"The country was in peril; he was jeopardising his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them." - Joseph Heller (Catch-22)

COMMENT The reality is that Umno failed Sarawak and Sabah a long time ago. Even in those early days, there was an undercurrent of resentment towards West Malaysians; as if the indigenous peoples understood the future in that precious 18 (or should that be 20) point agreement was nothing but a pipe dream.

From 1968 to 1969, I was the resident naval officer in Kuching. British and Malaysian military and police personnel in the midst of anti-communist/terrorist operations in Sarawak would congregate at the open air food court, which was a market place in the daytime in the centre of Kuching town. There the former colonialists and their post-independent comrades would trade operational stories.

NONEOne particular encounter amongst the denizens of the food court would have a profound effect on my life.

In the bustling restaurant, I met a middle-aged British border scout who in the parlance of his employers had "gone native" and was living with the Ibans and speaking fluent Iban (he was also fluent in the various Malay dialects, Mandarin, French and German). 

He was the eyes and ears of the Malaysian government. He had also been part of Tom Harrison's band of brothers who were deployed to cut off AM Azahari in the Brunei uprising.

Our conversations during my tenure there would inform my perspective on not only British presence in Borneo but also of our presence there. One of the things I noticed was the marked difference in the attitudes of the people of Sarawak had towards the British and their newly-minted fellow countrymen.

When I mentioned this to my new found Birmingham comrade, he said, the people of Sarawak found it difficult and were skeptical of fellow Malaysians from the peninsula because of our condescending attitudes towards them. It would seem they expected it from the British (and most often got it) but not from us.

Malays and 'non-Malay' natives 

Indeed that conversation was dredged up recently amongst the retired military personnel (some of whom were there) and certain members of the legal fraternity I still fraternise with when former Umno legal advisor turned chief justice now chairman of the Special Review Commission on Civil Service Transformation, Zaki Azmi, recommended that the qualification requirements for Dayaks and other non-Malay natives be lowered to lubricate their entrance into the civil service.

During my tenure at Kuching, a senior Special Branch officer lamented the unfortunate situation of federal civil service officers and certain uniformed personnel taking an extremely condescending and patronising attitude towards Sarawakian staff and officers.

He was concerned that this would be very detrimental in the long term. Religion and ethnicity played a part in how these officers viewed their colleagues in Sarawak. Even in those early days proselytising was attempted as an inducement for future career prospects.

I never understood the distinction between "Malay" and "non-Malay" natives, but I reckon that this is a distinction that Perkasa chief Ibrahim Ali and his ilk understand or could articulate in their own bizarre logic.

zaki azmi interview 140911Apparently under Umno, the racial composition of the civil service in Sarawak is imbalanced. I guess that Borneosation point in the 18/20-point Agreement has been put in the backburner?

This is all a bit strange since Zaki (left) had praised the Sarawak civil service as something that federal departments and agencies operating in the state should emulate.

How lowering the qualification requirements would improve the service was not exactly elaborated on, since his mindset (Zaki's) like most neo-colonialist thinking assumed playing the racial card would score points with the natives even when you belittle their intelligence in the process.

Thankfully the outrage has been swift with Dayak and other non-Malay native (sic) representatives taking the principled stand that this kind of "affirmative action" was insult rather than boon. Discussions in the niche blogosphere (those blogs not covered by the ‘mainstream alternative media') has centred around the problems with affirmative action and those playing race quota politics, be it BN or Pakatan Rakyat.

Shrewdest player in the race game

And let's face facts; it's not as if qualification requirements are that stringent to begin with. As many have noted, there is more at play here than just a cheap vote garnering stunt. What this has exposed (yet again) is the way how Umno has made the civil service its own private playground and the requirement to be of a particular race if you want a chance in the sand box.

NONEOf course, with Sarawak (and Sabah) there's that added dimension that federal interference brings about a whole slew of historical and present-day complications. All of which are insignificant when compared to the Machiavellian grip Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud (right in photo) has on Sarawak.

Taib by far the shrewdest player in the race game in Malaysia has managed to keep Umno's grubby little hands from his sandbox all the while feathering his nest with the exploitation of the lands and natural resources at the expense of its people.

