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How Sarawak was won

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

WHEN I first arrived at Kuching airport in May 1983, I was ushered into the row for foreigners at the immigration checkpoint where my Malaysian passport was examined and stamped ''Social Visit'', with an expiry date. I felt like an ''alien'' despite knowing full well that Sarawak was part of the Federation of Malaysia. My feelings of alienness were, however, short-lived, quickly overcome by the friendliness and warmth of the locals I encountered.Control over immigration was one of the numerous safeguards incorporated into the constitutional arrangements made when Sarawak, together with Sabah (then called North Borneo) and Singapore, joined the wider federation of Malaysia in 1963.

The Malaysia Agreement

On July 9, 1963, Temenggong Jugah anak Barieng, Datu Bandar Abang Haji Mustapha, and Ling Beng Siew, as Sarawak's representatives, penned their signature to the Malaysia Agreement in London. The Federation of Malaysia was proclaimed on Sept 16 that year comprising the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak. The last three territories had been British Colonies until they gained their independence through participation in the wider Federation of Malaysia. Sarawak is poised to celebrate its 38th anniversary of independence on Sept 16.

Sarawak's entry into Malaysia was a momentous event and a turning point in its historical development. A century of paternalistic governance by an English dynasty of White Rajahs (or kings, from 1841 to 1941), three years and eight months under Imperial Japanese military rule (1941 to 1945), and 17 years as a British colony did little to prepare the multi-ethnic population of Sarawak to face the challenges posed by the concept of ''Malaysia''.

Nonetheless, through the farsightedness of Sarawak's leaders, the decisive decision was taken during those critical months between the announcement of the formation of Malaysia in May 1961 and its declaration in September 1963.

22 July 1963 : Sarawak was officially granted Independence from Britain

Why Malaysia?

But what motivated the federation's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, to propose in 1961 that ''it is inevitable that we should look ahead to this objective and think of a plan whereby these (five) territories can be brought closer together in political and economic co-operation''?The initiative apparently came from the wishes of Singapore's leaders. David Marshall, Chief Minister of Singapore during the mid-1950s, was keen for a merger but the Tunku then was reluctant. Then in 1959, when Lee Kuan Yew of the People's Action Party assumed the chief ministership, he too proposed a Malaya-Singapore merger for economic and political reasons. The Tunku's initial reaction was at best lukewarm. As the political Left in Singapore gained momentum, however, the Tunku began to warm up to Lee's persuasive arguments of merger.

Although the Tunku and his Malay colleagues in the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) did not want to have a Left-leaning Singapore as their neighbour, neither did they wish for a merger with Chinese-dominated Singapore that would mean upsetting the racial arithmetic in favour of the Chinese.

The Borneo territories then became imperative components in the wider federation scheme. Nearly 70% of the nearly 1.3 million inhabitants (1960 census) of North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak comprised Malay-Muslims and non-Muslim indigenous peoples, the Borneo territories were viewed favourably as a counterweight to Singapore's Chinese majority. The racial factor, however, was not then publicly emphasised.

This racial arithmetic, however, hinged on an assumption: ''that in extreme racial issues the indigenous population of Borneo might choose to align themselves with the Malays (of Malaya), to whom they were racially akin, rather than to the Chinese''. But there was no guarantee that the Borneo indigenes would swing to the Malays in times of crisis.

Awakening political awareness

But what was the response from the peoples of Sarawak to Tunku's Malaysia scheme?Post-war British governments were partial to the policy of disengagement from the colonies; if possible in an amicable and least traumatic manner. Against this background, the Tunku's statement was received positively. In June 1961 Sir Alexander Waddell, Governor of Sarawak (1960-1963), and his counterpart in North Borneo, Sir William Goode (1960-1963), and D. C. White, High Commissioner for Brunei (1959-1963) were summoned for talks in Singapore with Lord Selkirk, Britain's Commissioner General in South-East Asia (1959-1963).

Aware of the metropolitan government's stance on de-colonisation, the British Borneo leaders did not oppose Malaysia, but they did suggest a two-step process: Borneo Federation (North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak) prior to entry to the Malaysia confederation. In spite of Brunei's suspicions, serious consideration was given to the Borneo Federation, if necessary between North Borneo and Sarawak alone.

