The irony of Sabah is that in 1963 it stopped being a British colony, but became a colony administered by the federal government of Malaya.

Fifty-seven years after 1963, the people of Sabah still fight for their rights and for more power to manage their own nation. The terms of the MA63 agreement were neither respected nor upheld. Today, Sabah still struggles to be treated as an equal partner in Malaysia.

High on their list of priorities are the MA63 agreement, the oil concession and the Ketuanan Melayu and Islamisation agenda.

Sabah is a diverse nation of many indigenous tribes and religions, including animism. Sabahans are aware that one faith or one ethnic group cannot be superior to another; yet, many top civil service positions are filled by imported West Malaysians.

They are furious that Project IC has allegedly diluted the local population with migrants from neighbouring countries, who were given citizenship rights in exchange for Umno-Baru votes. Project IC has altered Sabah’s demography.

Next week, when Sabahans vote, caretaker chief minister Shafie Apdal will learn if his message to build a nation has filtered down to the grassroots.

Interestingly, the Umno-Baru leader for Sabah, the MP for Kinabatangan, Bung Moktar Radin, agreed that Sabahans had been shortchanged.

On Sept 15, he pleaded with Sabahans to give his party the mandate to rule again. He said, “…Sabah Umno and BN – we have changed. From our leadership, to skills, to our organisation…Why have we changed? Because we want to capture the hearts of the people and we want to convince the people to support us.”

What did Bung Moktar and Umno-Baru do, during their term in power, to wrest power away from Putrajaya and restore the rights of the Sabah people?

Sabahans, like their Sarawakian neighbours, are a people whose ability to live in natural harmony is envied by other Malaysians.

They have always believed that they are a tolerant and harmonious people. Many families are composed of people with different faiths, who sit together at the dining table to celebrate Christmas, Kaamatan (harvest festival), Chinese New year, Hari Raya, Deepavali and Vesak, the Buddhist New year. They have no qualms about celebrating, eating or drinking whatever they wish in one another’s company.

A Sabahan who has worked in Kuala Lumpur said that when she first arrived she was shocked by the dress codes and eating restrictions to which she was subjected. She was often mistaken for a Malay and quizzed during the fasting month for eating in public and for attending Sunday mass.

She said, “I grew up in a multi-religious country where people of other faiths also fast as a part of their religious practice, but living in West Malaysia is like being in a foreign country with demands that people of other faiths respect Muslims, by not eating non-halal foods in their presence, or by not eating in front of them during Ramadan.”

There is rising discontent among both Sabahans (and Sarawakians) over several issues, such as freedom of religion, the provisions for education and healthcare, as well as the allocation of funds for infrastructure.

Although Sabah is a major oil and gas producer, Sabah is the poorest “state” in Malaysia, although in fact it is not merely a state, but is a separate nation. Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya were cobbled together to form Malaysia.

With rising frustration over Putrajaya, it is not surprising that some East Malaysians have called for secession from Malaysia.

With the oil industry in crisis, how will Putrajaya handle the oil royalty concessions?

In the past, both Sabah and Sarawak were once known as the vote-bank for BN.

Shafie has the upper hand in next week’s state election. If he wins, he will be able to show West Malaysians that no one race or religion is superior.