Yang di-Pertua Negeri: Tun Abang Muhammad Salahuddin Abang Barieng
Chief Minister: Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud
Statistics (Malaysia Statistics Dept., 2007)
Population: 2,404,500 (2007) – Indigenous peoples/Dayaks (48.2%), Chinese (25.5%), Malays (22%), others (0.4%), non-citizens (3.7%).
Religious breakdown (2000): Christianity 42.6%; Islam 31.3%; Buddhism 12%; Tribal 5.2%; No Religion 3.9%; Taoism/Confucianism 2.6%; Others 1.3%; Hinduism 0.1%; Unknown 1.0%
Known as Bumi Kenyalang (‘Land of the Hornbills’), Sarawak is the largest state in Malaysia. Kuching is the state capital while Miri, known as the oil capital of the state, has recently been declared the state’s first resort city.
History and political development in brief
Sarawak was loosely under the control of the Brunei Sultanate in the early 19th century. During the reign of Rajah Indera Mahkota in the 19th century, Sarawak was in chaos. In 1839, the Sultan of Brunei, ordered Rajah Muda Hashim to restore order. During this time James Brooke arrived in Sarawak for the first time. On his second visit in 1841, Brooke agreed to help Rajah Muda Hashim to maintain social order. A treaty was signed and Sarawak surrendered to Brooke. On 24 September 1841, Brooke was bestowed the title Governor and effectively became the Rajah of Sarawak, setting up his capital in Kuching. The dynasty of 'White Rajah' was thus established, ruling Sarawak until the Second World War.
In 1888, Sarawak, under Charles Anthony Johnson Brooke, became a British Protectorate until 1946 when the third ruler Charles Vyner Brooke ceded his rights to the United Kingdom.
In December 1941, Japan invaded Sarawak and established military administration which provided new opportunities for Iban advancement as police and native officers. Meanwhile, Vyner, who was visiting Australia, was unable to return to Sarawak until its liberation in 1945 by the Australian Army. The state then came under Allied military administration. An orchestrated vote in the Council Negeri approved the cession of Sarawak to the British crown. In July 1946, Sarawak became one of the British colonies and civil administration was restored. However, anti-cession movement became intense. In 1949, the first British governor was assassinated. As a result, four conspirators were hanged and seven given long prison sentences, and the rifts created took many years to heal.
Sarawak was one of the areas where Indonesian Confrontation took place (1962 – 1966). On 16 September 1963, it joined the federation of Malaysia despite initial opposition from certain quarters. In negotiating the Malaysia Agreement, Sarawakians insisted on autonomy in four areas - the civil service, local government, land and immigration. Sarawak has the right to refuse entry of Malaysians from the peninsula.
In 1965, the first chief minister Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan, an Iban himself, put together a coalition, but it was unstable. Barisan Nasional (BN), the rival coalition led by UMNO, threatened to motion a vote of no confidence. A legal dispute occurred, a state of emergency was declared, and Ningkan was finally removed. From 1970 onwards, Sarawak was governed by BN under two Muslim chief ministers of Melanau descent – Abdul Rahman Yakub (1970–1981) and his nephew, Abdul Taib Mahmud (1981–present). UMNO, however, has not been able to make inroads into the state. Taib, a member of Parti Bumiputera Bersatu (a component party of BN), is also the state First Finance Minister and state Minister for Planning and Resources Management.
Two state electoral revolts shook the BN state government:
- In 1974, the then opposition Sarawak National Action Party (SNAP) won 48 per cent of the popular vote, taking 18 of the 48 seats in the State Assembly.
- The 2006 state elections saw the combined opposition parties taking 33% of the popular vote. The decline in the support for BN was attributed to lacklustre economic development and a significant level of unhappiness among the urban Sarawakians.
Nonetheless, there is no competitive opposition outside of Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu and Miri. There is hardly any in the rural areas. One of the reasons, according to certain analysts, may be due to the politics of fear of deprivation and the politics of disempowerment in the rural areas. Such politics have successfully convinced the rural voters of their total dependence on the government. For example in the 2006 state elections, the people in the highlands of Ba'Kelalan and Long Semadoh region were afraid that if they didn’t vote for the BN candidate, the project to build roads to the highlands would be withdrawn.
