Myths and legends of the making of Malaysia

By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
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Since the government officially declared Sept 16 a public holiday in 2010, Malaysia Day has become an annual celebration.

The events that occurred before the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, however, was not all smooth sailing as people literally shed tears, sweat and blood over conflicting views and ideas about the formation.

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Prof. Michael Leigh

“1961 was a crucial year when Tunku Abdul Rahman announced the formation of his concept of the formation of Malaysia. Going back to 1961, it was a year when this region in Southeast Asia was in flux. Communism was gaining in strength throughout much of Southeast Asia in the wake of the emergence of a confident new China,” said Prof Michael Leigh, who served as the inaugural Director of the Institute of Asian Studies in Unimas from 1997 to 2003.

On October 28th and November 7th, Leigh delivered talks on ‘The Making of Malaysia’ at Unimas organised by Friends of Sarawak Museum (FoSM) and Unimas Faculty of Social Sciences and at Pustaka Negeri respectively.

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The talk held at Unimas drew much interest among the students.

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The talk held at Pustaka Negeri also drawing equal interest and attention from members of the public

Initially, the idea for forming Malaysia involved uniting Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo, but in the end, ended up with only three territories; Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo with the expulsion of Singapore and Brunei announcing its withdrawal from the plan.

Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew

According to Leigh, for Great Britain, the immediate issues were what to do about Singapore and how to decolonise its remaining colonies in Southeast Asia as London wanted to get the United Nations off their back. Abdul Rahman was fearful of what might happen if a troubled and aggressive Singapore were incorporated into the federation.

While Singapore may have enjoyed self governance since 1959, each election had resulted in a shift to the left with Barisan Sosialis gaining popularity among the people.

Singapore’s increasing population, furthermore, was worrisome with most at the time infatuated by the ‘new’ China, proud of its emergence from centuries of internal division and external domination as well as it’s shaky economy.

“Both Lee Kuan Yew and the British government shared a view that a merger with Malaya was essential for Singapore’s political security and economic survival, but they had to persuade Tunku that the terms of the merger were to his advantage, that the benefits for Malaya outweighed the cost,” said Leigh of Lee’s desperation for the merger.

“So, the British thought to convince the Tunku to agree to the earliest possible merger of Singapore and Malaya with the promise of eventual joining of Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo into a broader federation,” said Leigh.

“However to Kuala Lumpur, the acceptance of Singapore was dependent on the joining of the three Borneo territories at the same time as Singapore would join because they were viewed as a counterweight to Singapore ethnically and politically,” added Leigh.

Brunei’s own agenda

It was thought that Brunei would be the easiest to deal with out of the three Borneo territories but Abdul Rahman had difficulty dealing with the Sultan of Brunei and was uncomfortable with him and the leaders of the overwhelming Pakatan Rakyat Brunei (PRB).

To win Brunei’s support, Abdul Rahman appealed to Brunei’s historical position in Borneo by suggesting the return of Sarawak to Brunei in his letter to the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in June 1961, but the British were not on board with it.

PRB had committed to a federation of the three territories of British Borneo with Brunei sultan Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III as the monarch. The idea of Malaysia cut across their strategy.

In January 1962, a five-member fact-finding commission in Brunei recorded almost a 100% opposition amongst Bruneians to the idea of joining with Sarawak and North Borneo to become part of Malaysia.

On July 1963, the Sultan broadcast that becoming part of Malaysia was not in the best interest of the people of Brunei at that time.

Torn between two

“Within Sarawak too, there was no great initial enthusiasm for greater Malaysia. Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), the first major political party in the state called for independence before merger,” said Leigh.

Initially the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) policy position was opposing the federation and even Parti Negara Sarawak (Panas) was divided on the issue.

So in its effort to persuade Borneans that Malaysia would be to their advantage, a number of groups consisting of local leaders were brought on visits to Malaya with their trips focusing on successful rural development schemes in the peninsula, which made a very positive impression on those leaders, most of whom had never even been overseas.

In early January 1962, Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau, the highly influential paramount chief of the Orang Ulu gave a six-hour speech to his people at Long San stating that Sarawak was simply not ready for the Federation of Malaysia.

The following month on February 15, during the Kapit Conference attended by 51 of 54 Pengarah and Penghulu led by Temenggong Jugah Barieng, the leaders gave their support to Malaysia, subject to certain conditions, attaching their signatures and thumbprints to 13 resolutions they presented to the Cobbold Commission.

The published Cobbold report concluded that roughly one third of Sarawak’s population supported the formation of Malaysia, another third was opposed and the remaining third of the population, although open to the idea, had yet to be convinced of the merits of independence through merger.

What changed it all?

It all changed the night of December 8, 1962, when simultaneous attacks were launched against the government and police throughout Brunei and Limbang as far as Sibuti in Sarawak.

In Brunei, PRB won all but one of the elected seats in the August 1962 Brunei elections.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, his British advisers and the Malayan government were not happy with PRB exercising real power in Brunei and so the sultan kept postponing any meeting of the legislature while actively discussing the terms under which Brunei could become part of the new Malaysian federation with Abdul Rahman.

