Monday, March 15, 2010

Sabahans : Change the shirt

After nearly 50 years in Malaysia, Sabah is not a story that has a happy ring to it. It is still a backward state; in fact, it remains one of the poorest in the country. The gulf that separates the “land below the wind” from the peninsula is as wide and deep as the South China Sea.

Let's take a walk down history lane. In the early years, politics over there had a laid-back quality. After the northern Bornean state joined Malaysia in 1963, Sabah was ruled by a succession of parties -- the United National Kadazan Organisation (1963-64); the Sabah Chinese Association (1965-67); United Sabah National Organisation (1967-75), which continued to hold power until 1976; and the shortlived reign of Berjaya (44 days). Then a new leader named Datuk Harris Salleh helmed Berjaya and went on to govern the state from 1976 to 1985.

It was during Harris' watch that politics took a turbulent turn and Sabah was never the same again. Harris grew increasingly autocratic and arrogant and thought the sky would not fall on him. But one man in his ruling party had had enough of his antics. The rebel: Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan.

Pairin quit Berjaya and formed Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) to challenge Harris. But “dirty” Harris went ballastic – he immediately abolished Pairin's district of Tambunan. This audacious act got the people all riled up and they finally threw him out of office when he clashed with Pairin in the 1985 state election.

When Pairin was in the driver's seat, his nine years in power as Chief Minister were anything but peaceful. He was in an uneasy partnership with the BN coalition. Dark forces in the form of Umno overlords were already preparing to get rid of this upstart Huguan Siou (paramount chief of the Kadazandusun).

When Pairin took the bold step to pull out of the coalition to join forces with a prince named Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Umno declared open warfare on him. It marched into Sabah on a spurious invitation of self-interested allies and promised the people a Sabah Baru in its strategy to wrest control of the state.

In the 1994 state polls, PBS managed to ward off the bullies but fell on the sword when PBS assemblymen defected to the other side. Pairin spent his time in the political wilderness while Umno and the band of PBS traitors gripped the levels of power firmly.

There was bad blood between Pairin and the man who was mostly responsible for grounding the state to dust – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The doctor held the favourite son of Sabah and his Kadazandusuns in utter contempt, describing his state as Malaysia's “Wild West”. He went all-out to diminish their influence by changing the electoral boundaries to give the Muslims a dominant hold on power. It was nothing short of the colonisation of Sabah.

The KL strongman even threatened to cut off funds to the state, prompting Pairin to retort: “You can criticise America for imposing sanctions on Iraq but you should not impose sanctions on one of your own states."

There was no stopping the devious machination of the federal leaders. They introduced the politics of development, pouring funds to develop this economic backwater. To soothe the ruffled feelings of the non-Muslims, it rotated the chief ministership post. This Sabah Baru gambit paid off handsomely – the haughty coalition won convincingly in the 1999 state election.

Even the Huguan Siou was shaken by the massive BN victory. For him, there was only one way out – and that was to join the BN boys. He was admitted to the graft-ridden club – and has ever since remained docile, quiet, obedient.

Meanwhile, the BN juggernaut went about with its destructive ways. Emboldened by the solid mandate, it scrapped the rotating chief ministership to ensure that only Umno is in control. It even allotted to itself half of the state assembly seats (32 out of 60), while relegating the others to the background.

The greedy, grasping centre implemented several policies designed to strip the state of its wealth and make it beholden to Kuala Lumpur. They “annexed” Labuan on the pretext it wanted to help ease the financial burden of administering the island. They made it a federal territory without paying the state a single sen. They packed most of the top posts in the federal departments with civil servants from the peninsula. And they made sure that big businesses went mostly to peninsula-based companies.

Even in education, there was a whiff of perfidy – Sabah found that it could not call Universiti of Malaysia Sabah its own when it was built on its soil. Its students made up less than half of the student population, with the majority of them from Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia.

The biggest blow was dealt when Sabah, a resource-rich state, found itself deprived of oil and gas wealth. The ravenous federal masters decided that oil did not belong to the state but to Malaysia. So, you must share your oil with the big peninsular brothers. In return for giving up its rights to the oil and gas, the state received a paltry royalty (five percent or RM351 million annually).

Once considered the second richest behind Selangor, Sabah has fallen on hard times: its poverty rate is now 16 percent. The RM19 billion allocated to the state under the Ninth Malaysia Plan was regarded as mere pittance – it formed only 8% of the national budget.

All these years, the big brothers have been riding roughshod over Sabah although they couched their cold treatment in the guise of national unity. Even after getting battered in 2008, and were luckily saved by the voters of Sabah, the previous flip-flop regime continued to give the state the cold shoulder.

Today, there are signs of restlessness in Sabah. We are not surprised. The rumblings of discontent and anger are getting louder and louder. We can feel it. In haste, federal leaders have been making quick trips to Sabah to show their phony concern. But the people over there know that the politics of development – exploiting natural resources, buying votes, under-representing the majority – has failed, and failed miserably.

New forces have reshaped the political life of the country and one slogan may triumph in Sabah, come the next battle – takaron bankad. It's “change the shirt”. Change the shirt because the current government is not looking after the interest of the Sabahans.

written by Phlip Rodrigues, who is managing editor of Free Malaysia Today.

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