By Charles Santiago
The people of Sabah and Sarawak have nothing to celebrate. I know it’s Malaysia Day and the politically correct thing to do is to be jubilant. But let me say this again – glitzy costumes, loud music and grand celebrations that will bleed our coffers by the millions will not wipe out the truth.
And in this case the tears of the people in Sabah and Sarawak.
Sunday is Malaysia Day, the day that Malaysia’s largest state Sarawak, and Sabah on Borneo Island joined the federation of Malaya in 1963, six years after the country’s independence from Britain.
But half a century on, many are wondering just how much they have to celebrate.
For one, Sarawak has abundant resources such as palm oil, oil and gas, timber and hydroelectric power.
And yet, its people are among the poorest in the country and the state lags behind the rest of Malaysia.
Many of its indigenous communities have no electricity, even some who live close to giant hydroelectric projects like the Bakun Dam, which forcefully relocated some 10,000 indigenous people.
The other problems in Sarawak include massive stripping of rain forests and indigenous people being robbed of their customary lands for logging and plantation activities.
We have also read shocking reports about the rape and sexual abuse of Penan women by timber company workers, which first surfaced in 2009. The victims have recently formed a group to protect themselves from the ongoing sexual violence to which timber bosses and Sarawak chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud have kept mum.
Taib, who has ruled Sarawak for three decades, has amassed huge wealth. Early this year, it was reported that leaked documents show that Taib is linked to 31 companies that have been given land for palm oil plantations. This amounts to 200,000 hectares, equivalent to three times the size of Singapore.
The Taib family has stakes in 332 Malaysian and 85 foreign companies. And the net stake in 14 Malaysian companies, as reported, is over USD1.46 billion.
Sarawak has received more investment than any other state so far this year. But the nagging question is just how much of the benefits of that investment will ever filter down to the people, especially those in rural areas?
Until recently Taib enjoyed overwhelming support from the indigenous people who were almost totally dependent on official media, linked to the Sarawak government.
But in the last year a radio station critical of the government began beaming its message into Sarawak from the UK.
Radio Free Sarawak has been hammering away reports stating that Taib has amassed vast wealth at the expense of the Sarawak people and continues to do so.
This has led to the first cracks appearing at Taib’s “kingdom” with activists and the people of Sarawak openly calling for his resignation, a subject Taib actively dodges.
The poorest state
Sabah is yet another sad story. It’s the poorest state in Malaysia while the chief minister Aman Musa has also accumulated vast wealth. While there has been one too many accusations of corruption leveled at Aman, now his name has hit international headlines for money laundering.
In years past, the chief minister’s post had rotated among Sabah’s biggest ethnic groups. But in 1995 the federal government stopped the practice, with the main ethnic Malay party Umno being given sole control of the post.
That change in policy, already another source of resentment for many, is even more in focus now that the Umno chief minister is facing these serious allegations.
Just weeks back three prominent lawmakers defected to the opposition, as discontent among indigenous people of Sabah reached a boiling point.
And on top of the political and economic grouses, the locals are also deeply concerned about a big influx of migrants from neighboring Indonesia and the Philippines.
The statistics are astounding.
Sabah’s population grew from under one million in 1980 to more than three million people today.
Foreigners make up 27 percent of that number, a larger proportion than the biggest indigenous group in Sabah.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Barisan Nasional, has always depended on winning an overwhelming number of seats in Sabah to remain in power nationally.
And the government gave Malaysian citizenship to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and stateless people in order to hold on to power.
In the recent couple of years we are seeing a certain level of disenchantment, unhappiness with the government particularly over how the government is handling the issue of illegal immigrants which seems to be significantly changing the demographics of the state.
Shoring up support
This serious issue is a setback for prime minister Najib Tun Razak who has made numerous trips to Sabah recently in an effort to shore up support for his coalition ahead of the general election, expected to be called anytime.
The ruling coalition has always depended on winning an overwhelming number of seats in Sabah to hold on to power nationally.
In the 2008 general election, it won 23 out of 25 parliamentary seats, But the ruling coalition has to win big again this time around if it wants to remain in power especially with a weakening support in other states.
But with the general election looming, Najib has announced the creation of a Royal Commission of Inquiry to look into the causes of this huge population increase and also whether foreigners were illegally given Malaysian citizenship.
And even if the inquiry comes up with the reasons for the population surge, a solution would not be easy with many of the foreigners having been here for decades and with children born in Malaysia.
So what are these Malaysia Day celebrations about when it’s clear that the merger with Malaya has only worked to allow a free ticket to the ruling elite in Sabah and Sarawak to abuse their powers and accumulate vast wealth, at the expense of the people of the state?
What would these celebrations mean to the indigenous communities and poor people in Sabah and Sarawak who see no end to their woes? I don’t have the answer.
Charles Santiago is DAP’s MP for Klang