HISTORY will judge the lawmakers – especially those from Sabah and Sarawak – on their wisdom to abstain from voting on a bill that arguably could make the two Borneo states equal with Peninsular Malaysia.
On Tuesday night, the Pakatan Harapan/Parti Warisan Sabah government failed to amend Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution. The bill was short of 10 votes to secure a two-thirds majority, which amounts to 148 out of the 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat.
Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS, which rules Sarawak but is the opposition in the Federal level) 19 MPs and Kinabatangan MP Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin of Sabah Umno were among the 59 who abstained.
Sipitang MP Yamani Hafez Musa, an independent who won the Sabah seat under Barisan Nasional ticket, was absent from Parliament. Four Pakatan MPs from Peninsular Malaysia were also not present.
Debate on the failed Bill raged on many of my WhatsApp groups.
Some of my fellow Sabahans were rational while some were emotional. Some, who were disappointed that the bill failed, called the MPs who abstained as “traitors” while others were in solidarity with the parliamentarians who they thought made the right decision not to vote for it.
What is missing in most of the raging debates is that hours before the Bill went into voting, Santubong MP Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar from GPS had sought for its withdrawal.
GPS wanted the Bill deferred because it only involved amending Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution and did not spell out clearly what rights were to follow. The Special Steering Committee, according to the Sarawak ruling coalition, had not determined the rights that would put Sarawak and Sabah on an equal footing with the peninsula. However, the Santubong MP’s motion was rejected by 136 votes to 60 votes.
How will history judge those MPs who rejected the motion to withdraw the Bill?
“Don’t bulldoze the bill. I don’t think GPS MPs wanted it to fail. What they wanted was to ensure that the equal partners status is in the amendment. They want to make sure the process is done correctly,” said Universiti Malaysia Sarawak political analyst Assoc Prof Dr Jeniri Amir.
“Meaning to say GPS do not want a piecemeal kind of amendment. They want a more holistic amendment. It has to be done right the first time because it not only has serious but also far-reaching implications for Sarawak and Sabah.”
From a political perspective, University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute director James Chin contended that the amendment was purely symbolic. In the explanatory notes, there were no financial or other implications stated, such as how federalism would continue to work in Malaysia, said the Sarawakian.
Proponents of the Bill argued that passing it was the first step towards restoring other rights of the two Borneo states which formed Malaysia together with Malaya and Singapore on Sept 16, 1963. They also rued the missed opportunity.
Jeniri did not see it as a missed opportunity. What was important, the Sarawakian said, was to move forward.
“The bottom line for us is that the aspirations of Sabahans and Sarawakians must be included in the discussion,” he said.
Concurring, Chin said a constitutional amendment could always be reintroduced.
“It is not as if it is a one and only opportunity,” he said.
He then gave a quick history of constitutional amendments made when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister the first time. When Dr Mahathir encountered resistance, his trick then was to withdraw the bill, Chin said.
“On Tuesday night in his winding speech, if Dr Mahathir knew that he did not have the numbers, he could have just withdrawn the Bill and there will be no vote,” he said.
“But they forced the vote. By forcing the vote, they are basically playing politics. This means they can go to the Sarawak elections and say, ‘We will show you who are the traitors’ – those who did not support the bill.”
Chin wondered why the government did not follow the original wording of Article 1(2) in its first draft presented on April 4.
“You have been going around telling people since May last year that you are going to restore Article 1(2) and you’re going to restore it to the original wording,” he said.
“Now, anybody in the street – whether they’ve read the Malaysia Agreement or not or whether they’ve read the Constitution of Malaysia – expect you to use the original wording.”
The wording of Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution in 1963 is: The States of the Federation shall be -
(a) The States of Malaya, namely, Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor and Trengganu; and
(b) The Borneo States, namely, Sabah and Sarawak; and
(c) the State of Singapore.
In the first draft, “the States of Malaya” and “the Borneo States“ were missing. After much protest from Opposition MPs, the missing words were included in the final draft.
But it was too late, Chin said, as GPS had already hijacked the narrative.
“They went to town and said: ‘See PH can’t be trusted, they have a motive for using a different language,’” he said.
Politicians are positioning themselves for the next Sarawak polls which must be held before Sept 7, 2021, he said. “Because of that, it became a very irrational and illogical debate.”
GPS, said Chin, had no choice but to abstain from voting for the Bill.
As he put it, the coalition claimed to be Sarawak nationalist and therefore it could not vote against it. At the same time, it could not vote “yes” as it would be giving victory to Pakatan so the only option was to abstain. By staying in the Dewan Rakyat and voting abstention, the GPS MPs could twist the story to their advantage and say “We supported the amendments. In fact, we tried to move it to select committee to have a more comprehensive amendment, but we were stopped by Pakatan and therefore we were forced to abstain.”
So, they have the correct narrative, said Chin. “You have to think of this as a political game.”
“I don’t think GPS is playing a political game. It needs to make the right decision. They are taking into account of the aspiration of the people on the ground,” he said.
Chin said the people of Sabah and Sarawak are very frustrated with their experience of federalism in Malaysia. With the change of government in GE14, he said it was an opportunity to correct historical grievances.
Whether the Bill went through on Tuesday night or not, it doesn’t matter, Chin said.
“The most important thing is that the Federal government going forward must correct the historical grievances. Because if they don’t, the other option is a nuclear option, which is the secessionist option,” he said.
And on social media, it looks like there is a growing number of frustrated Malaysians who are starting to find Sarexit (Sarawak exit) or Sabexit (Sabah exit) to be sexy.