Although in terms of membership, Sabah is equal to the other states in the peninsular, Sabah does have its own autonomy as stipulated in the constitution which other states (except Sarawak) do not have. Immigration is under the control of the state government.
Sabah is allowed to continue its cabinet system while some taxation and land matters are still within the state’s prerogative. Even certain laws passed in the Malaysian parliament cannot be implemented in Sabah without express consent from the state.
It bothers me when some quarters in Sabah love to give an impression that Malaysia was thrust upon the Sabahan leaders despite their dissenting views. According to them, that was cogent evidence that the idea of Malaysia federation was faulty from the get-go.
I admit there was earlier dissention among Sabah leaders at the point when Tunku Abdul Rahman first announced the idea of Malaysia. Tun Fuad, for intance, was initially suspicious of it.
This is understandably so since Sabah leaders were about to commit the state into a complicated collaboration of great consequence upon the people of Sabah. But the dissenting views of Sabah leaders slowly changed after extensive consultation, private meetings and intense negotiation were held between the founding fathers of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah.
Tun Fuad, for example, was clearly inching toward the approval of federation of Malaysia. Their approval was evident in series of agreements, which had been executed to form Malaysia. In so far as history is concerned, the signed agreements what matter the most.
Would Sabah be better off on her own instead of joining Malaysia? In answering that question, we must be fair to our founding fathers. What was it like to be in their shoes at the time when they were pushing for Malaysia? The question must be answered in the context of what actually transpired in the 1960s instead of our penchant of looking at history from our 2012 perspective when the state and the nation are doing fine.
There was the issue of security concern prior to the British consenting to grant Sabah her independence. The British were worried that being independent on her own would seriously undermine Sabah’s security. And if history were to be the torch of truth, their fears were not completely unfounded.
If we look at the regions around Sabah back then, we know that this part of the world, at the time, was quite unstable politically and that peace was very fragile commodity. The communist insurgency in Indo-China was gaining momentum and that made the Thais, Malayans and Singaporeans genuinely nervous. To the east of Sabah, President Macapagal of the Philippines was pursuing the “Sabah claim” rather aggressively. The Philippines issued threats and later had secretly sanctioned covert military plans to invade Sabah in the infamous incident of Corregidor island which elicited condemnation by unanimous Malaysian Parliament.
To the south of Sabah, President Soekarno of Indonesia was also increasing his vitriol against Sabahan and Malayan governments. Against this backdrop of threats, Tun Fuad and Tun Mustapha knew they had very little choice. In the end they chose the most sensible thing to do: to merge into a bigger entity called Malaysia which would provide similarities and familiarities in terms of British administration system, judicial process, laws and civil service in Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah. They knew that being part of a bigger entity would give Sabah the advantage of economies of scale in terms of attracting investment, lowering cost of development, sharing the prohibitively expensive defense spending and dramatically cutting short the learning curve of nation building.
Admittedly, federalism is not some foolproof or completely perfect solution for every nation. There is bound to be points of contention especially on distribution of revenue, development funds and claims of unfair relationship. These debates occur wherever federalism is practiced in any part of the world. But these issues can be debated with decorum without going through such destructive polemic, which along the way inflicting severe damage to the very fiber of our nation’s being.
Some go to the extent of to misguidedly attribute current day problems on the concept of federalism. They shift every issue from poverty, lack of infrastructures to illegal immigrants onto the shoulders of federalism.
I do admit that Sabahans have every right to raise these legitimate concerns. Unfortunately, these issues have more to do with policies and priorities of the government. The same should not be allowed to spill over into emotional debate of whether or not Sabah should be a part of Malaysia. Policies and priorities can always be contested, debated and adjusted accordingly.
We Sabahans must look beyond the futile debate of "Sabah for Sabahans" and “Sabah vs. Malaya”. The concept of ‘Malayan government in Putrajaya’ is but a flicker of the opposition’s imagination. There is only one Malaysian government where the voices of each race and state are being simultaneously heard and represented. Needless to say, out of the entire current federal cabinet, 4 Ministers and 5 Deputy Ministers are from Sabah.
From my perspective, the Sarawakians and Singaporeans have decided to move on, refusing to split hairs over the polemic of divisive politics even though they were very much part of the Malaysia Agreement before.
In Sarawak, for instance, the question of whether to celebrate independence day on 31st August or 16th September is not something the Sarawakians would dwell much upon. And ironically, Sarawak celebrated her independence on 22nd July 1963.
Similarly, over in Singapore, the people have stopped whining about the fateful day in history called Singapore Day (that is the name of the Act passed by Malaysian Parliament to expel Singapore from Malaysia in 1965). Like Sarawak, they have moved on and concentrated on making Singapore of what it is today.
The debate of 49th vs. 55th year of independence must cease with immediate effect. While it is true that Sabah gained her independence 49 years ago, we cannot deny that our fellow Malaysians in the peninsular had their independence 55 years ago.
Shifting the year of independence to 1963 rather than 1957 would make 3million Sabahans happy, but may in turn slight the feeling of more than 20millions Peninsular Malaysians who gained independence 55 years ago.
We may solve one problem but create another! That is why the government decided to be diplomatic in solving this conundrum. But things have taken a positive turn, for instance, the official logo of 55th Merdeka does not bear the word ‘Malaysia’. To me, that is a good start. Perhaps in the future, the Information, Communications and Culture Ministry will drop the contentious reference of base year altogether and instead just use the plain "Hari Merdeka" in its official promotion material. This will make 28 million Malaysians happy!
Lastly, in conjunction with the auspicious Hari Malaysia, I urge all Malaysians -- especially my fellow Sabahans -- to move on. It is undeniable that we must at all times preserve Sabah's constitutional rights, but let us not be clouded by any shadow of doubt that Sabah's future lies firmly with Malaysia, as much as the future of Malaysia is with Sabah.
If you ask me, I have always been a proud Sabahan yet feeling like a true Malaysian. So can you.