KUALA LUMPUR: Many Filipinos would have heard of my homeland Sabah during their studies or subsequent involvement in socio-political discourse as not only the central government, but apparently some self-proclaimed elements as well, the Philippines has long asserted, though expressed. intermittently, claims of sovereignty over all or part of Sabah. I have clearly expressed my position on this subject in this column and in many other forums; always stressing the overriding imperative of peace and prosperity not only between the two friendly neighboring nations, but for this strategically important region of the world.

But less recognized, at least in the Philippines, is the gigantic neighboring state of Sabah, Sarawak. Sarawak is Malaysia’s largest state in terms of land mass. Like Sabah, he has had a turbulent history. As I understand it, in ancient times the Sultanate of Brunei at least exercised suzerainty over most of what is now Sabah and Sarawak, essentially the northern parts of the island of Borneo. During the Song Dynasty in China, about a millennium ago, there were already ancient book mentions of a “Boni” nation-state in the southern oceans.

Well, a millennium later, around the middle of the 19th century, the then Sultan of Brunei was rather preoccupied with the revolt against his regime. At one point, he enlisted the help of a British mercenary adventurer, James Brooke, to quell the insurgency. Brooke was apparently super effective in bulldozing the insurgents and restored the Sultan’s primacy over the latter’s subjects. As a thank you, the Sultan ceded a plot of land around what is now Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, to Brooke.

Thus was established the somewhat renowned but esoteric rule of the White Rajah in Sarawak. Brooke adopted the indigenous supreme title of Rajah and essentially built a dynasty for her family and followers of British ancestry amid the jungles and swamps of Borneo. Brooke has proven to be not only a formidable man at arms, but also a skillful nation builder. By hook or by crook, he slowly extended Sarawak’s landholdings to what they are today and instituted modern administration for the vast coastal and inland areas of Sarawak.

In the 1850s, it was Brooke’s turn to face a revolution. The mostly self-sufficient Chinese mining settlers became disenchanted with Brooke at one point and took up arms against the reign of the White Rajah, even briefly taking Kuching. Brooke carried out ruthless retaliation with superior weapons and decimated the rebels. The incident, known as the 1857 Bau Uprising, was even mentioned in the writings of none other than Friedrich Engels, the co-founder of Marxism. As we will see, it was a bit of a hunch about the fate of Sarawak a century later.

Sarawak was therefore a sovereign nation, albeit ruled by whites in Asia, for about a century, with full diplomatic relations with the great powers of the world. During the Civil War, for example, the Southern Confederacy of America was eager to court the diplomatic recognition of Sarawak, which was not long in coming. But after WWII, the Brooke Dynasty decided to essentially cede Sarawak to the UK, which made Sarawak a British colony.

The rising tide of decolonization then swept through Sarawak as well. The British, weary of more debilitating military engagements around the world, decided to embark on a “Winds of Change” policy, essentially allowing the British dominions around the world to seek independence if they wished. Eventually, in 1963, Sarawak, Sabah, Singapore and Malaysia decided to come together to form Malaysia (with Singapore leaving two years later).

But as announced a century earlier, independent Sarawak immediately fell prey to an armed Communist insurgency. Guerrilla wars took place in the jungles of Sarawak, inflicting heavy losses on both sides. By the way, sometimes I’m really happy that Sabah is the only part of Malaysia that isn’t overrun by a communist-inspired civil war. Either way, a peace deal was struck in the 1970s with the Communists laying down their arms and reintegrating into mainstream Sarawak society.

At the start of independence, the Malaysian federal government used very muscular tactics to subdue a somewhat noisy Sarawak state government, even using the aforementioned Communist insurgency as a pretext to enact a state of emergency and suspend thus elections in Sarawak, so that friendly Sarawak leaders on the federal side could be installed. Nearly half a century of somewhat unspoken political arrangement ensued between Sarawak and the Malaysian federal power coalitions, so that Sarawak’s rulers were largely left to the management of their state. as they wish without too much interference from the federal side, while the parliamentarians of Sarawak in turn conscientiously support the federal coalition in power.

In 2008, Malaysia’s political landscape became much more fragmented to the point that the then-ruling federal coalition could not form a parliamentary majority without the support of parliamentarians from Sarawak and Sabah. This emboldened calls by East Malaysians to restore many of their rights and privileges originally enshrined in the 1963 Malaysia Accord, but decimated by successive constitutional amendments. The crux of the matter is that Sabah and Sarawak produce most of Malaysia’s natural resources, but the two states (now called territories) lag far behind Malaysia in their overall socio-economic development. As a stakeholder and responsible observer, however, I must warn that even if control over some of these resources were to be restored, it remains to be seen whether common Sabahans and Sarawakans would now see their livelihoods significantly improved, or whether some new self-beneficiary oligarchy form with his not-so-pretty face instead.

In any case, Sarawak has just gone through its state election period in the past two weeks. The ruling state coalition returned to power with an overwhelming majority. He now has the heavy task of keeping his promises of fantastic development for Sarawak. We wish Sarawak the best in its development efforts and look forward to hopefully positive lessons.

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