We, the braves younger generation Sabahans, may just forget and forgive our past leaders who contributed to our predicaments today and take control of the Sabah State Legislative Assembly to turn the table against the federal government in our efforts to reclaims and reinstates our lost rights. It is our duty in making sure a better future for our next generation. If not us, who? If not now, when?


Published By Aliran Vol.10 No.8 – 1990

Sabahans resent the whittling away of the State’s autonomy, but they must realize that their own state leaders were partly responsible, says FRANCIS LOH KOK WAH who also discusses the Twenty Points which forms the basis of Sabah’s rights within the Federation.

It is significant that almost all the political parties involved in the recent Sabah state elections included in their manifestos some general statement on how, upon coming to power, each of them would do its utmost to secure and maintain the rights of Sabah within the Federation of Malaysia. These parties included the opposition Parti Rakyat Sabah, Angkatan Keadilan Rakyat Sabah, Berjaya and the Liberal Democratic Party, and the incumbent, the Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBS), itself a member of the Barisan Nasional. Only United Sabah National Organisation (USNO) was reticent about including such a statement in its manifesto.

The range of demand included a fairer share of oil revenue which currently amounts to only five percent of the total for Sabah; effective control of the illegal Filipino and Indonesian immigrants, conservatively estimated at 500,000 and who come under the charge of the federal authorities; Borneo-nisation, in contrast to Malaya-nisation of the federal civil service, the federal statuary authorities and their various subsidiaries; a larger allocation of development funds for Sabah especially in view of its relative lag behind peninsular achievements; and a greater devolution of powers from the federal government to Sabah.

In the case of the PBS, other specific demands included the establishment of a separate television station; the return of Labuan Island; and a review of the internal Security Act under which auspices some Sabahans close to the PBS had been arrested for allegedly plotting to take Sabah out of Malaysia.

Whatever the merits of each or all of these demands, Sabahan politicians and leaders obviously felt that they were pressing issues which had to be addressed.  While it might be true, as Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad argued that rising such “anti-federal issues” was “playing with fire”, nonetheless, it should also be recognized that such sentiments were already rather widespread among ordinary Sabahans even before the electoral campaigns begin.

This is obvious to anyone who has spent some time in Sabah recently. Indeed, the roots of such sentiments run deep into the history of Sabah’s involvement in Malaysia – a history which, from the Sabah standpoint is one of increasing domination, even “colonization” of their state by the federal government. Hence, not to have addressed these issues would have been quite irresponsible of politicians seeking to represent the Sabah people.

Neither should the rising of such issues by any political leaders, whatever his party, or indeed by any Sabahan, be construed as attempting to break away from the Federation. There is a big distinction between seedling and demanding for more rights and greater autonomy within the existing political framework. And it is obvious that it is the latter that the Sabahans are demanding. And when viewed within the context of history, such demands in fact seem very legitimate.


The first person to express concern of Sabah’s rights within the federation in a systematic manner was no less than the late Tun Fuad Stephens, the first Chief Minister of Sabah. Before leading his state into Malaysia on 16 September 1963, his own party UNKO (the United National Kadazan Organisation) and the Sabah Alliance (comprising UNKO, USNO and the Sabah Chinese Association) had insisted upon and acquired certain guarantees from Kuala Lumpur with regards to Sabah’s rights generally and the Kadazan people’s rights specifically. What were these rights?

Firstly, while Islam would be the official religion of the country, they insisted that this should not apply to Sabah. This was important since the majority of Sabahans especially the Kadazan, who considered themselves to the “true natives of Sabah”, and the Chinese were not Muslim. Second, the leaders argued that while Malay was to be the national language, “English should be continued to be used for the period of ten years after Malaysia Day”. Other demands included the “Borneonisation” of the public services as soon as possible; state control over immigration; local government and land matters; consultation with regards to changes to Sabah’s educational system; special rights for the “natives” (including Sino-Kadazan); the channeling of development funds from Kuala Lumpur to Sabah; and representation in Parliament according to “its size and potentialities” and not merely on the basis of its population size.