Sarawak contributed 21% to BN’s simple majority victory in the Parliament in the March 2008 general elections.
Ethnic groups & religions
It is said that Sarawak has more than 40 sub-ethnic groups, each with its own distinct language, culture and lifestyle. Dayak is the loose term for these indigenous peoples who form nearly half of the Sarawak population.
The Ibans make up some 30% of the total population; the majority of them practise Christianity. Most Bidayuhs are Christians and they make up about 10% of the Christian population in the state. Most Melanaus are Muslims; their lifestyle and practices are similar to the Malays’. They form some 5% of the population.
The phrase Orang Ulu is a term used to collectively describe the numerous tribes that live upriver in Sarawak's vast interior. They include Kayan, Kenyah, Kajang, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit, Penan, Lun Bawang, Murut, Berawan, Saban and Kelabits. They together make up roughly 5.5% of Sarawak's population and majority of them are Christians.
However, regardless of their religious background, many continue to practise traditional rituals and beliefs. Under the Federal Constitution, they are the natives (Bumiputeras) who enjoy special privileges similar to that of the Malays.
The Chinese form the second largest ethnic group after the Ibans, while the Malays third. While Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, it is not a state religion of Sarawak. In fact, Sarawak is the only state without a state religion. There are no state provisions or penalty for converting out of Islam.
However, Sarawak faces some restrictions (from the federal government, the Home Ministry in particular) in the distribution of Malay-language Christian materials. In April 2003, the Iban-language Bible, Bup Kudus, was banned because it contained the word 'Allah' (in the phrase Allah Taala) used exclusively by Muslims. Prior to this, Bup Kudus, had not faced any problem in the last 15 years of its existence. A few weeks later, the then acting Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Abdullah Badawi (now Prime Minister) lifted the ban after a public outcry.
Nevertheless, Sarawak has the least number of disputes relating to religion compared with other Malaysian states.
Two Major Concerns
Regional imbalances, discrimination in federal policies and implementation
Blessed with the abundance of natural resources, Sarawak by right should be one of the wealthiest states in Malaysia. It has one of the world's largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants in Bintulu and is a major producer in crude oil from its offshore wells in Miri.
However, for decades, the state’s economy has been behind the urban centres in Peninsular Malaysia. Like Sabah, it is only given 5% oil and gas royalties.
The New Economic Policy (NEP), designed in the 1970s to improve or elevate the economic status of Bumiputeras, did not seem to have done so for many Sarawakian natives. Figures show that at least one minority group remains deprived of basic needs. The Asian Strategic and Leadership Institute (Asli) in a report prepared for the Ninth Malaysia Plan says that some 12,000 Penan in the interiors are lagging behind in terms of income, education and health.
In 2006, Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein promised to tackle the lack of basic and physical facilities in the rural and remote school in Sabah and Sarawak. However, little physical improvement has been seen thus far. In May 2008, he said the ministry had planned to review its priorities in the National Education Blueprint to give priority to schools in Sabah and Sarawak. On allegations that the ministry had not started education projects in Sarawak, Hishammuddin said the claims were baseless as Sarawak had been given RM3.01bil for 2,187 projects.
Meanwhile, the PM assured the people that the government gives equal focus to all in this country and said that the development corridor in Sarawak would bring opportunities to the people, notably to the younger generation. The rural development would be given due attention, particularly on basic infrastructure, water and power supply and the building of road (The Star, 11/6/2008). He also said that the evidence could be seen in the decline of poverty rate from 7.5% in 2004 to 4.2% in 2007. However, the reduction in poverty rate is far from convincing, especially with the recent petrol hike and rising cost of living due to inflation.
The unfortunate facts are: feelings of marginalisation and deprivation are prevalent among the Dayak community despite the special rights and privileges enshrined in the Federal Constitution; the Sarawakians for years have received only 30% treated water; regional imbalances have yet to be corrected; and a fair distribution with regard to the control, management and ownership of the modern economy has yet to be seen. The Dayaks continue to feel that some government agencies involved in implementing government policies do not seem to carry out the policies fairly.
