How the 13 May race riots affected Sabah and Sarawak

By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
[email protected]


When riots broke out on May 13, 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, a state of emergency or ‘Darurat’ was declared by then Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah. While the casualties remain under dispute, it is still considered one of the darkest periods in Malaysia’s history today.


Zainnal Ajamain

Zainnal Ajamain


Although Sabah and Sarawak had nothing to do with the racial riots, the impact of the state of emergency affected us in terms of loss in territory and natural resources.

On December 9-10 last year, Zainnal Ajamain, author of ‘The Queen’s Obligation’ and political analyst was in Kuching for a two-day talk on the ‘Safeguards in the IGC and MA63 (How to safeguard our rights when dealing with the Malayans)’ and ‘How the Borneo States lost their wealth (….and how we got back our territorial waters)’ respectively at Saati Hall, SUPP’s headquarters.


In the beginning


“In the beginning, what Malaya’s interest in us was not so much to balance the population between Singapore and Malaya as for them to bring in the Borneo states into the equation,” said Zainnal referring to the formation of Malaysia between the Federation of Malaya, Singapore and the two Borneo states.

According to Zainnal, a former lecturer in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Menggatal campus, during that time Tunku Abdul Rahman was unaware there were so many ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak who were not Malay.

“Tunku said (in 1958) ‘Their people are within our group. They have the same characteristics as we, the same way of living and the same currency. It would be a matter well worth considering if they approached us.’

“At that time, Tunku was looking at us to approach them. ‘It would be good financially, they have oil’,” said Zainnal.


A state matter


In 1954, under the Alteration of Boundaries Order in Council approved by the Queen, Zainnal said that the extent of our territorial waters actually included the continental shelf.

Geologically, the continental shelf is an underwater land mass which extends out from the continent. Economically speaking, however, the continental shelf can offer up a wealth of natural resources for metallic-ore, non-metallic ore, and hydrocarbon extraction, or simply put, crude oil.

“The North Borneo (Alteration of Boundaries) Order in Council 1954 says that ‘The boundaries of the North of Borneo are hereby extended to include the area of the continental shelf being the seabed and its subsoil which lies beneath the high seas contiguous to the territorial waters of North Borneo’. Sarawak is basically the same thing,” said Zainnal.

He added that this was further supported by the respective Sabah and Sarawak Land Ordinances with Sabah has its Land Ordinance Cap 68 and Sarawak Land Ordinance 81.


Sabah and Sarawak territorial water

The borders of Sabah and Sarawak’s territorial waters.


In 1954, according to UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), an international agreement, Sabah and Sarawak territorial waters extended 350 miles.

Sabah and Sarawak were also given protection in the Malaysian Constitution, as ensured by the British through the Inter -Governmental Committee Report and Malaysia Agreement 1963.

In addition to that, land was a state matter and both Sabah and Sarawak had their own state land ordinances which Zainnal said the federal government could not simply ignore.


How did we lose it?


All of these safeguards over territory were suspended on May 13, 1969, when the race riots that broke out in major towns in Peninsular Malaysia led to the declaration of a state of emergency on May 15 a couple of days later, which saw Parliament getting suspended and the state of emergency was implemented nationwide.

“So Parliament only reconvened on February 20th 1971, and between May 13th 1969 and February 20th 1971, many ordinances and gazettes were issued,” he added.

“These ordinance and gazettes were used in the taking of Borneo state wealth even when it had nothing to do with the racial riot in Kuala Lumpur.

“Sabah and Sarawak were peaceful, the problem was in Kuala Lumpur, and yet they issued the proclamation which covered the whole Sabah and Sarawak as well,” said Zainnal.

He then added that the law used to take the Borneo state wealth included the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance No.7 1969, the Continental Shelf Act 1966, and the Petroleum Mining Act 1966.

“Under normal circumstances, land in Sabah and Sarawak would have been well protected in accordance to the Safeguards and Caveats provided for in the Malaysian Constitution, Malaysia Agreement 1963 and the Inter-Governmental Reports,” said Zainnal.

“But when normal circumstances turned into abnormal circumstances… that was when Sabah and Sarawak rights can be taken with impunity. Abnormal circumstances occurred when the Yang di-Pertuan Agong declared a state of emergency nationwide as per Article 150 in the Malaysian Constitution,” said Zainnal, referring to the racial riots in 1969.

It was the only time Sabah and Sarawak had no protection from the constitution while the Malaysian Agreement 1963 and the Inter-Governmental Committee Report were made powerless.

When the Petroleum Development Act 1974 was passed, Zainnal said that there were three things that should be noted: Petroliam Nasional Berhad or Petronas, a company fully-owned by the federal government was created; that the Act transferred ownership of all territorial waters from the federal government to Petronas and it did not give the ‘power’ for Petronas to sell petroleum and gas.

Through the new ordinances and gazettes, Zainnal said that the continental shelf of both Borneo states were limited to just three nautical miles.


Sabah and Sarawak territorial water has been reduced from 350 miles to three nautical miles

Sabah and Sarawak territorial waters were reduced from 350 miles to three nautical miles


“So what effectively happened is that, we had 350 miles of continental shelf, and suddenly they issued this kind of law and it gets reduced to three nautical miles.

“The emergency ordinance limited the territorial waters so that whatever was beyond three nautical miles now belonged to the federal government and that is how they took our wealth,” said Zainnal of the impact of the emergency ordinance.

“By virtue of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance No. 7 1969, the Continental Shelf Act 1966 of Sabah and Sarawak was owned by the federal state. There was nothing that the leaders in Sabah and Sarawak could do at that time,” said Zainal. “Because in the state of emergency, nothing that the federal does can be challenged as unconstitutional.”


How did we get it back?


On November 23, 2011, when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak lifted the Emergency Proclamation based on Article 150 (7), Zainnal said that the three laws no longer had any effect on Sabah and Sarawak, which meant that the territorial waters belonged to Sabah and Sarawak.

He added that the Petroleum Development Act was only to mislead the people who wished to challenge its legality as it was an unconstitutional act to create a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).

“Six months after lifting of proclamation is on May 24, 2012. This means the Continental Shelf Act, Petroleum Act and Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance no. 7 1969 were not possible in Sabah and Sarawak anymore,” said Zainnal.


A book signing session at the end of his talk

A book signing session at the end of his talk


“So, without the Continental Shelf Act, the federal government does not own the continental shelf in Sabah and Sarawak,” concluded Zainnal.

With the Continental Shelf Act and the Emergency Proclamation being lifted in 2011, the continental shelf belongs to the people of Sabah and Sarawak and whatever happens in the future is up to the people in Borneo to fill in the blanks and decide.


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