Former ambassador and insightful political commentator Datuk Dennis Ignatius is correct in saying that Sabah and Sarawak “have tended to take a more detached view of the culture wars raging in Semenanjung”.
Most of us from Malaysian Borneo, to different degrees, tend to look at the madness in Malayan politics with both contempt and relief that we are not them and we are not there. We often forget that a sizable number of Sabahans and Sarawakians are living in Malaya, whether because of employment, education or family ties. They are part of us and they are there.
Out of pride and frustration, we often sink into the self-inflicted delusion of Sabah and Sarawak’s exceptionalism and isolationism.
Yes, we may be the best Malaysians if you need examples of inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony. We have families and friends from different faiths. We celebrate each other’s festival and we eat together on the same table, the common traits in most parts of Southeast Asia but fast disappearing in Malaya.
However, are we Borneans really so strong to stay on as an exception, withstanding all the efforts to convert and assimilate us into Malaya’s rigidity and segregation? Is the South China Sea wide enough to protect our paradise from missionaries of supremacy and bigotry?
Let us be bold and honest to face the reality. Borneo exceptionalism and isolationism are not based on realistic assessment. They are more psychological defence mechanisms in our 50 years of frustrations and pain.
Some of us fantasise that if Malaya deteriorates too much, Sabah and Sarawak can just leave as if Malaya would let us go like it did Singapore. Some of us place hope on international courts or foreign governments to defy geopolitical realism and declare Sabah and Sarawak free countries based on some archival records.
Neither is true. Both are political fantasies.
A Prime Minister resentful of his country’s name
In the eyes of Malayan colonialists and imperialists like Dr Mahathir, Malaysia is just an expansion of Tanah Melayu, and Sabah and Sarawak were just colonial possessions to be transferred from London to Kuala Lumpur.
For all condemnation Dr Mahathir has for European colonialists, we the Borneo people and our homeland in his eyes are perhaps no different from the Native Americans and their homeland in the eyes of European colonialists in the 15th-19th centuries.
As a long-reigning prime minister first for 22 years and then for 22 months, Mahathir is even resentful of the name of Malaysia. How sick can that be? Does he expect us to just become part of Malaya in 1963 like how Hawaii (conquered) and Alaska (purchased) got absorbed by the United States of America without even a name change?
Sadly, there are many other Malayan extremists besides Dr Mahathir.
Reverting Malaysia to Pre-colonial Tanah Melayu
One of them is PAS president Hadi Awang.
In 1981, Hadi called upon Muslims had to oppose BN because the ruling coalition “preserves the colonialist Constitution, preserves the infidel laws and preserves the jahiliah (barbaric, pre-Islamic) rules”. That’s the Amanat Hadi that divided the Malay-Muslims by calling the UMNO-voting majority infidels.
Hadi did not just attack UMNO and BN. He attacked the fundamental idea of Malaysia. Without the 1957 Constitution that provides for a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy and a common law system, there would not be Malaysia. In 1963 or 2023, Sabah and Sarawak would never sign up to a theocracy based on Hadi’s understanding of Islam.
The other extremist is PAS Kedah Chief Minister Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor.
Why does Sanusi repeatedly claim Penang to be part of Kedah while conveniently leaving out Perlis, Northern Perak and the Satun province of Thailand? Sanusi is attacking the interstate border between Kedah and Penang because this is a colonial legacy.
Malaysia is a multiethnic postcolonial country. The single most important commonality between Sabah and Perlis, or Sarawak and Kelantan, is our colonial legacy. We were ruled by the British and we inherited their political and legal systems.
Independence, for most Malaysians, is that we now live as the master of our destiny in this land. Maintaining those British colonial legacies we consider positive – from a constitutional monarchy, a liberal constitution, parliamentary democracy, common law, bureaucracy, to English literacy – for our own benefits does not make us colonised.
This is where Mr Hadi and Mr Sanusi disagree with us. They want to revert Malaysia to a pre-colonial Tanah Melayu which has no modern constitution, no common laws, and no Penang as a state. Guess how would they see Sabah and Sarawak which were once colonies of Sulu and Brunei?
Malaysia as a multiethnic post-colonial state
We must stare into the stark reality that the deepest political divide in Malaysia today is not one of Malay-Muslims versus non-Muslims, neither one of Malaya versus Borneo, but between two ‘nations of intent’ (to quote Distinguished Professor Shamsul AB): a multiethnic, multi faith post-colonial Malaysia versus a monoethnic, mono religious pre-colonial Tanah Melayu.
The multi ethnic and multi faith Malaysia has been here since 1963 but also constantly eroded since 1963. The monoethnic and mono faith Tanah Melayu Dr Mahathir, Mr Hadi and Mr Sanusi aspires to is still a political aspiration but will be a reality if enough of us give up on Malaysia.
Many Sabahans and Sarawakians would be very happy if the pre-colonial Tanah Melayu would exclude Sabah and Sarawak because we were never ruled by Malacca or Johor-Riau. Our only common ruler was the British.
