Sarawak: A Tale Of “I Want Out, But I Also Want In” Selective Patriotism

News Asia 360
ByNews Asia 360

Sarawak, that sprawling landmass in the island of Borneo across the South China Sea, has earned itself a unique reputation within Malaysia – it’s the state that’s constantly flirting with the idea of independence while simultaneously clinging to the benefits of being Malaysian. It’s a political tango of ambiguity that has the rest of the country scratching their heads and muttering, “Make up your mind already!”

Hang on. Is Sarawak a state in Malaysia? Well, I’m not sure now. According to its Deputy Premier Datuk Dr Sim Kui Hian in a statement published in the New Straits Times a couple of days ago, it is wrong to call a “State Government of Sarawak” but “a Sarawak Government”.

Let’s face it, Sarawakian leaders have cultivated a masterful skill for blowing hot and cold on their Malaysian status. One minute they’re lamenting the loss of autonomy promised in the 1963 agreement that made them a part of Malaysia, the next minute they’re proudly waving the Jalur Gemilang flag when the nation achieves something positive. It’s enough to give you political whiplash.

Is this some sort of selective patriotism? We all can see it from the statements after statements given by their leaderships. This selective amnesia over their Malaysian identity is truly baffling. It seems that Sarawakian leaders only remember they’re part of a larger country when there’s a tasty slice of the national pie up for grabs. The rest of the time, they’re content to play the part of the aggrieved, overlooked sibling.

Of course, no article about Sarawak’s relationship with Malaysia would be complete without mentioning the tantalizing hints of secession that occasionally drop from the lips of their leaders. It’s like a political greatest hits album, with declarations like “We can survive on our own!” or “Don’t forget we have the power to regulate immigration!”

These vague threats are tossed about with the nonchalance of someone ordering a cappuccino. Whether they’re serious or just designed to stir the political pot remains a mystery. Still, they do a fine job of keeping the rest of Malaysia on its toes, wondering if Sarawak is the disgruntled partner threatening to walk out on the whole relationship.

The irony is thick when Sarawakian leaders decry the lack of benefits they receive from being part of Malaysia. While it’s legitimate to discuss development imbalances, to claim there are no advantages to being in the Federation seems a tad disingenuous.

Does access to a larger market count as nothing? How about the collective defense that being part of a nation provides? Or the cultural and social exchange that helps prevent insularity? Perhaps these perks are conveniently overlooked when playing the underdog card comes in handy.

While celebrating their distinct identity is absolutely laudable, there’s something disconcerting about this annual ritual of flirtatious discontent. It makes one wonder where Sarawak’s true loyalties lie. Look, there’s no shame in Sarawak wanting greater autonomy and recognition. That’s a healthy discussion for any federation to have. But what grates on the nerves of many Malaysians is the perpetual hot-and-cold routine, the ‘we want in, we want out’ game that has become tiresome.

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