Saturday, May 25, 2024

Malaysia: The Sarawak secession?

the interpreter:


Malaysia: The Sarawak secession?


The Borneo state has won greater autonomy
and holds all the cards for more concessions.

Celebrating victory for GPS in the Sarawak state elections 2021 (Abdul Hakim/AFP via Getty Images)

Published 23 May 2024 Malaysia

The ruling coalition in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Gabugan Parti Sarawak (GPS), has been assiduously working since 2018 towards the political goal of establishing the most autonomous state inside the Malaysian federation. This has raised concerns in the corridors of the administrative capital Putrajaya that, in the long run, it would result in some sort of independence from the federation.

The starting point is to understand the historical grievances of the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah and back in 1963 when they signed the Malaysia Agreement (MA63) which created the Federation of Malaysia. The Borneo states were promised political autonomy from the federal government in addition to safeguards from political interference from the centre. 

For the first half century, many of the safeguards were ignored by the centre as the Malay establishment in the peninsula sought to centralised power in the federal government. The Borneo states could not do much, especially during the long tenure of Malaysia’s strongman, Mahathir Mohammad, and his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Everything fell apart in 2018 when UMNO lost power and Malaysia underwent its first regime change.

There have been four administrations since then, the most recent of which is led by Anwar Ibrahim. What matters is that GPS was essential to the establishment of every administration. It might be argued that GPS gave all four administrations the necessary numbers to establish a government and provide the political stability.

This in turn allowed GPS to obtain political concessions from Putrajaya.

With the exception of a state-controlled security system, Sarawak will effectively have the organs of a “state within a state” as more and more federal powers are transferred locally.

First, the federal constitution was changed in 2021 to reflect the special status of Sarawak and Sabah and insert the word “Malaysia Agreement” into the constitution, thus cementing the safeguards given at the time of independence into the constitution.

Second, a Sarawakian was appointed deputy prime minister in 2022, the first time in the nation’s history.

Third, about half of the Malaysian cabinet comes from Sarawak and Sabah, although they only constitute less than 20 percent of Malaysia’s population.

Fourth, Sarawak renamed its chief minister to Primer to show that it is not merely a state in the federation. All the states in the peninsula call their top political office Chief Minister (Menteri Besar).

Fifth, the federal government has restarted special grants to Sabah and Sarawak. Sabah is separately pursuing a claim against the federal government for 40% of all revenue raised in Sabah. This was part of the MA63 agreement, but the federal government stopped paying the state its entitlement from 1974 onwards.

Sixth, Sarawak established its own oil company, PETROS, to take control of the oil and gas resources in Sarawak territory.

Furthermore, plans exist for Sarawak to assume state-level authority over health and education, which had been considered federal issues since independence. To the dismay of Malay nationalists on the peninsula, Sarawak has already declared that it will reinstate English as the official language of instruction in certain schools. Sarawak will have its own airline by early next year. With the exception of a state-controlled security system, Sarawak will effectively have the organs of a “state within a state” as more and more federal powers are transferred locally.

Malaysia, map via CartoGIS, Australian National University

Due to past grievances and the rise of state nationalism in the state, Sarawakians are huge fans of all these policies. GPS swept 76 out of 82 seats in the most recent 2021 state election. Sabahans are keeping a close eye on Sarawak’s situation and, should Sarawak succeed, are likely to adopt its model.

Many on the ground in Sarawak (and Sabah) think if the federal government tries to re-centralised power in Putrajaya, the small but noisy independence movement will get stronger. Anti-federal sentiment in both states is strong but keep at bay because, thus far, Putrajaya has given in to most of the demands from Sarawak.

The next big political test will likely occur at the end of next year when the Borneo states will seek a constitutional amendment to permanently reserved at 35% of the seats in parliament for Borneo. They claimed this was part of the MA63 agreement as a safeguard against political domination by the states in the peninsula. As intended by the federation’s founders, the Borneo states have an effective veto over any amendments to the Malaysian constitution, which require a two-thirds majority to be approved. Additionally, this will significantly change the federalism’s overall power structure. Malaysia has always had a federal structure that is highly centralised.

Will Sarawak be successful in achieving political independence from Putrajaya?

The answer does not lie in Borneo but in the Malay peninsula. Sarawak has been able to get all its concessions because the Malay polity is effectively split three ways. One block supports a moderate Malaysia under Anwar’s party, the People’s Justice Party (PKR). The Malay nationalists support UMNO and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM). While the Islamists support PAS, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia. If the Malays largely unite under one bloc with a strong leaders, as was the case with Mahathir, then they can afford to ignore Sarawak. Right now they can’t, and recent trends suggest the Malay polity will continue to be split for the next decade.

It’s evident that Sarawak’s pursuit of political autonomy will result in a more diverse political landscape in Malaysia and compelled political separation between the Borneo states and the peninsula region. Only when the Sarawak’s autonomy is complete can it be determined whether this will result in secession.


  1. Time , Sarawak became independent. Otherwise they will get
    dragged into ketuanan cesspit. Let ketuanan mob drown in their

  2. Sound nice and easy but could be messy. As of now, many Sarawakians have put out root over at Semenanjung, will be a challenge to uproot to fly back. Nothing is impossible but chaotic scene will definitely entail. Unless there're firestone somewhere.