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“Sarawak First” – The Journey Towards Reclaiming Autonomy In Borneo

Since the 2022 election, Sarawak’s newspaper headlines have regularly highlighted a fascinating trend: the state is increasingly charting its own course, distinct from the rest of Malaysia. The latest example is Sarawak’s decision to introduce its own assessment system in schools, sparking widespread interest and discussion.

Many are curious about why Sarawak can take such independent steps while other Malaysian states cannot. This growing self-governance has even led to speculation about a possible “Borneo-Exit,” suggesting that Sarawak might be moving towards greater autonomy or even secession from Malaysia.

However, before jumping to conclusions, it’s important to understand the motivations and dynamics behind these changes. What is driving Sarawak’s push for independence? Is it about better governance, cultural preservation, or something else? Exploring these questions is key to understanding Sarawak’s unique political journey.

Historical Context: The Unique Status Of Sabah And Sarawak

When Sarawak and Sabah joined Malaysia in 1963 through the Malaysia Agreement (MA63), they were promised significant political autonomy and protection from federal control. This agreement set conditions for integrating North Borneo (now Sabah), Sarawak, and Singapore into Malaysia, giving Sabah and Sarawak a high degree of self-governance[1].

Additionally, both states signed the Inter-Governmental Committee Report (IGCR) and approved changes to the Federal Constitution to secure their privileges, as outlined in Annex A of the MA63.

The MA63 included 20 points from Sabah’s leaders and 16 points from Sarawak’s aspirations[2]. These points aimed to protect their unique ethnic and religious diversity. The agreement also granted the Borneo states control over immigration and autonomy in healthcare and education policies.

However, over the years, the promised autonomy for Sarawak and Sabah has been eroded due to federal intervention. This happened partly because the federal government centralised power, and partly because state leaders from Sabah and Sarawak did not resist these changes.

In everything from cultural heritage, education systems, our taxation revenue and just a general feeling of respect in this nation – are we the poor cousins or the founding partners, a drain on resources or leading contributor to the economy of Malaysia? – Karen Shepherd, activist with Sarawak for Sarawakians (S4S)[3] 

In the first two decades after independence, the state governments of Sabah and Sarawak were allies and later became formal members of the federal coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN)[1].

With Bornean leaders aligned with the federal government, there was little opposition to centralising power. In Sarawak, federal interference supported the long rule of a Melanau Muslim family from 1970 to 2014, ensuring the state remained supportive of the federal government. This political dynasty still significantly influences Sarawak today, accumulating wealth at the state’s expense[4].

Dr Mahathir left internal Sarawak affairs to Taib Mahmud, who became in reality the new ‘Rajah’ and who ensured that Sarawak was a loyal supporter and unquestioning ally of Mahathir and his UMNO party. In return for such loyalty to Mahathir’s national vision, Taib was granted an unusually high degree of political autonomy from Putrajaya and the dominant UMNO never intruded into Sarawak. Sarawak to this day remains the only state where UMNO has no presence. – James Chin, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania[5]

For a long time, Sarawak did not have a highway connecting it to its neighbour, Sabah. Meanwhile, in Peninsular Malaysia, the North-South Highway, which reaches the borders of Thailand and Singapore, was built in the 1980s[1]. Many interior parts of Sarawak still struggle with basic needs and accessibility.

Some roads in Sarawak’s interiors. Source: New Straits Times

After years of slow progress, the near-defeat of the ruling party UMNO in 2008 sparked a change. A new generation of Sabahans and Sarawakians began demanding more control over their states, especially in political and economic matters[4]. Sabah focused on immigration control and resource management, while Sarawak sought land rights and a fair share of federal revenue.

Up to 2008, their demands were not taken seriously. There were attempts to acclimate them which was never their invention of the North Borneo Sarawakians with the help of Malaysia. So all this is coming back to bite Peninsular Malaysia because of the over-centralisation of power over the former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad years. James Chin, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania[6]

When the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government took office in 2018, one of its initiatives was to create a federal committee to return powers to Sabah and Sarawak, addressing breaches in the Malaysia Agreement (MA63). 

Although the PH coalition lost power two years later, the following Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration continued these efforts. They kept the committee and appointed a Minister for Sabah and Sarawak Affairs in the Prime Minister’s department[4].

This marked a significant change in how the federal government dealt with Sabah and Sarawak, largely driven by the political leaders in Sarawak after years of federal control.

Catalyst Leaders Who Ignited Change

In the 2013 elections, the Sarawak Barisan Nasional won 25 out of 31 seats, thanks to its leader, the late Pehin Adenan Satem, who successfully regained many Chinese votes that had previously gone to the opposition[7].

In 2014, Pehin Adenan Satem became the first Malay Chief Minister of Sarawak. Part of his agenda was to restore the rights promised in the Malaysia Agreement (MA63)[7]. Using his legal expertise, he brought the federal government to the negotiation table to push for more state control. His efforts included local appointments for teachers and medical officers, increasing the number of Sarawak-born teachers, negotiating for higher oil and gas royalties, and addressing constitutional rights under MA63[8].

