On Aug 31, 1957, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman declared “Merdeka”, announcing to the world that Malaya had become an independent nation.
Even then he planned to include neighbouring British colonies Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah and Brunei into a larger federation called “Malaysia”.
If the four entities could unite with Malaya into a federation, it would be a dream come true.
During the Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in London in February 1961, he broached the subject.
Even though British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was non-committal, he told Tunku that if this were to happen, the Borneo states must be willing partners and “advised Tunku against giving the impression that Malaya wished to force the Borneo states to join them”.
At that stage, there was only one political party in Sarawak — SUPP which was formed in June 1959.
Within three years, four more parties were born — Panas, SNAP, Barjasa and Pesaka.
Initially, Sarawak leaders opposed the idea of Malaysia because they did not want to be under the control of Malaya — believing that the Borneo states should first unite and form their own federation.
Yet Tunku did not give up hope.
Announcement in Singapore
On May 27, 1961, Tunku made an important announcement at the Foreign Correspondents Association luncheon in Singapore.
“Malaya today, realises that she cannot stand alone, in isolation. Sooner or later, she should have an understanding with Britain and the people of the territories of Singapore, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei.
“It is premature for me to say how this closer understanding can be brought about but it is inevitable that we should look ahead to this objective and think of a plan whereby these territories can be brought together in political and economic co-operation,” he said.
It was a turning point in Sarawak’s history.
Tunku had chosen the right place to make the announcement.
It was also well timed as the communists were making headway in Southeast Asia and had already taken root in Borneo, mainly in Kalimantan and Sarawak.
Several flying visits to the region gave much optimism to Tunku.
He realised that Sarawak had a high illiteracy rate and if this was not checked, it was a matter of time before the state fell into communist hands.
If the remarks of Lord Selkirk (the British Commissioner-General of Southeast Asia) were anything to go by, then Sarawak’s natives were doomed to remain as “headhunters”.
This kind of statement not only riled many Sarawak leaders, who were already anti-British, but also aroused the feelings of nationalism in Malaya as a whole.
While accompanying the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on a state visit to Brunei in July 1961, Tunku and his trusted Umno colleague and friend, Ghazali Shafie, the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, were politely told that the sultanate was not ready to enter into a federation as yet.
By then he had already set his “Greater Malaysia Plan” in motion.
Undeterred, Tunku left Brunei and headed for Sibu and spent two days meeting and conferring with local political leaders as well as members from the influential Barisan Pemuda Sarawak, led by Sarawak’s first Bumiputera graduate and educationist, Ahmad Zaidi Adruce Muhammed Noor.
After the Sibu visit, Tunku stopped over in Kuching and told the press that he had already sent a memorandum of his “Greater Malaysia Plan” to London and told that the proposed name of the federation would be revealed later.
Tunku said that the Borneo territories were in dire need of financial assistance and that if they entered into the federation, they would enjoy “absolute equality”.
He argued that there was no need for a federation of Borneo territories as advocated by Donald Stephens of North Borneo (Sabah).
The prime minister also expressed his fears that the communists, who were gaining ground in the region, were opposed to the federation for obvious reasons.
He said that at least $5.2 billion had to be spent on a five-year development plan for the East Malaysian states.
“When I say federation with the Borneo Territories, I mean that they should be the same as the other states of Malaya. We have 11 states that form the Federation of Malaya and if the Borneo Territories (Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo) decide to come in, there will be 14 – all enjoying absolute equality, one with the other,” Tunku said.
Tunku’s rallying cry
On Oct 15, 1961, Tunku told the House of Representatives in Kuala Lumpur it was not true that Malaya wanted to colonise the Borneo Territories.
“To say that the people there (Borneo) are not ready is wrong. After all, Penang and Malacca were British colonies a little while ago.
“When they joined the independent Federation of Malaya, they became independent. If this can happen here, why not Borneo?”
Supporting the move to form Malaysia, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew said in a broadcast in Kuching that if the Borneo Territories joined the federation, their legitimate interests would be protected.
“We in Singapore and Malaya have had the advantage of better and higher educational facilities. We have more local graduates and professional men. We have become more sophisticated and competitive.
“If there were no safeguards, you may perhaps find competition with the city people of Singapore and the Federation of Malaya harder and more exacting.
“But that is what we are here to talk about, to find out how your legitimate interests can be protected, how you can have control over your own local destiny in the Borneo Territories after merger in the Federation of Malaysia.”
Formation of IGC
During the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in July 1961, it was decided that a Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee be formed following the suggestion by Stephens and Yeo Cheng Hoe of Sarawak.
