Happy National Day! Selamat Hari Malaysia!
I want to take this rainy morning to reflect on the challenges going forward regarding the union of East and West Malaysia.
Yesterday morning, on my way to work, I heard on BFM radio YB Nancy Shukri (Sarawakian Minister in PM Department) giving an interview on the issue of Sabah – Sarawak autonomy. I have clashed with her on many occasions in Parliament regarding laws passed, when she was defacto law minister. However on Sabah and Sarawak matters, I am sympathetic to her concerns.
Sabah and Sarawak are rich in oil and gas wealth but poor in good governance and development. However we dice this, the demand for greater autonomy stems from this overall unhappiness. A lot is said about “Asian democracy”, that we can tolerate authoritarian and corrupt rule provided we get development. These two states had buckets of bad governance and at the same time lousy economic developments. It is a lose – lose situation for the states and its people. But it provided untold wealth for the ruling political class.
Sabah had successive unstable and extractive governments when the BN government allowed the influx of foreigners to overwhelm the state and supplant political powers of Sabahans. Sarawak endured a long rule by a most corrupt Chief Minister. On both matters, the BN government led by Mahathir to Najib designed, encouraged and tolerated this system to continue while the federal government sucked up 95% of the oil and gas revenue.
When I joined Keadilan in 2009, I was asked by DS Anwar Ibrahim to look into oil economics. Despite my concerns of financial feasibility, Anwar instinctively insisted on the 20% oil and gas royalty to Sabah and Sarawak, out of principles of economic fairness. This 20% royalty pledge made its way to the Pakatan manifesto. We, the technocrats had to make it work financially simply because it was the right thing to do. On hindsight, after spending some time in Sabah and Sarawak the last few years on political visits going to the interiors and understanding the very challenging local issues, Anwar was absolutely right. The federal government cannot continue to extract wealth from these states and ignore democratic reforms and development.
Going forward, renegotiating oil revenue is probably necessary in order to maintain our union. But this must come together with good governance, zero tolerance for corruption and the state must have clear anti bribery processes. Passing on billions more in oil revenue to a corrupt ruling class makes zero sense. There is also another obstacle, so long as the federal government is controlled by MO1, this is not going to happen. Can we even imagine the sight of MO1 telling others to adopt good governance and not to be corrupt?
Sabah needs to quickly resolve the PATI issue and regain control of Sabah waters, which is a clear and present danger to national security. Sabahans cannot be held hostage by illegal PATI voters.
Sarawak needs more reform minded politicians and a willingness to dismantle the oligarchy of six families that is stiffling the economy.
Both states need major land reforms and land rights to allow natives to have a base capital to join the formal economy. All unfair and extractive concessions need to be addressed. It is not sufficient for the ruling class to confine the talks to work permits, oil royalty and the Pan Borneo Highway. These are symptoms of a larger problem of governance and corruption.
The politicians in Sabah and Sarawak need to adopt good governance, so that when they come to the negotiating table, they come with clean hands. They also need to stop being the “fixed deposit” (which is an extremely insulting term used by UMNO) of MO1.
Oil is not a renewable resource and it is running out. We may have 12 good years left, before oil and gas starts to terminally decline. For Sabah and Sarawak, their importance to the federal government will dramatically diminish when the oil and gas runs out. That is just an economic fact. Understanding this fact should guide them to move faster to pursue good governance and reforms.
About 3 weeks ago, a young Sarawakian law student visited my office. We talked about economics and politics in Sarawak. We talked about what needs to be done. As long as young people are determined to make their states better, there is hope.
Lastly, my dear friend YB Darell Leiking always reminds me that a union is only meaningful if it is a union of equal partners. This short piece is dedicated to him. He spent many hours guiding me on drafting policies for Sabah and Sarawak. May we find a middle ground for our nation and also our friendship to foster and endure.