The saga of Stephen Kalong Ningkan — the conclusion


The concept of 1Malaysia brilliantly espoused by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak can be appreciated when we look at the birth of Malaysia. Ours is a unique country in so many ways. Besides being a melting pot of various races, we are one of the few countries in the world where one half of the country is physically separated from the other by sea — the South China Sea. By looking at history, you will understand how difficult the challenge was for there to be a Malaysia and that the country be one.  

Last week, we looked at the build-up to the constitutional crisis in Sarawak involving Stephen Kalong Ningkan expressed in five letters.

On June 16, 1966, the Governor of Sarawak received a letter signed by 21 members of the Council Negri to the effect that the writers no longer had any confidence in Stephen Kalong Ningkan, as their Chief Minister.

The Governor thereupon wrote on June 16 that from representations he had received, he was satisfied that the plaintiff had ceased to command the confidence of the Council Negri and invited Ningkan to resign.

In his reply of June 17, Ningkan informed the Governor that the Governor’s views as to the loss of confidence of the members of the Council Negri in him was not supported by the meeting of the Council Negri held on the June 14 and he requested the names of those who had signed the representations.

In reply to this letter, the Governor on the same date informed Ningkan as he had refused to tender the resignation of members of the Supreme Council, the Governor declared that Ningkan and other members of the Supreme Council had ceased to hold office and appointed Tawi Sli as Chief Minister forthwith. The Governor also forwarded a list of those who had signed the representations and Ningkan commenced proceedings in the Sarawak High Court against the Governor as the first defendant and Tawi Sli as the second defendant.  On Sept 7, 1966, the ruling Chief Justice of Borneo, Justice Harley, delivered his decision on Ningkan’s suit: “Has the Governor in Sarawak power at all to dismiss the Chief Minister? In considering this question, we may start with section 21 of the Interpretation Ordinance, the general effect of which is that where there is power to appoint (and it is not disputed that the Governor has power to appoint a Chief Minister) there is power to dismiss. However, where the appointment is ‘subject to the approval of some other person, the power of dismissal shall only be exercisable subject to the approval of such other person’. If the appointment of a Chief Minister is subject to the approval of Council Negri, then by this section 21 dismissal also would be subject to its approval.

“In Sarawak, the Chief Minister’s dismissal is quite simply beyond the powers of the Governor unless (a) the Chief Minister has lost the confidence of the House, and (b) the Chief Minister has refused to resign and failed to advise a dissolution.

“I do not think that the Chief Minister of Sarawak was ever given a reasonable opportunity to tender his resignation or to request a dissolution. He was never even shown the letter on which the dismissal was based until court proceedings started, although it is true that at the moment of dismissal a list of signatories was sent to him with the letter from the Governor dated 17th June. That list and that letter were typed on the same date as the publication in the Gazette of the dismissal of the plaintiff, who was given no time at all to consider the weight or effect of the move against him. Plaintiff did not refuse to resign: he merely expressed doubts whether in fact he had ceased to command a majority and requested ‘that the matter be put to the constitutional test’.

“My task is simply to interpret the written word of the Constitution. On such interpretation the case presented in the statement of claim is unchallengeable. There will be judgement for the plaintiff as prayed.”

Judgment for Stephen Kalong Ningkan.


And so Stephen Kalong Ningkan had finally won the day. But victory was short-lived. The Federal Government at that time was facing fierce opposition to the concept of Malaysia. Brunei refused to join, and Singapore – the original partner to Malaysia – had seceded from the Federation. Indonesia started the Confrontation Wars. The Philippines still kept alive their claim to Sabah.

There was internal racial tension, which in 1969 culminated in the May 13 riots. The new nation of Malaysia was under immense pressure after its baptism of fire in the world of nations. The loss of Sarawak would have been the knockout blow for the new nation.

It was inevitable that the Federal Government declared a state of emergency which legally ended Ningkan’s reign as Chief Minister of Sarawak. In a strange way, Ningkan was sacrificed to ensure the survival of Malaysia.

Ningkan challenged the emergency declaration right up to the Privy Council, but on each occasion he was defeated. After that his political career descended into oblivion and outside Sarawak he is hardly known or ever mentioned, even though he was the first Chief Minister of Sarawak. You can hardly find his images, even on the Internet.

However, there has been a unique revival of his name through an unusual way. Whenever any student studies or researches the constitutional law of Malaysia, or whenever there is a leading constitutional case before the Malaysian courts, there will be reference to the leading case law authorities involving Stephen Kalong Ningkan or bearing his name.

His cases are standard text book material on Malaysian constitutional law. A most recent example was the recent constitutional crisis in Perak last year, where the Malaysian Courts had to decide whether the legal Menteri Besar is Nizar or Zambry.

Yet few people know or appreciate this statesman of Sarawak and Malaysia who fought a lonely battle in the face of overwhelming odds and had a never-say-die spirit even when the odds were heavily stacked against him.

History is fraught with stories of men who never give up no matter how great the odds against them. I hope that my maiden articles the last three weeks will revive your memory of him and make him a less forgotten hero of Borneo and Malaysia. Have a productive week.