We in the peninsula must learn from our borneo brothers and sisters the art of communal living, in which they are far better than us.
AS we commemorate 56 years of the formation of Malaysia, it is necessary to strengthen the bridges of friendship between the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak. It is necessary for the people of both regions to rededicate themselves to the spirit of accommodation, moderation and compromise that made possible the transformation of Malaya to Malaysia.
It is time to acknowledge that unity between East and West Malaysia is necessary for peace, stability, economic and social development across both shores. This unity must rest on mutual respect and tolerance for each other’s unique cultures, religions and traditions. Unity does not mean uniformity.
As we reflect on the landmark events that led to the formation of Malaysia, many historical movements and moments stand out.
The ravages of World War II led Britain to adopt a policy of withdrawal from most of its colonies. In 1961, Britain commenced negotiations with the Federation of Malaya, representatives of the territories of North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak, Singapore and Brunei to enlarge the Federation. Brunei ultimately withdrew from the negotiations.
In 1962, many landmark events took place. Resolutions were passed by the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee and the Legislative Council of North Borneo to proceed with the Malaysia proposal but on the condition that the special rights of the Borneo states be protected.
The 20-Point Manifesto of the Sabah Alliance and a similar 18-point Agreement for Sarawak were formulated.
The Cobbold Commission reported that the people of the Borneo states wished to join Malaya.
The Lord Lansdowne Inter-Governmental Committee worked out the future constitutional arrangements including safeguards for the special interests of North Borneo and Sarawak to cover such matters as religious freedom, education, representation in the federal Parliament, the special position of the indigenous races, control of immigration, citizenship and the state Constitutions.
A general election was held in North Borneo in 1962 and in Sarawak in 1963. On July 9,1963, the Malaysia Agreement consisting of 11 clauses was concluded between Britain, the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore.
On Aug 20, the Federation of Malaya Parliament enacted the Malaysia Act, which rewrote the Merdeka Constitution and substantially restructured the constitutional framework of Malaya.
Eighty-seven out of 181 Articles and 10 out of 13 Schedules of the Federal Constitution were amended and 35 new Articles inserted.
In many respects, the amendments created a new Constitution to accommodate the realities of a new, enlarged and more diverse nation.
Due to their geographical size, ethnic and religious uniqueness, and the problems of under-development, Sabah and Sarawak were allowed to enter the new Federation on special terms not available to the 11 peninsula states.
This special position was justified due to Sabah and Sarawak’s cultural and religious distinctiveness and the huge territories and massive resources they brought to the new Federation.
Their combined area is 198,069sq km, exceeding Peninsular Malaysia’s 131,681sq km. Their total coastline is 2,607km compared to the peninsula’s 2,068km.
There were also serious problems of poverty and underdevelopment in these states.
The 1963 pact between the Federation of Malaya, Britain, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore is not a mere domestic arrangement but provides international law basis to the guarantees for Sabah and Sarawak.
In the Federal Constitution, the Sabah and Sarawak Assemblies are given special legislative powers not available to the 11 peninsula states. The power of the federal Parliament to promote uniformity of state laws does not extend to Sabah and Sarawak.
Federal powers over national development plans, land, agriculture, forestry and local government do not apply to these states.
Amendments to the Federal Constitution touching on the rights of these states cannot be passed without the consent of the Governors of these states.
In 1963, one-third of the members of the Dewan Rakyat, enough to block a constitutional amendment, belonged to Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.
There is a special High Court for Sabah and Sarawak. There are special provisions for Native Courts. In the appointment of the Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak, the Chief Minister of these states must be consulted.
The Federal Government’s stranglehold over most of the lucrative sources of revenue is not as strong in relation to Sabah and Sarawak as it is in relation to other states. In several areas, Sabah and Sarawak enjoy fiscal privileges that are not available to the peninsula states.
Under Article 153, the natives of Sabah and Sarawak enjoy a special position similar to that of the Malays of the peninsula.
Immigration into Sabah and Sarawak is subject to the power of these states. Sabah and Sarawak enjoy special protection in relation to the use of English and native languages. There is non-application of Malay Reserves to these states.
However, as in life so in law, not everything has gone according to plan. In many areas, Sabah and Sarawak’s autonomy has suffered retreat due to political and constitutional developments.
There are many embers of controversy and they need to be doused. Both sides must remember the mutual benefits that the formation of Malaysia has brought to them.
The Federal Government must restore to these states any powers inadvertently taken away. It must recognise Sabah and Sarawak as not just two of the 13 states of the Federation but as two special entities with considerable autonomy.
The peninsula must respect the cultural, religious and linguistic distinctiveness of Sabah and Sarawak and learn from our Borneo brothers and sisters the art of inter-communal living in which they fare better than us in the peninsula by a long shot.
The Federal Government must work towards a more equitable financial relationship with these states. It must acknowledge the vast territories, coastlines and natural resources the nation has gained due to Sabah and Sarawak.
These advantages have, of course, come with the responsibility to provide sustainable development to regions with vast potential but with acute poverty and underdevelopment.
In turn, Sabah and Sarawak must remember that their status as self-governing colonies was upgraded to full independence only when Malaysia was constituted.
Leaders of these states must distance themselves from the secessionist demands of some compatriots. Such demands have no basis in national and international law.
With these reminders, let us hope and pray that our federation will grow stronger and that federal-state relations in our country, which are far more harmonious than in most other federal systems, will be enriched with greater respect and mutual trust.
Emeritus Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi is Tunku Abdul Rahman Professor at Universiti Malaya’s law faculty and holder of the Tun Hussein Chair at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia. He wishes all Malaysians the blessings of Merdeka and of Malaysia Day. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.