Deep in Borneo's interior, Malaysian politician Jeffrey Kitingan is holding a town hall meeting. Technically, it’s not a political meeting. Rather, its dubbed a tea party, which has been called to discuss the issues of the day.
Kitingan—a veteran of East Malaysian politics—established the United Borneo Front (UBF) in December, along with prominent local economist Zainal Ajamain and lawyer Nilakrisna James. It’s aimed at carving out a third force in federal politics between the ruling and opposition parties.
As Kitingan sees it, the Malaysian states of Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak have been getting a raw deal from West Malaysia and the politicians in Kuala Lumpur ever since they joined the federation on an equal thirds basis in 1963. He’s not alone.
So instead of establishing another political party, the three established UBF as a human rights movement, holding tea parties (which bear no resemblance to the US tea parties being held by that country’s far right Republicans) instead of political rallies, which require a government permit.
This will matter come election time, and there are still high expectations Prime Minister Najib Razak will call an early national poll this year to secure his own electoral mandate. Razak replaced his predecessor after the United Malays National Organization (UMNO)—the lead party in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition—put in its worst showing ever at the ballot box, costing UMNO its coveted two-thirds majority in parliament in the March 2008 vote.
Since then, a record number of by-elections have been held, with UMNO delivering a performance that pundits believe should encourage Razak to hold his country’s first-ever early election. March has now been ruled out, but a June or November national poll is still possible. At that point, Kitingan, Ajamain and James will be in position to convert the UBF into a political party. The registration process would take 24 hours, and the UBF would then be able to act as kingmaker—or spoiler—depending on BN success in Sabah and Sarawak.
Whoever wins—UMNO or the opposition Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) led by Anwar Ibrahim—will need the support of both states.
According to a recent report by the United Nations, Sabah remains the poorest of all Malaysian states yet boasts much of the nation’s natural resources—a sore point among locals. Ajamain says the poverty rate in Sabah is about 16.4 percent compared with 4.3 percent in Sarawak and just 2.3 percent in Peninsula Malaya. And in both Borneo states, 41 percent of people don’t have access to basic infrastructure such as treated water, compared with 10 percent in Malaya.
In Sabah, 23 percent of people have no access to electricity, a figure that rises to 33 percent in Sarawak, but which falls to just 0.5 percent in West Malaysia. Bureaucrats from the eastern states fair poorly in the national bureaucracy and barely rate a mention for things like foreign embassies.
More importantly, Sabahans and Sarawakians are fed up with being funded and treated as if they were the 12th and 13th states of Malaysia when under the federation they were supposed to be recognized as equal one-third partners of the country alongside West Malaysia and its 11 states. ‘The dominance of the UMNO and Malaya hegemony in every facet of economic and political life in Malaysia for the past 50 years has led to unnecessary discrimination, mismanagement, corruption and abuse of power at the expense of national security and prosperity,’ Ajamain says.
The UBF isn't campaigning directly against the UMNO, but says the ruling party’s atrocious results at the last election pushed the largely ignored eastern states to the forefront of Malaysian politics.
Kitingan, Ajamain and James are hoping this will allow the UBF to reassert their states’ rights as partners in the three-tiered federation and strike a better deal for their constituents.