Four meetings were held before a commission was established in early 1962 to give the official sanction for Sarawak and North Borneo to become part of the federation.
A five-man Commission of Enquiry led by Lord Cobbold, a former Governor of the Bank of England, arrived in Kuching to ascertain the views of the people of Sarawak and North Borneo on Feb 19, 1962.
Apart from Cobbold, the other members were Ghazali, a former chief minister of Penang, Wong Pow Nee, a former chief secretary of the Federation of Malaya, Sir David Watherston and a former Governor of Sarawak, Sir Anthony Abell.
After the completion of the Cobbold Commission report in April 1962, the way to independence was paved — the report was signed and sealed on June 21, 1962.
A month later, Tunku and MacMillan announced the formation of an Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) comprising representatives from Britain, Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo.
Among other things, the IGC’s role was to study a variety of subjects, ranging from the state constitutions, delegation of federal powers to the state, the judiciary, religion, citizenship, immigration, education, the position of the natives, languages and representation in the federal parliament.
Lord Landsdowne was nominated as chairman while Malaya’s deputy premier Dato Abdul Razak Hussein was appointed his deputy.
Sarawak’s IGC delegation headed by the Sarawak Chief Secretary, FD Jakeway, comprised six local members — Datuk Bandar Abang Mustapha, Temenggong Jugah, Pengarah Montegrai, Chia Chin Shin, Ling Beng Siew and Ong Kee Hui.
While most of the Bumiputera parties — Barjasa, Panas and SNAP — generally supported the concept, individual branches of SUPP launched a statewide anti-Malaysia signature campaign.
When the Cobbold Commission arrived in Kuching on March 9, 1962, “loud and strong protests” against the Malaysia Pan were voiced by the leaders of the SUPP rally at their headquarters.
“An estimated crowd of 7,000 Chinese with a few Malays, Ibans and Bidayuhs were present. Banners and placards all bearing expressions of protest against the Malaysia Plan were displayed.
Some members said that anyone who agreed to the plan was a traitor because Malaya intended to “swallow up Sarawak”.
The people of Sarawak were divided. For example, the Miri district council opposed the plan while Sibu councillors were for it. In Mukah, the Chinese opposed while the Melanaus, the fifth largest community in the state (45,000 then), were in favour.
Representatives from Kampung Nangka, Banyok and Telok Bango in Sibu were among the first to support the plan together with the Melanaus from Mukah and Binatang (now Bintangor).
One of their Sibu leaders, a headman, “Tua Kampung” Abang Louise Barieng — later to be appointed Governor of Sarawak — was elected to present an 11-point memorandum to the Cobbold Commission.
The memorandum read:
“We are mostly a backward type of people engaged in fishing and farming and most of our people depend on the sago industry. Nearly one-third are Christians and the rest pagans.
“As our people are not educated there is no point in listening to our rank and file. The only people who can speak for the Melanaus as a community are the tua kampungs.”
The memorandum added among other things that because most Melanau children were illiterate, they asked for special concessions for their children to enter government service.
One of the strongest rural supporters of the Malaysia concept was the people of Betong. Led by Betong District Council chairman Pengarah together with a deputation of the Malay Tua Kampung Abang Karim Abang Hassan and Kapitan China Yong Shaw Neng, they submitted their resolution to the Commission.
Other Iban leaders in the Simanggang (Sri Aman) area such as Penghulu Storey Ngumbang, Penghulu Rengga of Undup, Edwin Tangkun of Batang Lupar supported the concept but feared for the community which was small.
Later, Betong-based SNAP chairman JS Tinker also issued a statement hailing the Cobbold Commission as an “unbiased masterpiece of views”.
In the Ulu Lingga area, the Ibans who supported the scheme wanted the supreme head of Sarawak to be called “Rajah”.
Among the Limbang supporters were councillors Habibullah Majid, Gawan Jangga, Ahim Burut and James Wong Kim Min, who would become Sarawak’s first deputy chief minister.
Tun Razak’s assurance
In August 1962, Malaya’s deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein gave his assurance that the Federation of Malaysia would bring good fortune to Sarawak. In a broadcast made in Kuching, Razak said Sarawakians would be guaranteed democracy and equal rights and have complete freedom of worship.
He said that there would be greater development in both urban and rural areas.
In November 1962, Tunku visited Sarawak. After visiting Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu), he flew to Miri to an anti-Malaysia demonstration while inspecting a police guard of honour.
