A re-emergence scenario for Malaysia’s Sarawak and Sabah / Official status for Taiwanese language

4 to 10 May

Opposition meeting in Sarawak capital Kuching.
Opposition meeting in Sarawak capital Kuching. Author: DAP Sarawak
WEEKLY ROUNDUP. This week we are looking at the scenario that has been opened for the possible re-emergence of two countries —Sarawak and Sabah— that could have been independent 60 years ago but that were ultimately subsumed in an increasingly unitary Malaysia. The recent election in the Asian country could in principle lead to a greater recognition and self-government for both territories, where pro-sovereignty movements exist. On the other hand, we are also talking about the path that is being taken in Taiwan to grant official status to the Taiwanese language, spoken by most of the population there.


Hope and mistrust alike in Sarawak and Sabah on increased autonomy.Against what opinion polls forecast, opposition alliance Pakatan Haparan (PH) has won the 9 May legislative election in Malaysia in both votes and seats. One of the commitments the coalition has said it will implement during its first 100 days in government is to form a task force that studies how Sarawak and Sabah can be returned the degree of self-government that they should have in accordance with the 1963 agreement.

During the election campaign, PH had promised Sarawak enlarged self-government in the fields of education, health and tax affairs, as well as control over 50% of the taxes collected in the territory.

Sabah and Sarawak are Malaysia’s only two federated states that do not sit on the Malay Peninsula, but on the island of Borneo. According to the 1963 agreement, both Sabah and Sarawak were equal partners with continental Malaya and Singapore (the latter became independent in 1965). Subsequently, however, their status within the federation was reduced, and the federal government took over a number of their original powers.

Deep mistrust runs in Sabah and Sarawak as regards PH-backed Malaysia’s new prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohammad, who was already in office from 1981 to 2003. Sabahans and Sarawakians point out that, during his tenure, Mahathir marginalizedtheir states, concentrated investments in Malaya, and was primarily responsible for centralization of powers in the hands of the federal government in Kuala Lumpur and the loss of Borneo self-government. Special opposition against Mahathir runs among the Chinese community of Sarawak, which forms a quarter of its population. And adding fuel to fire, during the campaign news ran that Mahathir had called the inhabitants of Sarawak and Sabah “lazy”, which the new prime minister later denied.

Mahathir implicitly acknowledged that Malaysia’s centralization driven by him was negative for Sabah and Sarawak: “We need to give them more power to ensure greater development”, he said.

But mistrust remains. Despite PH’s positive electoral promises, Barisan Nasional (BN) —the party that has held government until now— has once again won the vote in Sarawak and Sabah, while in the rest of the country it has lost in almost every state.

Now it remains to be seen whether the new PH government really wants to devolve powers to the two Borneo states, especially bearing in mind that the Sarawak government will continue to be ruled by the BN.

Sarawak, where a pro-sovereignty movement has formed, existed as a protectorate and later a colony within the British Empire from 1841 to 1963. Sabah —under the name of North Borneo— has the same status from 1888 to 1963.


Taiwanese language to be given official status in Taiwan. Even if it might sound strange, Taiwanese —a variety of the Hokkien language— has not enjoyed official status to date in Taiwan, although it is spoken by 82% of the population. This is about to change thanks to a law that the Taiwanese Parliament is reviewing and that could soon be approved, since it has support from both government and opposition. The law will recognize all the languages historically rooted in the island as national languages. It is expected that this will open the door to some official use of Taiwanese across the country, alongside Mandarin.

When Kuomintang took control of Taiwan in 1945, Mandarin was imposed as the sole national and official language, although the majority of the population spoke Taiwanese Hokkien. Other languages —such as Hakka and those of Taiwan’s Aboriginals— have recently received official recognition, but this is limited to some regions or municipalities.