Is Sarawak a State or territory?
Published on: Sunday, March 31, 2019
By: John Teo
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If Sarawak is not a state as Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Abang Openg says it will soon not be, what is it then?

Apparently, even Abang Johari is none the wiser. He let it be known that henceforth, all official references will avoid that newly dreaded word and substitute it with just “Sarawak.”

It is plainly a needless cop-out.

Everyone should be better off and have far more important matters to ponder than such an inutile debate over mere semantics.

Perhaps a brief background on the genesis of such a debate is in order.

It started when Abang Johari’s predecessor, the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, aired that Sarawak did not “join” Malaysia but together with the then Malaya, Singapore and Sabah formed the expanded federation called Malaysia.

Malaysia, then, can fairly accurately be said to have been the fusion of four fairly distinct administrative entities, a distinctiveness that Sarawak (and Sabah) today quite understandably wants to preserve and maybe even enhance.

In saying this, Adenan — a lawyer by training — might have been giving voice to a rather innate desire on the part of many in Sarawak to retain the state’s unique character without necessarily seeking to upset the whole constitutional construct of Malaysia as a federation with clear and distinct delineation in law of areas under either state or federal jurisdiction or, to a limited extent, under concurrent responsibility.

Any removal of references to Sarawak as a “state” therefore necessarily carries grave constitutional implications that goes deep into the core of what Malaysia is all about.

All the current hype as to whether or not Sarawak is a “state” arises after the federal government agreed to the clamour in Sarawak and Sabah to amend Article 1 (2) of the Federal Constitution in the current parliamentary session.

The amendment seeks to supposedly restore the status of Sarawak and Sabah to that which existed when the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 (MA63) was signed.

Putrajaya acceding to the request for the amendment is what now causes both the states to try to explain what, if anything, the amendment will mean in both substantive and practical terms.

Abang Johari sought to clarify matters by stating that after the amendment is done, the state will morph to become a “wilayah” or territory. That probably will simply bring the state into uncharted waters.

Nobody has thus far made the claim that MA63 did not create an expanded federation. Those placing high and presumably unfounded hopes on amending Article 1(2) resulting in Malaysia magically becoming a confederation of Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah must have known the hopes are self-deluding.

The original amendment to Article 1(2) which the impending amendment seeks to nullify — whatever it might have achieved — never touched on the rights (most prominently over immigration matters) especially written into the Federal Constitution.

It is those rights unique only to Sarawak and Sabah — including, most importantly, the separate High Court of Sarawak and Sabah — which mark both states out as distinct administrative regions.

None of these has changed materially in the decades since Malaysia came into being.

What the original Article 1(2) amendment intended was probably a federal desire for greater conformity rather than the continued “distinctiveness” of Sarawak and Sabah and the proposed new amendment now may only be an admission that such a desire had been misguided and mistaken and has been shown, in the years since the original amendment, to be perhaps counter-productive.

If that is the happy outcome of this constitutional brouhaha, it is to be broadly welcomed and both states may be better served if their leaders now moved to more substantive issues where their rights and prerogatives constitutionally enshrined have indeed been eroded.

One such area is Sarawak’s representation in Parliament. Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing recently highlighted to this writer that in 1963, Sarawak had a 23-per cent share of parliamentary seats.

That share has been progressively eroded such that the state now has only an 18-per cent share or 31 members of parliament elected from Sarawak.

To retain the proportionate share of Sarawak MPs obtaining in 1963, Sarawak should now have 38 MPs, said Masing.

The nearly one-quarter share of parliamentary seats for Sarawak agreed to upon Malaysia’s formation was deliberately disproportionate to Sarawak’s share of the total population of the new federation in order to avoid the state being overwhelmed politically and otherwise by Malaya (and Singapore) then.

The spirit and letter of the MA63 in this regard should be reaffirmed.


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