The Road to Malaysia: Part 4 – Merdeka & Malaysia Day

Children in different costumes holding the Malaysia flag - BERNAMA
Children in different costumes holding the Malaysia flag – BERNAMA
This article is the last installment in a series on the Formation of Malaysia, and is a continuation from The Road to Malaysia: Part 3 – The Cobbold Commission.

“… there is no doubt about the wishes of a sizeable majority of the peoples of these territories to join the Federation of Malaysia.” (UN Secretary-General U Thant, 13th September 1963]

After World War 2, the British was economically and financially strained to maintain its colonies especially those east of Suez.  It would be a matter of time before Britain would have to give up all of its colonies abroad, save for some of the smaller ones.  The Cobbold Commission’s report agreed unanimously that a decision in principle should be taken by governments as soon as possible; that the new state should be called Malaysia; that the constitution of the Federation of Malaya should be adapted for Malaysia, instead of drafting a completely new one; that there should be no right to secede from Malaysia after merger.

Although the Tunku had asked the Malayan Commissioners to sign the report, he was still apprehensive about what “Malaysia” would do to his political position, and what kind of repercussions “Malaysia” would have on Malaya’s relationship with Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Malaysia Agreement was signed on the 9th July 1963.  Although not sovereign nor self-governing, the leaders of both North Borneo and Sarawak were invited to sign it. Annexed to the Agreement were a number of Constitutional instruments that included admission to the federation of the three former British dependencies; state constitutions for Sabah (as North Borneo would be called), Sarawak and Singapore; a scheme to compensate officers retiring from government service in North Borneo and Sarawak.

A separate legislation ending British jurisdiction in North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore was enacted at Westminster. It did not provide for the separate independence of the three territories but transferred sovereignty to the new Federation of Malaysia (Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office Briefs for Malaysia Bill, 1963 – Dominions Office DO 169/329).  Therefore the self-rule given by the British to Sarawak on the 22nd July 1963 and the declaration of independence by Sabah on the 31st July 1963 were not a recognition of the independence of either Sarawak or Sabah, but an independence of the states in adherence to Malaysia (Ghazali Shafie’s Memoir on the Formation of Malaysia, p438). For all intents and purposes, both North Borneo and Sarawak remained as Colonies of Great Britain until the coming into operation of Malaysia.

If the appointment of a Chief Minister is to be taken as the point when independence had been achieved, Malaya would have been independent in July of 1955!

The late President Wee Kim Wee of Singapore, then a young Straits Times reporter, covered Sabah’s Merdeka Day and filed a report that, from all the obvious evidence, it was a declaration of independence within Malaysia.

The Malaysia Agreement referred to North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore as Colonies.
The Malaysia Agreement referred to North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore as Colonies.
Malaysia Day was supposed to have happened on the 31st August 1963.  However, several last minute events forced Malaysia Day to be postponed.

 1) a last-minute interference by British officials prevailing upon Iban leaders to demand for the post of Sarawak Governor whilst also keeping the post of Chief Minister, thus reneging on an earlier understanding that for the first two years, the post of either the Chief Minister or Governor should go to a Malay if the other was given to an Iban.  The Tunku was livid and decided that Malaysia would happen without Sarawak. All the cabinet ministers of Malaya except Tun Razak agreed with the Tunku.  Through Ghazali Shafie, Razak negotiated with the leaders of Sarawak and in the end Abang Haji Openg was the Governor designate, Stephen Kalong Ningkan as the Chief Minister, and Temenggung Jugah as a Federal Minister in-charge of Sarawak Affairs.  Had it not been for Razak’s persistence, the Tunku would have had things go his way and Sarawak would not have been in Malaysia.

2) the protest by both the Philippines and Indonesia at the United Nations against the formation of Malaysia. They requested that the UN secretary-general, or his representative, should ‘ascertain’ the extent of support in the Borneo territories for Malaysia, that observers from all three governments should accompany the UN mission, and that the formation of Malaysia should be postponed until the completion of the UN report.

Led by Lawrence Michelmore (the American deputy director of the UN Office of Personnel) the mission consisted of Argentinian, Brazilian, Ceylonese, Czech, Ghanaian, Pakistani, Japanese, and Jordanian members of the UN Secretariat. It was accompanied by observers from Indonesia and the Philippines—an arrangement which the British government grudgingly accepted. From 24th August to 4th September they held public hearings in widespread locations and reconvened in Kuching on 5th September, past the 31st August 1963 deadline.  This forced Malaya to change the date for Malaysia Day to 16th September 1963.