The Economic Planning Unit’s Development Composite Index placed Sarawak 11th among the 14 states in the country (NST, 8/9/07).
Native Customary Land (NCL)
Sarawak's rainforests, the homeland of the natives even before the formation of Malaysia, have been gradually depleted by indiscriminate logging and land clearance for palm oil plantations. Incidents of peaceful protests and timber blockades are not uncommon. In Sarawak, any land occupied by indigenous groups before 1 January 1958 can be regarded as theirs under Native Customary Rights (NCR).
In March 2005, at a seminar on NCR sponsored by SUHAKAM, the Dayaks highlighted their plight. Among them were:
- The encroachment on native customary lands violates and disregards the native law, culture and traditions;
- Arbitrary issuance of provisional lease and timber licensed to private companies by the state government;
- Compensation received the State government covers only property and fruits (i.e. value of the land not included) and does not match the market value; and
- Logging activities have caused environmental pollution, jeopardising source of drinking water, and destruction of crops and property.
According to the Borneo Resources Institute Malaysia (Brimas) Sarawak, indigenous people’s NCR are often violated by the government and authorities: "Government alienate the customary land of Dayaks to private companies without prior consent from the community, resulting in them becoming squatters on land that they have been staying on for generations."
Some examples are:
- Orang Ulu villagers in Ulu Baram were promised economic benefits if they gave up their NCR land for oil palm plantations. They were given 30% equity in the project. So far they have not seen the promised profits, neither have they been paid for their contract works (malaysiakini.com, 12/3/07)
- The Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia) has called for pressure to be exerted on the state government to stop global logging giant Rimbunan Hijau from "discriminating, robbing and depriving the indigenous people of the natives’ customary land rights." (10/11/07)
- The Penans have been most affected. They complain of game depletion resulting in widespread hunger and loss of traditional medicines and forest products. Traditionally nomadic in culture, the Penans have been displaced for decades due to deforestation and subsequent conversion of land to oil palm estates, from which they receive no benefits (16/12/07).
- Two companies – Dakar Wijaya and Stuyong Enterprise – have been given licences by the state authorities to plant oil palm. The Iban landowners claim that their NCR land are being taken over. "We have been toiling on the land for generations. Now, these plantation companies just come and destroy all our fruit and rubber trees, and pepper plantations.” The land, covering an estimated 9,880ha, falls within the boundary of the five villages (Kampung Temiang, Sg Raya, Keniong, Tembun and Lingkau) which are believed to be more than 200 years old (NST, 1/7/08).
- The Kayan community in Long Panai, Ulu Baram has started a road blockade to prevent a reforestation and oil palm company from encroaching their NCR land (malaysiakini.com, 24/5/08)
On 27 June 2008, 138 Bidayuh families claimed initial victory over the state authorities in their struggle to prevent their NCR land from being taken away from them without any consultation and compensation. Kuching High Court granted an interim injunction to stop Naim Cendera Lapan Sdn Bhd, a quarry licence holder, from entering their farmland. The natives said that the stone quarry would cause damages to fruit trees and other crops in their NCR land which has existed for more than a century. The villagers depend on shifting cultivation for food crops and the harvesting of birds' nests for their livelihood.
The PM has in recent months guaranteed the focus of fully developing Sarawak, reducing poverty and restoring regional balances. The Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) is expected to increase the state's gross domestic product (GDP) by five times when it is fully realised in 2030 (The Star, 21/4/08).
- Honest and just state government to fairly and effectively eliminate poverty among the natives;
- All state projects to prioritise public interests and no ethnic groups to be left behind;
- Business community to help create job opportunities; the rich to empower the poor;
- Effective implementation of laws to protect the natives and their NCR land;
- Any discriminatory policies and actions to be removed;
- Commitment of both federal and state governments in improving communication/transport links, health and education facilities and the provision of basic services in the rural areas; and
- Church: united, vibrant and relevant (e.g. in social & ethical issues), effective youth discipleship, greater passion for the lost, more workers in rural areas; good support from the churches in the peninsula.