way to increase their household income in the long run.
“There is a lot of economic frustration. Everyone is feeling the pinch. Things are getting expensive. But there is also a feeling that the state is on the right track. The state can handle it.”
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