Malaysia Agreement 1963: In election mode, state nationalism reigns in Sarawak

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 6, 2019 - May 12, 2019.

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Two things dominated Sarawak politics in the past 12 months.

First was the debate over the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 (MA63) and the failed constitutional amendment on April 9 to restore the status of Sabah and Sarawak back to the original wording of the agreement. The constitutional amendment failed because GPS, the ruling coalition in Sarawak, refused to support the amendment. GPS claimed that it wanted a comprehensive amendment, including changes to Article 160 of the Federal Constitution and the insertion of additional words “pursuant to the Malaysia Agreement 1963” to Article 1 (2).

The truth of the matter is GPS was never going to support the amendment, no matter what the wording was. If the amendment had passed, it would have been a major political victory for Pakatan Harapan and would have allowed PH to claim that it is the true MA63 champion. Restoring the original wordings was a key promise in the PH manifesto.

GPS is using state nationalism as its raison d’être and cannot afford to allow PH to steal its thunder.

This leads to the second point — the coming state election, most probably to be held sometime next year. All the contestants are positioning themselves. GPS’s strength is state nationalism. All the GPS parties are local to Sarawak and its slogan is the unequivocal “Sarawak First”. GPS is planning to spend close to RM20 billion for development to ensure that it wins the state election. Most of the money is earmarked for the rural areas.

The state nationalism theme sells well among parochial Sarawakians and GPS has quietly supported the growth of state nationalist groups. Sarawak is the only place in Malaysia today where you get regular demonstrations and public discussions on the possibility of secession — which Sarawakians called SAREXIT. The pre-1963 Sarawak flag is displayed openly in all the major towns.

State nationalism in one issue that will hurt PH Sarawak’s chances in the coming Sarawak election. Sarawakains don’t like West Malaysians and they see PH Sarawak as an extension of the Malayan “colonisers”. The political narrative of orang kita vs Malayans is simple to understand and emotionally powerful.

But GPS has an Achilles’ heel — GPS is ex-Sarawak BN and Sarawak BN was largely responsible for allowing the federal government to intrude into Sarawak affairs for the past half-century. GPS is merely a rebranding exercise and everybody knows it. Even worse, the leader of Sarawak BN, who is engulfed in massive corruption allegations, is sitting pretty as the state governor.

All these facts are irrelevant in an emotionally charged environment — it comes back to orang kita vs Malayans. Social media plays a key role in fake news and manipulating the historical facts. For ordinary Sarawakians, it is getting harder and harder to tell fact from fiction.

In sum, state nationalism is the dominant political force in Sarawak and will be here for some time to come.

Prof James Chin is the director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania