Major party makes a comeback . . .
It is high season for political competition in Malaysia with state elections in Melaka concluding on November 20, and voters in Sarawak heading to the polls on December 18. In Melaka, in the country’s south, elections are usually closely watched, as its demographics and income levels are seen as nationally representative, making it a bellwether for the country’s general elections. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party emerged victorious in the Melaka contest, winning 18 out of 28 seats. Its coalition allies picked up three more seats, for a total of 21, up from 13 seats held previously. The opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, led by Anwar Ibrahim, suffered a significant defeat, likely due to backlash over Anwar’s controversial decision to field two former UMNO members whose defection caused the earlier collapse of the Melaka state government.
Different issues, players in Sarawak . . .
Sarawak, located on Borneo Island, is a different beast, with local issues eclipsing national ones and with a cast of political parties distinct from those active in peninsular Malaysia. Nearly half the state’s population is non-Muslim, including Indigenous groups, as well as a significant Chinese-Malaysian population in its urban centres. While Sarawak’s pollical parties tend to split along ethnic lines (as is the case all over Malaysia), a critical component of each party’s platform will be support and advocacy for Sarawak to regain autonomy in accordance with the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 (MA63).
Pushing to restore autonomy . . .
Both Sarawak and the state of Sabah, also on Borneo, have pushed to reinstate the autonomy granted by MA63, but that has been eroded over the years, mainly in areas such as retaining larger proportions of tax revenue from local oil extraction and decision-making power over education, land reform, and health-care policy. A big win for both states is their recent redesignation as ‘Borneo States’ rather than ‘East Malaysia,’ following amendments to Malaysia’s constitution on December 1. The leading coalition in Sarawak has also made headway recently by collecting C$2 million on petroleum product taxes owed since 2019. The coalition will likely capture at least two-thirds of the available seats, cementing its political influence in years to come. Greater autonomy in Sarawak (and Sabah) will change how any federal-level government in Malaysia approaches its relationship with the Borneo States. As Canada seeks to diversify its trading relations with ASEAN and CPTPP partners (Malaysia is a member of both) in the years ahead, understanding the Sarawakian agenda and its effects on Malaysian politics and resource extraction will be critical to future engagement with this country of 32.4 million.