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The political sense of security East Malaysians want

  • A sense of security has become more precious now than development for the coming Sarawak election.

By Liew Wui Chern

As a Sarawakian involved in high education works in West Malaysia, I have always helped answer the queries and curiosity of my West Malaysian friends, colleagues and students about East Malaysia. Although I do come across some really uninspiring questions now and then, I have because of this managed to observe the differences in the viewpoints and positions of people on both sides of the South China Sea towards each other.

Sure enough I have seen that people in West Malaysia still hold some stereotyped impressions about East Malaysia, including unusually strong exclusivity and the general perception that rural areas are absolutely desolate and the pace of urbanization extremely sluggish, among others. Reassuringly, I have lately received inquiries mainly about East Malaysians' political, economic and social viewpoints and current circumstances.

In other words, there have been some fundamental changes to West Malaysians' interests in the East. They now begin to care more about the deeper political ideologies and local mindsets, unlike in the past when they were apparently more curious about whether we still lived on trees, who the chieftain of my longhouse was, or whether I had to take a boat to school when young. Many of them do agree that East Malaysia is a”fairyland” in the exact word of my Malay colleague, but they also feel that this place has been “customarily” neglected by the federal government when it comes to economic development. Some even feel that the federal cabinet should set aside a East Malaysian affairs ministry to take care of the development in of Sabah and Sarawak.

At the same time, there have also been changes in East Malaysians' perception of West Malaysia. East Malaysia, in particular Sarawak, has begun to open up its local market. As a result, we have seen an unprecedented influx of West Malaysian and international brands into the local market, while more and more West Malaysians have come here to do business or invest. Meanwhile, Sarawakians are growingly more tolerant towards West Malaysians willing to assimilate themselves into the ethnically diverse society of the state, and are less resistant as in the past. Although some Sarawakians have developed a sense of superiority over their West Malaysian counterparts as a consequence of increased localism, they nevertheless sympathize with West Malaysians for the political commotion and endless racial issues they are facing on a daily basis now.

This, I think is a very good change as it underscores the reality that indeed some progress has been made after so many years of social and cognitive segregation between the West and East. That said, this “fairyland” with its relatively simple-minded but culturally diverse population has become a much sought after target of some West Malaysian politicians and religious people who are planning to extend their influences and establish their fundamental support bases here.

For instance, PPBM supreme council member cum education minister Maszlee Malik has urged the Islamic clerics in East Malaysia to develop the place into a fertile ground for preaching the religion. In addition, this party also made a sudden eastward move during the first half of the year, reneging on the promise prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad made to Parti Warisan Sabah prior to the 14th general elections.

Recently, home minister Muhyiddin Yassin also made a surprising announcement that his ministry would provide temporary residence permits for more than 600,000 illegal migrants in Sabah, much to the frustration of the local community. The federal government subsequently explained that the move was meant to more effectively monitor the existing illegal migrants in the state, but having experienced the restructuring of the state's racial make-up pursuant to the infamous “Project IC” of the 1990s, the latest announcement has triggered heated debates in the state. Many are worried that this will mark a first attempt by the federal government to resuscitate the “Project IC”. Such reactions and moves from West Malaysia and the federal government have created in many East Malaysians a sense of insecurity and skepticism towards the PH government and West Malaysian politicians.

Moreover, the PH government has failed to honor its election promises on oil royalty and sharing of tax revenue. Some cabinet ministers have even made life difficult for Sarawak's GPS administration over school maintenance allocations, making Sarawakians feel insecure with the federal government. This has made East Malaysians increasingly frustrated with the PH administration as well as West Malaysian politicians, giving rise to the emergence of "Sarawak independence movement". Many people and companies in the state refused to put up the Jalur Gemilang during the recent Merdeka celebration on August 31.

Despite tremendous progress made in people-to-people interactions between East and West Malaysia, East Malaysians still feel insecure under the current federal politics, while the federal government's attitude towards greater political, educational and economic sovereignty for the East Malaysian states has been vague, raising further question over Putrajaya's sincerity.

It has been rumored that the federal government has done so on purpose, so that in the coming state election, what the state government has failed to fight for will go into PH's election manifesto.

However, the federal government should bear in mind that Sarawakians may no longer trust it given its failure to honor its GE14 pledges.

As a matter of fact, a sense of security has become more precious now than development for the coming state election.

(Liew Wui Chern teaches journalism in Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman Malaysia.)


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