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Wind of Change

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sabah Sabah

Sabah! Sabah!
Headline Opinion 2008-12-14 00:01
This week, I'd like to take you all on a tour to Sabah, the Land Below the Wind.

Like Indonesia, Sabah's political and economic influence is on the rise. We all know how MPs returned from there 'saved' Barisan Nasional and hence, Umno in the next election. The fact that the state's playmakers could well be the kingmakers in the on-going struggle for power in Malaysia at large makes our sketchy knowledge of the place glaring.

It doesn't take a genius to realize how different Sabah is, compared to the other states in the Federation of Malaysia which it is a part of. The blasé attitudes of West Malaysians are noticeably absent here. As with most smaller and more isolated communities, friendship is taken very seriously.

In Sabah, people remember and honour kindnesses. People also make time for one another and life is celebrated. There is no doubt in my mind that Sabahans appreciate those who make the effort to understand the state's distinctive socio-cultural mix because Sabah isn't - nor will it ever be - a carbon copy of the peninsular.

"Indeed, the Pakatan is equally peninsular-centric, but it has so far proven itself more flexible in these matters than BN."
Many Sabahans are very unhappy about the cavalier way their identities as Kadazandusun, Rungus or Murut are dealt with. They dislike being defined merely as 'Others' despite being Bumiputras. Such off-handedness can be deeply insulting.

Also, it would be an equally big mistake to lump all the Muslim Bumiputera communities of Sabah into one group. Umno's pretensions to represent them all as 'Malays' notwithstanding, there are important local variations- namely the Bajau, Orang Laut and Suluks that are being rather carelessly homogenized.

The blame for this, one imagines, lies solely at the door of Umno's federal leadership. Umno's top leaders have repeatedly failed to grasp the nuances of Sabah.

They tend to assume that Sabahans (especially Muslim Sabahans) are fervent believers in Umno's cause as well as its brand of racially-charged politics. On the surface of things, Sabah does seem to be a BN/Umno stronghold.

Earlier this year, the state had been booming: crude palm oil prices were well above the RM3000 per tonne level, tourism arrivals look set to break the 2.4 million mark and federal money was pouring in courtesy of the latest heavily-hyped development corridor.

Moreover Sabah's east coast towns such as Tawau, Lahad Datu and Sandakan were experiencing a long-awaited boom reminiscent of the Timber heydays of the 60's and 70's. The "Umno model" of governance appeared entrenched as well, with Chief Minister Musa Aman firmly in office.

But of course, the scenario has changed dramatically. The price of crude palm oil has collapsed and businessmen here are fearful of the global economic crisis reaching our shores- the Government's assurances notwithstanding. The unwillingness to acknowledge the differences that exist between the peninsular and the north Borneo state means that Sabahan aspirations remain sidelined.

Sabah has never had many certainties in the Federation- and what we West Malaysian's take for 'lalang politics' is actually a desperate, 24/7 struggle on the part of Sabahans to get the best deal for their state. The way they have been treated means that loyalty can be hard to sustain and if things start going wrong economically, the reversal in fortunes could be swift.

Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Rakyat have been pushing hard to turn Sabah over to their column. While they have had some success, the Opposition is still far away from a coherent Sabah strategy. Indeed, the Pakatan is equally peninsular-centric, but it has so far proven itself more flexible in these matters than BN.

Both Musa Aman and his party leaders in Kuala Lumpur will therefore be hard-pressed to keep Sabah on-side. The pressure will fall on the Chief Minister's shoulders to continue delivering growth. This in turn will depend on his effectiveness in lobbying for his state in the face of requests from elsewhere in the Federation.

While the Prime Minister of the day will probably have to accede to Sabah's demands, it would perhaps also be wise for Kota Kinabalu to start developing a strategic geo-political and economic plan that places Sabah at the heart of the Nusantara. The state can act as a gateway between the rich and large consumer markets of North Asia and the provinces of Eastern Indonesia.

Sabah, therefore, will be 2009's 'battleground' state. Umno needs, if it hopes to maintain its successes there, to backtrack on its extremist stance and win the hearts and minds of all the state's peoples. Failure to do so will mean that Sabah will no longer be able- or willing- to 'save' it like it has in the past.

Source : (By KARIM RASLAN/ MySinchew)

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