How Sarawak was won
By Dr Ooi Keat Gin
Comments by Sarawak Headhunter in red.
Control over immigration was one of the numerous safeguards incorporated into the constitutional arrangements made when Sarawak, together with Sabah (then called North Borneo) and Singapore, joined the wider federation of Malaysia in 1963.
Again, here we have the unfortunate concept that Sarawak joined "the wider federation of Malaysia" instead of helping to form Malaysia. It was not Sarawak's idea of course, but if Sarawak had not been conned into supporting or supposedly supporting it, there would have not been a "Malaysia" and Sarawak would have become an independent nation.
Unfortunately these safeguards have proven to be ineffective against Malayan interference with Sarawak affairs and control over its oil and gas resources to its detriment. The Malayans (especially the ruling elite Malays) couldn't be bothered whether Sarawak remains poor and underdeveloped as long as they get what they want and whatever development supports what they want out of Sarawak.
The fact is that Malaya, together with its local bully boy, Taib Mahmud and the state BN, has become a burden upon Sarawak and an impediment to its continuing proper economic progress.
The only real safeguard that remains is Sarawak's control over immigration, but even then any attempt by the state to use it to really stop Malayan exploitation would probably invite a violent response from the federal authorities in the form of a declaration of emergency or other hegemonic response.
The question now is whether under such circumstances Sarawak can break free of the Malayan yoke?
The Malaysia Agreement
On July 9, 1963, Temenggong Jugah anak Barieng, Datu Bandar Abang Haji Mustapha, and Ling Beng Siew, as Sarawak’s representatives, penned their signature to the Malaysia Agreement in London.
Sarawak’s entry into Malaysia was a momentous event and a turning point in its historical development. A century of paternalistic governance by an English dynasty of White Rajahs (or kings, from 1841 to 1941), three years and eight months under Imperial Japanese military rule (1941 to 1945), and 17 years as a British colony did little to prepare the multi-ethnic population of Sarawak to face the challenges posed by the concept of “Malaysia”.
From the start there was no real concept of "Malaysia", but a very real Malayan hegemonic control and interference over the states of Sarawak and Sabah. Singapore rebelled and was rewarded by being kicked out of the federation, which turned out to be a much better thing for it. Sarawak and Sabah opted to remain under Malayan dominance and were rewarded by the crumbs of their own resources - the main bulk of which fuelled the modern development of Malaya and the greed and power of the Malayan elites.
UMNO dealt at will with these two states - which each supposedly had equal status with the Malayan states (as a whole) - until ultimately UMNO established direct rule over Sabah by using foreign illegal immigrants who had been illegally given citizenship and thus outnumbered the local Sabahan natives.
They did not have to do this in Sarawak since Taib Mahmud and the Sarawak BN kept the local populace in check through a feudal mixture of divide and rule, threat, coercion and intimidation and plain money politics.
The initiative apparently came from the wishes of Singapore’s leaders. David Marshall, Chief Minister of Singapore during the mid-1950s, was keen for a merger but the Tunku then was reluctant. Then in 1959, when Lee Kuan Yew of the People’s Action Party assumed the chief ministership, he too proposed a Malaya-Singapore merger for economic and political reasons. The Tunku’s initial reaction was at best lukewarm. As the political Left in Singapore gained momentum, however, the Tunku began to warm up to Lee’s persuasive arguments of merger.
Although the Tunku and his Malay colleagues in the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) did not want to have a Left-leaning Singapore as their neighbour, neither did they wish for a merger with Chinese-dominated Singapore that would mean upsetting the racial arithmetic in favour of the Chinese.
This racial arithmetic, however, hinged on an assumption: “that in extreme racial issues the indigenous population of Borneo might choose to align themselves with the Malays (of Malaya), to whom they were racially akin, rather than to the Chinese”. But there was no guarantee that the Borneo indigenes would swing to the Malays in times of crisis.
Being politically less-sophisticated and naive, they could of course be manipulated and coerced or intimidated into aligning themselves with the Malayans.
Awakening political awareness
Post-war British governments were partial to the policy of disengagement from the colonies; if possible in an amicable and least traumatic manner. Against this background, the Tunku’s statement was received positively. In June 1961 Sir Alexander Waddell, Governor of Sarawak (1960-1963), and his counterpart in North Borneo, Sir William Goode (1960-1963), and D. C. White, High Commissioner for Brunei (1959-1963) were summoned for talks in Singapore with Lord Selkirk, Britain’s Commissioner General in South-East Asia (1959-1963).
Aware of the metropolitan government’s stance on de-colonisation, the British Borneo leaders did not oppose Malaysia, but they did suggest a two-step process: Borneo Federation (North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak) prior to entry to the Malaysia confederation. In spite of Brunei’s suspicions, serious consideration was given to the Borneo Federation, if necessary between North Borneo and Sarawak alone.
