Whither the safeguarding of Borneo States’ special interests?

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Commentary

By Lian Cheng

BOTH Sarawak and Sabah—often referred to as the Borneo States—agreed to a British initiative to join Malaya and Singapore in forming a federation of four territories with terms and conditions collectively and concertedly put in place to safeguard the “special interests” of the then more underdeveloped territories of Sarawak and Sabah.


The Inter-Governmental Committee Report 1962 (IGC Report) which is the basis or the foundation leading to Sarawak and Sabah agreeing to join the federation guarantees explicitly that “the constitutional arrangements of the federation will safeguard their special interests.”

The federation would be known as Malaysia, a brainchild, hurriedly created to wash British hands of the two Borneo colonies as Great Britain wound down its colonial responsibilities amidst loud calls for self-rule or independence among its colonies.

In Chapter I (introduction) of the IGC Report, the guarantee to “safeguard the special interests of Sarawak and Sabah” is mentioned at least four times.

“The two governments (British and Malayan) decided to set up an Inter-Governmental Committee where the British North Borneo and the Sarawak governments would be represented. It was tasked with formulating the federation’s future constitutional arrangements, which include safeguarding the special interests of North Borneo and Sarawak, covering such matters as freedom of worship, education, representation in the federal parliament, the position of the indigenous races, control of immigration, citizenship and state constitutions.” (Paragraph 3, Chapter I, IGC Report).”

In response to this clear-cut assurance, the Legislative Council of North Borneo (now Sabah) on Sept 12, 1962, passed the following motion:

“Be it resolved this Council do welcome the decision in principle of the British and Malayan governments to establish Malaysia by the 31st August, 1963, provided that the terms of the participation and the constitutional arrangements will safeguard the special interests of North Borneo.” (Paragraph 6, Chapter 1, IGC Report).

About two weeks later on Sept 26, 1962, the Sarawak Council Negri likewise accepted the same proposition, expressing that it “welcomes the decision in principle of the British and Malayan governments to establish Malaysia by the 31st August 1963, on the understanding that the special interests of Sarawak will be safeguarded,” (Paragraph 7, Chapter 1, IGC Report).

In Chapter II which sheds light on the composition of the Federation of Malaysia, the special interests of Sarawak and Sabah are again mentioned and emphasised as follows:

“The Committee noted the intention stated in Paragraph 4 of the joint public statement (Annex C) to conclude a formal agreement, embodying detailed constitutional arrangements, including safeguards for the special interests of North Borneo and Sarawak.” (Paragraph 11, Chapter II, IGC Report).

Following the IGC Report, amendments were made to the Malayan Constitution to accommodate Sarawak and Sabah, where it is noted with regret that follow-up actions to promulgate clear and explicit terms to safeguard the special interests of Sarawak and Sabah was not followed through.

In the face of Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation (Konfrontasi) and a clandestine state insurgency in the lead-up to Sarawak joining the federation, Sarawak had no choice but to accept the best defence arrangements offered and agree to enter into a treaty.

Years passed and no one appeared to show any particular interest in the special rights of Sarawak and Sabah until former Chief Minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem issued the clarion call in 2017 for the return of Sarawak’s rights as an equal partner in the federation.

Sarawakians were suddenly awakened from their slumber.

For the past 59 years, the terms and conditions set out in the IGC Report to “safeguard the special interests of Sarawak and Sabah” were not only not adhered to, there were obvious intentions and actual actions to progressively eroded the rights of the two Borneo States via the enactment of new laws and unstated moves to amend the Federal Constitution.

Notable cases in point include the Petroleum Development Act 1974, which amended Federal Constitution Article 1(2) to downgrade Sarawak and Sabah’s statuses to just states in the federation, and the Territorial Sea Act 2012.These demonstrate the progressive erosion of the Borneo States’ rights, wealth and resources by the federal government.

In addition, there is the yearly budget where Sarawak gets, on average, only five per cent of the total budget for oil and gas—a meagre and miserable sum—considering Sarawak and Sabah account for 60 per cent of the nation’s production of petroleum and its by-products.

Instead of having their special interests safeguarded, the two Borneo States have been shortchanged, leaving them as the poorest with their development decades behind their Malayan counterparts.

One may ask why and how did Sarawakians and the Sabahans allow this to happen?

Possibly, due to circumstances prevailing at the time, the local leaders made erroneous judgment calls and their indiscretions had seen them lending support to parliamentary bills whereby Sarawak’s rights and wealth had been eroded and whittled away. A critic described it as “a turkey voting for Christmas.”

Conscionably, it is now the duty of Sarawakians to make sure the same mistake does not happen again.

Sarawakians are now trying to grasp with greater understanding their rights in accordance with the spirit of Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) and IGC Report, cognisant of the fact that initial preparations and the resultant treaty were finalised in haste.

Since “safeguarding the special interests” of Sarawak and Sabah was the basis of the two Borneo States joining the federation, there may be two ways to read their present situation following the failure of their Malayan counterpart in keeping their side of the agreement for the last 59 years.

First, as advocated by the more fervent section of the population, leave the federation to become an independent State. This will totally lift the burden from Malaya of having responsibility for Sarawak’s or Sabah’s development. On the part of Sarawak, there will be no love lost for a quarrelsome and greedy partner.

Or secondly, as favoured by the more moderate segment, Sarawak and Sabah should continue to remain in the federation, premised on fair play and an avowed guarantee on the federal government’s part to make amends by returning the rights and wealth of the two Borneo States.

For starters, to protect Sarawak and Sabah’s interests, both Borneo States must constitutionally possess at least 35 per cent of the parliamentary seats as well as a similar percentage of seats in the Senate, whether it was stated specifically in the IGC Report and MA63 or not.

This will become the mechanism where Sarawak and Sabah can protect themselves from any future treacherous moves to rip off both States or dilute their rights.

It also marks a return to the starting point when Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak made up 35 per cent of parliamentary seats in order to hold the “check and balance” veto power. Let bygones be bygones and let’s have a fresh start.

It is a proven fact that for the last 59 years, rather than safeguarding the special interests of Sarawak and Sabah, the federal government did otherwise. The Borneo States holding 35 per cent of seats in both Parliament and the Senate is just for self-protection.

To argue that Sarawakian MPs or senators may turn their backs on their own State and vote in favour of Malaya as shown by past events, and thus should not be given the seats, is irrelevant at this point. Any MP or Senator who does not defend Sarawak’s rights is the problem of Sarawakians, not that of the Malayans. What the federal government should rightly do is return what Sarawakians and Sabahans are entitled to in accordance with what is stated in and in the spirit oof MA63 and the IGC Report.

Both Sarawak’s neighbours—Brunei which considered joining the federation but backed off, and Singapore which intially joined but soon realised its mistake and pulled out—are enjoying prosperity and development, compared to the Borneo States, which, though rich in natural resources, are constantly waiting for handouts and picking up crumbs from under the table.

Sarawakians are reflecting on their historical decision, which cannot be undone, but we can always rethink on the present and make the right decision to determine a better future after putting our trust in the wrong hands for a long time now. — DayakDaily