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  • GE14 in East Malaysia:MA63 and Marching to a Different Drum
  • James Chin (bio)

While most scholars argued that 1MDB, Najib and kleptocracy, and the reputation of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) were key factors in the historical defeat of UMNO and the Barisan Nasional (BN) in the 2018 general elections, a key part of the shock election outcome has received scant attention: Sabah and Sarawak. If there is one single issue in East Malaysia that rallied the polity, it is the issue of the 1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63) and the rise of state nationalism. In this chapter, I seek to explain how the MA63 issue became the mainstay of political debate and was the source of historical grievances and the political upheavals caused by the 2018 GE.

In Sabah, the opposition led by the combined Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan or Sabah Heritage Party) and Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the parliamentary elections convincingly when it took 15 of 25 seats. At the state level, the Warisan-Pakatan alliance won 29 of 60 seats. These are outstanding results for a two-year-old party. In Sarawak, the opposition managed to win 12 of the state's 31 parliamentary seats. (There was no state election, as Sarawak holds their state elections separately.) In the 2013 general elections, the opposition only managed to win 3 parliamentary seats in Sabah and 6 in Sarawak. The opposition thus made major inroads in East Malaysia this round. They managed to replace the Barisan-led state government in Sabah, while laying the foundations for a real challenge to the incumbent in Sarawak when the next state election, due in 2021, comes around. In both Sabah and Sarawak, state nationalism, autonomy and MA63 were key themes used by all sides. [End Page 211]

What is MA63

The controversy over MA63 can be summed up in two words: historical grievances. Simply put, the peoples of East Malaysia feel that they have been marginalized in the Malaysian Federation, despite the fact that they were one of the three founding entities (Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo/Sarawak) that came together to establish a new federation in the region. They feel strongly that the spirit of the agreement, safeguards and special privileges promised in the 1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63) have for the past half-century mostly not been kept by the federal government.

What are the key parts of the historical grievances?1 They can be broken down into three broad parts, all interrelated: the special position of Sabah and Sarawak, the issue of consent and the role of the British, and federal intervention and the transfer of the UMNO model to Sabah and Sarawak.

The Special Position of Sabah and Sarawak

When East Malaysians speak of their "special position", it refers to the set of political safeguards commonly called "The Twenty Points". These twenty points were political safeguards requested by the Borneo leaders as preconditions for accepting the federation proposed by Tunku Abdul Rahman. The main parts of the safeguards are summarized below:

  • • Islam's status as a national religion was not to be applicable to Sarawak nor Sabah. While there was no objection to Islam being the religion of the federation, there will be no state religion in either Sabah or Sarawak.

  • • Immigration control was to be vested in Sabah and Sarawak, allowing them to deny entry even to other Malaysian citizens residing outside the two states.

  • • Complete the Borneanization of the civil service as quickly as possible, promoting Borneo natives to fill the senior positions then held by British expatriates.

  • • No right of secession from the federation.

  • • The "special position" of the Malays in the new Malaysian Constitution will apply to the indigenous peoples of the Borneo states.

  • • Sabah and Sarawak were to be given a high degree of autonomy over their civil service, financial affairs, local government, education and health.

  • • No modification of these safeguards by the federal government without the consent of Sabah and Sarawak. [End Page 212]

While there is debate among East Malaysians over these key areas, there is general consensus that the federal government has not kept its promise in any of these areas, save for perhaps immigration control.

The "special position" also refers...


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