The Malaysian Concord (Part 3) – The Malay and Bumiputera Special Rights

Recent protest against ICERD – Bernama

One of the functions and roles of the Malay Rulers is to safeguard the interests of the Malay and Bumiputera communities enshrined in the Federal Constitution.  That is what HRH The Sultan of Selangor did when he voiced out against ICERD and liberalism.

In the previous posts (The Malaysian Concord (Part 1) – The Sanctity of Islam and The Malaysian Concord (Part 2) – The National Language) I have shown you why Islam was made the religion of the Federation, and why the Malay language was made into the National Language.  I also explained why the Reid Commission was just a commission and not a party to the discussions and negotiations to the independence of Malaya and whatever put forth by the commission were recommendations for the Constitution, not the hard-and-fast rule.

The Malay precedence had always been the mantle of the British Residents.  Frank Athelstane Swettenham, the first Resident-General of the Federated Malay States, saw himself as the patron to an heir (the Malays) who was in danger of losing his inheritance to the immigrant Chinese and Tamils.  He wrote:

“The position he occupies in the body politic is that of the heir to the inheritance. The land is Malaya and he is the Malay. Let the infidel Chinese and evil-smelling Hindu from southern India toil, but of their work let some profit come to him.” (Sir Frank Swettenham, The Real Malay (London, 1899): pp. 37-40)

The economic situation of the Malays, pushed to the hinterland by the immigrants, became dire that they had to take loans from the chettiars putting their land as collateral.  When even the interest could not be serviced, these lands were taken into possession by the moneylenders.

The Federated Malay States government intervened and introduced a series of legislations to curb the Chettiars’ operations, one of which was the Malay Reservations Enactment, 1913, which objective was “to provide means for preventing the passing of Malay landholdings into the possession of foreigners”(Frederick Belfield, Legal Adviser, FMS, Report for the Secretary of State on the FMS Enactment 15 of 1913).

In 1910, E.W Birch, the 8thResident of Perak, noted the need for such Enactment:

“It will mean that we shall free our peasantry from the clutches of those people who now remit to India the large sums of which they now bleed the people.”(Hastings Rhodes, Objects and Reasons, Malay Reservations Enactment of 1913, quoting a Minute by E.W Birch dated 7 September 1910; in Selangor Secretariat, File 3013/1912, Conf. File 10/1912).

Two constitutional changes were introduced in 1909, the establishment of a Federal Council, and the enactment to change the title Resident-Generalin the FMS to that of Chief Secretary.

The Governor responsible for these introductions, Sir John Anderson, said that the intention of these changes, in his words, was for“the full safeguarding of Malay interests.” (Proceedings of the Federal Council, FMS, 11 December 1909).

Sir Laurence Guillemard, High Commissioner for the Federated Malay States wrote:

“The moral is clear that real danger lies ahead if the Malays do not get their share of the benefit of the development of their own country.”(C.O 273, Vol 539, Laurence Guillemard to Secretary of State, 3 May 1927).

To put things in perspective, not only were the Malays left out economically, they were also already minorities in the Federated Malay States.  According to the census of 1931, the population of the FMS comprised of a Chinese majority (41.5 percent), followed by Malays (34.7 percent), Indians (22.2 percent) while various other ethnic groups made up the remaining 1.6 percent (Loh Fook Seng, Malay Precendence and the Federal Formula in the Federated Malay States, 1909 to 1939, JMBRAS, Vol 45, 1972: p.48).

When the discussions for the independence of Malaya took place, the MCA which represented the interests of the Chinese community in Malaya, agreed for the continuation of Malay special privileges that was already being enjoyed by the Malays under the Federation of Malaya Agreement of 1948 (Straits Times, 28 August 1956).

Even on the issue of making Mandarin a national language at par with Bahasa Melayu, the MCA Central Committee which debated the Alliance memorandum to the Reid Commission put the issue to a vote: 15 votes were against the recommendation that Mandarin be recognised as an official language, 14 voted for, 31 abstained (Straits Times, 28 August 1956).

Reid Commission was required by its terms of reference to “safeguard the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of the other communities” (CO 889/6, C.C. 2000/15, Summary record of Commission’s meeting, 27 August 1956).

The Constitutional Bill was then debated in the England’s House of Commons.  Three amendments to the Bill was sought.  The third proposed amendment pushed by Conservative MP Joan Vickers (Devonport) noted that the 15-year limit for Malay special rights recommended in the Reid Report was omitted from the Bill.

However, the majority felt that any eleventh-hour amendment could upset the political compromises embodied in the Constitution (Commons Debates, 19 July 1957, pp. 1590-1591).  The Secretary of State concluded that any accepting of proposed amendments would result in the reopening of all issues on which agreement had already been reached (Ibid., pp. 1592-1594).  Therefore, all the proposed amendments were rejected and the Federal Constitution of Malaya, as part of the Malayan Independence Bill, was adopted unchanged.

