IF the flying of flags is anything to go by, Sarawakians appear to be increasingly keen on autonomy, even if results from the state government’s negotiations with Putrajaya have been dismal.
Here in Sarawak, the Kingdom of Sarawak flag is a common sight, fluttering outside coffee shops or adorning vehicles. And autonomy – which was once whispered – has now become open argument in the public sphere.
Autonomy supporters fly the red and black flag as reminder that the Borneo state existed as a sovereign in 1841, long before Malaysia was formed.
The flag is also a reminder to many Sarawak folk today to fight for greater control of their own destiny, on issues ranging from education to religion.
There is a sense of urgency on-the-ground on the need for the state government to fight back against what many see as interference by Putrajaya into affairs in Sarawak.
“We need to have more say in our lives. In the political process right now, we can only have our voice counted once every five years. Once a government is elected, the people can only wait five years if they are not happy with the government,” said Max Lee, a key leader in the pro-autonomy group, Sarawak for Sarawakians (S4S) group.
But when Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg announced on Saturday that a legal team led by Assistant Law, Federal-State Relations Minister Sharifah Hasidah Sayeed Aman Ghazali will be sent to the United Kingdom to look up archived material on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) to help with its negotiations with the federal government, the response he got from opposition lawmakers as well as netizens was one of scorn.
“Political gimmick,” said one Facebook user Molling Modon on The Borneo Post page.
Sarawak’s autonomy rights under MA63 were eroded (in 1976 in Parliament). Sarawak has been reduced to a mere state when the Article 1 (2) of the Federal Constitution was amended in 1976.
With the amendment, Sarawak and Sabah were no longer equal partners to Malaya, but reduced to a state, on the same status as the 11 other states.
Other netizens warned the state government not to take the sentiments of the electorate lightly, threatening to punish the government in the next elections if its leaders did not take the fight for autonomy seriously.
“As a Sarawakian, I do not want to hear rhetoric only… I want to see the results in claiming our rights under MA63,” a Facebook user Crown Ozria posted.
“If there are no results, please don’t blame the people when they don’t support BN (Barisan Nasiona) in the general election,” said Facebook user Crown Ozria.
The autonomy movement in Sarawak, a motley collection of activists and political parties, has been largely left to its own devices following the death of former chief minister Adenan Setam, its chief patron.
S4S Southern Activity chief Chan Chee Hiong said some of the issues which urgently needed to be discussed with the federal government include the subject of sharing tax revenues and allowing the GST in Sarawak to be collected by the state government instead of Putrajaya.
“Instead of relying on funding distributed by the federal government, the GST collected by Sarawak government will be a faster and more efficient way to distribute funds for development within the state,” he said.
S4S had staged protests last week calling for a referendum to “safeguard” Sarawak’s rights, a commitment to honour the MA63, and the removal of the tourism tax.
The citizens-initiated referendum proposed by the S4S would allow the people to participate more actively and politically, thus allowing Sarawakians to have a semblance of autonomy in the state.
In his announcement on Saturday, Abang Johari said the state government would continue the work of the late Adenan in fighting for greater rights for Sarawak.
However, Dr Kelvin Yii, special assistant to state DAP chairman Chong Chieng Jen, said the current state government may be over-reaching if it pursues further autonomy.
“BN has all the power to ratify MA63 and restore our rightful status in the federation, but apparently lack the political will power to do so.
“Abang Johari may have realised that the autonomy talks are not bearing fruit.
“That could be why he’s trying to make his mark elsewhere, including making announcements of big projects like the LRT and faster internet,” Dr Yii said.