Viewpoint: Malaysia On The Edge In Its Early Days - By Professor Michael Leigh

A special arch built to mark the birth of Malaysia at the Kuching town field.

The declaration of Malaysia, on Sept 16 1963, ushered in the start of the two most tumultuous years for Asia’s newest nation.

From late 1963, Indonesia ramped up its confrontation, viewing this “neocolonial” creation as an affront to the non-aligned movement; to the peoples of a region emerging from colonial rule and to Indonesian leadership of the region, particularly of the Indonesian diaspora (known here as “the Malay world”).

Both London and Kuala Lumpur feared that Indonesian confrontation, that the efforts to crush, to Ganyang Malaysia, could, in fact, succeed. Both those governments were most concerned that the United States might intervene to broker what to them would be a quite “unacceptable” solution to the Malaysia issue.

It is important to recall that US strategic assessments viewed keeping friendly political links with the whole Indonesian archipelago, and the Philippines, too, was of considerably greater significance than was maintaining a political format called Malaysia.

For the US, Malaysia remained in the British sphere of influence, and the British had really messed up their relationship with Indonesia. Then United Kingdom ambassador Andrew Gilchrist virulently criticised and did everything he could to undermine President Sukarno and was rewarded by the torching and destruction of the British Embassy in Jakarta and its consulate in Medan straight after the formation of Malaysia.

President John F. Kennedy visited Jakarta at the start of 1962, just a year after his inauguration. The US ambassador, Howard Jones, had become quite close to President Sukarno, and authored a seven-point plan to prevent Indonesia from falling under communist control and win it over to the West.

The first issue was decolonisation of West New Guinea. With Jones’ help, Robert Kennedy brokered an agreement to return that territory to Indonesia, via a period of United Nations trusteeship, followed by a so-called “act of free choice”.

The Australian government was absolutely devastated to find out that their “greatest friend and ally” gave higher priority to its relationship with Indonesia than to supporting Australian efforts to retain Dutch control of the western half of New Guinea. New Guinea was still seen as a strategically important Japanese “stepping stone” to the invasion of Australia in World War 2.

President Sukarno visited President Kennedy at the White House. They related well on a personal level. Britain feared that president Kennedy would revisit Indonesia, prioritise Indonesia’s links with the West and broker a settlement of “the Malaysia dispute” that would satisfy Indonesia and the Philippines and add Malaysia to its list of failed federations, from East Africa to the Caribbean. Kennedy’s assassination, in November 1963, ended that particular fear.

In August-September 1964, Indonesian forces were landed near Pontian, followed by paratroops dropped near Labis in Johor. Attacks in Borneo escalated. Soon after, British Special Forces commenced secretive cross-border counterstrikes well into Indonesian Kalimantan.

There is a passing reference in the files to the US cautioning the British not to think further about deploying their Singapore-based Vulcan and Victor bombers to make a tactical nuclear strike on a Sumatran base. That wild idea shows that both diplomatic and security threats to Malaysia’s continuance were very serious, as the conflict escalated.

Domestically, the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore was proving to be a real headache to Kuala Lumpur. In what other nation were two men insisting on being called prime minister? Not content with governing only Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP set about contesting the 1964 parliamentary elections in the peninsula, causing a huge fight with MCA.

PAP had every intention of replacing MCA as Umno’s principal partner in the leadership of the national government and MCA responded forcefully. Even more significant was that PAP directly threatened Umno and its cardinal belief in Malay leadership of the nation, with its campaigning slogan of “a Malaysian Malaysia”. The racial and political temperature rose considerably. Bombings and quite serious race riots took place within Singapore.

In August 1965, Tunku chose to expel Singapore from Malaysia, indicating that this course of action was preferable to his second option of placing most of the members of the Singapore cabinet under preventive detention. Given the exacerbation of racial tensions, failing to act was not an option for him.

Less than one month later, a momentous change took place in Indonesia that ensured Malaysia’s survival. There were two military coups, acts that deposed President Sukarno and installed General Suharto as that country’s undisputed leader for the following 32 years — and resulted in the killing of between 500,000 and one million Indonesian citizens. Under President Suharto, confrontation ended with a whimper, not a bang, and a new Malaysian format came into being, now that Singapore was gone.

Malaysia was then fully accepted by its neighbours and could focus upon nation-building rather than defence, security and warding off charges that Malaysia was a neo-colonial creation. That criticism had been coming from the Afro-Asian movement and was voiced in UN hearings. The British and Commonwealth forces were no longer needed in Borneo and the remaining influential expatriate civil servants in Sarawak were asked to leave by early 1967.

Immediately after the shock of Singapore’s expulsion, certain Sabahan and Sarawakian leaders raised the issue of renegotiating the terms of the Federation and several even asked if they could forge a link with Singapore rather than remaining part of Malaysia. Such ideas were quickly doused. Donald Stephens, the first chief minister of Sabah, was expeditiously removed from his Federal cabinet position after he spoke publicly of renegotiating the Federation.

The excision of Singapore meant that the racial arithmetic of Malaysia changed dramatically. Kuala Lumpur was able to take an active role in reshaping the political landscape of Sabah and Sarawak so as to more closely match the pattern of rulership that prevailed throughout the peninsula. Sabah and Sarawak were progressively incorporated into the new Malaysia, simply as states of the Federation, rather than as two of three entities that came together to form Malaysia.

About the Author: Professor Michael Leigh was appointed Professor of Contemporary Asia and Director of the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne (2004-6) and is now director of the Aceh Research Training Institute (2007-9). He is the immediate Past-President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia. His previous positions include director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at University Malaysia Sarawak 1997-2003, head of the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Sydney 1989-1991 and Director of the International College Penang 1992-6. He has published articles and monographs on elections in Malaysia and Indonesia. His most recent publication is Transformations in Eastern Malaysia University of New England Asia Centre, 2007.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Catholic Lawyers Society Kuala Lumpur. CLS makes no representation concerning, and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented.

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