AFTER some years of public venting about state rights and autonomy, questioning even if Sarawak is in fact a “state” and all but asserting (falsely) that the state was already independent on July 22, 1963 before Malaysia came into being on Aug 31 that year — all to fit into a newly thought-up narrative that the state came into Malaysia as an “equal partner” (with the whole of Malaya, no less) — has the ensuing debate finally come full circle?
The often-animated public forums and less guarded views expressed in social media on the subject have, hardly surprisingly, led some to utter the “s” word, with calls for some sort of referendum as to whether the state should secede from the federation.
This has finally led Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to say in Parliament that the Sedition Act may be used against anyone advocating secession if in doing so threats to public order and security ensue.
Following the prime-ministerial statement, Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Abang Openg chimed in with his support, noting that “we cannot talk about sovereignty of the country until the situation become(sic) serious” before something is done.
To be fair, the Sarawak government, Abang Johari himself and also his predecessor, the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, had, on various public occasions, made it clear that in the course of defending what the state feels to be its due, taking the state out of Malaysia is not officially an option.
But it is also disingenuous not to be aware of the fact that some of the misleading and more unguarded statements by state political leaders created a permissive environment for those with far less to lose politically to push the envelope and try to tap into a rather rich vein of popular and anti-establishment sentiments in favour of the state striking out on its own.
Public ventilation of such sentiments may only lead to a self-fulfilling situation where those pushing secessionist ideas may only become even more convinced that the state going it alone is a good idea. A snow-ball effect may be the result. Any rear-guard action to counter this once it takes hold may be too little too late and the net end-game may be something short of disastrous.
The tragicomedy that is the Brexit drama still unfolding as Britain tries to extricate itself as painlessly as possible from the European Union or the equally ill-starred attempt by Catalonia to break free from Spain is hugely instructive. There is little international appetite for regions in otherwise reasonably well-governed corners of the globe to countenance such “sovereignty” outbreaks, even assuming for one moment they are rational.
The utter insanity of such moves was amplified in a revelation in The Economist recently of a polling result showing that a majority of Conservative Party members are willing “to seriously damage the economy or even lose Scotland (which voted against Brexit) in order to leave the EU”! It does look increasingly likely that they will get their wish, at least on the damage-the-economy part.
Scotland may then insist on another referendum to leave the United Kingdom and political unrest may yet return to Northern Ireland. Many in Sarawak look rather enviously across the border to Brunei or to Singapore and see no good reason why their own state cannot follow these two states in going it alone. Of course, Sarawak can go it alone but whether that will make it better off is questionable.
For one, both Brunei and Singapore have a strong dominant ethnic component each on which to build a politically stable nation, unlike the ethnic polyglot in Sarawak where no single group commands a majority.
Besides, Sarawak — unlike the Singapore island-state or the Brunei dual enclaves — is composed of a vast but sparsely-populated territory with a long coastline and an equally long and mountainous land border to safeguard. Even rich, advanced and industrialised provinces such as Quebec and Ontario in Canada, Queensland and New South Wales in Australia or California and Texas in the United States can see how it is beneficial to belong to larger federations. It is, after all, no accident that they belong within federal political set-ups which ensure collective political and military protection while affording individual states or provinces political autonomy for self-governance.
The internal debate within Sarawak or Sabah must instead be about strengthening both state autonomy and federation. Both such strengths are essential and not mutually exclusive but reinforce each other.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak