We Can’t Change The Past But We Can Reshape The Future – M’sia 53 Years After

In this article, SEEDS (Society Empowerment and Economic Development of Sabah) founding chairman Datuk Badil Zaman talks about what the young nation Malaysia must do in order to progress further in the future. He warns against parochial mindset and encourages all talented Sabahans to compete and participate in the global market economy.

Winners of The Art of Nation Building drawing contest.

Much has been said about the formation of Malaysia. It is a subject that has gained a lot of interests lately. While it is good that more and more people are now becoming aware about the founding of the country, sadly, there are those who deliberately misinterpret history to serve their own personal interests.

I would like to start by asking these two fundamental questions: where are we after more than 50 years in the federation? What should we do to progress together in this federation of mutual interests? One thing for sure is that, for the country to move forward, it cannot afford to isolate itself and be stuck in the parochial mindset. It needs to look outward, compete, and participate in the competitive global market.

As we are all aware, the world is becoming more integrated in terms of commerce, communication, knowledge and capital. Countries subscribe to trade agreements or pacts to survive economically; there are also forums for regional cooperation.

In the global context, we are moving towards common market economy. The world has found a way to experiment with economic integration or assimilation in the forms of regional associations, trade pacts, cultural exchanges and so on.

We cannot afford to look inward lest we will lose in this global competition. We need this global platform to compete and participate. But how are we going to compete in the international arena if we are still stuck in our parochial mindset?

Many people of diverse backgrounds make up the Society Empowerment and Economic Development of Sabah - SEEDS, a non-governmental think tank dedicated to the ideal of creating a modern, moderate and progressive society through research and outreach programmes.
Many people of diverse backgrounds make up the Society Empowerment and Economic Development of Sabah – SEEDS, a non-governmental think tank dedicated to the ideal of creating a modern, moderate and progressive society through research and outreach programmes.

How are we going to move forward if we continue to bicker among ourselves over trivial issues. As the door of global economic opportunity is widely opened for us, we are still grappling with the basic issue of nationhood. This is one of the most important issues which we need to address urgently be it at the state or national level.

The nation itself was founded on the basis of federation of interests — the thirteen states coming together in the form of three regions — Sabah, Sarawak and West Malaysia (or Malaya).

Our federal system has ensured “equitable participation” of all the states based on the principle of parliamentary democracy. All the signatories to the Malaysian Agreement are “equity holders” in the federation.

The rights of each equity holder in the federation are protected by the constitution. We need to accept the principles of parliamentary democracy and enhance our position in the federation.

We must move away from the “politics of ‘parochialism’ which will not help us progress as as a nation. We need to participate and compete for our progress. The issue of one of thirteen or one of three does not really physically change the ‘equitable’ participation of our parliamentary democratic government.


There are on-going debates on when we are supposed to celebrate our independence day. There are those who say that we should celebrate 31 August and those who say that 16 September should be given more significance. We should not make this an issue and blow it out of proportion.

What is more important is that celebrating 31 August and 16 September would allow us to appreciate the founding of Malaysia together. In the case of Malaya, it was a federated entity of Straits Settlement and states under the Sultanate. So the word independence brings different meaning to the Straits Settlement and states under the Sultanate.

The Straits Settlement was a direct British Colony while the states under the Sultanate were the British protractorate states. I am sure the motivations, terms of agreement and the negotiation process were unique on their own in the context of Peninsular Malaysia.

In the case of Sabah and Sarawak, we also have different feelings towards independence. Sabah was owned by a chartered company and eventually handed over to the British Crown Colony and later on we were given independence or integrated into another entity known as Malaysia.

Of course, this is subject to different interpretations and academic arguments. There were never any structured independence movements in Sabah unlike Sarawak where political parties were formed to channel the people’s aspiration for self-government.

The political movement in Sabah only started when the British asked the Sabah leaders to be politically organised at the height of the founding of Malaysia.

If we look at the formation of Malaysia from the Sabah perspective, we were negotiating to maintain the British presence. We never negotiated for the British to move out. We must also look at the regional political situation then.

We had no choice but to agree to the Malaysia Plan, considering the geopolitical situation in the region at that time: Indonesia’s “greater plan”, the fall of Saigon, the emergence of the Philippine as new power block, the threats of the communist movements in the region, and the PKI (Kalimantan) infiltration into Brunei.

China and Indonesia have gone through similar process of nation building though evolutionary growth and expansion. Let’s learn from the experiences of other countries and agree on the point of departures. I think the best compromise is 31 August as the independence celebration.

It is a day where all of us are reminded about our colonial past and how we were able to free ourselves from the clutches of colonisation. At the same time, we should continue to celebrate 16 September as Malaysia Day. We should not spend so much of our productive time arguing over when we suppose to celebrate our merdeka day. The whole world is moving forward to claim their future and not the past.


Other issues that have generated much interest are “autonomy” and the Malaysian Agreement 1963 (MA63). These are relevant issues and are critical components of the federation of Malaysia.

Autonomy can come in many forms and what is important within the context of the federation is the spirit of the word of autonomy and what it represents. However, the word autonomy is often misused to mean the state’s total independence of the federal government.

Is this interpretation of autonomy in line with the Federal Constitution and the Malaysian Agreement? Instead of polemisicing the word autonomy, other practical terms are devolution and decentralisation.

We could learn from China and Indonesia on how they adopt the terms decentralisation in their administration. Having a practical decentralisation policy for the country is much more tenable as doing so would not affect but sustain the integrity of the federation.

Going back in time to “review” the Malaysian Agreement 1963 as vehemently demanded by some quarters can be counter-productive for the nation’s progress. We cannot change the past but we can reshape the future.

So, instead of a review of the Malaysian Agreement, it would be beneficial if we could form a committee to look into the “compliance” of the pre-Malaysia documents. However, this must be done within the purview of the constitution to allow for improvement or reinforcement of certain provisions to improve federal-state relations.

We should not be trapped in the academic discussion of the Malaysian Agreement 1963 as there are other bigger issues that we need to urgently address. Rather than just looking at the extent to which the Malaysian Agreement has been complied with, it is also important that we look into the aspect of efficiencies and effectiveness in the implementation of the constitutional rights of Sabah and Sarawak.

It is good that there are many groups now taking the initiative to address the issue of Sabah’s rights within the federation. We might be working on different platforms but ultimately, our aim is to improve the state’s position in the federation and at the same time to safeguard the sanctity of the Federal Constution.

We could do this together for the betterment of Sabah. Eventually, the winner will be the people of Sabah and Malaysia generally. No one should claim that they are more Sabahan than the rest when it comes to voicing out the rights of Sabah within the federation. We are in this journey of nationhood together.


As I have said earlier, we need to move forward in tandem with the rapid process of globalisation. We need to leverage on our strengths to make Sabah a better place for our children. Autonomy must not be just about the transfer of power from one level to the other, but also improvement in delivery system and enhancement in government accountability.

We must not forget, there are other pressing issues which we need to look into seriously such as: Sabah’s security and public safety, a sustainable federal system based on parliamentary democracy, good governance, education and skills, human capital and sustainable economic model that is not too dependent on government spending.

Let us all stand together and move forward to make Sabah one of the most progressive states in the Federation of Malaysia.