Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Social Contract: Cries of Sabah

Lately, I read about a family of farmers whose crop had failed. They were hungry,and unable to get food. In desperation, the uneducated father collected some toad eggs and fed them to the whole family in an attempt to stave off  hunger. By the time they had arrived at the hospital, which was a few hours later ( the father had to run as there were no roads), one of the children was dead, and the other two passed away within 10 minutes of their arrival due to poisoning.

I also read about a 70-year old lady who had to wait for a month to get to a hospital to treat her jaundice. She had no money for the taxi fare and so waited a month to sell off her chickens to have enough money to pay RM 50 for the transport to the hospital. She had to walk two miles to get to the road to get to the taxi. When she arrived, she was septic and had a gallstone lodged in her common bile duct.

One would normally to read about these situations in a World Vision booklet, or perhaps even Time magazine, highlighting the plight of the people in some far off country like Uganda, or the slums of India, or something like that. And as much as I would like to pretend such is the case, the truth is very much close to home. In fact, it is home.

This is Sabah. East Malaysia. Once one of the most naturally resource rich places in the world, now the poorest amongst the thirteen states of Malaysia.

In the 70s, for those Sabahans who lived in rural areas, poverty was a vicious cycle that seemed to never end. They planted their crops, and as they could not travel to the cities to sell the crops themselves, they sold them to middlemen who paid only a fraction of the true worth of the crops. When they fell sick, they sold away their sources of livelihood and valuables just to get transport to the city, and their condition very often dire by the time they arrived. They were unable to uplift themselves economically and socially because there was barely any education in these areas, and even if there was, the schools were much too far and inaccessible for them to make the trip.

Fast forward forty years, and what has changed?
Well, Sabah's first ever flyover was built a few years ago.
The illegal immigrant population now outnumbers the local population, 1.8 million to 1.5 million. A Sabahan even commented since Philippines might be interested in reclaiming Sabah, if a referendum were held, Sabahans would be dead for sure since there is an overwhelming number of Filipinos in Sabah.
Many of Sabah's educated youngsters have left the state for better job opportunities in Peninsular Malaysia.
Sabah has been stripped bare of natural resources: oil, natural gas, timber etc, yielding massive profits for the country, yet it remains a backwater of Malaysia.
Other than that, except for minor improvements, the socioeconomic situation of Sabah remains stagnant.

The answer is: It has changed- for the worse.

As a Malaysian, I feel ashamed that while we have been prospering over here with over high rise buildings, Twin Towers, shopping malls, mini markets, super markets, hyper markets; our brothers and sisters in East Malaysia still remain very much stuck in poverty. While a half hour blackout in Kuala Lumpur warrants a newspaper feature, Sabahans have to put up with constant blackouts, once a week, at least 72 hours a month.( SESB, the Sabah equivalent of TNB, apparently stands for Sabah Everyday Sure Blackout) While we KL-ites complain of cold water, and how we can't stand not having a hot water bath, many Sabahans still suffer from water rationing and shortages ( For instance, in Sandakan water is only supplied two days a week). While we complain of long bus waits and traffic jams, our compatriots who live in rural areas do not have roads and have to walk for hours before getting to a place where taxis are available.

And while the Malaysian government can donate millions of ringgit to victims of the Sichuan earthquake, and send an immediate response team to Japan, it has failed to channel and precipitate development in Sabah for the past forty years. While the Sarawak chief minister's son has 800 million ringgit worth of assets, a big part of Sarawak and Sabah's people remain entrenched in poverty. While we call ourselves an independent nation, the problems of the poor in Sabah are often solved by non-profit international organisations like Raleigh.

As a Malaysian, I am ashamed of the prejudices that we often hold against Sabahans: asking them questions like "Do they live in trees? Do they stay with Orang Utans?" Mistaking Sabah for Sarawak and clumping them together as Sabah Sarawak? As a Malaysian, I am disgusted that we have so often been ignorant of the situation of our own country, and ignored these pleas for help. As a Malaysian, I am saddened and angry that the Federal Government has heard these pleas and done nothing.

And now, I hope I am doing something by crying out, "Save Sabah!" The Federal Government has time and time again ignored the pleas of Sabah, but as Malaysian citizens, we must not. Throw away your prejudices, visit East Malaysia. Look past the rosy picture of things, and see Sabah's dire situation. Celebrate Malaysia Day for what it is: a promise to Sabah and Sarawak, a contract of partnership. Open up your minds and hearts and call out for justice for our fellow countrymen. If you want to be so proud of Mount Kinabalu, don't forget the people who live under its shadow.

To the BN Sabah representatives, you have never supported the interests of the people. You have enjoyed yourselves in the palaces built from the riches of the people, and forgotten about them. When Lim Kit Siang called for a Royal Commission Inquiry into illegal immigrants in Sabah, you did not support him although you knew he was speaking the truth.

An UMNO politician recently remarked that the Chinese and Indians of Malaysia should know their place, and honour the social contract Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Sambanthan signed. Well BN seems to have conveniently forgotten about the other social contract they signed with the peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, to treat them as equal partners in the federation of Malaysia.

Now, is the time to honour that contract.