Sabah and Sarawak, the Battleground of GE14

Posted on March 14, 2016


It is clear from the results of the last general election in 2013 that Barisan Nasional (BN) continues to rule the country because of Sabah and Sarawak.

The ruling coalition won 48 of the 57 Federal seats contested in the two states (including the Federal Territory of Labuan), securing 56% of votes cast, with the then Pakatan Rakyat coalition taking 30%, while local parties got the remaining 14% of votes.

It would be a big mistake for any coalition to come up with a national election manifesto that does not address the major concerns of voters in Sabah and Sarawak.

So, what are the major concerns of the people of these two states? In my opinion, these are some of the issues, starting with the most important, as follows:

  1. Cost of living. This is a bread and butter issue that affects all Malaysians. The imposition of the goods and services tax (GST) since April 2015, the removal of subsidies for certain essential items and the depreciation of the ringgit against the US dollar has increased the cost of living and its impact is especially felt by low-income households. To compound the impact, having to compete with undocumented migrants for jobs has suppressed the wages of local citizens.
  2. Poor infrastructure. After more than five decades of integration with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia, large areas of Sabah and Sarawak still struggle with accessibility problems to many rural areas. The lack of paved road access means that there are no electricity, clean water, health clinics and schools within the communities.
  3. Security concerns. This is more so in Sabah where many live in constant fear of armed bandits and insurgents from neighbouring southern Philippines. Since the incursion by armed militants from Sulu at Lahad Datu in 2013, the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) was established to strengthen the eastern maritime security of Sabah. However, incidents of kidnappings and banditry still occur. The real concern is that these militants are living within Sabah and are assimilated within the large naturalised and undocumented immigrant population of Sabah.
  4. Land and environment. Between 1990 and 2010 Malaysia lost 8.6% of its forest cover, or around 1,920,000 hectares, to make way for oil palm plantations and other developments. Much of the forest lost is in Sarawak and Sabah. The displacement of indigenous population has not only removed their traditional means of survival but also threatens their culture and identity. Sarawak’s plan to develop 12 mega-dams to generate more energy than it needs internally shows an utter disregard for rural communities. While it is true that Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem has put on hold some of these projects, they are not shelved.
  5. Citizenship for votes. This is a long outstanding issue and a sore point with many Sabahans. While the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on illegal immigrants in 2012 may be over, the issue is still unresolved. No one in high office was held accountable for this treacherous act where illegal immigrants were given citizenship in exchange for votes. It is estimated that over 800,000 such immigrants were granted citizenship in the 1980s and 1990s, transforming the demographic of the state forever.
  6. Religious freedom. Another potential hot potato issue is the fear that the religious freedom that was promised when the Malaysia Agreement was signed in 1963, is under threat.

These are just some of the issues that are important for any contesting coalition to address if they want to capture Putrajaya.

But there are a few more important things to consider about politics in Sabah and Sarawak.

  1. There is just a general mistrust of anything from the Peninsula, be it political parties, NGOs or individuals. Can anyone really blame them for the mistrust after suffering over five decades of injustices through the plundering of their natural resources by the Federal government and their cronies?
  2. Generally, the people of Sabah and Sarawak couldn’t care less for what’s happening in Peninsular Malaysia or politics at the national-level. But are they any different from those of us in the peninsula? Would politicians from the peninsula be courting them if not for the fact that the two states are going to be the battleground for GE14? The fact remains, we need each other if we want to end decades of mismanagement and misappropriation of our national wealth.
  3. Political loyalty, I suspect, is not based on party membership but on communal lines. If we can recognise these lines, then big power blocs like Umno in Sabah or PBB in Sarawak are not as homogenous as one may think. At the end of the day, these leaders will decide what is best for their own communities.

The fact that local parties still hold sway there, whether they are in the Barisan Nasional coalition or not, tells us that whatever strategy contrived must include a power-sharing arrangement with them, even if it means granting greater autonomy to both these states.

Just as we saw an unprecedented realignment of individuals from both sides of the political divide at the signing of the Citizens’ Declaration on March 4, 2016, we will need a realignment of political forces in Sabah and Sarawak to pull this nation back from the brink of destruction and put it on the track to prosperity and pride again.

As published in The Malaysian Insider on 14th March, 2016.