The Truth Revealed

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sarawak Bumis - Wither Equality?

Sarawak Bumis - Wither Equality?
by Dr Jayum A Jawan, Ph.D

It has been about 44 years since the formation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963. That is a long period of time in which to make good the unwritten promise of bringing about development to the various indigenous populations of Sabah and Sarawak.

During the negotiation period (for the formation of the Federation of Malaysia), many indigenous leaders were brought over to Kuala Lumpur and then taken on guided tours of various selected development areas.

It was impressed upon them that if they accepted the proposed concept and formation of the Federation of Malaysia, they and their peoples would be assured of experiencing similar development taking places in their states.


Economic development is only one of the areas that was promised to be developed rapidly after Malaysia. The reason, it was argued then, was to bring up Sabah and Sarawak to a level on par with the rate of development already experienced by some states in the Federation of Malaya then.

This article is a brief reflection of cultural minorities in the process of development. It poses many questions, but does not pretend to be able to provide any solutions. Many of the statements made in this article are relevant and based mostly on studies and experiences of the Dayak community of Sarawak.

Nevertheless, generalisations drawn from the studies of Dayak Iban community are not far from being untrue of other cultural and ethnic minorities in Malaysia. This is because they share a common feature and problem - their peripherality from the corridors of power, which in turn isolates them from the process of mainstream national development.

Elusive concept

Malaysia’s cultural diversities come from Sabah and Sarawak. In Malaysia, there are no less than 44 known and acknowledged ethnic and cultural groups - each with its unique culture, language and beliefs system. Of that number, only four are to be found in the Peninsula, namely the Malay, Chinese, Indian and the Orang Asli (aborigines). Of the remaining forty ethnic and cultural groups, 20 each are to be found in Sabah and Sarawak.

Politics in plural societies are characterised by ethnic manoeuvring and inter - ethnic rivalries. Every ethnic leader attempting to dominate the political process has to first appeal to his own group. This is sometime done by arousing the ethnic sensitivities of that particular group. But when a leader has to rely on the support of the other ethnic communities to fulfil his larger political ambition, he is then therefore forced to appear to be compromising and willing to adopt a multi-ethnic approach.

But whether this dual approach/face to politics might eventually lead to a meaningful power sharing and an equitable distribution of the benefits of economic growth remains difficult to determine and ascertain.

In Malaysia, the concept of a minority is an elusive one. For what exactly is a minority but merely a number that continuously change in meaning and significance? In general, a minority connotes a group that is marginalised in many aspects, particularly in the political process and socio-economic development.

However, in Malaysian politics, this is not always true and a minority may be at a disadvantaged in one aspect but not in others. Although a minority, the Chinese have been, and still are to a large extent, a dominant force in the Malaysian economy. As a whole, they may be a minority group, but in Pulau Pinang they constitute a population and legislative majorities.

Despite its more plural nature in comparison to Sabah and states in the Peninsula, Sarawak is rather unfortunate in that its state leadership has not benefitted from its cultural and ethnic diversities. A Malay has yet to become the chief minister, so too a Bidayuh or an Orang Ulu. In the same vein, an Iban, Bidayuh, or an Orang Ulu has yet to occupy the post of the head of state.

Minority representation

The important agenda of any newly emerging nation-state is national integration and subsequently nation-building. In Malaysia, the process of national integration was accelerated following the outbreak of the 1969 ethnic riots.

Instrumental in spearheading the process of national integration were a number of national plans and policies, but one which had the potential to effectively promote national integration was undoubtedly the New Economic Policy. This was to have been done through its restructuring objective - that is to restructure the Malaysian society to reflect its plural nature.

The NEP was important because it was formulated and proceeded from the basis that national integration could only be promoted and achieved among equals - that is between bumiputera and non-bumiputera. Malaysia has been praised for its efficient political management whereby representatives from the main ethnic communities are brought, at any cost, into the Barisan Nasional coalition.

Sabah and Sarawak have always been represented in the federal cabinet, although the characteristics of their respective representatives may or may not reflect or take into account the state’s ethnic plurality. For example, Sarawak has had its share of Dayak, Malay-Melanau and Chinese in the federal cabinet, although the Orang Ulu only came as far as having its representative appointed as a federal deputy minister.

Sarawak Chinese representatives only joined the federal cabinet in 1970, when SUPP joined the state coalition, while the Dayak had Temenggong Jugah, as a federal minister until 1970, and then Leo Moggie, who was appointed in 1976, after Snap joined the coalition. Similarly, there was never a period in which Sabah did not have its members as federal ministers.

However, since the adoption of the Muslim bumiputera, non-Muslim bumiputera and Chinese, the mid-1990s was perhaps the first brief period in which one major ethnic, the non-Muslim bumiputera, was not represented in the federal cabinet.

Less opportunities

As Malaysia has about 44 identified ethnic minorities, it may be unrealistic to expect every one of these groups to be represented everywhere and at every level. There must be some compromise somewhere. While it is easy to target politically-appointed offices as subjects of scrutiny, non-politically motivated offices, including the federal and state civil services must also be considered.

At these levels, opportunities for multi-ethnic participation has been even less even. For example, how many Sabahans or Sarawakians have been given the opportunities to be appointed as heads (ie, secretaries-general) of federal government ministries? Only in the 1990s, we heard that one East Malaysian from Sarawak came only as high as being appointed as a director-general of a section within the Education Ministry.

