Accommodating diversity by Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi - The STAR
Sabah and Sarawak’s special position in our federation is based on compelling socio-political, economic, geographical and legal considerations.
THERE is no universal or single set of “best practices” or institutional and constitutional designs to manage conflicts arising out of ethnic, religious, linguistic and geographical diversity. Generally, however, a federal system of government is better suited than a unitary system for accommodating diversity in a plural and divided society.
The extent of autonomy and distinctiveness allowed to the various regions (provinces, states or cantons) varies from country to country. Much depends on what the goal of the dominant elites is: is it repression, exclusion, assimilation or integration?
Repression is done through genocide and ethnic cleansing as in former Yugoslavia. Exclusion involves marginalisation of minority groups and denial to them of any meaningful economic or political participation in society.
Assimilation involves strong pressures on minorities to abandon their values, cultures, beliefs and languages and submerge into the national main. Catalans in Spain, Bretons in France, Scots and Welsh in the United Kingdom and, increasingly, Muslim emigrants in Europe suffered or are suffering such melting pot pressures.
On the other hand, integration (or inclusion and empowerment) is based on the recognition of diversity as a defining characteristic of the polity. Malaya in 1957 and, even more so, Malaysia in 1963 were inspired by the inclusivist approach that each constituent group can preserve its language, culture and custom and yet participate fully in the nation’s political and economic processes.
In 1963 in recognition of the uniqueness of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, these states were offered terms far more favourable than what the peninsula states received in 1957. (See The Star, Sept 16).
However, fifty-one years down the road, such preferential treatment is arousing deeply opposing and partisan views. Some “nationalists” in the peninsula feel that five decades after Malaysia Day, distinctiveness must give way to more unity and uniformity on such issues as free travel and right to live and work throughout the federation.
They point to spectacular cases of over-assertiveness by Sabah and Sarawak of some of their special rights e.g. to refuse admission to and to deport Peninsular Malaysians legitimately seeking to enter these states. Some of these incidents indeed arouse constitutional concern. But all in all, Sabah’s and Sarawak’s special position in our federation is based on compelling socio-political, economic, geographical and legal considerations:
> Sabah and Sarawak were and are ethnically, culturally and religiously distinct from the peninsula.
> They bring huge territories to the federation. Their combined area of 198,069sq km exceeds Peninsular Malaysia’s 131,681sq km.
> Their combined coastline is 2,607km compared with the peninsula’s 2,068km.
> They have massive potential resources in fisheries, ports, forests, timber, petroleum, river waters, hydroelectric power and tourism.
> Despite these resources they have serious problems of poverty, illiteracy, lack of infrastructure and under-development.
> The 1963 pact between the Federation of Malaya, the UK, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore was drawn up after a lengthy process of bargaining and negotiations. The delegates of these states made very clear to the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) headed by Lord Lansdowne, with then deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak as the deputy chairman, that special treatment was a pre-condition for constituting Malaysia.
> The 1963 pact was not merely an internal arrangement but an international treaty.