Northern Ireland, Sabah, and Sarawak

11 May 2022 09:57am
Illustrative purposes (Source: 123rf)
Illustrative purposes (Source: 123rf)

Sabah and Sarawak have always occupied a unique position in the Federation of Malaysia.

I feel most of us in the peninsular tend to underestimate both the importance of these two states, and the sentiment in Sabah and Sarawak about being part of Malaysia.

This article takes a quick look at Northern Ireland and its relationship with the UK, Ireland, and the EU, and attempts to see what their recent experiences may offer in terms of lessons for Malaysia.

In elections held on the 5th of May, the people of Northern Ireland gave the largest number of seats to the political party Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein advocates for Northern Ireland to leave the UK, and seeks unification between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the independent Republic of Ireland.

Politically, Northern Ireland has always been dominated by parties that favour continued union with the UK. Sinn Fein’s electoral victory thus signals a very significant shift.

This of course brings to mind the Scottish movement for independence as well. In the 2014 referendum, 44.7% of voters wanted Scottish independence, as opposed to 55.3% who wanted to stay in the UK.

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Some may see this as a comfortable victory, but having nearly half of Scotland want to leave the UK seems a very significant fact. Pro-independence Scottish parties also increased their number of seats in the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections.

One factor informing these dynamics that is really quite different from the context in Malaysia and Southeast Asia is of course matters involving the European Union.

Perhaps in the Scottish case especially, an idea was for Scotland to see itself as part of the EU, instead of part of the UK - which to some must have seemed quite viable, economically. The Republic of Ireland, of course, is already part of the EU.

In the extreme scenario of Sabah/Sarawak seceding from Malaysia, there is obviously no equivalent of the EU or similar large entity for them to integrate with.

Economic factors are likely to be one of the biggest determinants regarding sentiment in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales about remaining part of the UK.

After all, decades and centuries of economic integration into the UK is surely not easy to simply undo. The upheaval it would create comes at great economic cost.

That alone however, appears not to be able to strongarm a convincing majority of citizens in those countries (except perhaps for Wales) to continue being part of the UK.

Perhaps there are three further related factors worth looking at here, with regards to applicability for Malaysia.

The first is the perception of historical grievances.

The history of English conquest over Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is a bloody one, that goes back for centuries and centuries.

The type of nationalism borne of resisting brutal foreign conquest is a strong one, and one that tends to live on for generations.

Movies like Braveheart immortalise that spirit, and dramas like The Crown give a glimpse into how the Welsh think of the English.

Today, what is happening in Ukraine will similarly likely shape Ukrainian nationalism and identity for decades to come.

This sentiment of being colonised and a history of oppression that has never been properly brought to some sort of justice doesn’t go away easily.

Centuries after the fighting has stopped, it is still easy to refer back to distant, bloodier days, when thinking about contemporary political realities.

The second factor concerns the question of whether citizens in the periphery feel represented in the centre, and whether they feel an equal part of the union.

The British Union Jack is an interesting flag - it is a combination of the red cross of St George representing England, the blue background and white X representing St Andrew for Scotland, and the red X representing St Patrick of Ireland. Interestingly, Wales is not represented in this flag.

One must question the degree to which someone from Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland identifies as “British”. Do they feel the instruments of state and the people helming them look like them? Talk like them? Understand what it’s like to live like them?

The two islands in question have great linguistic diversity, for such a relatively small place, and accents can be a sensitive topic.

The fundamental question is perhaps whether citizens in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland ultimately feel they are part of the centre, or whether they feel like they are part of a neglected periphery.

The other factor concerns economic exploitation and interests. In Northern Ireland, one burning issue involves borders.

As part of the historic Good Friday Agreement, having an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a key issue.

Brexit has now thrown all that into question, and the ongoing debate about how to manage the EU’s only land border of that nature (with customs, etc) has become central to political debates in Northern Ireland.

Needless to say, if the citizens at the periphery feel that they are being economically exploited or disadvantaged by decisions made in the centre, this will naturally create immense resentment.

Coming back to Malaysia, we are lucky in that we obviously do not have a similar history of brutal conquest or occupation where the peninsular once ‘ruled’ over Sabah or Sarawak.

The other two factors do seem to apply somewhat however.

I think Sabah and Sarawak are severely underrepresented in the instruments of the Malaysian state.

Of course, there are a few ministers in the cabinet and such, but generally, very few of the country’s key leaders seem to look like, or sound like people from East Malaysia.

Our most common cultural symbols also tend to lack any flavour coming from Sabah or Sarawak.

It is probably easy to imagine that people from East Malaysia generally do not see themselves or their culture reflected in the things that make up “Malaysia”.

In fact, a Malay term often used in this context is ‘dianaktirikan’, which translates to: “treated like a stepchild” - where people from East Malaysia probably often feel like second class citizens.

In short, again, the key question is: how “Malaysian” do people from Sabah and Sarawak feel?

Lastly, looking especially at how income from Sabah and Sarawak’s natural resources and oil reserves in particular are distributed between the federal and state levels would surely raise some eyebrows.

If Sabahans and Sarawakians feel that their natural resources are being plundered to enrich the peninsular, surely we can understand how this perception of economic exploitation creates a lot of resentment.

This is especially true given the severe underdevelopment that Sabah and Sarawak are still experiencing, despite having been part of Malaysia for over 50 years.

At the end of the day, it is vital we realise how integral Sabah and Sarawak are to Malaysia as a whole; and it is vital that we do not take their being part of our federation for granted.

After all, we have already had an example of one entity leaving Malaysia in 1965, and making a good life for themselves.

Ultimately, for long term peace, prosperity, and continued integration, we need to ensure that Sabahans and Sarawakians feel like they are an equal part of Malaysia, and that their identity, culture, and interests are all sufficiently represented in the centre.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Email: [email protected]. #BangsaMalaysia #NextGenDemocracy.

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