Malaysia’s PM Agrees to Technical Talks on Autonomy for Sarawak

Dennis Wong
Kuching, Malaysia
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160705-MY-Sarawak-1000 An aerial view shows a palm oil plantation and logging site cut into the jungle of the natural resource-rich Malaysian state of Sarawak, March 11, 2015.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has agreed to technical-level talks for greater autonomy for Sarawak following complaints that the powers of the resource-rich state on Borneo have eroded since it joined Malaysia more than five decades ago.

Najib has been besieged by demands for greater devolution, including higher royalties for the state’s oil and gas resources, since Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem led his party to a landslide victory in state elections in May.

Najib met Adenan on Monday in Putrajaya, the federal administrative capital, and they decided to proceed with talks between the top lawyers of the Federal and state governments as soon as possible.

“It was agreed that the Attorney-General will represent the Federal Government and the Sarawak Attorney-General for the state government to discuss these matters in further details in a technical meeting to be held as soon as possible,” they said in a joint statement.

“The meeting's results show that close ties between the Federal and state governments will lead to effective administration and policies for the wellbeing of the people," Najib and Adenan said after the meeting.

Adenan had campaigned strongly for greater autonomy in the run-up to the May elections, calling on voters to give him a bigger mandate so he could "speak up" to Kuala Lumpur to regain lost powers since Sarawak joined Malaysia.

Sarawak together with Sabah, another state on Borneo island, as well as Singapore gained independence from Britain and joined the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963 under certain conditions.

Singapore left Malaysia in 1965 but Sabah and Sarawak remained, occasionally complaining since that their powers are being eroded.

"In the Malaysia Agreement we signed, all kinds of powers were given to Sarawak but now the Federal government just takes and takes and takes," Adenan was quoted as saying during his electoral campaign.

"I want those powers back as it was in 1963."

‘Still one country’

But Adenan is against secession from Malaysia.

“We are still one country trying to improve everybody and let me say here  that the state government agrees with the sentiment expressed by the ‘Sarawak for Sarawakians’ movement but we do not agree to secession from the federation,” the state-run Bernama news agency quoted Adenan as saying last year.

The “Sarawak for Sarawakians” movement has been trying to push for the state to secede from Malaysia.

The movement's founder, Peter John Jaban, believes that the 72-year-old chief minister can bring the state closer to autonomy.

“We have faith in him,” Peter, a human rights campaigner and deejay for Radio Free Sarawak, a sister organization of U.K.-based investigative outlet The Sarawak Report, told BenarNews.

Faisal Hazis, from the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said Adenan had to heap pressure on Najib, who would have to rely heavily on Sarawak to win upcoming national elections.

“Since autonomy is one of the main campaign issues in the last election, Adenan has to make sure that the promise will be upheld,” Faisal told BenarNews.

However, Sarawak businessman Dylan Tan was rather skeptical, saying that Najib might try to drag out any decision on the issue.

“Adenan needs to push harder to make his presence felt, as he only has one term to ensure what he promised is fulfilled, while Najib on the other hand is facing a tough political challenge which may drown the Sarawakians’ aspiration,” he told BenarNews.

In May, Adenan spearheaded a decisive electoral win of 72 out of 82 seats in the state’s legislate assembly.

He took office in 2014 from Abdul Taib Mahmud, the current governor of Sarawak who held the post of chief minister for 33 years despite allegations of corruption.

Autonomous power

Sarawak enjoys a degree of autonomy in administration, immigration and judicial matters, including controlling the entry and residence of non-Sarawakians.

People in Sarawak want the Malaysian government to give their state a greater share of revenue from its own resources and Sarawak’s biggest demand is that royalties from oil and gas production be increased from 5 percent to 20 percent.

During the electoral campaign in May, Najib, who leads the Barisan Nasional coalition, had rejected Sarawak’s demand for greater autonomy, saying “it was not the right time to pursue negotiations because government revenues had shrunk due to a sharp drop in oil and gas prices.”


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