These and other demands were finally formulated as the “Twenty Points”. They were incorporated in amended form as part of the Inter-Governmental Committee Report, 1962, discussing the independence arrangements and approved by the State Legislative Assembly in March 1963. Subsequently, the report formed part of the basis of the London Agreement paving the way for the formation of Malaysia in September 1963.

After these demands were incorporated into the new Sabah State Constitution, they, too found their way through amendments, into the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. In this way, the Twenty Points were given official recognition in an indirect manner by the federal authorities. While this did not amount to according the Twenty Point legal status, an amicable settlement was nonetheless reached, principally because the federal government gave assurances to the Kadazan (and other Borneo) leaders that the spirit of the Twenty Point would be honoured.

Hence, Sabah (and Sarawak) was given special rights to which none of the other peninsular states were entitled. For this reason, many Kadazan and Sabahan leaders considered the status of Sabah to be different from that of the other states. Some harboured the opinion, still very much alive today, that Sabah had entered into the arrangement as an equal partner with the federation of Malaya. Sabah was “one of three” (four if one include Singapore) signatories to the London Agreement and as such, should not be treated as “one of the thirteen” states, still less be dominated by Kuala Lumpur.

It was in this manner that Stephens and the other Sabah Alliance leaders hoped to preserve their autonomy. In this regard the Twenty Points is an important symbol of the terms under which Sabah became a part of Malaysia. It signifies a fair deal and being treated as an equal partner.

It is not surprising therefore that on various occasions over the past 27 years since 1963, various Sabah leaders have referred to the Twenty Points when they felt themselves under siege by the federal government. For instance, when Singapore was expelled without Sabah’s consultation in 1965, and when Stephens was forced to step down as leader of Sabah Alliance in 1967, Stephens remarked that the Twenty Points were not being honoured. Even Tun Mustapha talked in these terms when he was removed in 1975 as a result of federal pressures.

More recently, we have heard, too, reference to the Twenty Points by the PBS leaders. On these occasions, the context is usually of how Sabah has become increasingly dominated by the federal authorities or how “cooperative federalism” has become “coercive federalism”. Put another way, the complaint is that the Twenty Point have not being honoured. What is the basis for such comments? Below we briefly discuss how the erosion of the Twenty Points has occurred over the past 27 years.


Under Mustapha’s rule (1967 – 1975) for instance, a bill was introduced before 10 years of Independence had passed, to make Bahasa Malaysia the sole official language. Although in retrospect this move has helped to bind Sabah to Malaysia, it did caused much anxiety for Sabahan when Mustapha so acted ahead of time. Moreover, in 1974 he ordered all broadcasts in Chinese, Kadazan, Murut and other indigenous languages terminated.

More controversial were his efforts to Islamise the state. The Sabah Constitution was amended to make Islam the official religion. Funds were then made available for the building of mosques, the promotion and the administration of Islamic religion. The propagation of Christianity, in particular, was curtailed causing much anxiety among non-Muslims. Under him too, Sabah’s educational system was also brought in line with the national one. What was particularly annoying for the Kadazans, however, was that arrangements were not made to teach Kadazan as a Pupil’s Own Language as provided for under the Education Act. Finally, it was of course during Mustapha’s time that Syed Kechik from Kedah ran the Sabah Foundation and wielded much power.

Next, under Harris Salleh’s Berjaya government (1976 – 1984), Labuan was ceded away without consultation of the people whatsoever. In contrast to the $3 billion paid to Selangor for the acquisition of Kuala Lumpur. Sabah received no compensation whatsoever for the transfer of Labuan.

In promotion of what he interpreted to constitute a “national culture policy” Harris also attempted to streamline the cultures of the various groups. Furthermore, he introduce the category of “Pribumi” to include not only the Kadazans, Muruts, Bajau, Sulu and other indigenous people of Sabah but Indonesians, Filipinos, natives of Sarawak, and Cocos Islanders as well. The Kadazan in particular, considered these moves as trying to deny them their identity as the “true natives” of Sabah and as the largest of all the indigenous groups. They further feared that Harris, like Mustapha before him, was trying to Malayise and Islamise them.