Unfortunately, Dr Mahathir, Mr Hadi and Mr Sanusi are not separatists just wanting to take Tanah Melayu out of Malaysia. Like other colonialists, they want to milk resource-rich Sabah and Sarawak and they would try to divide and rule us again as Dr Mahathir successfully did for two decades.
This is why Sabahans and Sarawakians must not be divided over religious differences. We Borneoans must love each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of religion and ethnicity.
We must love as brothers and sisters too those Malayans who love us as equals. We must love Malaysia with a sense of ownership. We cannot look at madness in Malaya as bystanders.
We must ally with most Malaysians who do not want Malaysia to be reverted into a monoethnic, monofaith pre-colonial Tanah Melayu. Together, all of us are still the majority that can keep Malaysia inclusive and moderate.
While they and we may not agree on everything, we have the common interest in protecting a Malaysia that appreciates its Nusantara origin, its cosmopolitan heritage and its British liberal legacies.
We must no longer fool ourselves to think that the Malayan colonialists would leave us alone or let us go independent or join Indonesia after they revert Malaya into pre-colonial Tanah Melayu.
To protect Sabah and Sarawak, we must protect the original Malaysia that was promised to be secular, free and fair. To keep Kota Kinabalu and Kuching free, we must keep Putrajaya out of reach from Malayan colonialists and imperialists like Dr Mahathir, Mr Hadi and Mr Sanusi.
We Borneans must bury Borneo exceptionalism and isolationism. Instead, we must actively and passionately protect and reshape Malaysia, to bring to life the original multiethnic, multifaith and liberal federation our foreparents signed up to in 1963.
If the past 50 years have been disappointments, then we must seize the next 50 years for fulfilments.
Here are three strategies Malaysians, especially those in or from Borneo, can adopt.
Strategy 1: Borneo parties to reject Malayan colonialists
First, Borneo political parties and politicians must take a clear stand against Malayan colonialism and imperialism. Commendably, Sarawak state youth, sports and entrepreneur development minister Dato Seri Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah declared that “it was impossible for Gabungan Parti Sarawak to work with Dr Mahathir after the latter stated that promoting a multi-ethnic country went against the Federal Constitution”.
Such a principled stand should be emulated by all Borneo parties that still remain quiet. Such rejection of Malayan extremists can be extended beyond Dr Mahathir to all parties and politicians that attack Malaysia’s multicultural and Westminster heritage.
I hope my former colleagues, Datuk Seri Ronald Kiandee (MP of Beluran, Sabah) and Datuk Ali Biju (MP of Saratok, Sarawak), will also be the firm voice of Borneo for Malaysia in their party and coalition.
Strategy 2: Defend Malaysia with a bold anti-colonialism narrative
Second, we must defend Malaysia as a multiethnic and multifaith federation with Commonwealth heritage by developing a bold and sharp anti-colonial narrative against attempts to capture the post-colonial state of Malaysia and establish internal colonialisation. This message should go through media, social media, school textbooks, academic research, and awareness campaigns in public agencies, starting from Sabah and Sarawak.
Just like how South African white colonialists morally and intellectually demeaned the blacks and coloured peoples as justification of Apartheid, Mr Sanusi and — earlier in last August, Mr Hadi are blaming the non-Muslims for bribe-giving to sell their colonialist supremacy to ordinary Muslims.
We — all Malaysians who love Malaysia — must fight back but never ever mistake that Dr Mahathir represents the ‘budiman’ (gentle) people of Malays or Mr Hadi and Mr Sanusi represent the anti-racist region of Islam.
On July 11, 61 NGOS started a campaign of Unity Wave to stand up for patriotism and unity. Led by veteran group Patriot president Brig Jen (R) Dato’ Mohamed Arshad Raji, these groups include the multiethnic Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia, Sinar Harian-backed movement Rasuah Busters and muslim democrat group Ikram. More Malaysians including Borneo groups must join in.
This anti-colonialist narrative must also promote decentralization of power to all 13 regions and states, to prevent re-emergence of excessive concentration of power at Putrajaya.
Strategy 3: Vote down Malayan colonialist parties
Lastly, we must use our vote in every election to vote down all Malayan colonialist and imperialist parties. Diasporic Sabahans and Sarawakians who are registered voters in the six states, please come out to vote on August 12 to say “No” loud and clear to parties promoting Malayan colonialism, imperialism and bigotry.
Only ballots can teach extremists like Mr Sanusi and Mr Hadi to stop dividing Malaysians and demonizing non-Muslims.
To encourage turnout, the Election Commission must also swiftly introduce distanced early voting for voters out of their region/state before the Sabah state election due in 2025 and the Malacca and Sarawak ones due in 2026.
Refusal to introduce distanced voting is an injustice against diasporic Sabahans and Sarawakians who left their homelands because of regional imbalance. This injustice to the Madani Government must end.
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