“Najib Abdul Razak has done more for Sarawak than all the previous Prime Ministers, including the one who served for 22 years,” said Sarawak Chief Minister, Adenan Satem to a crowd of about 3,000 people at the State Gawai Dayak Dinner in 2015 (Malaysiakini: 4 June 2015). That was what crossed my mind when thinking about sacrifices on the morning of the first day of Aidil Adha. Najib Razak broke previous Prime Ministers’ record for being the PM who has visited Sarawak the most and has brought about promising developments in both Sabah and Sarawak including the toll-free Pan Borneo Highway. What is most important is the capacity building for Bumiputera contractors through the 30 percent participation of Bumiputera contractors in this project.
All this had its beginnings more than 50 years ago when both Sabah and Sarawak were the British Colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak.
Prior to 1948, there was no country called Malaya but a territory of nine sultanates as British Protectorates and three Straits Settlements as Crown Colonies. Only the Crown Colonies were under direct British rule via the Colonial Office (Seademon Says: The Road to Merdeka – British Malaya, 12th September 2011). The British almost succeeded in implementing a Federation albeit through the shortlived Malayan Union, but that was later replaced with the Federation of Malaya on 1st February 1948.
Back then, Malaya was just a place for the Chinese migrants to work for money that would be sent home to China – the country the British had encouraged them to remember as their home during the interwar years. Tun Ghazali Shafie, then the Deputy Assistant District Officer of Kuala Lipis. He recalled how, when asked if the Chinese would support the Malays in an endeavour to dislodge all British Advisors from all the states of Malaya, the Justice of Peace for Kuala Lipis Mr Ong Siong Teck replied, “We Chinese had always been independent. Of course, but we must be given a place.”
On the 27th July 1955, the Alliance Party had won all but one seat in the Federal Legislative Council elections, and on Sunday, 31st July 1955, the Tunku handed the British High Commissioner his list of cabinet members (six Malays, three Chinese and two Indians) that would still have to be passed to the Rulers for their formal concurrence. This was when the Federation of Malaya gained self rule, a big step towards independence. At this time, there was a planned hegemony over the mainland including Malaya and Singapore, leaving the islands to Sukarno’s Indonesia (Seademon Says: The Road to Merdeka – Persekutuan Tanah China, 6th September 2011). Communism was rearing its ugly head at Malaya, Singapore and Borneo.
By June 1959, Singapore had its General Elections and Lee Kwan Yew’s People’s Action Party (PAP) was swept into power. The communist group in Singapore, including those in the PAP, had to lie low for the time being as Kuan Yew had promised the British that he would not allow any subversive elements to conduct their activities. Singapore was keen for a merger with Malaya as that would grant them independence and assure them that the Federal government of Malaya would never allow the communists to exist.
By the end of April 1961, the situation in the South East Asia had changed drastically with the Pathet Lao guerrillas had come quite close to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, with the help of the Soviet Union and China. It was then that Ghazali Shafie pressed the Tunku to hasten the “Malaysia Concept” to create a Federation of Malaya, Singapore and the British North Borneo that included the Sultanate of Brunei.
On the 27th May 1961, the Tunku signalled the birth of the “Malaysia Concept” in a speech in Singapore to the Foreign Correspondents Association (Ghazali Shafie’s Memoir on the Formation of Malaysia, 1998 pg.26):
“…sooner or later Malaya should have an understanding Ong Siong Teck Britain and the peoples of Singapore, North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak. It is premature for me to say now how this closer understanding can be brought about, but it is inevitable that we should look ahead to this objective and think of a plan whereby these territories can be brought closer together in political and economic cooperation…”
“In North Borneo, there were already signs that Manila was going to make a cartographic claim based on some vague historical background,” wrote Ghazali Shafie, “(and) the Communist Clandestine Organisation (CCO) in Sarawak with assistance from abroad had begun to show its fangs and claws. Whitehall would never do nything very positive for the people and that colonial territory could not be defended by armed means in the post-World War II period of anti-colonialism.”