The late Pehin Adenan Satem, Former Chief Minister of Sarawak. Source: mStar

We want these rights which we had way back in 1963 to revert to us. Because over these years, there has been an erosion of state rights as far as Sarawak is concerned.

For instance, we are not a state within Malaysia — we are a party to the formation of Malaysia. The Malaysia Agreement which constitutes Malaysia was signed by the United Kingdom, the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Singapore and Sarawak. – the late Pehin Adenan Satem, former Chief Minister of Sarawak[9]

During his brief time in office, Pehin Adenan Satem achieved significant milestones for the state. He introduced the “Anak Sarawak” policies which aimed to ensure equality for all Sarawakians. This included the stop of classifying Bumiputera (non-Malays or non-Muslims) as “Lain-Lain” and rejecting the notion that Sarawakian Chinese were “pendatang” or outsiders[7]

After his untimely passing in 2017, there were some changes in Sarawak’s political landscape. The Sarawak Barisan Nasional was rebranded as Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) following the 2018 general election. Under Premier Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg, GPS secured a big win in the 2021 state election, capitalising on the popularity of the late Pehin Adenan Satem[10].

GPS has been advocating for more autonomy for Sarawak. Smaller parties in the state, such as Parti Bumi Kenyalang and Parti Aspirasi, are even pushing for secession, raising concerns in the federal capital about Sarawak’s potential move towards independence[4].

As the Head of the Sarawak Government, I would like to assure you that the state government will continue to work to restore any rights of Sarawak that have been eroded, through negotiations with the Federal Government. – Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg, Sarawak Premier[11]

In 2021, a significant moment occurred when the federal constitution was amended to recognise the special status of Sarawak and Sabah. This included adding the term “Malaysia Agreement”[1]

However, the most defining changes are happening in the current unity government. In 2023, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim announced a funding boost of 1 billion Malaysian ringgits and agreed to increase the annual special grants to the Bornean states. Additionally, Sarawak’s financial secretary, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Lizozman Wan Omar was appointed to the board of the Inland Revenue Board (IRB), showing Sarawak’s increasing influence over federal fiscal matters.

Sarawak’s Increasing Autonomy

In recent years, Sarawak has been moving faster in asserting its autonomy from the federal government. Many of their 10-point agreements have been granted, covering areas like education, health, land transportation, and control of resources. Here are some notable developments:

2018: Sarawak established its own oil company, Petroleum Sarawak Bhd (Petros), to manage its oil and gas resources.

2020: TV Sarawak (TVS) was launched to showcase local creative works and serve as a communication platform in the state.

2022: Sarawak changed the title of its Chief Minister to Premier, giving it a unique status as a member of the Federation, similar to the Deputy Prime Minister of the country.

2022: For the first time in the nation’s history, a Sarawakian, Datuk Fadhilah Yusof, assumed the role of Deputy Prime Minister.

2023: Negotiations are happening to give Sarawak more control over healthcare.

2023: Standard assessments for Primary Six and Form Three students will start in 2025.

2023: Sarawak passed its own Climate Change Bill, a first for the nation.

2023: The Public Works Department (JKR) and the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (JPS) in Sabah and Sarawak are now officially recognised as technical departments under Treasury Directive 182 (AP182). This means that JKR in both states can carry out federal projects costing below RM 50 million without needing federal approval.

2024: Sarawak is negotiating with Malaysia Aviation Group to acquire MASwings, aiming to launch its own airline.

2024: Bintulu Port operations will be fully under the Sarawak government’s control by 2025.

– 2024: The federal government agreed to some proposals by Sarawak, including using English for subjects like Additional Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Physics in secondary schools.

No longer (is the premier) seated after, at best, (or) behind, at worst, any of the federal ministers in any of the official federal functions. Let’s be consistent and start with ourselves by not calling Sarawak ‘negeri’… so, the term is ‘Sarawak government’ and not ‘Sarawak state government. – Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian, Deputy Premier[12]

Keeping National Unity And Good Governance Amidst Greater Autonomy

In 2023, Sarawak became a high-income state, joining Penang, Labuan, and Kuala Lumpur. According to the World Bank, Sarawak’s gross national income (GNI) per capita exceeded US$13,205 (RM61,442) in 2022[13]. This increase is due to Sarawak gaining more control over its resources, including creating its own oil company, PETROS.

With more power comes more responsibility. As the state’s funds grow, transparency and accountability have become important issues. The state government’s investments, such as in the troubled company Serba Dinamik Bhd, have raised concerns about how the finances are managed.

The state had quite a scare when it was revealed that it has a significant stake in troubled publicly listed company Serba Dinamik Bhd, which had gone from being an oil-and-gas hero to almost zero in fairly short order. The state opposition had demanded details of the state’s losses, but all the state government has so far provided was a general statement on investment risks. – John Teo, New Straits Times columnist[14]

On March 5, Sarawak Premier, Abang Johari Openg announced that the federal government is giving Sarawak more control over its environmental policies as part of the MA63 negotiations. However, this decision has worried environmental advocates. They fear it might weaken environmental protections in the state. In the past, Sarawak’s environmental record has not been great, with hydropower plants and the construction of the Baram Dams negatively impacting indigenous communities.