These special rights were then extended to the Bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak through Paragraph 62 of the Malaysia Agreement, 9 July 1963, pages 43 and 44. But this did not come easy.  Many non-Bumiputera groups were opposed to the idea of according the natives of Sarawak with special rights.

A group from the Sarawak United People’s Party led by Ong Kee Hui had a contempt for the backwardness of the natives and had regarded their leaders as men of no consequences.  This prompted the SUPP’s leader in Sibu Jonathan Bangau, an Iban, to resign.

The Ibans, however, told the Cobbold Commission that they were all for Malaysia and some even emphasised on the need for a speedy arrival of better education and development for the Iban community.  In North Borneo, the only negative views were given by the British officials and expatriates as well as the rich (non-Bumiputera) local businessmen.

Both Donald Stephens (Chairman of the Committee of the North Borneo Alliance) and Stephen Kalong Ningkan (Secretary-General of the Sarawak Alliance) both accepted the Inter-Governmental Committee report.  Sarawak Council Negri voted unanimously to adopt the report on 8 March 1963, while the North Borneo Legislative Council unanimously adopted the report on 13 March 1963.

The special rights of the Malays and the Bumiputeras are there to protect their interests so that they do not get swallowed whole in their own land.  The Fijians learnt this the hard way when the Indo-Fijian (Indian descent) minority which numbered less than 40 percent of the population, dominated everything from government to economy, leaving the ethnic Fijians on the sideline.

If the rights of the Malays and the Bumiputeras that was agreed upon by our forefathers are now being questioned, should they now not ask for a better position for themselves? Perhaps a 70-percent equity and quota in everything from now on, or something even better?

(This article was first published on The Mole)

The Road to Malaysia: Part 3 – The Cobbold Commission

Cameron Fromanteel "Kim" Cobbold, 1st Baron Cobbold - by Godfrey Argent, 1970
Cameron Fromanteel “Kim” Cobbold, 1st Baron Cobbold – by Godfrey Argent, 1970
This article is a continuation from The Road to Malaysia: Part 2 – Consultations.

In Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia the communists were making advances while the number of American servicemen in Vietnam tripled the number sent in 1950.  In Indonesia, the influence of the Partai Komunis Indonesia on President Sukarno was strong.  In Singapore, all the political parties except Singapore UMNO accused the PAP of having carried out negotiations to be merged with Malaya without first consulting the people.  This gave ammunition to the communists in Singapore and their sympathisers to attack both Lee Kuan Yew and the Tunku.

In British Borneo, the communists and their sympathisers tried to intimidate the natives thinking that it would work as it did in Singapore.  Truth be told, it had quite the opposite effect.  Lee Kuan Yew observed that as in Singapore, those anti-Malaysia in Sarawak were the Chinese communists, chauvinists and their sympathisers, while in North Borneo, they were Chinese businessmen and Chinese who were under the influence of individual British officials who were opposed to the Malaysia Concept, or ignorant of it. Kuan Yew noted that the direct links between the Chinese in Perlis throughout Malaya and Singapore to the British Borneo are the Chinese newspapers.  Hence, Kuan Yew suggested to the Tunku for the Chinese chauvinists be separated from the Chinese communists and the two groups should be separated.

Members of the Cobbold Commission arrived in Kuching in the morning of the 20th February 1962.  The members were:

  • Sir Cameron Fromanteel Cobbold, former Governor of the Bank of England, also Chairman of the Commission of Enquiry,
  • Sir Anthony Foster Abell, former British Governor of Sarawak and the High Commissioner to Brunei,
  • Sir David Watherston, the last British Chief Secretary of Malaya,
  • Wong Pow Nee, the Chief Minister of Penang, and,
  • Ghazali Shafie, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaya.

They were first brought to the Astana, a house that was built in 1870 by the second White Rajah, Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke as a wedding gift for his wife, Margaret Alice Lili de Windt.  It had been occupied by the British Governor since 1946.  Ghazali Shafie could not help but notice a Jawi inscription at the entrance of the Astana left by one of the Brookes “BERHARAP LAGI BERNAFAS, (Have Hope While There Is Still Breath)” perhaps an apt motivation for the colonial officials who did not want Sarawak to be part of the Federation of Malaysia.

The Brookes had built the Astana on the northern bank of the Sarawak river because it was where the Malays were.  The Brookes depended on the Malays for safety and security, the Chinese for prosperity and trading, while the natives were not entirely trusted.  The same compartmentalisation was practised in Sarawak by the colonial officials after taking over the state from the Brookes in 1946.

The first groups of interviewees were interviewed in Kuching on the 21st February 1962.  The first group amongst these interviewees was extremely pro-Malaysia.  They were led by Abang Mustapha, Datu Bandar of Kuching.  The second group was led nby Ong Kee Hui from SUPP.  This group was against the special rights to be accorded to the natives of Sarawak unless if it is not stated in the to-be-formulated Constitution. This group had a contempt for the backwardness of the natives and had regarded their leaders as men of no consequences.  This stand prompted an Iban by the name of Jonathan Bangau whom the SUPP had nominated as the party’s leader in Sibu to resign.

