Sarawak wants to be recognised as a region. Will Sabah follow suit? Which one is higher in status—a region or a state?

By Remy Majangkim, MA63, Activist, Tutor, and Historian


KOTA KINABALU: In recent days, Tan Sri Mohamad Asfia Awang Nassar, the Sarawak Assembly speaker, asserted that Sarawak is a region and not a state or negeri. Therefore, he emphasises that Sarawak is a region in Malaysia, which he assumes has a higher status than a state.

Additionally, last year, the deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia declared that Sabah and Sarawak would now be referred to as “Wilayah” or “territory.”

These two assertions require clarification and explanation due to ambiguity regarding the meaning of the term, raising questions about authority.

Additionally, the definitions of “Negeri” and “Negara” are provided by the Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka, and their usage differs based on the capitalization of the words (state versus state).

To answer and understand this debacle, one needs to refer to studies of international relations, whose definition matters in this case.

Let us scrutinise what a state is and the nature of the Malaysian Agreement of 1963.

For a state to be recognised under international law and participate in the international arena, an entity must fulfil these three criteria under the guidance of the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaty. (VCLT) The criteria are as follows:

1) Territory (permanent and enclosed with a defined border)
2) Population in the territory (people living within the territory)
3) Active government or an administration. These include laws of the land and administration left by her former colony (British).

Sarawak is indeed a region, but it is also considered a state. Lastly, to seal the application for a state with the United Nations, this entity must be recognised by a sovereign state. This leads us to the most crucial documents, aptly known as the Malaysian instruments or bills.

Historically, the Malaysia Agreement was signed on July 9, 1963, and was supposed to effectively begin on August 31, 1963.

However, the Philippines and Indonesian governments protested it, urging the United Nations envoy to assert the will of the people of Borneo in the formation of Malaysia.

After the survey was completed, the resolution of the United Nations was submitted and agreed upon by grieving parties. The Malaysia agreement’s effective date changed to September 16, 1963.

Before the United Nations’ involvement, after the previous signing, the British Parliament created an act of law on July 30, 1963.

That recognises the new states of North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak, and Singapore, “federated with” the Federation of Malaya, annexed it “on the matter agreed,” and created a trust agreement with the Federation of Malaya.

This act by the British Parliament is known as the Malaysia Act, Chapter 35. It includes all the legal requirements for statehood before the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) was drafted.

It is interesting to note that the Malaysia Agreement was registered under the United Nations Trusteeship Council, and Malaysia became a party to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) on July 27, 1994.

This means that Malaysia is bound by the legal interpretation of a state, has obligations as the host trustee, and ensures the welfare of its citizens.

As a bonus, the status of Sabah and Sarawak is assured in the Federal Constitution, notably in Article 161E, “Safeguards for the Constitutional Position of States Sabah and Sarawak” (Hint: look at the use of states in capital letters and plural).

Another safeguard inserted and found was in Article 169(c): “International agreements, etc., made before Merdeka Day.” Yet again, the wording states were used in this article.

Upon reviewing the Malaysia Agreement of 1963, it is evident that the term “state(s)” is frequently used to refer to the signatory parties.

Retrospectively, the confusion begins with the use of language and assertions without knowing the implication that comes with them. This has been foreseen by the British and imprinted in the Malaysia Agreement: if “in doubt,” the English language will prevail.

Finally, it is more appropriate to refer to the Borneo States as Negara Sarawak and Sabah, respectively, as they are not equal in status to the other states in Malaya.

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