As we celebrate the 48th anniversary of our beloved nation, it is time to reflect on the circumstances which led to the formation of Malaysia with Sarawak joining the Malayan states, Sabah and Singapore to give birth to a new federation on Sept 16, 1963, and also how the success and progress of our nation can be sustained and strengthened to secure a happy and prosperous future for generations of Malaysians to come.
In May 1961, when Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-haj, affectionately known as ‘Bapa Malaysia’, mooted the idea of forming a new federation which would embrace Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei, there was grave concern about the political stability and security of South-East Asia.
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 own security and economic interests.
Indeed, the Brunei rebellion in December 1962, which spilled into areas of northern Sarawak, and the presence of the largest Communist party outside China across the Indonesian Border, created much anxiety for both the British administration in Kuching and the local leaders who were preparing themselves to assume the role of seeking independence from Britain.
The idea of a new federation of Malaysia as proposed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, then Prime Minister of Malaya,
was accepted without much qualms by the British government.
With the concurrence of the Malayan government, they set up a commission – the Cobbold Commission – to ascertain the wishes of the people of Sabah and Sarawak to join the proposed federation.
The key finding of the Cobbold Commission was that 80 per cent 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 per cent ‘hard core’ group would oppose the formation of Malaysia “under any terms and conditions.”
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, and 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 and they formed the bases of the Malaysia Agreement signed on July 8, 1963.
These safeguards, which 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.
The forefathers of this nation had taken great pains to ensure that Malaysia succeeded and progressed as a united and harmonious federation.
The special constitutional safeguards had been intended to enable the Borneo states not only to maintain an acceptable degree of financial and governing autonomy within a federal system of government, but also to provide for conditions whereby the two states could attain political and economic progress on par with the other already more advanced states in the federation.
These safeguards, therefore, were intended to foster national integration. At the time, the founding fathers had not factored in the possibility of any constituent states leaving the federation.
That was what made the departure of Singapore in August 1965 so painful and acrimonious.
By all accounts, the foundation for a strong, united and peaceful federation has been laid by our forefathers.
Malaysia, as a federation, has succeeded when many other countries with a federal system of government have not.
It has to be admitted that no system of government is or could be perfect but in Malaysia, there has always been a resolute commitment by the federal government and the state governments of Sabah and Sarawak to honour the terms of the Malaysia Agreement and the constitutional safeguards that have been accorded to the Borneo States.
Today, the process of national integration has been strengthened. The peoples of Sarawak and Sabah have made important contributions to the economic progress, security and stability of the country.
Substantial budgetary allocations and development funds from the central government coupled with the additional sources of revenues assigned to the Borneo states by the Tenth Schedule of the federal constitution, have enabled the two states to enjoy vast improvements in infrastructures and amenities and to sustain the transformation of their economies.
Much remains to be done, but much can be truly achieved towards realising Vision 2020 by strengthening the unity and harmony of our multi-racial and multi religious peoples.
Through better understanding, respect for, and adherence by all Malaysians to the constitutional safeguards accorded to Sabah and Sarawak when the federation was formed in September 1963, our country’s political stability and security will be assured.
For Malaysia as a federation to remain resilient and harmonious, and develop into a high income, progressive nation, its institutions of government both at state and national levels and the people themselves, ought to conduct their affairs and relations with each other in accordance with the federal Constitution, the supreme law of the land and wherein the constitutional safeguards for Sarawak and Sabah are firmly entrenched.
The late Tun Mohd Suffian, Malaysia’s highly respected jurist and Lord President once said: “Thanks to the goodwill and common sense on the part of our leaders and of our people the constitution has so far worked well, and let us hope that it will continue to work equally well in the future, and that there be peace and prosperity in the country.”