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Sarawak's demands part of nation-building, not an exit call, analysts say

They say Sarawak is only seeking to protect its interests under the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

Nur Shazreena Ali
3 minute read
People stroll about at the Waterfront near the state legislative assembly building in Kuching, Sarawak.
People stroll about at the Waterfront near the state legislative assembly building in Kuching, Sarawak.

Analysts have played down concerns that Sarawak might seek to exit the federation, amid recent moves by state authorities seen as part of efforts to gain some measure of autonomy from the federal government. 

Sarawak has long called for the reinstatement of its rights as spelt out in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63). 

Most recently, it submitted a candidate to represent the state at the Inland Revenue Board, saying this would ensure the relevant allocation of funds, given Sarawak's vast size. 

But while such moves are seen as a push for greater autonomy from the central government, historians who spoke to MalaysiaNow said they functioned more as a reminder than a call for secession. 

"Sarawak would never leave Malaysia," Sarawak historian Sanib Said said.

Referring to former Sarawak chief minister Adenan Satem, Sanib said he had made it very clear that there would be no separation of the state from the federation. 

"Malaysia before, Malaysia now, and Malaysia forever in the future," he added. 

"To be part of the federation of Malaysia was one of Sarawak's wisest decisions." 

Sarawak joined with Sabah and Singapore to form the federation on Sept 16, 1963, which is now known as Malaysia Day. Singapore left to become a sovereign nation two years later, in August 1965. 

But while state leaders have been vocal about Sarawak's rights under MA63, Sanib, a researcher at the Institute of East Asian Studies in Unimas, said the demands were not the central issue. 

"We must see things within context," he said. "You cannot interpret MA63 now, when the country is successful and developing. You must remember how it was back then."

He said Sarawak at that time was weak, under-developed and vulnerable to the threats posed by the communists. 

"That is more important," he added. "And we should be grateful." 

Suffian Mansor, a historian from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, agreed. 

"Sarawak is only voicing its demand for MA63 to be upheld and for development on par with its brothers in the peninsula," he said. 

"These two matters are of importance and should be addressed by the federal government." 

Sunib said MA63 set out the terms and conditions under which Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore had agreed to join the federation of Malaysia. 

But he said leaders today did not understand the agreement. 

Citing the recent proposal by Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan for a "new Malaysia Agreement", Sanib said the country needed leaders who could look beyond the differences and instead work for the common good. 

"The uneasy relationship between the state and federal government is part and parcel of nationhood. 

"This is part of the nation growing up," he said, adding that Sarawak was not the only state that had "issues" with the federal government.

"Kelantan, Penang, Johor also have their own issues. The important thing is to sit and discuss, and to find some middle ground."

Constitutional law expert Shad Saleem Faruqi said the best way to go about this would be to amend the relevant constitutional provisions to bring them in line with MA63. 

He said this would allow greater levels of integration between Sabah and Sarawak and the federal government. 

"Not all of the MA63 provisions were incorporated into the Malaysia Act or the Federal Constitution," he said. 

"Constitutional amendments, not a new Malaysia Agreement, is the best legal way to strengthen relationships and resolve disputes." 

Suffian meanwhile suggested a review of why Malaysia had been formed in the first place. 

"From there, we can move on to a discussion on what needs to improve."

He, too, agreed that the apparent conflict was nothing out of the ordinary. 

"The road to nationhood is not easy," he said. 

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