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Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg (centre) leading the state-level National Day celebration in Sarikei on Aug 31. Collectively, we can achieve a lot more and that applies equally to Sabah and Sarawak. PIC BY KHALID LATIP

NATIONAL day celebrations — now bracketed by Merdeka Day on Aug 31 and Malaysia Day on Sept 16 — have regrettably been marred this year by an elevated sense of disharmony pervading the nation as a whole.

Debates and controversies over race and religion are never far from the surface in our public discourse, and new Malaysia is still waiting for a paradigm shift to a higher and better plane.

Our dispensation has also brought in its wake heightened political contention between the governing coalition and a still evolving opposing one as well as a much freer media environment.

In a multi-racial and -religious milieu such as ours, unfortunately, these are not plus factors and can be double-edged. Freedom is an imperative that must be closely attached to responsibility or else our latent combustible mix can easily and quickly turn into an apparent one.

Alas, it is another “R” — regionalism — which we must increasingly turn our attention to as well, particularly as the divisively enervating discussions over the other two “Rs” can generate a deeper sense of alienation that further fuels regionalism, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak.

It is so often repeated and is almost axiomatic that the social make-ups in both the Borneo states are vastly different such that while the current discourse over race and religion inevitably spills over to this side of the South China Sea, it also engenders deeply-felt frustrations.

Such frustrations matter. In any democracy worth its salt, the basic operating principle is that the majority rules while the minority (or minorities) is/are accorded respect and protections for their legitimate rights. But while national integration has made some strides after 56 years, what is troubling is a perception that there have been reverses in recent years, leading to assertions over state rights gathering momentum in both Sabah and Sarawak.

Such assertions, of course, need not be a bad thing. A healthy and vigorous federation requires periodic tinkering and rebalancing between the central and state governments so new administrative equilibriums are attained. This is what current deliberations between state and federal joint committees aim to arrive at.

What becomes a matter of greater concern is when frustrations can lead, over time, to a hardened sense of alienation which then coalesces into a growing sentiment of separate-ness from the rest of the country and thus, heightened feelings of regionalism.

A slippery slope from a collective desire for a separate and distinct identity may ultimately land with louder voices calling for Sabah’s and Sarawak’s very positions in the federation to be reviewed.

What, therefore, can and should be done to arrest such a state of affairs? The depressing thing is that the answer may well be, not much. All and sundry can repeat the usual bromides about exercising tolerance and promoting harmony ad infinitum but the reality may be the acceptance that ours is a vastly complicated set of social, economic and political circumstances — that is the key to unlocking all the ailments which seem to divide Malaysians.

As conditions in other, more advanced, multi-cultural nations such as the United States inform us, political divisions between a more liberal and tolerant outlook and a more conservative and intolerant one will be an unchanging reality over time. Good economic times tend to bring out the better, more liberal angels in us while times of economic challenges draw out the nasties among us and make fence-sitters more susceptible to their messages of hate for the “other”.

Be that as it may, we must remain focused on forging ahead economically at all times and know that failing that, our
collective demons will inevitably surface and pose a danger of an overall downward spiral for us.

Everything else must seem peripheral given this central and overarching imperative. What is perhaps useful particularly at moments of national commemoration such as now is to count our collective blessings that in spite of the many things which still divide this inchoate democracy, we have forged ahead together.

We have not let our many challenges mire us in self-doubt that could land us in economic and political paralyses. Collectively, we can achieve a lot more and that applies equally to Sabah and Sarawak. The Malaysian Federation is structured such that both states can actually punch above their weight nationally if they choose to. It’s time such opportunities are seized.

The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak

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