Lucy Sebli

Broken vows are like broken mirrors. They leave those who held to them bleeding and staring at fractured images of themselves.
– Richard Paul Evan, American author

As we celebrate the 56th anniversary of our nation, let us reflect on the circumstances which led to the formation of Malaysia which initially encompassed Sarawak, the Malayan states, Brunei, Sabah and Singapore that gave birth to a new federation on Sept 16, 1963; and the struggles we face in order to sustain and strengthen it to ensure the future generations of Malaysians continue to enjoy a prosperous future.

The idea of a new federation of Malaysia was ‘proposed’ by Tunku Abdul Rahman, then Prime Minister of Malaya. The proposal had an immediate effect of accelerating constitutional development in Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. Elections were held for the first time in Brunei and Sabah in 1962.

It was argued by some that the idea to form Malaysia with British colonies Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei which was ‘mooted’ by Tunku Abdul Rahman was accepted without much qualm by the British government.

The British government was so happy to oblige, thus making their job selling the idea of Malaysia to the rest of its four colonies easier.

The spread of Communism through armed struggle in the region and the British government’s decision to withdraw from ‘East of Suez’ meant that the then British colonies east of the Suez Canal, such as Sarawak, had to be prepared for an accelerated process of self-government and to deal with the threat to her security and economic interests.

Of course, as expected, the Philippines and Indonesia objected to the idea.

Continued opposition by the Philippines and Indonesian eventually led to the sending of a United Nations mission to Borneo in 1963 — the Cobbold Commission — to ascertain the wishes of the people of Sabah and Sarawak to join the proposed federation.

It was concluded that 80 percent of the people of Sarawak would support her entry into the new federation, provided that there were requisite safeguards for the state and her multi-racial and multi-religious population, and only 20 percent ‘hardcore’ group would oppose the formation of Malaysia “under any terms and conditions.”

Brunei, pulled out due to an armed revolt staged to oppose its entry to Malaysia. Singapore was part of the newly formed Malaysia in 1963 but withdrew in 1965, due to deep political and economic differences between the ruling parties of Singapore and Malaysia, which created communal tensions that resulted in racial riots in July and September 1964.

Following the Cobbold Commission Report, a joint statement was issued on Aug 1, 1962, by the British and Malayan governments expressing any intention to conclude a formal agreement for the formation of Malaysia which would provide for safeguards for the special interests of North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak.

These safeguards would cover such “matters as religious freedom, education, representation in the Federal Parliament, the position of the indigenous races, control over immigration, citizenship and the state constitutions.”

The Joint Press Statement also announced the formation of an Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC), which would have representatives from the two Borneo states to work out these ‘special safeguards’.

The IGC drew up the safeguards for the special interests of Sabah and Sarawak, which became the bases of the Malaysia Agreement signed on July 8, 1963.

These safeguards included, inter alia, complete control over the states’ natural resources like, land, forests, minerals both onshore and off-shore, local government, immigration, usage of the English language in judicial proceedings etc, state ports and more sources of revenues being assigned to the Borneo states, were eventually incorporated or embedded in the Federal Constitution and also into crucial legislation like the Immigration Act, 1963 which was passed and came into force on Malaysia Day.

They formed the fundamental bases for Sabah and Sarawak to join Malaya and Singapore in the formation of Malaysia in September 1963.

However, the Sarawak government opines that many of these safeguards have been violated by the federal government, particularly matters related to the control of the states’ natural resources such as Sarawak oil and gas, state ports, educational autonomy and inadequate development allocation to Sarawak (arguably low compare to its vast size).

Failing to fulfil the expectations of Sarawakians in general on the part of the federal government, to a larger extent, has influenced the nature of their relationships over the years. Depending on who is at the realm of the power in Kuala Lumpur, sometimes it is cordial and sometimes it is cold.

These special constitutional safeguards were designed to enable the Borneo states to maintain an acceptable degree of financial and governing autonomy within a federal system of government as well as to provide conducive conditions so that the two states could attain political and economic progress on par with the other more advanced states in the federation.

Sadly, Sarawak (and Sabah) has been left behind particularly in terms of infrastructural development compared to Malaya. Consequently, this affects the process of national integration between Malaya and Sarawak (and Sabah).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.