By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
Coincidentally, the date of print of this issue of Ipoh Echo falls on the 50th Anniversary of the formation of Malaysia, Monday, September 16, 2013. In order to appreciate the true feeling of this auspicious day it is only appropriate to recall history as it is written not as it is being propagated. Since the passage of time historical facts have been distorted to such an extent that it is no longer easy to separate truth from fiction.
The formation of Malaysia was mooted by the country’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1961. It would consist of Malaya, Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, all of which were British colonies. The primary reason was to allow Kuala Lumpur to monitor, control and also combat communist activities, particularly in Singapore where the Chinese population was the largest.
Singapore’s population then was about 3 million while the combined population of Malaya, Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak was about 7 million. To balance out the Chinese majority in Singapore, the merging of the states in Borneo with newly independent Malaya was deemed appropriate.
Singapore Chief Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, supported the proposal. However, his opponents resisted, arguing that this was a ploy by the British to continue its presence in the region. Most political parties in Sarawak were against the merger. Community representatives in Sabah were similarly opposed. Although the Sultan of Brunei backed the idea, the Parti Rakyat Brunei repudiated the merger and this led to the Brunei Rebellion of 1962 which was successfully quelled by the deployment of two Gurkha companies to Seria and one Royal Marine company to Limbang where the hostilities were centred.
Tunku Abdul Rahman explained his proposal at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in 1961. He finally got the agreement of the British government with a proviso that feedback be obtained from the communities involved.
This led to the formation of the Cobbold Commission. The Commission was tasked to conduct a study in the Borneo territories and to make recommendations. A substantial number of Bruneians were not in favour of a merger. Sabah drew up a list of points, referred to as the 20-point agreement, as a condition for its inclusion while Sarawak prepared a similar memorandum, known as the 18-point agreement.
These memoranda have often been quoted as the basis for discontentment between East and West Malaysians and it persists till today.
A referendum was conducted in Singapore to gauge public opinion; a large number of its population supported the merger provided some autonomous rights be given. Brunei withdrew due to opposition from certain quarters and disagreement over oil royalties and the status of the Sultan in the planned merger.
Upon reviewing the Cobbold Commission’s findings, the British government appointed another commission to draft a constitution for Malaysia. The eventual constitution was essentially the same as the 1957 Malayan Constitution.
After negotiations in July 1963, it was agreed that Malaysia would come into being on August 31, 1963 to coincide with the 7th Independence Day of Malaya. However, the Philippines and Indonesia objected to this development. Indonesia claimed that Malaysia represented a form of “neocolonialism” while the Philippines insisted that Sabah was part of its territory.
The opposition delayed the formation of Malaysia. A United Nations team was then formed to re-ascertain whether Sabah and Sarawak truly wanted to join the coalition. Malaysia was formally declared on September 16, 1963. Lee Kuan Yew’s insistence on a Malaysian Malaysia led to Singapore’s ouster in August 1965. And the rest is history.
I was in my mid-teens when Malaysia was formed. It was definitely an occasion to celebrate, as the country had just obtained its independence. It was a double whammy, of sorts. However, in a provincial town like Parit Buntar we could only look up to Kuala Lumpur to take the lead.
The country was not yet free of communist insurgents. The Malayan Communist Party was still active, especially in the border regions. With the onset of Konfrontasi with Indonesia, a national call-up was initiated.
I can still recall volunteers marching in the town padang under the watchful eyes of one very serious-looking officer. Major Zainuddin was instrumental in me joining the army, which I did five years later in 1968. Some said it was foolhardy, some said it was premature. But I did what I had to do, romanticism aside. And I had never lived to regret it.
Fifty years down the road I can now appraise the situation more realistically. What have we achieved after half a century of existence? We are still as fractious as we were five decades ago. I still need a permit to enter Sabah and Sarawak and will not be allowed to work there if I choose to. If I am considered a threat, the state authorities can put me on the next plane to Kuala Lumpur. That is the sad truth.
Am I happy on this auspicious day?
You must be kidding.