Among the nine public institutions of higher learning, not even one is headed by an East Malaysian. The closest that an East Malaysian came in to heading a public university is as a deputy vice-chancellor of one in Kota Samarahan.

East Malaysians have yet to be accepted as ‘equals’ in many considerations involving top government jobs. This uneven pattern of ethnic participation will certainly not auger well for the famed power sharing arrangement for which Malaysia is being noted for.

At the state level and in Sarawak, the image of power sharing projected by mere physical presence of the various ethnic communities in the state cabinet is not reflected at the lower level of government such as in the state civil services, state statutory bodies, state-owned or controlled corporations and local authorities. They tend to be dominated by one ethnic /cultural group from the main component of the state ruling coalition.

For example, how many Ibans, Bidayuh, or Orang Ulu have been given the opportunities to head state government ministries, government departments, state statutory bodies and local authorities.

Sometimes, even a local authority that have more Iban residents is led by an appointee from another community. In such a case, how can that particular person be ‘sensitive’ enough to the needs, aspirations and problems facing the other communities?

I have argued elsewhere, that the state of the economic development of ethnic minorities is closely tied to a number of factors, namely, their relationship to the centre of power, the state of their political unity, and the willingness and sincerity of the political leadership of the day to bring them into the mainstream of national development.

The case for which I argued extensively was the lack of development among the Dayak minority despite their substantial number in Sarawak. For example, the majority of the Ibans are still trapped in low-return agricultural activities, low-paying jobs, and lack access to education and business opportunities.

No follow through

The terms for distributing the benefits of economic growth, in order to restructure the Malaysian society, have been clearly spelt out by the NEP. If only its implementators followed through with the mechanism, the least that would have happened is that some form of economic benefits would surely have trickled down to the Ibans as well as other ethnic minorities.

The fact that the non-Malay ethnic minorities are also classified as bumiputera does not elevate them to a special status, unlike the Muslim-Malay bumiputera who enjoy special consideration in many aspects dealing with various facets of development, including access to education, scholarship, business and other opportunities made available during the period 1970-1990, when the Malaysian economic development experienced an unprecedented growth rate.

As a direct result of the NEP, many opportunities in government and businesses have been expanded and many ‘newly rich’ have emerged, but how many are from the communities such as the Dayak Iban, Dayak Bidayuh, Dayak Orang Ulu, Bajau, Murut, Orang Sungai, etc?

How many of these ethnic minorities sit as chief executive officers in large government-owned or controlled corporations and as heads of federal and state statutory bodies in comparison to others?

The government started on the right path with the introduction of the NEP, but it did not follow through in its implementation. This has resulted in the alienation and peripheralisation of many ethnic communities.

Playing politics

Therefore, although the initial goal of national integration may have been, to some extent, achieved in a limited way because there have been some interactions between the various ethnic communities in many situations and contexts, but whether that has led to the emergence of a Malaysian identity at the same time is very much doubtful.

The Malaysian identity cannot be forced out by any policy, but must flow from the hearts. Subscription to the Malaysian identity is more than just that. It must involve believing in and identifying with these characteristics.

The choice of consensual politics is not only consistent with the basic tenet of democracy, but extremely appropriate for a multi-ethnic and plural societies such as Malaysia. However, involving any particular group of ethnic minority in governance must be done with sincerity and not for the sake of image-building.

All ethnic groups may not be able to be brought into the highest level of governance - that is into the cabinet - but there are other lower levels of political appointments that can fulfill the same aim.

Very frequently, the objective of integrating ethnic minorities in all levels of government and in development is hampered because one or the combination of the following factors: (1) top government managers simply do not understand their roles and functions; (2) they went out of their way to reinterpret what they should have simply carried out; (3) their sentiment affects their better judgement; and (4) they play too much politics.

Sometimes, it is often easy to lay the blame for underdevelopment and the exclusion of one or more ethnic minorities on the political leadership. It is too convenient to blame ‘the government’ for Dayak socio-economic problem and exclusion from the mainstream development. But precisely which government at what level and which individuals from what agencies are responsible?

For example, the Dayaks have never being excluded from the state coalition, but their voices of discontent are heard from time to time - at times, these have been expressed even by former Dayak members of the federal and state cabinets who hurled various accusations against the state leadership. Who is at fault? Certainly the government! But which one? The federal? The state? The petty bureaucrats?

No guidelines

The objective of the NEP is clear. The target group is also precise. But as far as can be remembered, there has been no effort made to define how the Kadazandusun, Murut, Bajau, Dayak Iban, Dayak Bidayuh and Dayak Orang Ulu feature in the 30 percent NEP target.

In the absence of any guideline, it is too easy to leave out one or more ethnic group by allocating the bumiputera share of the economic pie to only one or two ehtnic minorities within the bumiputera category.

In line with the new government’s promotion of a new culture of transparency and public accountability, it is timely that the state leadership take the initiative to table the state of economic development in Sarawak and in Sabah, specifically relating to how the various ethnic groups have progressed during the 1971-1990 period as a basis to help achieve a more ethnically equitable development.

It is clear that many ethnic minorities have not benefitted as much as they should have from the implementation of the NEP. The major part of the blame must fall on the state leadership for not being just in distributing the benefits of economic growth in line with the policy and objectives of the federal government to promote national integration in its effort to build a united Malaysian society.


JAYUM A JAWAN, Ph D is attached to the Dept of Government and Civilisation Studies, Faculty of Human Ecology, Universiti Putra Malaysia. The above article is based on a paper he first presented in 1998.

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