Ong, together with A.M. Azahari, leader of the Parti Rakyat Brunei (PRB), and Donald A. Stephens, later leader of the United National Kadazan Organisation (UNKO) formed a United Front to denounce Tunku’s proposal as “totally unacceptable to the people of the three territories”.
That foreign power was and still is Malaya.
But following the digestion of further explanations from Tunku, who paid brief visits to Sarawak in July-August 1961, those who initially were sceptical or had reservations were won over. Moreover, urged by Mustapha, Tunku invited leaders from Sarawak and North Borneo to visit Malaya on a fact-finding mission.
This was all part of the con-game, but Sarawakian leaders and most Sarawakians themselves didn't realise it then.
Little did they realise that Malaya had then reached the limit of its economic resources and required a new pool of resources upon which to further develop itself, and which was to be provided by Sarawak and Sabah at their own expense and to their own detriment.
It was here that Sarawak leaders began to emphasise the need for conditions in the form of safeguards to protect the rights and interests of the peoples of Sarawak. Consequently, it dawned on the Sarawak leaders that they were directly involved in the deliberation of the fate of the territory – Sarawak – that they had long called their home. This awakening of political consciousness was further developed in the follow-up discussions at the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee which held meetings between August 1961 and February 1962.
One of the main safeguards which they forgot was to keep their petroleum resources for themselves. The Malayans were glad to be silent on this, since they knew that under international law, offshore petroleum resources belonged to the federal government.
The Kayans and Kenyahs opposed Malaysia. They were apprehensive of being dominated by their traditional enemies, the Ibans.
In reality it was a scheme cooked up by the Malayans to replace British hegemony with Malayan hegemony.
This being the case, could there be any real acceptance by the majority of Sarawakians of the so-called Malaysia proposal?
Again, that being the case, its findings must be suspect.
The commission held hearings in camera (in order that the people shall speak openly) between Feb 19 and April 17, 1962. Members of the commission also attended to some 1,600 letters and memoranda submitted by individuals, organisations, and political parties.
Ignorance was bliss, but certainly not any more.
The Cobbold Commission published its findings in Report of the Commission of Enquiry, North Borneo and Sarawak in August 1962. The report did acknowledge that “there are large sections of the population in the interior who have no real appreciation of the Malaysia proposals”.
Overall, the results of the commission were summarised as follows:
“About one-third of the population ... strongly favours early realisation of Malaysia without too much concern about terms and conditions. Another third, many of them favourable to the Malaysia project, ask, with varying degrees of emphasis, for conditions and safeguards varying in nature and extent ... The remaining third is divided between those who insist on independence before Malaysia is considered and those who would strongly prefer to see British rule continue for some years to come.
There was no real referendum, in fact no referendum at all, and these figures are too vague upon which to have drawn any conclusions.
Cobbold expressed a cautionary note:
Unfortunately that is what has come about and that is the situation we are at right now.
An Inter-Governmental Committee, as recommended by the Cobbold Commission, was set-up. It was in the committee that the details of constitutional arrangements incorporating the conditions and safeguards for North Borneo and Sarawak – as negotiated by their leaders – were worked out. Jugah and Mustapha played pivotal roles as representatives of Sarawak.
How could an uneducated Iban and a Malay collaborator with the British negotiate anything on behalf of Sarawak?
The pertinent safeguards include: religious freedom, status of the English language, immigration, land, representations in the federal House of Representatives and Senate, special status and privileges of indigenes, and disbursement of development grants.
The Sarawak Alliance formed in August 1962 comprising of Panas, Barjasa, Pesaka, SCA, and SNAP won on a pro-Malaysia stance. But despite standing on an anti-Malaysia platform and facing allegations of being infiltrated by Leftist elements, SUPP managed a commendable showing.
The United Nations Malaysia Mission Report made public on Sept 13, 1963, confirmed that the entry in the proposed Federation of Malaysia was “... the ‘result’ of the freely expressed wishes of the territory’s peoples acting with full knowledge of the change in their status, their wishes having expressed through informed and democratic processes, impartially conducted and based on universal adult suffrage”.
Nonsense! There was no such thing in those days and even today the electoral process is dubious and fraught with fraud and unethical practices committed by Taib Mahmud and the BN government. A truly independent referendum held today completely uninfluenced by the Malayans or the BN regime and their corrupt practices would show an overwhelming majority of Sarawakians wanting out of Malaysia.
Therefore, on Sept 16, 1963, Sarawak achieved its independence through Malaysia – and a new chapter in its history began.
A chapter of a change of colonial master from the British to the Malayans. Next chapter - independence for Sarawak.
Dr Ooi Keat Gin is author of Japanese Empire in the Tropics Vol 1 and 2 (Ohio University Press, 1998) and Rising Sun Over Borneo (Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, 1999). He is a lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Humanities and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Britain.