Sarawak’s long and winding road to independence

One of the first six cabinet minister, Taib being sworn in by the new governor of Sarawak, Openg

On March 4, 1959, Safri Awang Zaidell, an English-trained teacher who later became Deputy State Secretary, wrote a letter to the Sarawak Tribune entitled, “Democracy, National Unity and a People’s Party”, saying these were the essential ingredients to achieving independence for Sarawak.

Stephen Yong, former federal Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, in his book “A Life Twice Lived” said Safri’s article was the spark that lighted the way towards the formation of the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) on June 16, 1959 – Sarawak’s first political party.

SUPP’s chairman Tan Sri Ong Kee Sui and secretary general Tan Sri Stephen Yong Kuet Tze were already aware this was the beginning of Sarawak’s dream to be independent.

Safri, in his memoir “Yesterday, a Better Tomorrow” wrote: “Now (that) Malaya had her own king (on August 31, 1957) and her own government … the development aroused a great deal of interest among many Sarawakians.

“It gave encouragement and hope to those who dreamed of an independent Sarawak.

Abang Openg (front, right) and Ningkan (front, second right) wait for Waddell at Pangkalan Batu

“There was no reason why Sarawak couldn’t have her independence as well!”

Another pioneer of independence for multi-cultural Sarawak was pan-Malay nationalist and true “son of Sarawak” Tun Ahmad Zaidi Adruce (later governor of Sarawak).

Safri wrote: “He (Zaidi) was concerned not just with the weak position of the Malays but also that of the native people — the Ibans, Bidayuhs, Kayans, Kenyahs and Kelabits.

“To him, they were one people of Malay stock, a sentiment that was shared by many in the Malay world.”

With SUPP’s bold move, others followed suit. Party Negara Sarawak (Panas) was established by senior constabulary officer Datuk Bandar Abang Mustapha Abang Moasli on April 9, 1960.

Three more parties emerged within the next two years.

Chief Minister Ningkan

Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan, later Sarawak’s first chief minister, formed the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) on April 19, 1961, Tun Tuanku Bujang the Barisan Rakyat Jati Sarawak (Barjasa) on December 29, 1961 and Tun Jugah Barieng Parti Pesaka Anak Sarawak (Pesaka) on August 15, 1962.

With the formation of the Sarawak Alliance in 1962, the wheels of independence were put in motion.

Once consolidated, the leaders of the pro-Malaysia movement led by Ningkan paved the way for change.

The big day came on July 3, 1963 when the leaders of Sarawak’s first political prepared to go to London to signed the Malaysia Agreement.

Top on the list was Datuk Bandar Abang Mustapha of Panas, followed by Tun Jugah, Tan Sri Ling Beng Siew of Sarawak Chinese Association (SCA) and prominent Malay aristocrat Tun Abang Openg.

The Malaysia Agreement was signed on July 9.

On their return to Kuching on July 12, Ling suggested that the pro-Malaysia Council Negri members meet at his house in Sibu to decide on a six-member “shadow cabinet” before the official formation of the federation. 

On the night of July 21, Jugah chaired a two-day meeting at Ling’s residence now called “Rumah Sarawak” where a secret ballot elected Ningkan as the state’s first chief minister.

SNAP’s number two man, Datuk Amar James Wong became deputy chief minister while a third SNAP member Datuk Amar Dunstan Endawie Enchana was next.

Barjasa’s Datuk Awang Hipni Pengiran Anu and Datuk Abdul Taib Mahmud, later Sarawak’s chief minister and now governor, and SCA’s Datuk Teo Kui Seng made up the remaining three.

Abdul Rahman (second left) meets the new Sarawak Cabinet.

On the morning of July 22 1963, the six inaugural members of the Sarawak Alliance coalition were sworn in as the state’s first cabinet before governor-elect Jugah.

On July 26, the Sarawak Supreme Council met for the first time under the last British Governor Sir Alexander Waddell to decide on his successor.

Ningkan had recommended Jugah as the new governor.

But Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman claimed that this was not appropriate because “it contravened an unwritten agreement that the first governor should be a Malay if the chief minister was a Dayak”.

On September 13, three days before the official declaration of Malaysia Day, the Tunku, Ningkan, Jugah and British colonial secretary Duncan Sandys issued a joint-statement agreeing to the appointment of Tun Openg as governor.

A special portfolio was created for Jugah who became Minister for Sarawak Affairs.

For 57 days, Ningkan and his cabinet held the reins of the new Sarawak government and on the morning of September 15, Governor Sir Alexander Waddell left the Astana to cross the Sarawak River to Pangkalan Batu to say goodbye.

He welcomed his successor, praised the communities and bade farewell to Sarawak.

As the British flag was lowered the, the new Sarawak flag was proudly hoisted, heralding the beginning of a newly independent Sarawak.