Way forward for Sabah is to leave federation, says activist

THE way forward for Sabah to reclaim its autonomy and make progress in social and economic development is by leaving the Federation of Malaysia, a Sabah rights activist said.

Johan Ariffin, chairman of Sabah Action Body Advocating Rights Trustee, said in the last 58 years under the federation, Sabah, a state rich in resources but poor in terms of economic development, has had one of the highest unemployment rates in Malaysia.

The oil-rich state, which contributes to about 40% of the country’s oil resources under the Petroleum Development Act (PDA) 1974 only receives a 5% cut which is unfair, he said.

“After 58 years, why is Sabah still poor? Peninsula Malaysians can’t answer this,” he said at an online forum organised by SEEDS entitled Reprioritising Sabah Economic Development: 58 Years Under Federation of Malaysia.

“What right does Petronas have to take our rights completely and give us only 5%? This has made us poor and benefitted the peninsula,” he declared during the forum.

For 2021, Sabah state revenue was RM4.4 million. It earned RM911 million in oil royalties and RM1.25 billion petroleum product sales tax.

In 2019, Sarawak took Petronas to court with regard to sales tax of petroleum products, and the oil giant had to pay the state RM2.9 million in backdated taxes. This indirectly also benefitted Sabah.

Johan said while there has been a lot of chatter on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), the patience of Sabah folk is wearing thin, and more and more people in the state are talking about leaving the federation.

“Patience in Sabah and Sarawak is running out. People are talking about leaving Malaysia at the coffeeshops if you go to the ground but the peninsula is oblivious,” he added.

While the state entered into MA63 to be a partner with Peninsular Malaysia, it feels like it is being colonised and treated as a partner, Johan said.

“The British colonised us and now we feel like we are being colonised by Malayans. Restore equal status and autonomy, it will be better for them to realise this now rather than later.”

However, Johan’s remarks were rebutted by other panellists who felt dumping the federation was not the way forward for Sabah.

Madeline Berma, honorary professor at University Malaysia Sarawak, said leaving the federation is not the best way forward for the East Malaysia state.

“It has been 58 years and yes, it is a problem but we can’t keep blaming the federal government. We need to think of ways to move forward,” she said.

She said instead of leaving, Sabah and Sarawak need to find a compromise to work together with the federal government.

“So how do you compromise? Malaysia for Malaysians or leave? Is this the way out? Leaving won’t help. Look at the corruption in the state, that is our biggest problem. We need to look at ourselves.”

Economist Muhammed Abdul Khalid said it is “too simplistic” to leave the federation and put all the blame on the peninsula.

“Those who run the state are Sabahans and not from the peninsula. The Sabahans run the state and they are elected by Sabahans,” he said.

While Sabah wants to take back its autonomy and gain control over the oil resources in the state, if the state does not have proper practices in place, it will also fail and remain a poor state, he said.

“Look at Venezuela. They have so much oil and was one of the richest countries in the world but its resources were so poorly run and mismanaged.

“You stay or you don’t stay, it doesn’t matter if your leaders are corrupt and your people continue to elect these people. The blame game, bashing the peninsula is too simplistic.”

Khalid suggested the Norwegian model whereby the country’s oil resources are managed by the central bank.

“Sabah needs strong corporate governance to take over the running of the oil resources. But you can’t do that by having corrupt leaders pillage and plunder these resources.”

Johan hit back at Khalid’s remarks and said that it was the peninsula that taught the East Malaysian states to be corrupt.

“Politics in the peninsula is corrupt and it is amplified in Sabah. It’s the peninsula that taught Sabah and Sarawak how to be corrupt.”

He, however, said that he is proud to be Malaysian and sees the benefits of staying on.

“Don’t get me wrong, we are proud to be Malaysians and we want to stay. We see the benefits, especially in terms of geopolitics as we are surrounded by Indonesia, Philippines and China.”