PERHAPS the greatest divide between Malaysians in the peninsula and those in Sabah and Sarawak is in the mind.
Elders see Sabah and Sarawak as the land of the great unknown, with jungles, wild animals and strange headhunting tribes with tatoos running up their thighs and ear lobes weighed down by brass rings.
The youth who have had considerably more contact with their peers through schooling and easier travel regret that peninsular Malaysians lack the same warmth and inter-racial gregariousness of their Sabah and Sarawak friends.
Many of those above the age of 50 have never travelled to “East Malaysia”. When encouraged to do so, Ustazah Rohani asked with a worried frown: “But what about the tribes?”
For other peninsular Malaysians, the need to produce a passport is, in principle, a contentious issue. Even today, when Malaysians need only fill in Form 114 and show their identity cards, they balk at the principle of not being able to travel as freely as they would to Terengganu, for instance.
“Why should we have to fill in forms or produce identification as if we do not belong to the same country?” said a retired government servant.
“Those who make such statements do not appreciate the history of the country and the roots of the Malaysia Agreement,” said Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of national integration.
In 1963, Sabahans and Sarawakians had feared that they might be flooded with more qualified labour from the peninsula. They also feared an influx of bad hats. These concerns still exist but the emphasis has shifted from the former to the latter.
Orang Malaya was an old term, hardly used today.
“Major Malaysian companies like Bank Bumi or even Maybank initially hired a lot of branch managers from semenanjung because not many Sarawakians could do the job,” explained Sarawak-born Anthony Firdauz Bujang, general manager of TV3’s Brand Management Group for the past four years.
“But now a lot of them have been replaced by qualified Sarawakians. The companies themselves find it more cost-effective.
“I don’t think the borang (arrival form) is an issue. On hindsight, if you talk about illegal immigrants, maybe it is a blessing that you can track them at point of entry.”
Through Ops Nyah, the federal government sent back between 300,000 and 400,000 out of about 600,000 illegal immigrants, 70% of them Filipinos and 30% Indonesian.
“It is one of the minor hindrances that just needs explaining,” conceded Ongkili.
“After the creation of the Federation of Labuan in 1984, Sabah did away with the passport requirement immediately. Sarawak took five years longer.”
As to application for work permits, federal government officers are exempt. The private sector must apply, a formality that is met within weeks.
“There is no requirement that local companies must hire locals, although at the kedai kopi, grumblings of ‘Why not hire locals if you have them’ would be heard,” admitted Ongkili.
Conversely, if there were still differences, “TV3 would not have put a Sarawakian in such a senior management position today”, Bujang pointed out.
“Sarawak is more closely integrated now than when I was in primary school. I feel very, very Malaysian,” said Bujang emphatically.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi sees integration as vital. He renamed the Ministry of National Unity and Social Development to Department of National Unity and Integration, placed it under the Prime Minister’s Department, and appointed a Minister from Sabah and a Deputy Minister from Sarawak.
The revival of the long dormant Rukun Tetangga is another step forward. Almost 2,800 Rukun Tetangga units, reaching out to 8.5 million people, have extended their scope beyond security to neighbourliness, self-reliance and creativity.
Other efforts are the country's 1,346 Tadika Perpaduan, which targets 37,000 youngsters and, as a bonus, their parents too.
For now, travel is restricted to air and flights are always fully booked. The demand is there – from the 50,000 Sabahans and 30,000 Sarawakians working in the peninsula, and families of army personnel and civil servants posted in the two states. The revival of Feri Malaysia, which ran aground in 1990, is thus crucial.
The complaints then were that Kuantan was not a terribly attractive docking destination, the ships were small and the turn-around time of 3.5 days very long.
This time, a private company will run the ferry with token payments of 15% to the federal government and 10% each to Sabah and Sarawak as an expression of their support for the project. To make it economically viable, this company should already be in shipping so that it would have the docking facilities, shipping lanes, and overall experience and maritime connections.
Fares are a major factor to success. Acceptable fares are cited as below RM300 for a return trip to Sabah and below RM250 for Sarawak.
Passenger capacity would be 300 to 400, big enough for school or seminar groups. In addition, it would also carry 80 to 100 vehicles so that families may bring their cars over.
With a turn-around time of 2.5 days, Feri Malaysia is not aimed at businessmen on the go. It is meant for families, holidaymakers with time to spare, for whom the journey together is as much the experience as the destination.
The National Service programme will, with permission from the participants' parents, offer a host family programme. In its first year, 600 Sabah and 700 Sarawak youths watched enviously as their peninsular dorm-mates went out on family weekends.
This will change with the next intake. The idea is to promote interaction.
“We want our youths to internalise the spirit of Merdeka,” said Ongkili.
“In Kelantan, the big Chinese restaurants have to be halal, so you find Malays and Chinese eating together.”
Today’s 40-year-old was only five in 1969, with hardly a memory of the racial clash. His older siblings may have dim recollections of fear, food rations or seeking shelter from neighbours – sometimes those of other races.
Mostly, Malaysians want to forget 1969 and the Kampung Medan incident of March 2001. They want to move on.
But tolerance is not the goal. The ultimate goal is to have so much personal interaction that Malaysians can withstand any racial stress. It is about building a buffer of people-to-people goodwill.
For the more racially segregated groupings in Peninsular Malaysia, it is about taking a leaf out of Sabah and Sarawak's books so that language, food and religious beliefs will not be barriers to a sense of oneness, but a diversity to be celebrated by a future Bangsa Malaysia.
It is, most of all, about creating such a resilient social fabric that it can withstand any attempts to tear it apart.