The UN report, which was published on the 14th September, was generally favourable to Malaysia. In his assessment of the mission’s findings, U Thant was in no doubt that ‘a sizeable majority of the peoples’ wished to join Malaysia, although he also rebuked the Malayans for fixing a new Malaysia Day before the mission had completed its work. Even before the survey was finished, however, Indonesia and the Philippines were attempting to discredit it and, on its publication, they rejected the report and refused to be bound by its findings.

3) was of the PAS Government in Kelantan wanting the Malaysia Agreement and Malaysia Act to be declared ‘void and inoperative.’  Kelantan argued that the Act would abolish the Federation of Malaya, thereby violating the Federation of Malaya Agreement of 1957; that the proposed changes needed the consent of each state of Malaya and that this had not been obtained; that the Sultan of Kelantan should have been a party to the Malaysia Agreement in the same way as the Malay rulers had been signatories of the Malaya Agreement of 1957; that constitutional convention called for consultation with the rulers of individual Malay states regarding subsequent changes to the constitution; and that the federal parliament had no power to legislate for Kelantan in this matter.

On the 14th September 1963 the Chief Justice ruled that both the Malaysia Agreement and the Malaysia Act were constitutional (Tan Sri Mohamed Suffian bin Hashim, An introduction to the constitution of Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 1972) pp 13–14).

By 16th September 1963, we are all Malaysians.

Looking back, I remember an article quoting Tan Sri Abdul Ghani Gilong relating his experience visiting Kuala Lumpur on the invitation of the Tunku, he said:

“Kami naik kenderaan yang dipandu. Bagi sesetengah anggota delegasi saya, itulah kali pertama mereka menikmati air paip dan tandas berpam.” 

“Kami dibawa ke beberapa tempat dan kampung yang sudah mendapat pembangunan seperti jalanraya dan sebagainya. Saya sendiri apabila balik ke Sabah telah berkempen menyokong penubuhan Persekutuan Malaysia dengan memberitahu kawan-kawan mengenai pembangunan yang ada di Malaya ketika itu.

Katanya satu kejadian lucu ialah apabila ada anggota rombongannya tidur di lantai dalam bilik hotel mereka dan bukan di atas katil yang empuk.

“Apabila saya nampak, mereka memberitahu saya mereka ingatkan katil itu adalah untuk ‘tuan’, seolah-olah hanya orang kulit putih boleh tidur di atas katil dan anak tempatan tidur di atas lantai sahaja.”

“Saya beritahu mereka katil itu mereka punya untuk tidur di atasnya.”

(“We rode on a vehicle that came with a driver. For some members of my delegation, that’s the first time they enjoyed tap water (running water) and flushing toilets.”

“We were taken to several places and villages that have received development such as roads and so on. When I went back to Sabah I campaigned in support of the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia by telling my friends about the existing development in the then Malaya.

He said that one funny scene was when there were members of his entourage who slept on the floor in their hotel room and not on their comfortable.

“When I saw, they told me they thought it was a bed especially for the ‘master’, as if only the white people could sleep on the bed while the local people sleep on the floor.”

“I told them that that was their bed and to sleep on it.”) (Free Malaysia Today – 13th September 2013).

Such was how inferior the people of Sabah and Sarawak felt of themselves before Malaysia existed, and it was not that long ago.

I believe that there has been progress that has been made in both Sabah and Sarawak although there should be more.  When I was working offshore, most of my drilling and marine crew are from Sabah and Sarawak, especially the Ibans.  My last Chief Mate is a Kelabit from Bario, while one of our vessels’ Captain is a Kedayan from Limbang.  In my opinion, both the Merdeka Day on the 31st August and Malaysia Day on the 16th September are equally important to us.  Without the 31st August 1957 event, Malaysia would not have happened and I shudder to think what ill-fortune would have befallen the people of Sabah and Sarawak, especially with China, Indonesia and the Philippines staking a claim in both the states.

I also believe that the current Federal Government is doing all it can to fulfill the promises made back in 1963, an uhill task given that previous Prime Ministers, especially a particular former Prime Minister for 22 years, did not do much for the people of Sabah and Sarawak.

Let us concentrate on nation-building, and put aside state-nationalism as that brings about nothing beneficial to any of us.  And let us not let hatred destroy us.  Our forefathers who agreed to form Malaysia did so following the democratic system, and not through violent nor nonsensical demonstrations or coups.

And let us remember the famous words by the great Temenggung Jugah ak Barieng:

“Anang aja Malaysia tu baka Tebu, Manis di pun, tabar Di ujung”

(Let’s hope Malaysia does not end up like a sugarcane. Sweet at the beginning, bland at the end)