When Sabah, or back then known as North Borneo, agreed to join the Malaysian federation, they came up with a list of 20 points.
The terms in what was called the 20-point agreement were drawn to safeguard the rights and autonomy of Sabah upon joining the federation.
Point number 18 stated that the head of state was to be called ‘Yang di-Pertua Negara’.
Who is the ‘Yang di-Pertua Negara’ and what does it mean?
Yang di-Pertua Negara was the official title of ceremonial governor in Sabah. It means ‘head of state’ in Malay.
Apart from Sabah, Malaysian states without hereditary monarchs include Penang, Malacca and Sarawak which also have governors instead.
The office of the head of state is a renewable four-year term position in Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy system.
They are also the members of the Conference of Rulers, a council made of nine rulers of the Malay states and the governors.
Unlike the Malay rulers or Sultans, however, governors cannot vote for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king), the ruler who will also function as the Head of Islam in their respective states.
How the title of Yang di-Pertua Negara in Sabah was abolished
Under Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia, the term governor was abolished and replaced with Yang di-Pertua Negeri on Aug 27, 1976.
Prior to 1976, Penang, Malacca and Sarawak had been using the title ‘Governor’ in English and ‘Yang di-Pertua Negeri’ in Malay. Meanwhile, Sabah’s head of state was called Yang di-Pertua Negara in both languages.
With the implementation of Article 160, Sabah could no longer use the title of Yang di-Pertua Negara.
So, Yang di-Pertua Negara or Yang di-Pertua Negeri? What’s the difference?
‘Negara’ means country or nation in Malay while ‘negeri’ means state.
Some argued the change of title demoted Sabah from a country to a state. They also saw it as a breach of the 20-point agreement.
It was clearly stated in Malaysian Agreement 1963, “There shall be a Head of State for Sabah, to be called the Yang di-Pertua Negara, who shall be appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong acting in his discretion but after consultation with the chief minister.”
Additionally, Sabah’s first Yang di-Pertua Negara Datu Mustapha Datu Harun referred to Sabah as a country during his message on Malaysia Day, Sept 16, 1963.
He was quoted saying, “Let us pray for God’s blessing in our beloved country, Sabah Maju Jaya!”
The battle between the Constitution of Malaysia and the Malaysia Agreement
The Constitution of Malaysia was previously known as the Constitution of Malaya. Back then, it was brought into force over the Federation of Malaya (then made up of 11 states) when it achieved independence from the British colony on Aug 31, 1957.
When the Malaysian federation was formed on Sept 16, 1963, the constitution name was changed from Constitution of Malaya to the Constitution of Malaysia.
It was then implemented in Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore before the last went separate ways and became the independent island nation it is today.
With this, combined with the simple name change in the title of the constitution from Malaya to Malaysia, some argued the establishment of Malaysia was not a creation of a new nation but simply the addition of new ‘states’.
Meanwhile, the Malaysia Agreement was signed by the United Kingdom, Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore. This made it an international agreement that could not and cannot be amended by Malaysian parliament.
The result of that agreement was Malaysia Act 1963, an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom.
The Act made provisions for a union named Malaysia which consisted of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore with the existing states of the Federation of Malaya.
Many parties argued that Sabah, along with Sarawak should be called ‘negara’ making their heads of state Yang di-Pertua Negara.
Adding on to that, Sarawak and Sabah received their independence from the British on July 22, 1963 and Aug 31, 1963 respectively. Hence, they were technically a self-governing nations before forming the Malaysian federation on Sept 16, 1963.
Furthermore, the head of state of Sabah was called “Yang di-Pertua Negara” from 1963 to 1976.
If Sarawak and Sabah were meant to be just mere states, not equal partners with Malayan federation to form Malaysia, one might ask why did it take 13 years to realise that ‘negara’ actually meant country in Malay?
How did Sabah and Sarawak get downgraded from their sovereign status to a state?
It all comes down to an act passed in parliament on Aug 27, 1976 which saw an amendment to Article 1 of the Federal Constitution. Through Act A354 Section 2, Sarawak and Sabah became downgraded from regions that had equal rights with Peninsular Malaysia to being just one of 13 states in Malaysia.
A revealing press release by Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) in 2016 states how the parliamentarians of the time were mistaken in voting for the status downgrade, and how being designated as a state instead of one of the three founding partners has short-changed Sabah and Sarawak in terms of oil royalty and federal financial allocations.
It has long been a source of discontent for East Malaysians, so much so in its mission to create equity across Malaysia, it was included in Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto under Pillar 4: Return Sabah and Sarawak to the status accorded by the Malaysia Agreement 1963.
In July 2018, it was revealed that the Minister’s Cabinet had agreed to the formation of a special cabinet committee on the enforcement of the Malaysian Agreement 1963. The special committee will comprise representatives from the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak who have expertise in the matter.
A media statement from Bandar Kuching MP Dr. Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen on 20 July 2018 outlines how this special committee will be working on restoring these rights:
The committee will study and propose corrective measures in relation to the following matters:
- The status of the Malaysian Agreement 1963 in the context of current legislation;
- Efforts to improve the people’s understanding towards the Malaysia Agreement 1963 through the education system;
- Implementation of the concept of federalism across the three territories – Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak;
- The rights of Sabah and Sarawak to natural resources as well as oil and gas;
- Administrative matters that can be delegated to the states;
- The amount of allocation that is within the rights of Sabah and Sarawak; and
- Amendment to Article 1 of the Federal Constitution.
With efforts going in the direction of Sabah and Sarawak’s rights being restored, some people conjecture it’s still a long road ahead before both former territories see their pre-1976 status restored.
Read about Malaysia Act 1963 here.