Lack of leadership and political will is holding Borneo back

By Joe Fernandez


UK-based Borneo’s Plight in Malaysia Foundation (BoPiMaFo) has more questions than answers on the unhappy relationship.

In my opinion, it will always be premature for the Agong to consider recognising your’s truly, a longtime Borneo watcher, as Special Adviser to Sabah and Sarawak on Malaysia.

Here are my thoughts on the phenomenon:

It’s about working on a win win formula to bring closure to a controversy that has raged for over half a century.

Belum cuba, belum tahu (if you don’t try, you will never know).

Having said that, Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Jeffrey Gapari Kitingan may be barking up the wrong tree on the M’sia controversy which began on Sept 16, 1963, Malaysia Day, with the British transfer of the Administration of Sabah and Sarawak to the Malayan gov’t.

There were no self-government and Independence Acts in the British Parliament for Sabah and Sarawak. Singapore was given self-rule by the British before 1963, and granted independence by Malaysia in 1965.

The way forward may lie in reversing the transfer, under Article VIII of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), for a new form of self-determination. There’s an in-built mechanism for compliance on the Agreement and to deal with non-compliance.

BoPiMaFo, an ad hoc apolitical human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO), has in fact been mulling over the way forward for several years. 

So far, they have come up with more questions than answers.

The NGO even wrote to Queen Elizabeth twice, but to no avail, the second time being after the British government set up a Public Inquiry on Hong Kong. The Queen mumbled, both times, about referring the matter to her government. 

After the first letter to Her Majesty, the NGO followed up with a letter to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, another exercise in futility. 

Straw, in a blunt response, said that Malaysia is now a sovereign nation and that the British government could not intervene in Sabah and Sarawak. However, it was keeping tabs on the human rights situation in the two Borneo territories.

MA63 exists, just like the Magna Carta, whether incorporated or otherwise in the Federal Constitution (FC). If it’s incorporated in the FC, it’s law, otherwise, being the ultimate political agreement for Malaysia, it has force of law.

The Federal court has previously referred to MA63 whenever the need arose. So, it may not be possible to discard it and work on a new Agreement, as Jeffrey has suggested.

The question of a new Federation does not arise. The Federation of Malaya Agreement 1948 exists in Article 160. It was reinforced by the Federation of Malaya Independence Act 1957.

In any case, Malaysia is not Federation, but an “Equal Partnership” of Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya.

So, it’s not surprising that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin recently conceded that Sabah and Sarawak were in fact territories, not states – i.e. incorporated territory – as described since Malaysia Day. 

Territory, in law, can only mean unincorporated as during the British Administration.

There’s a Malaysia Constitution in place, but unlike the FC, it’s unwritten/uncodified like the British Constitution, but perhaps only partly, and governing only Sabah and Sarawak.

The Malaysia Constitution, based on previous Federal court cases where MA63 was mentioned, can be said to include this document, all the other constitutional documents on Malaysia and the Federal Constitution. Declassified colonial documents and other historical records complete the picture.

No matter what ideas are floated on both sides of the South China Sea, on the plight of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia, the Federal government can afford to sit pretty given the lack of leadership in the two Borneo nations on the nature of their relationship with Malaya.

There’s no political will in Putrajaya to end Malaya’s morally untenable “occupation” of the two Borneo territories where the history and the people, culture, customs and traditions are so different.

Geographically, Borneo and Malaya are worlds apart, separated by the South China Sea. 

If Sabah, and Sarawak, unilaterally declare independence and probably a historical inevitability, the UN Security Council will step in although Malaya would have no stomach for a fight. 

There’s the little matter of Sabah and Sarawak, minor hiccups aside, having always had proxy governments since Sept 16, 1963, Malaysia Day.

There’s no way that such governments can work on the way forward.

The nearest that Sabah and Sarawak ever came to the way forward was when then Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak offered to devolve greater administrative powers to the two territories. GE14 came on 10 May 2018 and that was the end of the matter.

Najib, for all his bungling, would have proceeded on devolution and taken it to the natural conclusion. 

Likewise, the RM30 bil Pan Borneo Highway would have been completed. Now, it lies in shambles, Putrajaya being loathe to spend money in Sabah and Sarawak. 

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, which ended Barisan Nasional (BN)’s uninterrupted 60 year rule, set up a Cabinet Committee on MA63.

When the “backdoor” government took over on March 1 last year, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin placed the deliberations of the Cabinet Committee under the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

After a public hue and cry in Sabah and Sarawak, Muhyiddin set up the Special Council on MA63 to kick the can further down the road. Therein the matter lies.

Jeffrey should bring up his ideas in the Special Council. I can also bring up some ideas, based on my strong Sabah and Sarawak connections, if he assigns me. – May 10, 2021


Joe Fernandez is a contributor for FocusM.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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