THE late Tan Sri Adenan Satem was rightly credited with stating, in a very forthright manner, the case for Sarawak in relation to the ongoing official and popular deliberations on state autonomy rights while he was Sarawak chief minister.
Since his sudden demise just over a year ago, new Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Zohari Openg and others have frequently invoked the memory of his predecessor in continuing the state’s pursuit of this and other matters.
Aside from concrete and tangible issues pertinent to state autonomy and related matters, the process for which has been ongoing between the state and federal governments as some matters get resolved even as new ones are added, there is the somewhat intangible concept Adenan had alluded to which fundamentally touched on the Malaysian federation as we know it.
This was the idea that Malaysia was born in 1963 because four separate entities — Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore — signed on to the Malaysia Agreement (MA).
In giving voice to this very idea and his interpretation of what this could possibly mean, Adenan might have sounded out a long-standing frustration that resonates in Sarawak, both in government and non-government circles: that a state like Sarawak that is as large as the peninsula minus Perlis in theory has no larger voice than Perlis’ within the federation.
In theory, probably, but, in practice, that is of course far from the reality. Sarawak (and Sabah) retains outsized representation in Parliament out of proportion to its population size, as demanded of the state’s representatives during the negotiations over Malaysia’s formation. This has translated, in recent years, to an even stronger voice and representation by Sarawak and Sabah in the Federal Government.
Dr Chandra Muzaffar, one of the nation’s best known political and governance thinkers, shared his thoughts in Kuching last week on precisely this and perhaps a somewhat unfortunate tendency towards a zero-sum thinking on the part of some. He suggested how serious deliberations by thoughtful and well-meaning individuals about federation and its workings in the Malaysian context have to be a two-way street.
Both Adenan before and Zohari now had, in almost the same breath while boldly enunciating their thoughts about state autonomy, also made it abundantly clear that there was no question of Sarawak harming the federation by, for example, entertaining any idea of the state being anything but an integral part of Malaysia.
Chandra was certain that the idea of a Malaysian confederation was not on the agenda at the time of the MA deliberations and that it was not on the agenda of Adenan when both of them had the opportunity to talk things over.
State autonomy and the attendant devolution of powers to the state will therefore have to be seen in the larger context of how greater localised decision-making powers will strengthen, not weaken, the federation as a whole.
Indeed, as Chandra stated in a wide-ranging talk about governance in a highly pluralistic federation, while the nation faces serious challenges (which, he also stressed, are hardly unique to Malaysia alone) it has chalked up unique successes, not least of which has been keeping this federation going without the persistence of ugly violence since 1969.
All this is possible largely because Malaysians on the whole have since mastered the art of give-and-take and necessary compromises in the larger interests of overall harmony and national wellbeing.
This is of course not denying that many in Sarawak feel a rather deep-seated sense of alienation made perhaps more acute by an awareness that it has been denied or even dismissed by others for far too long.
It is maybe felt that a reckoning is long overdue and that is logically only possible with a recognition that the alienation Sarawakians feel has legitimacy. If anything, the Federal Government and in particular Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak have shown through both words and deeds that the interests and concerns of Sarawak are no longer taken for granted, if indeed this has been the perception or reality before.
Engagement, deliberations and even open debate over state autonomy and its impact and implications which were previously shunned will surely result in good time with new compromises and agreements that will take our federation forward for the coming decades.
Our federation is more than the sum of its parts and it can be even more meaningful with its constituent parts being happy and contented to do their own thing while also contributing constructively towards strengthening our federal set-up.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org