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.

The Road To Malaysia: Part 1 – The Malaysia Concept

Google map data 2016 of Malaysia
Google map data 2016 of Malaysia
“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.