In addition to the above, Harris Salleh further presided over the “federalization” of Sabah’s state bureaucracy. By the early 1980s, only 19 departments continued to be under the control of the Sabah government, while the number of departments under the control of the federal government had increased from 13 in 1963 to 51 in 1981, many new ones being created in the process.

Moreover, following the Cabinet Committee Report of salary revisions, terms and conditions of service, all state officers seconded to federal departments also became federal officers. By 1978 more than 20,000 such public servants had been so affected. As a result, the State government lost almost all say in the appointment and promotion of employees in these federalized departments, including these 20,000 plus former state employees. As one Sabahan intellectual lamente, “Theoretically, it is possible for a federal department to be staffed entirely by recruits from Peninsular Malaysia.”

In 1989, the Public Service Department, Sabah branch, noted in a statement that there were some 23,000 peninsular Malaysians serving in Sabah. They constituted about 50 percent of the total 46,780 employed in the federal public service. A review of the federal agencies in Sabah conducted by the Institute of Development Studies (Sabah) further noted that some 85 percent of the 64 agencies were headed by people from peninsular Malaysia that same year. It is clear therefore, that Borneo-nisation of the public services has not occurred. Instead, Sabah’s bureaucracy has become increasingly federalized and most of the top positions have been filled by officers from peninsula.

From the foregoing, we may conclude that many of the provisions of the Twenty Points have not been upheld. Consequently Sabah has increasingly lost its autonomy and come under the domination of the federal government.

However, it must be stressed that these developments occurred with the cooperation of the Sabah state governments, first under Mustapha, and subsequently Harris Salleh. Indeed all of the changes that we have mentioned were duly passed in the Legislative Assembly. In other words, previous Sabahan leaders themselves cooperated with the federal government to removed the Twenty Points safeguards and allow for domination by Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps this is why the young Sabahans, and in particular the young Kadazans in the PBS, are so annoyed with the older politicians. Indeed, Mustapha’s and Harris’s governments also included several prominent Kadazan leaders as Ministers who must share responsibility for what has come to pass. But in a sense the Sabahan electorate itself must also be held responsible for allowing their rights to be whittled. For these leaders were elected by them! In this regard, we also need to reflect on the money politics and undemocratic rule that the people allowed to become widespread during, at least Mustapha’s and Harris Salleh’s time.

Quite apart from the question of the Twenty Points and the loss of autonomy, the nature of the economic relationship between Sabah and the peninsula is also a cause of concern and growing dissatisfaction among the Sabahan.


From the outset it is necessary to clarify that the statistics referred to in this section have been obtained from official publications of the federal and state governments. They include the various Five Year Plans, the Sabah Regional Planning Study, Ministry of Finance reports and the Annual Bulletin of Statistics.

In 1971, the manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP for Malaysia as a whole was 14.7 percent while that for Sabah was only 2.5 percent. By 1983, the percentage for Malaysia as a whole had increased to 18.3 percent while that for Sabah was registering only 2.9 percent. Simultaneously, whereas the primary sector’s (agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and quarrying) contribution to Malaysia’s GDP dropped from 37.1 percent to 27.2 percent over the same period, that for Sabah only dropped from 54.5 percent to 51.6 percent. The corresponding figures for the tertiary sector were 47.1 percent rising to 54.3 percent for Malaysia as a whole, and 43 percent rising to 45.4 percent for Sabah during the same period.

Accordingly, production workers as a proportion of the total labour force in the Peninsula rose from 27.3 percent to 33.3 percent between 1970 and 1980. In the case of Sabah, however, they only rose from 3.3 percent to 4 percent between 1970 and 1980. Taken together, this statistics suggest that Malaysia’s reputation as an emerging Newly Industrialized Country is principally a result of rapid industrialization in the peninsula, not in Sabah. There appears, therefore, that a division of labour exists between the two regions.

This division between a more industrialized peninsula and a Sabah specializing in the production of commodities is further reflected in the terms of trade between the two regions. While the total value of Sabah’s trade had been increasing rapidly during the 1970s, nonetheless, certain unhealthy trends vis-à-vis that proportion of its trade with the peninsula has developed.

