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Constitutional changes to empower Sabah, Sarawak may see MPs in second ever show of unity

The bill to bring the constitution in line with the Malaysia Agreement 1963 follows the Undi 18 bill unanimously passed in 2019.

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MPs gather at the Dewan Rakyat in Kuala Lumpur last month. A constitutional amendment will require a two-third majority to pass. Photo: Bernama
MPs gather at the Dewan Rakyat in Kuala Lumpur last month. A constitutional amendment will require a two-third majority to pass. Photo: Bernama

A set of crucial constitutional changes to be put to vote in the Dewan Rakyat today could see MPs across all parties uniting to pass a bill to empower Sabah and Sarawak’s status in the Malaysian Federation, the second show of unity in Parliament after the Undi 18 amendment two years ago.

The bill contains four proposals to amend several clauses in the Federal Constitution, bringing it in line with the provisions of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).

When it was first put to vote under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, it failed to obtain support from Sarawak’s Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), as well as Umno and PAS MPs which made up the opposition at the time.

Critics said then that the amendments were only cosmetic, and that they did not clearly state the main demands for Sabah and Sarawak’s economic and territorial rights.

This time, however, GPS MPs have vowed to support the bill following several modifications.

A source in PKR said MPs from PH are also expected to support the bill despite its own bill failing to obtain support when it was last put to vote.

“With the looming Sarawak election and the sentiments for greater equality being made a focus of the campaign, it would be suicidal for PH to oppose or abstain,” the source told MalaysiaNow.

The bill, drafted following several sessions with both ruling and opposition MPs, will among others see Sabah and Sarawak being called “Borneo states”, restoring a controversial amendment in 1976 which lumped the two states together with the other peninsular states in alphabetical order.

When MA63 was first signed in 1963, the federation was divided into the states of Malaya, the Bornean states and the state of Singapore. Singapore left the federation two years later.

Including ‘Malaysia Day’ in constitution

Another amendment today is on the definition of the federation, to show that the inclusion of Sabah and Sarawak was an extension of the original federation of Malaya in 1957, as well as to state the exit of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965.

In the second reading of the bill today, law minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the change was in line with demands by Sabah and Sarawak as stipulated in MA63.

“The proposal will also give recognition to the Malaysia Agreement 1963 in the Federal Constitution,” he told Dewan Rakyat.

A third amendment is to include the definition of Malaysia Day on Sept 16, 1963, giving it a constitutional mention and the same status as Merdeka Day which is marked annually as Malaysia’s independence day on Aug 31.

“It is also consistent with the interpretation of ‘Merdeka Day’ provided under Clause (2), Article 160 of the Federal Constitution,” said Wan Junaidi.

The fourth amendment is to Article 161A on the definition of “native”, removing a list of native races specified in the constitution in order to allow Sarawak and Sabah to decide who deserves to be called natives.

The move will have profound economic and political consequences as the constitution accords those regarded as “natives” of Sabah and Sarawak a “special position” alongside the Malays, including quotas in public service and education, as well as other government facilities.

A constitutional amendment requires a two-third majority to pass.

Earlier today, party leaders urged their MPs to be present in the Dewan Rakyat by 4pm, to ensure a two-third majority support for the bill.

If the 220 MPs vote to pass today’s bill, it will be the second unanimous vote passed in the Dewan Rakyat.

In July 2019, a constitutional amendment tabled by then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 was backed by both sides of the political divide, with all 211 MPs present voting for it.