Despite shouts of anti-Malaysia slogans, Tunku waved at the demonstrators and even walked to the crowd to shake hands with the residents who had gathered for the campaign.
Tunku meets Sir Alexander Waddell
His next stop was Kuching airport where Tunku was received by Governor Sir Alexander Waddell and members of the Sarawak supreme council — Tuan Mufti, Yusuf Abdul Rahman Shebli, Canon (later Bishop) Howes, the acting Provost of the Anglican Diocese, the Catholic Vicar Delegate Rev Fr Harry van Erp and representatives from five political parties which formed the Sarawak United Front.
Together with Waddell, they headed for Pengkalan Batu. Entering the Governor’s Barge, they headed across the Sarawak River for the Astana — Tunku’s temporary residence during his stay in Kuching.
Before leaving, Tunku told a press conference that the majority of the natives of Sarawak supported Malaysia. He said he was satisfied that he had “cleared the doubts and fears” of those who doubted his sincerity in wanting to alleviate the standard of living of the people of Sarawak.
He told Radio Sarawak: “I have no doubt that the sons of the soil (Bumiputeras) welcome the prospects of Malaysia. The Malaysia which we have in mind is one which will make this country free from the rule of the British and become independent and a partner with the 11 states of Malaya and Singapore.
“The new Malaysia will become a new nation — sovereign and independent — and we will have one Constitution to replace the old Constitution.
“The new Constitution will guarantee the rights — human rights — for the people of this nation wherever they may be, whether in Malaya or Borneo. This new Constitution will guarantee the freedom of worship, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of movement and the freedom of assembly.
“This Constitution will provide for the special rights of the states in Borneo — rights in respect of land, immigration and rights to administer the country and other rights which you now enjoy. This Constitution, too, guarantees parliamentary democracy, which means in parliament the peoples of these territories will be represented.”
IGC report adopted
The 14-point IGC report was completed and adopted on March 8, 1963 by the Sarawak Council Negeri.
The Secretary-General of the Sarawak Alliance, Dato Stephen Kalong Ningkan, fully endorsed the report saying that the Sarawak government was happy with the “generous terms of safeguards” for the state.
Ong Kee Hui, whose SUPP strongly opposed the Malaysia Plan, spoke in support of the motion and said the council meeting was a historic one because it would decide the future of the people of Sarawak.
“My approach to Malaysia has always been a constructive one. For that reason, together with some members of this House, I attended the meetings of the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee.
“In doing so, if I may say so, like my Honourable friends, we have been criticised. We have even been said to have signed away Sarawak for large sums of money. The fact that today this House has before it this motion, which is moved by the Attorney General is, I think, indicative that we have done no such thing.”
During the formative years of Malaysia, a Foochow politician and philanthropist, Tan Sri Ling Beng Siew, formed the Sarawak Chinese Association (SCA) and became chairman of its central working committee.
On July 6, 1963, Ling was part of Sarawak’s four-man delegation that left for London to sign the Malaysia Agreement three days later.
The three others were Tun Abang Openg who was later appointed Sarawak’s first Governor, Tun Jugah Barieng and Abang Mustapha, a prominent Kuching Malay.
On their return to Sarawak, the four were given a hero’s welcome and received by the SUPP chairman.
On June 9, Tun Jugah chaired a two-day meeting at Ling’s residence “Rumah Malaysia” where a secret ballot elected Kalong Ningkan as Sarawak’s inaugural Chief Minister.
On July 22, 1963 — Sarawak’s Independence Day — the Sarawak Alliance was formed with SNAP’s Kalong Ningkan as new chief minister and five other inaugural cabinet ministers James Wong Kim Min (SNAP), Dunstan Endawie Enchana (SNAP), Awang Hipni Pengiran Anu (Barjasa), Abdul Taib Mahmud (Barjasa) and Teo Kui Seng (SCA).
On Aug 31, 1963, the Union Jack was flown for the last time as Waddell bade farewell to Sarawak and welcomed the new Governor.
On that historic night, Taib, who had been sworn in as Sarawak’s Works and Communications Minister, spoke on Radio Sarawak.
“On this day Aug 31,1963 Sarawak emerges from a romantic past as a baby of the White Rajahs through a crown colony to an adult state responsible for its own administration.
“The challenge to us now as a self-governing state is to preserve our ways of peace and harmony and to uphold the freedom that goes with democracy.”
On the eve of Malaysia Day on Sept 15, Waddell ended his four-year term with Sarawak and was given a sentimental farewell.
And thus, Sarawak became a part of the Federation of Malaysia on Sept 16.