PRB leader Syed Azahari opposed the Federation of Malaysia and was firmly committed to the Borneo federation with the Brunei sultan becoming the constitutional monarch of ‘Bornesia’.

“The constitution remain blocked for PRB and they feared that power would soon be handed to the new Malaysian government as was the British intention in Singapore. Certain members of the PRB made the plan to forcibly take over power in Brunei and adjacent areas in Sarawak and North Borneo on Christmas Eve,  when it was assumed that the British would be least capable of responding,” said Leigh.

“However the arrest of the Tentera Nasional Kalimantan Utara (TNKU) leaders in Lawas in November precipitated the early action and the revolt went off early and did not go as planned. Capturing the sultan was the key to success but they failed to reach him,” said Leigh.

“And so the revolt was quickly suppressed in about eight days but the unforeseen Brunei revolt sent shockwaves throughout Sarawak. The government immediately gazetted a range of emergency powers and gave wide publicity to these new threats of violence,” explained Leigh on the vital event that changed the minds of Sarawakians on merging to form Malaysia.

“No longer was it easy to argue that Sarawak should continue as it was or seek independence just on its own as SUPP has been forcefully and successfully arguing,” said Leigh.

“The government trumpeted loud and clear that the simple choice for Sarawakians was a promising future in Malaysia or dire consequences, a dire combination of Indonesia rule or endure communism. Government officers pressed the influential Dayaks to abandon their membership and support for SUPP, stressing the twin threats of Sarawak of communist influence and subversion,” he added.

Adding to that, a month before the statewide election in Sarawak, Indonesian ‘volunteers’ attacked Tebedu police stations, seizing weapons and killing officers, including the brothers of Sarawak’s future first chief minister Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan, marking the start of the Indonesian armed confrontation with Malaysia.

“So, I think that one might well argue that the title that was given to Tunku Abdul Rahman – ‘Bapa Malaysia’ -should be held jointly with the president of Indonesia of that time, Sukarno, for without the Indonesia support for the PRB and commencement of armed confrontation, it is quite unlikely that a majority of Sarawak’s council Negeri members would have supported Sarawak making Malaysia,” said Leigh.

On August 31, 1963, Singapore declared its independence. (Lee Kuan Yew declared it twice, in 1959 and 1963). Both Sarawak and Sabah assumed self-government on July 22, 1963 and Aug 31, 1963 respectively. The official merger had only marked the beginning of turbulent years for the new nation.

Singapore’s shocking expulsion

With two men calling themselves prime minister, Malaya and Singapore never seemed to see eye to eye.

Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) had decided it would contest in the 1964 parliamentary elections in Peninsular Malaysia, starting a huge fight with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), as it had every intention of replacing MCA as Umno’s principal partner in the leadership of the national government.

“Even more significant was that PAP was trying to win over Chinese support which directly threatened Umno, its campaigning slogan was ‘a Malaysian Malaysia’, which was threatening the cardinal belief of Malay leadership of the nation,” said Leigh.

So, in August 1965, Leigh said that Abdul Rahman chose to expel Singapore from Malaysia, indicating that this course of action was preferable to his second option of placing most of the members of the Singapore cabinets under preventive detention.

So, here we are

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The Q & A session at Unimas

With Singapore and Brunei out of the picture, that left Indonesia as the biggest threat to Malaysia’s survival.

“From late 1963, Indonesia ramped up its confrontation, viewing this ‘neocolonial’ creation as an affront to the non-aligned movement; to the peoples of a region emerging from colonial rule and to Indonesia leadership of the region, particularly of the Indonesian diaspora or might also known as ‘the Malay world’. Both London and KL feared that Indonesian confrontation, that the effort to Ganyang Malaysia could in fact succeed,” said Leigh.

But less than a month after Singapore’s expulsion, the confrontation ended when President Sukarno was deposed in a military coup which then installed General Suharto, who became the country’s leader for the next 32 years.

“Under President Suharto, confrontation ended with a whimper – not a bang – and a new Malaysian format came into being, now that Singapore was gone,” said Leigh, adding that upon being accepted by its neighbours, Malaysia could focus upon nation building rather than defence.

After Singapore’s expulsion, certain Sabahan and Sarawakian leaders took the opportunity to raise the issue of renegotiating the terms of the federation, asking if they could forge a link with Singapore rather than remaining a part of Malaysia. Such ideas were quickly extinguished, with Sabah’s first chief minister, Donald Stephens being a notable example.

He was expeditiously removed from his federal cabinet position as minister in charge of Sabah affairs under the Prime Minister’s department after speaking publicly on renegotiating the federation.

With the removal of Singapore, Malaysia racial and political makeup changed dramatically.

Kuala Lumpur was able to take a much more active role in reshaping the political landscape of Sabah and Sarawak to more closely resemble its own pattern of rulership.

“Sabah and Sarawak were progressively incorporated into the new Malaysia, simply as states of the federation, rather than as two of three entities that came together to form Malaysia.”

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