As much as the furore surrounding the abolishment of the NEP by the new state governments of Selangor and Penang is making headlines, it must be said that the east Malaysian natives remain indifferent about whether the policy should be continued. As embodied in the constitution and the 20-Point agreement, other than the Malays, Sabahan natives, too, are bestowed with the bumiputra status, making them eligible for the benefits of the NEP.
In fact, we, too, are of the opinion that we should receive more help from the government in the form of study grants, business opportunities etc. as the native communities here are well behind the other communities in terms of education, economic participation plus declining political clout.
I believe the NEP has helped the Malays significantly, despite the many claims of abuse. Hence, it is not surprising that the many who benefitted from the policy (as well as the few who abused it), are sentimental about facing a new reality of having to do without it.
Yet, this is not the case for the Sabahan natives. The NEP may have strong racial elements and been the rock that divided the races in Malaysia. Yes, it’s true that Sabahans are less inclined to see themselves along racial lines and we do have the level of integration that west Malaysians should envy.
But no, that is not the reason why we do not envisage the dismantling of NEP as a loss. As I have said earlier, other than being Bajaus, Kadazandusuns, Muruts, Chinese etc, we also strongly share a common identity - that as Sabahans. To many, (although not accurately justified) the NEP is just another tool for the federal government to assert its authority onto Sabah.
For instance, many, if not most, of the heads of government departments here are West Malaysians while firms from the Peninsular are given tenders for most of the state’s projects or federal mega projects in Sabah.
The only remaining entity which has managed to defy the trend so far is the Sabah Bar Council which has been firm in barring lawyers from West Malaysia from practicing in the state without its consent. That ruling, too, has been heavily under siege.
Many West Malaysians may see this as a resistance to national integration but I must stress that a sense of justice must prevail here. Despite contributing much towards the country's coffers through the harvest of her abundant natural resources, Sabah still has the highest poverty rate never mind the fact that we lag far behind in terms of basic infrastructure and in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors.
The sense of having to give a lot and receiving very little in return was well established until somewhere the 1990s when we voted in a state government which was deemed anti-federal or anti-KL. The feeling has never subsided even after the ‘coup’ of the BN government in taking back the state government through the ‘buying over’ of assembly persons and their excessive gerrymandering which ensured the a BN government success in the following election.
We were also not helped by the unwillingness of the BN government to carry out a thorough investigation on the Project M through which hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were given citizenship in order to alter the state’s racial composition against the non-Malay natives.
There was no probe despite calls from leaders of the smaller BN component members to set up a royal commission to investigate the matter. If that was not bad enough, the illegal immigrants who also received the right to vote were also given bumiputera status, which makes them citizens a class above Chinese and Indian Malaysians.
So one may ask, why did Sabahans voted unanimously for BN in the recent elections? I must admit, I don't know for sure. If it was up to me, BN would have not a chance. But I do know that many Sabahans especially the poor, feared repercussions if they didn’t vote for BN.
The primary concern for the poor is to survive. Of course, they know that the BN government is never going to help them overcome poverty but they also know for sure that BN is going to win, at least at the state level. With Sabah PKR offering little more than ex-BN political opportunists as candidates and not directly engaging the state’s unique situation in its manifesto, there was no reason for Sabahans to risk not being part of the state government.
At least, they could hope for the new state BN government to show some mercy after having been voted in. In fact, many do consider the assembly persons from local BN component parties to be good leaders, who delivered as much as they could while being heavily undermined and restricted by their Umno counterparts, whose allegiance is seen as to lie with the West Malaysia Umno instead of Sabahans.
The PKR and DAP leadership are also to blame for the non-cooperation on seat allocations in the state prior to nomination day. The coalition would have captured most of the urban areas if it weren't for the three-cornered contests.
Anwar Ibrahim and the PKR-DAP-PAS coalition have been recently talking about the prospect of forming the federal government. I believe for this to be realised, formidable support from Sabah is needed. And for this support, the coalition needs to identify with Sabahans and to respond to its unique situation.
Talks of dismantling the NEP, open tender systems and economic competitiveness are not enough for the coalition to establish a presence in Sabah. There are other unique issues in Sabah such as the 20-Point agreement, autonomy and the matter of neutralised immigrants that must be addressed by the opposition coalition for it to be a credible federal government for all Malaysians.