The next day, another group of Chinese in Kuching were interviewed.  Their spokesperson, a Chinese woman, twisted and distorted events in Malaya into something truly hateful.  She accused the Malayan Government of policies that turned very young girls into prostitutes and had labour laws that accorded workers not more than Ringgit 1.50 per fourteen-hour working day without holidays!  When these allegations were countered by Ghazali and Wong Pow Nee, she informed the Commission that she had read the stories from Chinese newspapers to which Wong Pow Nee murmured that these must have been communist publications.

In Bau and Simanggang (now Sri Aman), banners and placards expressing anti-Malaysia slogans in Chinese characters plastered the town in anticipation of the Commission members interviewing residents there. The scene was different in Kanowit and Kapit.  People shook the hands of the Commission members, especially the Malayan ones.  One of the Tuai Rumah even held Ghazali Shafie’s hand as they walked through Kapit town.  They were all awaiting the arrival of Malaysia!

However, Ghazali learnt that under the colonial administration the Iban had suffered oppression and suppression.  This began when Sarawak was under the Brunei Sultanate and continued under the Brookes and subsequently the British. When they faced the Commission, they were all for Malaysia and some even emphasised on the need for a speedy arrival of better education and development for the Iban community.

At Binatang (now Bintangor), the division between the wishes of the natives and the Chinese was most prominent. The natives were all for the speedy arrival of Malaysia while the Chinese were divided into two groups: one favouring a referendum, while the other favouring a Federation of North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak – a line maintained especially by the communists.

In North Borneo, the only negative views were given by the British officials and expatriates as well as the rich local businessmen. At this juncture, Ghazali noted that these British officials knew nothing or chose to disregard Harold MacMillan’s famous “Wind of Change” speech in Cape Town made on the 3rd February 1960.

Cobbold, not having any experience in dealing with the Far East, succumbed to the ideas of these officials that in his draft, he recommended that both the British and Malayan Governments should have executive powers over the British Borneo states for five years.  Both Wong Pow Nee and Ghazali believe that the Malayan Government would never agree to perpetuate colonialism in any form. However, the two governments should discuss the matter should they want the British officials to stay on in Borneo in the service of the two territories.  Wong Pow Nee quoted the state of Penang where he was once a Chief Minister to demonstrate the point that the British fears were groundless and that the Tunku, the Malayan people as well as the 70 percent who advocate the creation of Malaysia in the North Borneo and Sarawak would not agree to Cobbold’s suggestions as it would still be a form of colonialism.  What more that the communists in Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the Soviet Union had branded the Malaysia Concept as neo-colonialism. Interesting also to note here is that in April 1962, the Philippines House of Representatives had made a formal claim on North Borneo.  On the 20th January 1963, Drs Subandrio, and alleged communist and also Sukarno’s Foreign Minister and Second Deputy Prime Minister announces Indonesia’s “confrontation” towards Malaysia.

In the end, on the 31st July 1962, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan told the Malayan delegates that Her Majesty’s Government was just as anxious to see Malaysia succeed. Soon after, an Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) was set up by the Malayan and British Governments that would include the North Borneo and Sarawak Governments.  On the 12th September 1962, the North Borneo Legislative Council adopted the following motion:

“Be it resolved that this Council do welcome the decision in principle of the British and Malayan Governments to establish Malaysia by the 31st August, 1963…”

Then on the 26th September 1962, the Council Negri of Sarawak adopted the following motion without dissent:

“This Council welcomes the decision in principle of the British and Malayan Governments to etablish Malaysia by the 31st August, 1963…” 

The Federation of Malaysia that would include the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak was to come into operation by the 31st August 1963. All in all, the IGC made recommendations in its report pertaining to the States’ Constitutions, legislative powers, financial provisions, elections, the Judiciary, public service, citizenship, immigration, religion, education, the National Language, status of existing laws, the position of the indigenous races and transitional arrangements prior to the formation of Malaysia.

North Borneo was thoroughly satisfied with the IGC report and the North Borneo Legislative Council unanimously adopted the Report on the 13th March 1963.  The Sarawak Government was satisfied and considered that the Report contained “generous terms of safeguards for Sarawak.”  Stephen Kalong Ningkan as the Secretary-General of the Sarawak Aliance said that his party “fully endorses the Report.”  Leong Ho Yuen, the Vice-Chairman of the SUPP said: “All in all, the Report is quite satisfactory. Though we cannot get all we asked for, at least we have been given a high percentage.”  The Sarawak Council Negri voted unanimously to adopt the Report on the 8th March 1963, five days before North Borneo.

Donald Stephens who was the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the North Borneo Alliance said: “The whole of North Borneo will now welcome with joy the creation of Malaysia.”


Tomorrow, on Malaysia Day, we shall look into the self-rule granted to the State of Sarawak and why was Malaysia formed on the 16th September 1963 instead of on the 31st August. We will also look at what was said by those who were involved in parts of the process.