The Sarawak law on EIAs, unlike its federal counterpart, excludes the mandatory requirement for public participation and consultation over projects which have significant environmental impacts. It leaves the issue of consultations over the EIA to the discretion of individual project proponents, whose interests are self-serving, and contrary to public interest. – Meenakshi Raman, president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia[15]

Feelings of marginalisation have fueled a rise in nationalism in Sarawak and Sabah.
In Sarawak, the “SAREXIT” movement, which advocates for Sarawak’s independence, has gained momentum, especially on social media. State nationalism surged after the 2008 and 2013 elections.

Some called for a return to the original MA63 agreement, while others called for secession from the federation. Some even claimed the federation was never valid because the British colonial authorities tricked Sabah and Sarawak into joining the federation in the first place. James Chin, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania[16]

The Secession Question

Abang Johari Openg. Source: The Vibes

Now, with the Sarawak government holding significant power, secession talks are widespread in both Sarawak and Sabah. However, both the current Premier and the late Pehin Adenan Satem have assured that Sarawak’s future remains in Malaysia.

The GPS slogan “Sarawak First” does not mean they want to leave Malaysia, as confirmed by Premier Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg. Instead, it means focusing on the state’s interests and regaining Sarawak’s rights. Independence is not being considered at the moment because it is a complex process.

It is not that easy to become an independent country. What we really need is a strong united Malaysia. – Premier Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg, Sarawak’s premier[17]

Efforts by the Sarawak government are slowly encouraging “Anak Sarawak” to return home and contribute to the local economy. Driven by the city’s rejuvenation, Hazel Tang, a chef who spent 8 years in Singapore established her own cafe in Sarawak’s capital.

The Sarawak government’s various efforts are expected to attract its people to come back and work in the state. Halmie Azrie Abdul Halim, a senior analyst at government regulatory affairs and political risk consultancy Vriens and Partners[18]

Despite these positive developments and increasing power, the Sarawak government faces a tough challenge. In 2019, Chong Chieng Jen, a Member of Parliament, pointed out that Sarawak has high poverty rates and lower household incomes compared to the national averages, according to data from the Department of Statistics.

Save for the construction sector, these projects seem to have no ostensible impact on the local small-medium enterprises (SMEs) and small traders. They will also not improve the median disposable household income of the great majority of Sarawakians. Chong Chieng Jen, Stampin Member of Parliament[19]

As Sarawak navigates its path to greater autonomy within Malaysia, the big question is whether the Sarawak government can tackle socio-economic challenges and create a more prosperous future for its people. Only time will tell.

Explore our sources:

  1. Chin, J. (2024). Malaysia: The Sarawak secession? Lowy Institute. Link 
  2. Faruqi, S.S. (n.d.) CONSTITUTIONAL SAFEGUARDS FOR SABAH & SARAWAK’S AUTONOMY. Link 
  3. Danks, T. (2019). Real tensions’: Malaysia’s oil-rich Borneo states flex muscles. Al Jazeera. Link 
  4. Strangio, S. (2021). James Chin on MA63 and the Return of State Nationalism in Malaysia. The Diplomat. Link 
  5. Chin, J. (2021). Borneo brews another Malaysian reality. Asia Link. Link
  6. Chin, J. (2020). Is Malaysia heading for ‘BorneoExit’? Why some in East Malaysia are advocating for secession. The Conversation. Link 
  7. Lee, H.G. & Lee, P.O. (2017). What Lies Ahead for Sarawak with Adenan Satem’s passing? Fulcrum. Link 
  8. Mail, R. (2016). Adenan — great defender of Sarawak’s rights. The Borneo Post. Link 
  9. Borneo Post. (2018). We are all ‘Adenan Satem’. Link 
  10. Teo, J. (2024). Sarawak needs bold political reforms while the going is good. New Straits Times. Link 
  11. Bernama. (2021). ‘Malaysian Family’ approach in negotiations on Sarawak’s rights – Abang Jo. Link
  12. New Straits Times. (2024). It’s Sarawak government, not state government, says deputy premier. Link 
  13. Tawie, S. (2023). Abang Johari: High-income status accorded to Sarawak by World Bank shows we are on right track. Malay Mail. Link 
  14. Teo, J. (2022). Greater autonomy means greater need for transparency, accountability.  New Straits Times. Link 
  15. Free Malaysia Today. (2024). Giving Sarawak full autonomy over environment most disconcerting, says NGO. Link 
  16. Chin, J. (2019). Commentary: The ghost of Borneo, talk of secession are back to haunt Malaysia. Channel News Asia. Link 
  17. Tawie. S. (2024). Abang Johari says ‘Sarawak First’ slogan just means to ‘take care of our house first’, not become own country. Malay Mail. Link 
  18. Saieed, Z. (2023). Sarawak draws returning locals with rejuvenated city, development policies. The Straits Times. Link 
  19. The Borneo Post. (2020). Chong: Sarawak a rich state, with poor people.’ Link 

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