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How West M'sians can know better the other half of Malaysia

COMMENT As a West Malaysian with deep personal connections with East Malaysia - my wife and her lovely family are from Sarawak, and one-third of my team is based in Miri - I feel compelled to remind my fellow West Malaysians of our God-given, national and cultural ties with East Malaysia and our responsibility towards them, as one half of the country to the other.

The past state elections in Sarawak have revealed, not surprisingly, the best and worst of us, and arguably, more has surfaced from the "ugly" than the "good" (side). There is disappointment on every side - rank corruption and money politics, a divided opposition, an apathetic and cynical middle-class, jaded (but distant) idealists and defensive locals.

On the one hand, you have West Malaysians who point the finger at the "ignorant, backward people of East Malaysia" for their choice of elected representatives; on the other, you have East Malaysians who react in pain to the results of the election, to the comments of their fellow Malaysians across the South China Sea, to the challenges that continue to confront them at home - and why would they not be in pain?

They are a people ravaged by bad governance (both from within and without), often the recipients of West Malaysian problems with nary a proper choice to make for themselves. For too long, our brothers and sisters in the East have been disregarded, discounted, ridiculed and taken for granted.

And only during election seasons do we turn our attention to them; suddenly churches are offered millions of ringgit, suddenly everyone becomes an expert in Borneo history and politics, suddenly, we all feel entitled to make sweeping statements about what East Malaysians should or should not do.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves? How many of those who have made these comments have actually spoken to, made friends with and lived with East Malaysians? Have we conversed with the locals and tried to understand what their motivations are?

Have we asked them what is important to them and their communities? Have we shared their worries and needs? Have we treated them with the respect we expect to be given? Have we loved and cared for them as fellow and equal Malaysians?

Until we have, and until we get off our high horse, there is no true change - even if one day, the paper votes do turn. The urging to ‘Ubah’ starts at home - it starts with how we speak about each other, it starts with how our teachers educate students about the other half of Malaysia, it starts with how we respond to election results that may appear disappointing.

Here are some practical things to do - read a little bit more about the history, culture and context of the East, make deep friendships with East Malaysians (and learn about their vision, hopes and dreams for their states), visit East Malaysia (as a bonus, enjoy their lovely culture, food and sights), contribute in any, small ways possible to causes that develop East Malaysia further (for example, charities, churches, schools, communities in the region), and be open to learning from them. There’s so much they have that we don’t.

And having fallen in love with East Malaysia (which I promise you will, when you have done these things), be a voice and champion for Sarawak and Sabah, right here in peninsular Malaysia. Speak up for them, defend them like they are your family and work with them to bring the change THEY need.

ABEL CHEAH is the head of regions of an education non-profit organisation. He’s passionate about education and nation-building in Malaysia.

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