Local Sarawak leaders like Datu Bandar Abang Haji Mustapha and Temenggong Jugah anak Barieng were also partial to a Borneo Federation. Therefore Tunku's announcement took them by surprise. While others were in a state of bewilderment, Ong Kee Hui, Chairman of the Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP) displayed forceful opposition towards Malaysia.

Ong, together with A.M. Azahari, leader of the Parti Rakyat Brunei (PRB), and Donald A. Stephens, later leader of the United National Kadazan Organisation (UNKO) formed a United Front to denounce Tunku's proposal as ''totally unacceptable to the people of the three territories''.

SUPP's uncompromising stance received initial support from the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) led by Stephen Kalong Ningkan who maintained that, ''Any attempt to put Sarawak under the influence and subjection of any foreign power would be strongly opposed.''

But following the digestion of further explanations from Tunku, who paid brief visits to Sarawak in July-August 1961, those who initially were sceptical or had reservations were won over. Moreover, urged by Mustapha, Tunku invited leaders from Sarawak and North Borneo to visit Malaya on a fact-finding mission.

The Borneo visitors were awed by Kuala Lumpur and were especially impressed with the Malayan Government's achievements in rural development. Many returned convinced that entry into Malaysia was a good idea. Meanwhile, Waddell had sent local Sarawak leaders (members of Council Negri) to participate in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference in Singapore in July 1961. At this forum the Sarawak leaders had the opportunity to discuss the Malaysia proposal face-to-face with their Malayan and Singaporean counterparts.

It was here that Sarawak leaders began to emphasise the need for conditions in the form of safeguards to protect the rights and interests of the peoples of Sarawak. Consequently, it dawned on the Sarawak leaders that they were directly involved in the deliberation of the fate of the territory - Sarawak - that they had long called their home. This awakening of political consciousness was further developed in the follow-up discussions at the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee which held meetings between August 1961 and February 1962.

The growth of political awareness among the leaders of Sarawak accelerated the formation of political parties and the development of party politics. Prior to Tunku's announcement in May 1961, only two political parties existed: the Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP) established in June 1959, and Party Negara Sarawak (Panas) in April 1960.

By the time local council elections were held in June 1963, four more parties were established, namely Sarawak National Party (SNAP, April 1961), Barisan Raayat Jati Sarawak (Barjasa, December 1961), Sarawak Chinese Association (SCA, July 1962), and Party Pesaka Anak Sarawak (Pesaka, August 1962).

The political parties, despite claims by some to be multi-ethnic, were established on communal and geographical lines. All political parties adopted a pro-Malaysia stance except SUPP, which preferred self-government, Borneo Federation, and only then Malaysia.

And so, the political parties took the pros and cons of the Malaysia proposal to the kampungs and longhouses.

The Malay-Muslim communities (Malays and Muslim Melanaus) although split into two camps - Panas led by the traditional Kuching elite and Barjasa by the intelligentsia of the Sibu area - in general supported Malaysia. However, Malay-Muslim groups in Miri, Limbang and Lawas, together with the Kedayans, rejected Malaysia; instead they shared Azahari's and the PRB's aspirations.

Traditional Iban leaders of the Rejang led by Jugah (Pesaka's leader) were partial to Malaysia.

Stephen Kalong Ningkan and his better-educated colleagues from Simanggang and the Saribas area stressed safeguards and conditions in considering Malaysia.

The Kayans and Kenyahs opposed Malaysia. They were apprehensive of being dominated by their traditional enemies, the Ibans.

The Chinese in SUPP that were influenced by Leftist elements forcefully rejected the Malaysia proposal as a neo-colonial scheme designed to perpetuate British hegemony in South-East Asia. Malay, Iban and Bidayuh members of SUPP also towed the party line.

The SCA was a refuge for those Chinese who thought Malaysia was advantageous to Sarawak's economy. But among the large majority of Sarawak's multi-ethnic inhabitants, in particular those in the rural districts, there was little understanding of the Malaysia proposal and its implications.

Of communism and predatory neighbours

By the later half of 1961 British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan (1957-1963) had given full support to the Malaysia proposal. The two-step process (Borneo Federation then Malaysia) was discarded. In January 1962 a White Paper was published and European District Officers were instructed to emphasise to the local inhabitants the advantages of entry into Malaysia as against the uncertainties of the future, the dangers of communism, and the perils of predatory alien neighbours (Sukarno's Indonesia). In a nutshell, the White Tuan ''advised'' the people that Malaysia ''is good for you''.

