THE COBBOLD COMMISSION: Giving people a voice

By Patricia Hului


IT WAS AT THE now demolished Adelphi Hotel, Singapore on May 27, 1961 when Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaya coined the idea to bring Federation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo (now Sabah), Brunei and Sarawak into a system of political and economic cooperation.

After the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly made a proclamation on 14 December 1960 to grant colonised countries their independence and the right to self-determination. It became important under this declaration that colonisation was brought to a close.

At the time, however, an independent country could have meant a communist one as the communist threat began to loom large in this region.

It was important, however, that in accordance with the rights of a decolonised country to assert its self-determination, that the people of Sarawak and North Borneo were polled and asked what their feelings were on becoming part of the federation.

As we trace back the days before we declared our mutual partnership, the Cobbold Commission was an essential key to ensuring the cooperation of all states to unite under one flag.

The What

The Cobbold Commission, according to the National Archives of Malaysia’s website was ‘to give freedom and justice to all parties’.

It was basically a Commission of Enquiry set up to find out whether the people of Sabah and Sarawak agreed to create the Federation of Malaysia which comprises Malaya, Brunei, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak.

The Mission

The chairman of the commission was the Governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cameron Cobbold whom the commission was named after. Other members of the commission included Anthony Abell, the former Governor of Sarawak, David Watherston, the former Chief Secretary of Malaya, Wong Pow Nee, the Chief Minister of Penang and Mohammad Ghazali Shafiee, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Members of the Cobbold Commission being greeted by Sir Waddell, the British Governor of Sarawak.

On Feb 19, 1963 The Cobbold Commission arrived in Kuching from where they began public hearings at 35 centres in both Sabah and Sarawak.

Two months later on Apr 17, the Cobbold Commission finished their tasks in Sarawak and flew on to Sabah.

The Results

Cobbold Commission reported their results and recommendations on Aug 1, 1962. Lord Cobbold summarised the results as follows:

“About one-third of the population of each territory 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 warmth of support among this category would be markedly influenced by a firm expression of opinion by Governments that the detailed arrangements eventually agreed upon are in the best interests of the territories. 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. If the conditions and reservations which they have put forward could be substantially met, the second category referred to above would generally support the proposals. Moreover once a firm decision was taken quite a number of the third category would be likely to abandon their opposition and decide to make the best of a doubtful job. There will remain a hard core, vocal and politically active, which will oppose Malaysia on any terms unless it is preceded by independence and self-government: this hard core might amount to near 20 per cent of the population of Sarawak and somewhat less in North Borneo.”


The People’s Party of Brunei, Sarawak United People’s Party and United National Pasuk Memonggon Party of Sabah were among the main political parties fighting against the formation of Malaysia.

They had argued that there were no native representatives from North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak in the Cobbold Commission.

These parties reasoned that the Chairman, Lord Cobbold was a joint choice by the Malayan and British Governments, and of the four members, two were nominated by the British government and two by the Malayan government. None was chosen by Sabah and Sarawak.

In a letter addressing this issue to the United Nations, they pointed out, “The Commission set up 20 centres in Sarawak and 15 in Sabah and saw over 4000 people in 690 groups in both Sarawak and Sabah but no referendum was taken.”

The idea was also not well received internationally; The Philippines claimed its territory over Sabah and Indonesia’s president Sukarno argued that Malaysia was a neo-colony by the British government.

On Aug 5 1963, Philippines and Indonesia sent a request to the Secretary General of the United Nations to get the views of the people of Sarawak and Sabah on the formation of Malaysia.

Eleven days later, United Nation Malaysia Mission (UNMM) carried the out task to poll the people of Sarawak and Sabah until Sep 5, 1963.

The Straits Times reported 5000 anti-Malaysia demonstrators gave the United Nations team a ‘noisy reception’ on Aug 17, 1963.

On Aug 27, 1963 The Strait Times also reported a mob of 3000 had gathered outside the Methodist Secondary School Sibu and two policemen were reported injured, also during the visit of UNMM.

In Miri, an anti-Malaysia riot also took a violent turn when the UN team arrived from Sibu on Aug 29, where anti-Malaysia rioters clashed with the police.

One policeman was admitted to hospital in a serious condition and six policemen were slightly injured.

On the protestors’ side, two rioters were shot and wounded; at least eight others were slightly injured.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the public enquiry yet on Sept 13, the UNMM presented its report saying that, “The Mission is satisfied that through its hearings it was able to reach a cross section of the population in all walks of life and that the expressions of opinion that it heard represent the views of a sizeable majority of the population. The Mission is convinced that the time devoted to hearings and the number of localities visited was adequate and enabled it to fully carry out its terms of references.”

Malaysia Day

On Sept 16, 1963 Khir Johari read Proclamation of Malaysia as the representative of the Prime Minister to mark the formation of Malaysia in the presence of Tuan Yang Terutama Tun Abang Openg, Chief Minister Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan, the State Cabinet and the people at Padang Sentral (now Padang Merdeka), Kuching, and in all divisions of Sarawak.

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