KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia — Almost 26 years ago, the young nation of Malaysia was gravely shaken when the tiny state of Singapore left a fledgling federation and went out to survive on its own. Singapore, of course, went on to become one of the great success stories of Asia, leaving Malaysia in its economic wake.
But the idea of secession has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Malaysian political leaders. So it was with growing unease that many in Sabah, a state on the north coast of the island of Borneo and one of the four founders of the Malaysian federation, learned recently that police had arrested yet another suspect in a yearlong investigation into an alleged plot to force Sabah out of Malaysia.
So far, the authorities have detained seven people under an infamous British colonial-era law known as the Internal Security Act. It permits indefinite jailing without trial.
In May, the law was used to imprison Jeffrey Kitingan, head of the powerful Sabah Foundation and brother of Sabah's chief minister--the equivalent of a state governor--Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
Megat Junib Megat Ayob, Malaysia's deputy home minister, said Jeffrey Kitingan was detained for "acting in a manner detrimental to the security of the country, in that he was said to be involved in a plot to take Sabah out of Malaysia." On Wednesday, it was announced that his detention was being extended for another two years after an initial two-month investigation.
Jeffrey Kitingan has campaigned vocally for a greater voice for both Sabah and Sarawak, the two Malaysian states on Borneo, which he maintains are at "the periphery" in charting Malaysia's destiny.
There are historical animosities between Sabah and peninsular Malaysia, the kind of argument heard commonly these days in places like Yugoslavia. While Malaysians are overwhelmingly Muslim, for example, Sabah has a large Christian community.
More important, oil-rich Sabah complains regularly that it gets short shrift when the government in Kuala Lumpur gets around to apportioning the wealth among Malaysia's roster of 13 states.
"We're getting less than we ought to," the chief minister said in an interview. "We have not been getting what we ought to get for the people."
In addition to the secession charges, both Kitingan brothers have been charged with corruption, which they deny.
"It is obvious to me that the charges are politically motivated," Joseph Kitingan said. "It's motivated toward toppling the state government within the next five years."
Indeed, the talk of secessionist plots follows a war of nerves between the government in Kuala Lumpur and the state government after Sabah's ruling party decided last year to withdraw from Malaysia's governing National Front and join the opposition.
The front, which includes Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed's United Malays National Organization, nonetheless went on to handily win the national election. But Sabah's betrayal has not been forgiven.
In May, a candidate from Mahathir's party ran for the first time against Kitingan's United Sabah Party and won a seat in Parliament with a bigger majority than even Mahathir's advisers had thought possible.
Mahathir's party, overwhelmingly Muslim, has repeatedly accused Joseph Kitingan, a Christian, of trying to set the people of Sabah against the Kuala Lumpur government. Sabah's 1.3 million population is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
For his part, Joseph Kitingan has repeatedly stated that he believes the state is firmly "part of Malaysia," and denied that he nurtures any hopes of establishing a separate country.
But he added in the interview that he felt the state was "being punished" by Kuala Lumpur for opposing federal officials.
Kitingan's party has received a popular mandate in three successive elections, he said, and should be allowed to govern without federal interference.
His party has even offered to reconcile with the National Front, but it has received a chilly reception from Kuala Lumpur.
The recent announcement that the federal government is funding four fire stations in Sabah may be an important breakthrough.
Malaysian opposition leader Lim Kit Siang has demanded that the government provide evidence of the alleged secessionist plot to show that it is not "just a political frame-up."