Viewpoint: The Selling of Malaysia - By Professor Michael Leigh

April 5, 1962: The new diesel railcar of the North Borneo Railway, in which members of the Cobbold Commission travelled from Jesselton to Papar and Beaufort to sound out the views of the rural folks on Malaysia

The governments in Singapore, London and Kuala Lumpur were not about to give up the idea of Greater Malaysia, merely because there was hostility and indifference in the Borneo states.

In January 1962, the state government authored and widely disseminated a paper entitled, simply, “Sarawak and Malaysia”.

It was immediately translated into each of the principal local languages.

Residents, District Officers, SAOs, Information Service Officers and other officials were instructed to immediately tour their districts, to discuss its contents with the local population and to highlight the benefits of a federation in those discussions.

Each of the 24 District Councils met, with the issue of Malaysia as the first item on their agenda.

Efforts to persuade Borneans that Malaysia would be to their advantage included bringing a number of groups of local leaders on visits to Malaya and concentrating attention on the successful rural development schemes in the peninsula. Those visits did make a very positive impression on those leaders, most of whom had never even been overseas.

In early January, Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau, the highly influential paramount chief of the Orang Ulu, spoke eloquently to and for his people at Long San. He stated that they were not yet ready for Tunku Abdul Rahman’s plan. He went on to say that he saw Malaya like a fruit garden, already flourishing with ripened fruit, fenced securely with a fence made of belian. On the other hand, their garden (Sarawak) was small, freshly planted, not fully mature, not yet firmly established. It had a fence made of bamboo.

He then asked, what would happen to a garden when you try to plant trees and shrubs under big trees? They would simply be eclipsed by the shadow and would never bear fruit. In his six-hour speech, he went on to warn of those who would show Tunku fresh fruit that they did not grow themselves, trying to persuade Tunku that the time was ripe to pluck it.

On Feb 15, a Dayak aum was held in the Fort at Kapit, attended by 51 of the 54 penghulu, led by Temenggong Jugah. In his speech, the Temenggong made three key points: the Iban did not wish to karam dua kali, the Malaysia Plan must have wide support, and if the plan did not materialise, there would be no alternative to Communism.

Those 51 leaders gave their support to Greater Malaysia, and attached their signatures and thumbprints to the 13 points, which were their conditions for supporting a federation. The agreed 13 points were:

THE head of the state of Sarawak to be a native of Sarawak;

THE head of each state in the Federation of Malaysia to be eligible in due course to be the head of the Federation of Malaysia;

ADAT Lama to be under the control of the state;

LAND to be under the control of the State;

ENGLISH to remain the official language of the state of Sarawak and to continue to be one of the official languages of Malaysia;

FREEDOM of religious worship;

THERE is to be adequate representation for Sarawak in the Federal Government;

BRITISH officers to remain until replaced by properly qualified local people. Natives to have a fair share of government employment;

SARAWAK natives to enjoy the same status and privileges as Malays in Malaya;

EDUCATION to be a federal subject and to be equalised throughout Malaysia as soon as possible. Sarawak natives to have a fair share of overseas scholarships;

IMMIGRATION to remain under the control of the State of Sarawak;

POWERS reserved in the constitution of a state may not be changed without the agreement of the state; and,

DEVELOPMENT in Sarawak to be accelerated.

The Malayan and British governments had decided to appoint a commission to assess the views of the people of North Borneo and Sarawak regarding Malaysia, to help legitimise this particular form of decolonisation. Prior to the launch of their enquiry, government officers intensified their persuasive efforts; touring the state, selling the virtues of Malaysia as Sarawak’s future.

Cobbold Commission members were nominated by, and had to be acceptable to, both governments. The two Malayan members were Wong Pow Nee (a former MCA chief minister of Penang) and Ghazali Shafie (secretary-general of the Foreign Affairs Ministry), who had the confidence of Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and Tunku. Ghazali was never afraid to strongly articulate his views.

During March 1962, the commission toured Sarawak, meeting a wide range of local leaders and receiving written submissions. The government provided background notes to the commission, giving their view of the reliability and influence of each person and delegation that came before the commission.

After the completion of hearings, a draft report was submitted to the two governments for consideration. It was clear that the commissioners were seriously divided on the key issue of whether there should be a transitional period of three to seven years, during which an expatriate governor or chief minister should continue to exercise executive authority in each of the Borneo states, with authority on all matters except internal security, defence and external affairs.

The British members of the Cobbold Commission pushed hard for the recommendation to be in the report, supported by the colonial authorities in Kuching, Jesselton and London. Tunku instructed Ghazali and Wong to withdraw from the commission if the recommendation was to be included.

On June 3, 1962, Tunku told London that if the idea was even mentioned in the report, it would be better for Britain to retain sovereignty, and the Malaysia project was dead. At that time, Tunku was advised by Razak, Home Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman and other close confidants that with the political situation rapidly deteriorating in Singapore, Malaysia would be bad for Malaya. So, Tunku was in no mood to compromise.

To break the deadlock, all reference to divided sovereignty during a transitional period was deleted from the report. Lord Cobbold, instead, wrote a personal and confidential letter to both prime ministers, making the case that an expatriate governor and chief secretary would retain their present authority during the next few years, in both Sarawak and North Borneo. Kuala Lumpur had clearly prevailed.

The published Cobbold report concluded that roughly one-third of Sarawak’s population enthusiastically supported forming Malaysia, another third were vehemently opposed and the crucial remaining third of the population, though open to the idea, were yet to be convinced of the merits of independence through a merger.

In the second half of 1962, the Information Service, State Administration and Sarawak Alliance parties campaigned for Malaysia, and the Sarawak United People’s Party did all it could to argue for prior independence. But, as the resident of the 4th Division wryly observed, “our ammunition is certainly damp”. It was the big event of Dec 8, 1962, that changed all that, which is the subject of our next article.

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.