Referendum only to safeguard Sarawak rights, lawyer tells civil society groups

BY SULOK TAWIE

KUCHING, April 23 — Groups pushing for a referendum on Sarawak should ensure the agenda remains focused on safeguarding the state’s interests rather than a vote to withdraw from the federation of Malaysia, lawyer Datuk David Teng Lung Chi said today.

The veteran legal expert also cautioned civil society groups led by the Sarawak For Sarawakians (S4S) movement to prevent anyone else with other motives from hijacking this cause.

“That means you must make sure that you do not have people in your organisations having other agenda,” he said while presenting his topic titled “Referendum System: A firewall to Safeguard Sarawak’s Interests Within Malaysia” at a public forum discussing Sarawak’s rights and referendum here.

Teng also said the call to enact a Referendum Ordinance in the state legislative assembly must abide by the Federal Constitution if it is to be legally binding.

The forum, organised by S4S, Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SADIA) and Kuching Traditional Handicraft Protection Society, was a follow-up to a petition initiated two years ago that collected over 270,000 signatures. It was later submitted to the then-chief minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem; a copy was also sent to the United Nations.

The state government, however, has not responded to the petition.

Teng, a former assistant minister and Sarawak United People’s Party treasurer-general, said the referendum may not be a solution to all political problems, but its use is advisable on major or divisive issues to enhance democracy by giving a voice to the people to ensure political decision can be made openly or even more clearly legitimate.

He said civil societies or political parties should convince the state government and the state legislative assembly to enact a Referendum Ordinance or to amend the state constitution to create the right to hold referendum to serve as firewall to better safeguard Sarawak’s special interests within Malaysia.

These safeguards, he said, include religious freedom, immigration control, land and local government, High Court for Sarawak and Sabah, use of English and native languages in Sarawak, special position of the natives, special grant to Sarawak, additional source of revenue, separate review on division of parliamentary and state constituencies in Sarawak, State Legislative List and residue power.

He said Parliament can remove these safeguards if it has the support of two-thirds majority of the federal lawmakers, as provided for under Article 161E of the Federal Constitution, and has the consent from Sarawak Legislative Assembly.

“If there is any move to remove any of these safeguards, the government must get prior support or views of the electorate of Sarawak by way of a referendum,” he said.

Teng said since the formation of Malaysia in 1963, Sarawak’s interests have been affected, resulting in its status being downgraded from being an equal partner to Malaya, to being one of the 13 states in the federation of Malaysia with the amendment to Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution in 1976 and losing control over oil and gas resources with the enactment of the Petroleum Development Act in 1974.