The promises made by the then-Malayan government to Sabah when Malaysia was formed in 1963 were literally cast in stone — the historical boulder in Keningau which serves to remind us of our rights to religious freedom, land, culture and customs.
TODAY’S is a special article. I am writing this together with my friend and our Maju Foundation adviser from Sabah, Datuk Dr Johan Arriffin. We like to share our thoughts and concern about where Malaysia is heading and how we should start a new Malaysian narrative, using Sabah and Sarawak as example.
Malaysia desperately needs a new perspective and a new narrative to rid itself of the 60-year yoke of regressive policies and politicking that has stifled the nation’s advancement. The solution will not come from the peninsula. It is Sabah and Sarawak that we must look to for that new perspective, direction and leadership.
In his speech at the opening of the national Quran-reading competition in Sabah recently, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia’s effort to achieve developed nation status requires Muslims to uphold unity with people of various races and religions. Although Dr Mahathir is restating the obvious, it is necessary – politicians here seemed to continually play “identity politics”, pushing the boundaries on race and religion for their own personal gain and at the same time, destabilising our society.
Sabah is a good example of the acceptance of religious differences and unity in diversity. This has always been the way of life with 33 ethnic groups in a population of three million that communicates in so many dialects. The different races here in Sabah are more diverse compared to Peninsular Malaysia, which consists of largely three main races: Malay, Chinese and Indians.
Sabah is really a melting pot of cultures and people. Since the formation of Malaysia on Sept 16,1963, the peace and harmony of the people in Sabah are being threatened by the “imported” narratives brought over by religious teachers from the peninsula, and the identity politics of PAS and Umno.
It is incredible that today in Malaysia, we still have politicians, and so-called religious “leaders” talking about the concept of Ketuanan Melayu as if this is “the” Malaysian narrative. It is not. These peninsular narratives have presented a real threat to the racial and religious harmony we have experienced in the past.
Sarawak and Sabah are the largest and second largest states in Malaysia at 124,450sq km and 73,620sq km respectively, compared to Peninsular Malaysia’s 130,590sq km, which actually contains only 40% of Malaysia’s total land area.
These two states do not share the same history as the Peninsular Malaysia states. Malaysia as a nation today consists of people from Sabah and Sarawak with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as the symbolic head of our nation. In Sabah and Sarawak, there is no Ketuanan Melayu, the concept of a single dominant race; we are all representative of the nation called Malaysia, irrespective of our race, religion or state.
Sacred words: The phrase ‘Kerajaan Malaysia Jamin’ was erased from the plaque when it went missing a few years ago.
The native chiefs of Sabah had great foresight in this matter.
When the North Borneo Legislative Council finally agreed to accede to the Malaysia Agreement in September 1962 after presenting the 20-point agreement written by Donald Stephens during the negotiations to form Malaysia, there was still considerable apprehension and reservations among the native chiefs of Sabah regarding the rights of the state within the new federation.
Series of discussions and consultations took place and proposals were made by native chiefs of the interior communities to erect an oath stone summarising the guarantees given by the Malaysian government to Sabah, and in return, the native chiefs pledged their loyalty to the Federal Government.
A carefully selected boulder was taken from Sungai Pegalan by elder statesmen and the promise of both parties – state and federal
– was literally cast in stone. After a ceremonial ritual including animal sacrifice by Bobolian (high priestess), three promises were etched on a metal plate:
1. Freedom of religion in Sabah.
2. The government of Sabah holds authority over land.
3. Native customs and traditions will be respected and upheld by the government.
In return, the people of Sabah’s interior pledged loyalty to the Government of Malaysia.
This is part of our rich history – the history of Malaysia that somehow was deliberately omitted while how Peninsular Malaya attained “Merdeka” seemed to dominate 80% of Malaysian history textbooks.
Beyond such subtle purging of our history, there were attempts by unscrupulous “politicians” or persons to erase this part of history and its significance. Several years ago, the plaque went missing and when found, the words “Kerajaan Malaysia Jamin” (Malaysian government guarantees) had been erased from the plaque.
But seeing the significance of the oath stone for the people of Sabah and its historical place in the history of Malaysia, former minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz allocated RM1.025mil to restore the stone, conduct the relocation ritual according to native customs, and secure a permanent place for the stone.
The Keningau Oath Stone is important not only to Sabahans, but also to all Malaysians. It serves to remind us of our rights to religious freedom, land, culture and customs, among others. It reminds us to respect and accept the differences and the diversity of Malaysia; in any state, any part of our society, and communities, wherever there may be. In September 2018, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail visiting Keningau said the Pakatan Harapan-led government would uphold the principles of the Malaysian Agreement 1963 (MA63), some of which are inscribed on the Keningau Oath Stone.
“The Oath Stone is a historical artifact which contains the summary of the agreement and guarantees given by the Malaysian Government to Sabah, ” she said.
Some Sabahans are saying that Dr Wan Azizah should be reminded there is probably a curse by the Bobolians for broken promises and Malaysia cannot find peace until the Federal Government keeps its promises.
The Pakatan government has not kept their promise to give back more autonomy to Sabah including the 20% oil royalty. Freedom of religion is under threat from Peninsular political parties like Umno, which is using the Ketuanan Melayu concept, and PAS with its “Parti Islam” brand of politics where moderate Islamic voices and liberal values that made this nation progress are branded as kafir.
It is not just a threat to Sabah and Sarawak but to the whole of Malaysia because we all share the same values.
The political rhetoric that Malaysia belongs to Malays has unnerved Sabahans, leaving a bitter aftertaste and further distancing from “Malaya” in their everyday conversations.
For Malaysia to progress, we need to explore a different kind of leadership based on religious and racial acceptance. We need leaders who accept unity in diversity as our nation’s strength.
Perhaps it is now time that we have a prime minister or deputy prime minister from Sabah and Sarawak. It will not just be a breath of fresh air, but it will allow the start of a new Malaysian narrative instead of the same old one based on Malaya and a ketuanan bangsa and agama political rhetoric which is divisive and destructive to the nation as a whole.
This kind of rhetoric and ideology must be banished, banned and even made illegal as hate speech to others and must no longer be given any space in Malaysian narratives.
The talks of ketuanan and supremacy of one race or religion over others are especially anathema to Sabah and Sarawak.
Sabah and Sarawak did not join Malaysia. The two states were equal partners in the formation of Malaysia on Sept 16,1963. Malaysia did not exist before that date. We gave birth to this nation together and the country should eradicate divisive politics that will destroy the nation.
It is also time the nation, its government and its people as a whole, acknowledge the massive – maybe even the disproportionately massive – contribution in mineral and natural resources with which Sabah and Sarawak had contributed to the wealth of the nation. And with that, deliver its promises to the people of Sabah and Sarawak, both in terms of monetary returns and what is cast in stone on the Keningau Oath Stone.
We should return to the vision and values that gave birth to Malaysia in the first place. An acceptance of unity in diversity and where none is more superior to the other. The narrative for a progressive Malaysia lies in Sabah and Sarawak. Where promises are made, it must be finally delivered.
The curse of the nation will not escape us if we don’t.
Activist lawyer Siti Kasim is the founder of the Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity Foundation (Maju). The views expressed here are solely her own.