Whereas in 1970 the value of exports to the peninsula amounted to only RM4.6 million, it increased to RM360.2 million by 1984, some 6.6 percent of the total value of Sabah’s exports. Over the same period, the value of imports from the peninsula increased from RM101.7 million to RM1,340.7 million, some 36.6 percent of the total value of Sabah’s imports. Consequently, Sabah balance of trade with the peninsula worsened some ten-fold over the same period, from  –RM97.1 million to  –RM980.5 million. Not surprisingly, its major imports from the peninsula comprised manufactured goods, articles, machineries and transport equipment, chemicals, beverages and tobacco, food and mineral fuels. As a result of the division of labour between the two region, therefore, there has occurred a net outflow of funds from Sabah to the peninsula.

Furthermore, according to the Ministry of Finance statistics, federal expenditures in Sabah have totalled some RM8,213 million between 1971 to 1985. Over that same period of time, however, federal revenue collected from Sabah amounted to RM15,489 million. In other words there was a further net outflow of some RM7,275 million from Sabah to the federal government.

In lieu of comparable data on income distribution between the two regions, we have to resort to statistics on the incidence of poverty to gauge how such a division of labour and net outflow of public funds might have affected the corresponding wealth of the two regions. Although, steadily declining since 1970, nonetheless, Sabah still registered some 33.1 percent of its population as poor in 1984. By contrast, the incidence of poverty in the peninsula was down to 18.4 percent that year. There was, it would appear, some material cause for the Kadazans and Sabahans more generally to feel that they were being colonized by the federal government.


There then are some of the issues that shape the nature of federal-state relations between Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu today. It is on the basis of these issues that the Sabahans claim that the Twenty Points safeguards have been eroded and a loss of autonomy resulted.

From the review of developments above it is undeniable that Sabah has become increasingly “one of the thirteen” rather than “one of the three”. From the Sabah standpoint it is perfectly in keeping with the original terms of the participation in Malaysia to demand for, say, a separate television station, a higher percentage of oil revenue and Borneo-nisation of the public services. These are substantive issues that have to be addressed, perhaps in time of elections when one of the major aspects of any democracy comes full circle.

The problem with resolving such issues, however, is that the federal government today does not seem prepared to accept (as it ever did) Sabah’s demand that it be treated as “one of the three” and be accorded greater autonomy. In fact, it appears that it is merely seen as “one of the thirteen”. This is apparent, for instance, in the recent response by the Federal Minister of Information to Sabah’s request for its own television statement. In his mind Sabah should not be treated in any special way whatsoever. Thus if Sabah request should be acceded to what was to prevent other states from making the same request?

That federal leaders and federal government should be thinking along this line should also not be surprising.  For not only is our federal system an extremely centralized and the centralization process occurred for some time now in Sabah. Centralization in Sabah was also achieved constitutionally with the cooperation of the past Sabah leaders elected by the Sabah people. This fact should also be recognized.

Thus, unless the present younger generation of Sabah acknowledge that the whittling away of the state’s autonomy was also brought about by their own elected state leaders – thus demanding much retrospection about, say, the prevalence of money politics in Sabah – the same could continue in future.

Thus far no clear resolution of the tension between Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu seems in sight. In fact the substantive issues highlighted by Sabahans are not being given serious consideration. Instead, the federal authorities seem to think about integration in superficial terms and that it can be achieved by having more and cheaper flights between the two regions, more patriotic songs and slogans, more sporting links, etc. In other word, more of the same.

However, the substantive issues outlined above must be addressed, and in the right spirit of building a truly united community, before the strains can be iron away. On their part, Sabahan, indeed all Malaysians should take their politics seriously and usher in responsible and just government.


About dusunbukit

You've got your truth, I've got my truth. We can't be both wrong. The real challenge is to discern the difference. Pardon me if I offend you, but I'm going to put my words bluntly. So, lets rumble..
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  1. Dangi Ken says:

    we should spread this article to every space and corner of Sabah. Translate it into Dusun / Kadazan, Bahasa Malaysia etc. Make it more easier for the locals in kampungs to understand it. Thank you so much for this valuable info. Should there is more, please do not shy to share with us the humble Sabahan…

  2. Mosses Paul says:

    If the 20 points is not upheld, then Sabah has the right to secede from Malaysia…

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