AS the political equilibrium in Malaysia adjusts to an awakening intelligentsia, the traditionally dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is being forced to confront new realities that are reshaping power relationships in the country.
With the BN's senior partners, the MCA and MIC, reduced to pale shadows of their pre-2008 selves, the BN's power-sharing formula that has allowed Umno, the coalition's lynchpin, to rule confidently has come under a serious test.
Consequently, Sabah and Sarawak have become proportionately more powerful in the BN equation as its peninsular partners have suffered record electoral setbacks.
This has been translated into a larger share of government posts for the BN's component parties in Borneo as well as a surge in development expenditure for the two pivotal states.
A key indicator is that in Budget 2015, an allocation of RM30 billion was made for development in Sabah and Sarawak, the lion’s share of the total development budget of RM48.5 billion.
That ought to bode well for the people of the two states, who had long been accustomed to meagre pickings in the country's development stakes.
The remarks of Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nancy Shukri, who is from Sarawak, in welcoming the budget allocation last year, tell a long story.
Sabah and Sarawak, she said, were two big states that were in need of major improvement in terms of infrastructure such as roads and electricity supply, Bernama reported.
She hoped that the government, through the Rural and Regional Development Ministry, would expedite the electricity supply connection in these states because Sabah and Sarawak had many rural villages without electricity.
The stark contrast between the contributions of these two resource-rich states to the federal coffers on the one hand, and the poverty of its people and their lack of development on the other, has rankled many observers.
The World Bank’s 2010 Malaysia Economic Monitor that pointed out this anomaly in Malaysia’s development has become a reference point of criticism against this economic imbalance.
Using statistics provided by the Economic Planning Unit, the World Bank report pointed out that Sabah and Sarawak were the two states with the highest number of poor people in the country, which is even more disturbing since their population is relatively low compared with urbanised states in the peninsula.
According to World Bank representative Emmanuel Jimenez, the deep levels of poverty in Sabah were evident from the fact that although the state has only 10% of Malaysia’s population, 40% of the country’s poor lived there. In contrast, Selangor, which has nearly a quarter of the country’s population, has less than 10% of the poor, he said.
In Sarawak, the contrast between the per capita income, which the previous chief minister (now Yang di-Pertua Negeri) Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud forecast would exceed RM45,000 in 2015, and the per capita income of the bottom 40% of households in the state, which was RM312 per month, according to the 2009 Household Census Data, is revealing indeed.
No wonder the World Bank said that “if the objective is to fully eradicate poverty, then the deep pockets of poverty that are found in certain socioeconomic groups as well as in certain areas will need to be addressed.”
As federal funds now pour into these lesser developed states, the crucial importance of good governance in their administrative systems cannot be overstated.
Unfortunately, neither Sabah nor Sarawak has a good track record for the even distribution of development.
Along with the maldistribution of development between urban and rural areas as well as among ethnic groups and economic classes, policy analysts have warned of the problem of urban poverty and a cluster of socio-economic disadvantages, including gender issues, access to education and other social goods that are robbing many Malaysians of the fruits of its economic growth.
All these indicators taken together point to the need for a deeper connection to be established between the agenda for national reform and the situation faced by various disadvantaged groups in society.
In the growing chorus for the authorities to be more accountable to the people for public spending, the direction of public policy and the allocation of resources, it is natural to focus on the building blocks of democracy, including principles like the separation of powers, the right to freedom of information, free speech, freedom of association and of assembly, among other things.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency to become caught up in the struggle for these fundamental liberties, and in the process forget about the plight of the weakest groups in our midst who may be too vulnerable to economic shocks to worry about which direction the ship of state is heading.
In order to close the glaring gaps between the stated national development agenda and the harsh realities facing the underserved segments of society, care must be taken to keep their needs at the centre of the national reform initiative.
To engender this sense of inclusiveness effectively, a key ingredient to have is the feeling of fellowship that unites all people in a cohort, transcending markers like race, religion, gender, language, economic class, age and other separators that evoke divisions in a group.
This requires a conscious effort to embrace all sub-groups within the national demographics in a bond of common identity, and conversely to de-emphasise all characteristics that tend to create divisiveness within that population.
Quite simply, steps that take us closer to a sense of common belonging will foster unity, and those that remind us of our differences will do the opposite. The choice is ours to make on a daily basis, from the minutiae of our lives to the big policy decisions that can change the course of national affairs.
When making these decisions from moment to moment, it helps to remind ourselves that beneath everything that we are lies our essential unity as human beings.
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at digitaledge Weekly
This article first appeared in Opinion, digitaledge Weekly, on September 7 - 13, 2015.