These have made him far more than a proxy and the way how post-tsunami 2008, he has cocked the big Umno guns from the Peninsular and benefitted from the Pakatan squabbles is a reminder of the complicated politics of East Malaysia.

Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's plea to Sabahans and Sarawakians to be "patient for development" like Zaki's ‘recommendation' is a reminder that derelict neo-colonial rule has brought nothing but grief to lands which has seen its natural resources leached away that has fueled the crony capitalism of the Peninsular, which was tolerated for decades all part of the racial squabbles for a share of the Malaysian pie.

The tragedy is that Sabah and Sarawak (although in this piece I have been concentrating on Sarawak merely because Sabah deserves a piece of its own, and rightly so) are more than just vote banks for the Umno regime. Their very existence in the federation is an uncomfortable reminder to Umno/Malay hegemony that hints of a way out of this racial quagmire we in the Peninsular find ourselves in.

'We have been patient for 49 years'

And if ever opposition parties there get their act together, the long neglected Borneo states could galvanise the mindsets of the group-think opposition supporters here.

There is a perception that PKR is the weak link in the opposition pact and there is truth in that, but it also has the most dynamic personalities in the alliance. The true believers, in the multicultural experiment which is Pakatan Rakyat amidst (as they tell me) the closet racialists, religious zealots and bigots, all singing the multiracial/cultural song.

Baru Bian Sarawak PKR-leader at Bruno Manser commemorationI have followed the work of Native Customary Rights lawyer Baru Bian (right) for some time now. His hard-earned win of the Ba'Kelalan seat was surprising and his role as the Sarawak PKR chief is a bright spark as far as principled opposition is concerned in this country.

His sometimes tense relationship with Pakatan (which point to their shortcomings and not his) is much needed in this highly polarised political climate. Like most activist turned politicians in the Pakatan fold, his rhetoric is backed by long years of action.

His indignation of Zaki's recommendation was backed up with a Rommel-like evisceration of Umno policy in Sarawak. His questioning of the civil service racial parity stats and reminder that so many civil servants and heads of most federal agencies and services in Sarawak were from Peninsular Malaysia is a good indication that hopefully a Pakatan future in Sarawak would not follow the same kind of neo-colonial blueprint favoured by the present regime.

His response to Mahathir's plea for patience says it all. "We have been patient for 49 years. How many more years does this old man think he can fool us to wait?"

Borneo states redefining racial politics

Baru was front and centre when the whole ‘Allah' controversy erupted and he has been a vigorous defender of point 1 in the so-called 18-point Agreement.

Most recently during the debate on the Head of State's address in the State Assembly, Baru said, "The absence of a state religion is a hallmark of Sarawak agreeing to join in the formation of Malaysia in 1963, due to the wisdom of our forefathers who acknowledged that Sarawak is a land for all creeds or beliefs to mutually prosper and grow with respect for each other's rights and freedom," expressing his concerns that the State Planning Unit's publication Sarawak Facts and Figures 2010 stated on page two that Islam was the official religion of Sarawak.

It would do us all a world of good to remember that at least one state in the federation is not bound by the dictates of Islam even though PAS (with the acquiesces of other Pakatan members) has been mucking about in the Borneo states attempting to engineer a Islamic revival of sorts or rather a kinder, gentler Islam than the one promulgated by Umno all these years.

Hopefully the opposition leadership in Sarawak will ensure that Article 153 of the constitution would extend and religiously implemented to the indigenous people of Sarawak as intended by point 12 of the Agreement, which would in turn redefine racial politics here in Malaysia as far as the concept of bumiputera, is concerned.

Sarawak (and Sabah) has so much more to offer Malaysia than natural resources if only we play our cards right.

What of that enigmatic border scout who sometimes played the cultural guide to my ignorant tourist? Well, John Bagley became Johan Abdullah, who was one of the last great journalists over at New Straits Times (Johan's Bag of Marbles and Johan's Doggerel in New Sunday Times).

We caught up again in the 90s and were housemates for six years. A long-time official citizen of Sarawak, he lamented the fact that colonialism was not dead here in Malaysia. And that's the end of that.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.