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Ethnic politics creeping into Sabah?

  • It's troubling to see Sabahans beginning to debate politics using ethnic and religious sentiments.

By Wan Saiful Wan Jan

When it comes to harmony and national unity, many observers like to say that Sarawak and Sabah show good examples to the rest of Malaysia. The argument is that in both states people of various ethnic groups live together side by side without worrying too much about ethnic and religious divisions.

I have visited both states several times and I have also commented positively on ethnic and religious relations there. I have even suggested that if Putrajaya wants to find a solution to the challenges that we face in managing our race and religious relations, we do not have to look far for ideas because a lot can be learnt from Sabah alone.

The Sabah state government recognises that harmony between the different ethnic and religious groups is their strength. In May this year, Sabah Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman was quoted as saying that "What is good about us in Sabah is that although we are from different ethnic groups, we can live together in peace, harmony and unity, respecting one another, being tolerant and helping one another like siblings in a large family."

In fact, before that, in January, he was also quoted as saying "In Sabah, we accept one another and we are not divided by differences. Instead, we grow closer and become more appreciative of each other."

It is not just those in government who see the uniqueness of Sabah. Even DAP leader Lim Kit Siang once said that there is potential "to make Sabah an example for Malaysia and the world of harmony, understanding and solidarity of diverse ethnic groups, religions and cultures with zero tolerance for extremism."

Harmony is usually achieved when the different groups within society feel that the other side is not a threat to them. If every group has confidence about their equal place within a community, and the equal places for everybody else too, there is no reason to be suspicious about each other. Many people feel that such an environment exists in Sabah.

Every time I visit Sabah, my fear has always been that the disease we suffer in the Peninsular will eventually reach the state too. I am referring to the disease of insecurity that is sown by politicians in order to create fear among their supporters.

In Peninsular Malaysia, this disease is widespread, and the chief propagator is almost always individuals or groups whose survival is dependent on each ethnic group fearing the other. They continuously win power and influence by exploiting that fear, especially by positioning themselves as the only ones who can protect their supporters from the threat posed by those from other ethnic groups.

I recently visited Kota Kinabalu and I took the opportunity to speak to a few locals there. The number of people I spoke to is relatively small, but enough to make me wonder if the disease has indeed arrived into the state.

I detected a change in attitude among some of the people there. More of them were using a language that I usually hear in the Peninsular but not in Sabah, that is the language of ethnic and religious division.

I heard comments about how Sabahans should ensure that only a Muslim would be the Chief Minister and that office of Chief Minister must not fall into the hands of a non-Muslim. A few people even suggested that Christians and non-Muslims would take over the state government if Sabahan Muslims are not vigilant.

This is a worrying development. Granted, as the general election gets closer, it is expected that many things would be politicised. But for race and religion to be used as an issue, especially in a state like Sabah, is a sign of desperation.

Sabah has a long history of forming a state government without worrying too much about the ethnicity or religion of their elected leaders. It has had a fair share of non-Muslims Chief Ministers including Tan Sri Peter Lo, Tan Sri Joseph Kitingan, Datuk Seri Yong Teck Lee and Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat.

Power-sharing between the ethnic groups even led to a rotation system for the Chief Minister post, to ensure that the Christian Bumiputra, the Muslim Bumiputra, and the Chinese all have a chance to head the state administration.

This is why I was saddened to see that partisan politics is beginning to create ethno-religious division among Sabahans.

To be more frank, one rather specific accusation I heard was that supporting the new opposition party Warisan Sabah would lead to Christians controlling the state. Even though the party is led by a Muslim, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, their opponents claim that its Deputy President, Darell Leiking, will promote Christianity.

It does not matter to me whether you like or dislike a party like Warisan. That is a matter of personal choice that has to be made by Sabahans themselves. But I believe it is wrong to make religion as a campaigning issue. The focus should be on the real policies offered by the parties.

It troubles me to see some Sabahans beginning to debate politics by using ethnic and religious sentiments. If this continues, Sabah will lose its claim as a state that can be looked upon as an example of ethnic and religious harmony. Politicians in Sabah should think twice about this. They should not destroy the harmony enjoyed by the state just for short term political gains.

(Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, IDEAS)

 

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