318 or 169

“SO is it 318 or 169?” asked Chia.

He was not talking about numbers for the lottery. We were having a discussion about Malaysia Day. For Sarawakians or Sabahans such a question is a no-brainer but Chia is from West Malaysia and he can be forgiven for his ignorance. Of course, it is 169, 16th of September. On that day, 46 years ago Sarawak, Sabah (then North Borneo) and Malaya formed the Federation of Malaysia. The operative word is ‘formed’, for we formed Malaysia. We did not ‘join’ Malaysia because up till that date ‘Malaysia’ didn’t exist.

Unfortunately, such is the prevalence of West Malaysiacentricism that for over 40 years, the nation has been celebrating with great aplomb Malaysia Day on Aug 31. As every school child would know, Aug 31, 1957 was the day Tunku Abdul Rahman saw the raising of the Malayan flag and declared, “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!”

To get our facts straight, let me take us through the events which led up to that momentous day, Sept 16, 1963 — sort of a potted history. That I feel the need to do so is partly because of my personal experience. Last October, I was asked to give a talk to a group of university students on this early phase of our nation’s history. I was amazed that most of them had only a hazy idea of what it was about.

So I beg your indulgence, here goes. The idea of ‘Malaysia’ was first broached by Tunku Abdul Rahman on May 27, 1961 at the International Press Club Luncheon, Singapore when he said, “Malaya today as a nation realises that she cannot stand alone and in isolation. Sooner or later she should have an understanding with the British and the peoples of the territories of Singapore, North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak. 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 closer together in political and economic cooperation …”

From then on, things moved remarkably fast. In a matter of months a committee, comprising members of the Legislatures of the territories involved, was formed. The Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee, as it was styled, was to study Tunku’s proposal.

In November 1961 a five-man commission headed by Lord Cobbold was given the task “… to ascertain the views of the peoples of Sarawak and North Borneo on this question; and in the light of their assessment of these views, to make recommendations.”

The Commission visited the main towns of Sarawak and North Borneo and received 4,000 community leaders in 50 hearings. In June 1962 it reported that as regard Malaysia, the representative views of the two territories were: one-third was in favour of; one-third wanted some sort of safeguards and one-third was against. The Commission concluded that a Federation of Malaysia was an attractive and workable project, and that an early decision in principle should be reached.

The British Government accepted the recommendation provided that there were safeguards in relation to religious freedom, education, representation in federal parliament, position of the natives, control of immigration, citizenship and State Constitution.

The five political parties in North Borneo took the cue and drafted the historic ‘20 Point Agreement’, spelling out specific safeguards for the Bornean states as a condition for the formation of Malaysia.

Then the government of Britain and that of Malaya and Singapore announced that Malaysia should be brought into being by Aug 31, 1963. Had it not been for the protests of Indonesia and the Philippines (both nations wanted to stake their claims on Sarawak and North Borneo) at the United Nations, Malaysia Day could have dovetailed neatly with the Merdeka Day of Malaya.

As a result of the protests by the two neighbours of Malaya, the United Nations named a nine-member mission to ascertain the wishes of the peoples of North Borneo and Sarawak. The UN team started work on Aug 16, 1963 and did not complete its report until two weeks into September. Malaysia was formally declared two days later on Sept 16, 1963.

Some may consider Sarawak and Sabah as being stubborn in insisting on Sept 16 as the historic day. They argue that it is more convenient to celebrate the two historic events on the same day.

Actually it is more than a matter of historical accuracy. It is about the recognition of the basic premise of Malaysia, that it is a nation formed by equal partners. Malaysia is not just an expansion of Malaya through the incorporation of the Borneo territories. Sarawakians and Sabahans are wary that West Malaysians may unconsciously or consciously harbour thoughts that they are superior.

This is exacerbated by the cavalier and supercilious attitude of some West Malaysians. They used to crack such jokes as “Do you still live in trees?” Once I witnessed a near fight in Malaysia Hall, London. It started with some East Malaysian students talking about cars. Some mischievous boys from Kuala Lumpur just could not resist the temptation — they butted in with “What? You have roads over there?” Perhaps we do have chips on our shoulders and are oversensitive. After all it was just a joke. However, such jokes do betray a mindset.

But there is nothing funny about the actual ignorance. Some years ago I heard a Sarawak minister complain about his counterpart from Kuala Lumpur. It seemed the Kuala Lumpur man said something like this, “Did you have a good flight, Datuk … and how’s Kota Kinabalu?”

I used to think that it was just an isolated incident … until I read an item from a Malaysian airline magazine last year. It urged tourists to visit Kuching and while there to enjoy the Kinabatangan River Wild Life Safari. As we know, the Kinabatangan River is Sabah. I thought it was a real howler.

It becomes seriously unfunny when some officers of the National Registration Department are clueless about the racial composition of the East Malaysian states, as one senior minister of Sarawak found out. His son-in-law is a Melanau Muslim. When he went to register his newborn baby girl, he was shocked when the registering officer changed the entry for his daughter from ‘Melanau’ to ‘Malay’.

While I do accept that it does make sense to merge the celebrations of the two most important events in our nation’s history, I still think it is better to give due recognition to the actual date of the birth of Malaysia.

Firstly, that the formation of Malaysia was delayed for over two weeks after Merdeka Day was a good thing. It showed that the project was not pushed through with undue haste, and that the objection of the two interested parties, Indonesia and Philippines, were taken seriously. Sept 16 as Malaysia Day stands as a testimony to this due diligence.

Secondly, the date is a constant reminder that we come together as equals – that our different cultures must be respected; that we aspire for integration; that we do not suffer assimilation. As our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said, “. . . our differences unite this country”.

So excuse me if I don’t shout “Merdeka!” on Aug 31, for I’d rather shout “Malaysia!” on Sept 16.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]

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