Well-known Sarawak philanthropist Datuk Seri Ang Lai Soon had been routinely reappointed as commander of St John Ambulance Sarawak (SJAS), since he founded it in 1971.
For some reason, Ang had always received his appointment from the sitting prime minister, in the latter’s capacity as national president of the organisation, which operates under an Act of Parliament.
Then, in 2014, Ang’s deputy was appointed instead. That set off something of a “constitutional” crisis as SJAS claimed that it was not consulted by SJA Malaysia (SJAM), as required for the appointment of the Sarawak commander. An “interregnum” lasting almost a year-and-half ensued. Ang received his re-appointment letter earlier this year, which enabled him to preside over SJAS’ 45th anniversary. It was also celebrated as a “restoration” of normalcy.
There was no suggestion of any impropriety on the part of the prime minister or his office in handling the re-appointment of Ang. Rather, SJAS trained its guns on certain top leaders in SJAM, whom it believed had orchestrated the fiasco by going around clear and long-accepted rules governing appointments because of over-sized egos or other ignoble motivations.
SJAS insisted that when it was set up, it was recognised by the powers-that-be at St John Ambulance headquarters in the United Kingdom as a full-fledged, self-regulating “district” in much the same way that the organisation in Peninsular Malaysia and the one in Sabah are distinct districts.
Soon – perhaps understandably – pressure was applied to somehow “harmonise” the three districts into a single “national” entity. As is, perhaps, inevitable in such matters, one can agree in principle on the desirability of such national impulses without reaching any consensus on what form or shape it will take.
Those controlling the SJAM district in the peninsula probably assumed it had the right to call the shots nationally. The other two districts and, in particular, the Sarawak district, would also quite naturally believe that the three districts, being distinct and separate entities, should be co-equal partners in SJAM.
The recent SJAS celebration took on a political hue when the new Sarawak Local Government Minister, Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian, showed up to lend vocal support to SJAS in what the latter regards as undisguised efforts by the “national” body to denigrate SJAS’ supposed equal partnership and fully-autonomous existence.
The SJAS brouhaha comes at a rather sensitive time as the state celebrated its first Sarawak Day on July 22 with a colourful burst of pride to commemorate self-government when the first chief minister, Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan, and his cabinet assumed office on that day in 1963.
Prior to the Sarawak Day commemoration, Dr Sim had created a public furore by insisting that Sarawak be styled as a “region” rather than a state that entered into the newly-created Federation of Malaysia as a distinct political entity in partnership with Sabah, Singapore and Malaya on Sept 16, 1963.
That fine distinction may be lost on many Malaysians, but that only riles a good many Sarawakians even more, as a consequence. No less a personage than the Chief Minister, Tan Sri Adenan Satem, himself had been moved by the public disquiet to remark recently that Sarawak did not get out as a British colony only to become a Malaysian one.
All this public clamour must also be seen in the context of the Sarawak government taking a more assertive political stance where the state’s autonomy rights are concerned. But it would be mistaken to assume that Sarawak’s current political assertiveness is a sign of a state determined to strike out on its own separate path.
Adenan was at pains to clarify in his Sarawak Day speech that insisting on the state’s autonomy rights is different from wanting to go it alone. The latter, incidentally, is what a small and quite vocal minority group is aiming for, to the extent of designating the day as “Independence” Day. The state, Adenan insisted, would always remain as an integral part of Malaysia.
Perhaps what the SJAS saga and the clamour for Sarawak autonomy best capture is a common hunger for respect and for the state to be regarded as a real and equal partner in the federation.
It is likely that the national leadership appreciates this. But, not so others in non-governmental organisations and the lower echelons of the national bureaucracy. This must change.
John Teo is a Kuching-based journalist