The British then planned for a federation for North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak, and some British officials in Brunei even encouraged the locals to hate Malayan expatriates there. In fact, a Malayan forest officer, Yakin, was assaulted by Bruneians. These Malayans were there at the request of Sultan Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin III to replace British officials in key posts, making the Bruneians think that the Malayans were stealing their jobs and subtly colonising them.
The Yang DiPertuan Agong, the Tunku and Malaysian officials visiting Brunei were subjected to insults and had the word CONGO shouted at them. The truth is no Brunei high officials had ever bothered explaining to the people of Brunei the reason they were there, including Haji Marsal Maun, the Menteri Besar of Brunei.
Before ending the visit, the Tunku made a radio broadcast to the people of Brunei telling them that the presence of Malayan officials in Brunei was at the request of His Highness the Sultan of Brunei and it was never Malaya’s intention to colonise.
While the Yang DiPertuan Agong left Brunei for Kuala Lumpur, the Tunku continued his tour to Sibu on board the KD Mutiara. She was the first ship that was specifically built for the Royal Malayan Navy. She was also the first RMN vessel to be given the “Kapal DiRaja” title and was the first RMN vessel to be built locally. Their destination was Sarawak, a state that was once a realm of Brunei until 1841 when James Brooke was granted the areas around Kuching and Bau, from Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II, and was later given the title Rajah of the territories. The White Rajahs ruled Sarawak until 1946 when after the war Charles Vyner Brooke, the 4th Rajah of Sarawak ceded his interest in Sarawak to the Colonial Office for a sizeable pension for him and his three daughters. Unsure of the legality of the cession, the British Government quickly passed a Bill of Annexation, effectively ending the rule by the White Rajahs.
In Sibu the Tunku met with Temenggung Jugah, Aini Dobi (whose brother Rosly Dobi was hanged for the assassination of Governor Duncan George Stewart in 1949), Tuanku Bujang, Abang Louis Barieng and Ahmad Zaidi Adruce. An Iban in the administrative service in Sibu approached Ghazali Shafie asking the latter to explain more about the “Malaysia Concept.” Ghazali Shafie told the former in general what it was all about and the intentions of uplifting the indigenous people using the same special position of the Malays in the Malayan Federal Constitution. Bennet agreed that Sarawak could achieve independence through the “Malaysia Concept” but his worry was having the Chinese from Singapore flooding Sarawak. Ghazali suggested that Sarawak could ask for special powers to control immigration to which Bennet touched Ghazali’s hand saying, “Please help us.”
The Ibans were in a dire strait. Sibu was a town that was very Chinese – 95 percent of its 29,630 inhabitants in 1961 were Chinese. In comparison, Sibu had 162,676 inhabitants in 2010 and 65 percent were Chinese. A school that the Tunku had visited just outside of Sibu only had a Primary Two class and was not able to find a teacher compared to a Chinese school nearby. The British were not interested in developing the locals and if the situation was to continue for long, the rate of development for the Iban would be slow compared to the Chinese who had very good schools. Even Temenggung Jugah was illiterate. He had a signatured tattoed to his left arm and would put his left arm on a piece of paper so he could copy that to sign documents!
As they left Sibu and the KD Mutiara sailed down the Rajang, it was obvious that Sarawak as a colony would not be left alone by Communist China. Ships from China sailing the Rajang had revolutionary songs blaring over their tannoy system, even in the town of Binatang (now Bintangor). It was obvious that the Chinese were using revolutionary propaganda to stir up anti-colonial feelings amongst Sarawak’s masses, and that the “Malaysia Concept” would be the best way to save Sarawak especially from China.
When the KD Mutiara sailed past Binatang, a town of a few brick houses and a dirt road, the people had come out to the jetty shouting for the Tunku to stop. The Tunku requested for Lt Ismail, the CO of KD Mutiara to anchor so he could go ashore. The Tunku was met by hundreds of people who gave him a very warm welcome, and the Tunku gave them some words of encouragement. Ghazali was met by two young people, an Iban police inspector and a Malay customs officer. Ghazali noted that both were critical of the colonial administration which had never brought any development to the local people. These two officers later resigned from their respective jobs and spent full time promoting the “Malaysia Concept.”
In the next part we shall talk about the consutations with North Borneo, Singapore and how the British tried to stall the formation of Malaysia.