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The gem on the other side of South China Sea

  • It is hoped that from this moment on we will look at the gem across the South China Sea in a brand new perspective, because neither side will be able to retain the glitter without the other.

By Dr James Woon Sy-Keen

What pops into your head in mention of 916? You're right! 916 is 22K gold used for crafting jewelleries.

But 916 is also Malaysia Day. Today, we are going to explore this unique gem of Malaysia in a treasure-hunting approach.

I did not coin the term “Malaysia the precious land” myself. Ancient Indians called the Malay peninsula Suvarnadvipa (the golden peninsula), while the Roman Empire's Claudius Ptolemy also referred to this land as Golden Chersonese some 1,900 years back.

What made the Malay peninsula such a “precious” place? It was recorded that the Malay peninsula was rich in gold deposits during those years, and indeed the “golden hill” in the Puteri Gunung Ledang legend was so named because of gold mining.

To be frank, to most Malaysians September 16 is nothing more than just another day off. For the past so many years, it appears to everyone that this country seems to have placed a lot more importance on August 31 Merdeka Day instead.

As a matter of fact, compared to August 31, September 16 is a more important date that reflects the true spirit of Malaysia. Weirdly, 916 Malaysia Day coincides with the 24K gold.

Anyone with some knowledge of jewellery will be able to tell that 999 or 24K gold is of utmost purity at 99.9%, which is nevertheless seldom used in the manufacture of jewelleries because 100% gold is too soft and can be deformed at the slightest pressure. 916 gold has been blended with other metals such as silver, copper and zinc to give the alloy the right hardness for jewellers to work on.

The formation of Malaysia goes well with the theory of 916 gold. With the inclusion of Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah today), a diverse, wealthy and colorful nation came into being.

Some might begin to ask which between West and East Malaysia was the purest gold while the other was the additive. By judging purely from the historical point of view, anyone can instantly conclude that the Malay peninsula was that pure gold while East Malaysia was the additive. Even if we talk about the level of development, West Malaysia is way ahead of the East.

The purpose of my article is to rebut such stereotype because we often put the two East Malaysian states at secondary positions when it comes to national identity. Geographically or politically, most of the country's key economic developments have been concentrated on the peninsula, which is very unfair to East Malaysia.

Let's assume what we will lose if we were to take East Malaysia out of Malaysia. After reading this article, I believe you will discover what a gem East Malaysia actually is!

Let's start from economic resources, a most realistic and pertinent question. Sarawak is the country's second largest GDP contributor at 10% (after Selangor), while Sabah is fourth at 7%.

Of the country's 6.7 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves, Sarawak alone has 2.8 billion and Sabah 1.7 billion. Together, the two states contribute almost two-thirds of the nation's total oil and gas reserves.

And since oil is also called “black gold”, there is no question that East Malaysia is our veritable land of gold.

Petroleum aside, East Malaysia also makes up 60% of the country's land mass with an enviable gift of biodiversity and natural resources. Statistics show that there are 15,000 plant species in Malaysia, 12,000 of which are from East Malaysia! Tropical plant species are known to have immense medicinal potentials, including anti-cancer drugs, antibiotics and a whole array of health supplements.

East Malaysia not only fares much better on the land, it also puts the peninsula to shame in marine diversity. There are about 480 species of corals in West Malaysia, vis-à-vis East Malaysia's 550. Coral reefs make a natural abode for marine fishes and are very important in their propagation.

Talking about coral reefs, we cannot afford not to mention Pulau Sipadan off the southeastern coast of Sabah, acclaimed to be the world's top snorkeling destination.

Other than rich biodiversity, East Malaysia is equally rich in ethnic diversity. While West Malaysia is endowed with three main ethnic groups and 18 Orang Asli communities, there are 32 ethnic minorities in Sabah alone, plus another 27 in Sarawak.

Cultural diversity is a veritable strength of a country as different ethnicities can have the opportunity to complement and learn from one another. Imagine what a big loss we will have to sustain without East Malaysia.

If we take out East Malaysia, we will lose Southeast Asia's tallest summit (you know which), the country's longest river (Rejang), the world's tallest tropical wood in Sabah at 100.8 meters, the world's largest cave (Sarawak Chamber), Southeast Asia's most ancient human bone findings (40,000 years, in Sarawak's Niah Cave), not to mention a highly inclusive, accommodating and ethnically diverse population.

Finally, a very happy Malaysia Day to all! It is hoped that from this moment on we will look at the gem across the South China Sea in a brand new perspective, because neither side will be able to retain the glitter without the other.

(Dr James Woon Sy-Keen is Lecturer of Biomedical Sciences, Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia.)


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