PUTRAJAYA (Feb 5): Sabahans want to keep up with Malaysians in the peninsula in terms of development, but want the latter to keep up with them when it comes to true multicultural harmony.
Sabahans, according to veteran politician Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, are "envious" of their sister states in Peninsular Malaysia who had better facilities and have more "trappings of a developed country".
Dompok, the minister of Plantation, Industries and Commodities, told fz.com that Sabah wanted to be on par, at least in terms of development, with the other states in the country.
The people there, he said, just want to see more improvement in their lives – more infrastructure projects, job opportunities, schools, and basic amenities – something the politician says he has been trying to push for as well all these years.
Sabah is one of the poorest states in Malaysia (it used to be the richest back in 1970), with a poverty rate of 19.7%. In a state with three million people (of which 27% are foreigners), it means one in five Sabahans is struggling to feed themselves.
Sabah politicians, including Dompok, have for years lobbied for the state, which is a major oil and gas producer, to be given its fair share of development and budget allocations. However, their calls were always ignored by their Barisan Nasional (BN) counterparts in the peninsula. That is, until the 2008 general election.
In GE12, the ruling BN found itself on the ropes in the peninsula and had to rely on Sabah and Sarawak voters to keep them in the federal government. Since then, both the prime minister and his deputy have made repeated visits to the two states, and budgets for development programmes have been more forthcoming.
Still, there is a long way to go before Sabah reaches anywhere near the development status of say, Selangor or even Malacca – neither of which have any oil revenue.
But for Sabahans, development must not come at the cost of sacrificing their unique way of life.
"They want their special position of being a truly Malaysian state, their way of life, including how one practices their religious beliefs, recognised," Dompok, who is the United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) president, said in an exclusive interview recently.
As far as Dompok was concerned, the understanding between races in the land below the wind was still much better compared with the relationship between the races in the peninsula.
He also expressed sadness that the "robust" political style practised by both sides of the divide in the peninsula was now rearing its ugly head in Sabah.
Dompok said that politicians in the west were trying to export a divisive style of political campaigning which had not existed in Sabah before.
"Race and religious issues are not the main focus in Sabah.
"We should be nurturing harmony instead of trying to score political points," he said.
He strongly feels that Malaysians from the other side of the South China Sea should see that Sabah is a precursor to the 1Malaysia concept, espoused by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. (The 1Malaysia concept calls for a stronger emphasis by the federal government and its agencies and civil servants on ethnic harmony, national unity and efficient governance).
Importing racial and religious politics
Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) president Datuk Yong Teck Lee agreed with Dompok, saying that Sabahans were generally worried about the import of racial and religious politics as well as the extremism involved.
He went on to accuse Umno (which began to spread its wings to the state after the 1990 general election) and other peninsula parties (such as PKR, PAS and DAP) that brought along their racial and religious rhetoric of exacerbating the situation.
"Many West Malaysians who have settled permanently in Sabah do let it be known that they were escaping the racially-charged environment there and preferred Sabah's harmonious society," Yong said when contacted.
In terms of development, Yong noted that no further evidence of the gross disparities (between the states) were needed, in terms of infrastructure, doctor to patient ratio, internet access and education as well as the broken promise to fulfil the Borneonisation of the civil service enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963.
Sabahans, he said, wanted autonomy so that the state government was not subservient to the federal leadership, and keep control over its own resources, like oil and gas.
"They also want a greater say in the formulation of federal policies affecting Sabah," he said.