A Commission of Enquiry chaired by Lord Cobbold was entrusted with the task of ascertaining the opinion of the general population in North Borneo and Sarawak on the Malaysia proposal.

The Cobbold Commission could not be said to represent a neutral body - three of its five members, including the chairman, were nominees of the British Government and the remaining two were nominated by the Malayan Government.

The commission held hearings in camera (in order that the people shall speak openly) between Feb 19 and April 17, 1962. Members of the commission also attended to some 1,600 letters and memoranda submitted by individuals, organisations, and political parties.

''Barang ko' nuan, Tuan'' (Whatever you say, sir) was the reply of a Dayak to a question posed by Lord Cobbold. This response singularly represented the perplexing state of mind for the majority of Sarawak's indigenous inhabitants when asked of the Malaysia proposal.

As pointed out by Puan Tra Zahnder, a member of Council Negri, most of the native population, ''appear to know nothing or little about (the) Malaysia (proposal) but agree to it because they have been told that Malaysia is good for them.''

The verdict

The Cobbold Commission published its findings in Report of the Commission of Enquiry, North Borneo and Sarawak in August 1962. The report did acknowledge that ''there are large sections of the population in the interior who have no real appreciation of the Malaysia proposals''. Overall, the results of the commission were summarised as follows:''About one-third of the population ... strongly favours early realisation of Malaysia without too much concern about terms and conditions. Another third, many of them favourable to the Malaysia project, ask, with varying degrees of emphasis, for conditions and safeguards varying in nature and extent ... The remaining third is divided between those who insist on independence before Malaysia is considered and those who would strongly prefer to see British rule continue for some years to come.

Cobbold expressed a cautionary note:

''It is a necessary condition that, from the outset, Malaysia should be regarded by all concerned as an association of partners, combining in the common interests to create a new nation but retaining their own individualities. If any idea were to take root that Malaysia would involve a 'take-over' of the Borneo territories by the Federation of Malaya and the submersion of the individualities of North Borneo and Sarawak, Malaysia would not, in my judgement, be generally acceptable or successful.'' An Inter-Governmental Committee, as recommended by the Cobbold Commission, was set-up. It was in the committee that the details of constitutional arrangements incorporating the conditions and safeguards for North Borneo and Sarawak - as negotiated by their leaders - were worked out. Jugah and Mustapha played pivotal roles as representatives of Sarawak.

The pertinent safeguards include: religious freedom, status of the English language, immigration, land, representations in the federal House of Representatives and Senate, special status and privileges of indigenes, and disbursement of development grants.

Local council elections were held in June 1963. The elections, to all intents and purposes, were a referendum on the issue of Sarawak's entry into Malaysia.

The Sarawak Alliance formed in August 1962 comprising of Panas, Barjasa, Pesaka, SCA, and SNAP won on a pro-Malaysia stance. But despite standing on an anti-Malaysia platform and facing allegations of being infiltrated by Leftist elements, SUPP managed a commendable showing.

Owing to pressure from the Philippines and Indonesia, another assessment of public opinion and a verification of the electoral results of December 1962 in North Borneo and of June 1963 in Sarawak were undertaken by the United Nations Malaysia Mission headed by Laurence Michelmore. The mission conducted its duties from Aug 16 to Sept 5, 1963. Once again the opinions of the general population of Sarawak were consulted on the issue of Malaysia.

The United Nations Malaysia Mission Report made public on Sept 13, 1963, confirmed that the entry in the proposed Federation of Malaysia was ''... the 'result' of the freely expressed wishes of the territory's peoples acting with full knowledge of the change in their status, their wishes having expressed through informed and democratic processes, impartially conducted and based on universal adult suffrage''.

Therefore, on Sept 16, 1963, Sarawak achieved its independence through Malaysia - and a new chapter in its history began.

# Dr Ooi Keat Gin is author of Japanese Empire in the Tropics Vol 1 and 2 (Ohio University Press, 1998) and Rising Sun Over Borneo (Macmillan/St Martin's Press, 1999). He is a lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia's School of Humanities and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Britain.


Notes: STF - : As election fever grips Sarawak, and as the state's independence anniversary on Sept 16 looms, Dr OOI KEAT GIN takes a timely look back at how this exotic Malaysian state gained its independence by joining with Peninsular Malaysia.

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