The period leading up to the cession of Sarawak to Great Britain in 1946 was preceded by a tumultuous time marked by intrigue, loyalty, greed, deception, politics and murder .
BARELY a hundred years old, Sarawak was struggling to heal the socioeconomic wounds and racial rifts left by the pre-war Brooke administration and by the Japanese occupation, which would later fuel leftist and Communist sentiments when it was faced with the prospect of being ceded to Great Britain. Former state secretary Tan Sri Datuk Amar Bujang Nor literally grew up in the thick of it.
His father, Mohammed Nor, was the assistant private secretary to Datu Patinggi Abang Abdillah, the hereditary Chieftain of the Sarawak Malays who spearheaded Sarawak’s anti-cession movement as well as friends with the Rajah Muda Anthony Brooke (son of Bertram Brooke, the younger brother of Charles Vyner Brooke the third and last White Rajah of Sarawak).
Privileged access to his father’s personal diary and private correspondence with Anthony Brooke, coupled with his own experience enabled Bujang Nor to write of the cession period from a unique perspective which included firsthand knowledge of the view of key Malay community leaders.
Bujang Nor later went on to write his thesis on the anti-cession movement for which he received his Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Malaya, Singapore in 1959.
In the same year, just thirteen years after the cession, he published a book on the subject called “The Cession of Sarawak to Great Britain 1946”.
Malay movement The tale of the cession of Sarawak to the British is full of twists and turns, which makes it that much more intriguing to discover a part of Sarawak’s history which has received very little attention from the public, especially in schools.
Since the time of the first Rajah James Brooke, Sarawak had been knocking on the door of the British Empire to be taken under its protection, but the British were very reluctant to get involved for one reason or another.
It was only during the period after the Second World War that things started evolving significantly enough to shift the British from their earlier stand.
The British government was in need of funds to recover from the costs of two world wars and other Western forces such as the Dutch and the Spanish who were expanding into south East Asia.
The anti-cession movement was essentially a Malay movement led by Abang Abdillah with some support from the Dayaks.
But even within the Malay community, there were strong differences of opinion. Bujang Nor said that some Malay groups supported the cession as development implemented under the Brooke rule only seemed to benefit certain Malay elites.
As it was, Sarawak lacked substantial infrastructure such as roads connecting the major towns and centers of commerce.
“That’s why all the major towns in Sarawak are based on the river bank – Kuching, Sibu, Sarikei, Bintulu, Bintangor and even Miri,” pointed out Bujang Nor.
“But Miri was mainly because of Shell, but under the Brooke rule there wasn’t much development elsewhere. They weren’t thinking of development, were only thinking of themselves.
That’s why some people felt that it was time for a change of government.”
Bujang Nor agrees that some Malay anti-cessionists wanted the Brooke rule to continue because they held true to the Malay tradition of being loyal to the king.
As for the Dayaks, they “couldn’t care less” about whether the cession took place or not as most of them were living in rural areas and were more concerned with scraping a livelihood from the land.
For the relative few who were aware of what was going on as well of the implications, they – led by Philip Jitam – were generally agreeable to the cession but only critical points in the 1941 Constitution were upheld by the British.
The Chinese led by Ong Kwan Hin (Ong Tiang Swee’s son) and the Indians leaders supported the cession with an eye on the socioeconomic advantages Sarawak would gain from a closer relationship with the British Empire which would help accelerate development in the state.
Underlying sentiments The third Rajah Vyner Brooke himself may not have been the benevolent monarch that he wanted to appear to be.
Based on historical records, it is arguable that Vyner’s determination to push the cession through was primarily motivated by his concern for the native people’s future, as he publicly declared.
Bujang Nor agrees that one of the factors behind Vyner’s decision could have been because he had no male heirs, only daughters.
“Under the royal structure at that time, women could not take over – only men could become Rajah,” he recalled.
“That’s why Vyner was not keen to hand over Sarawak not only to his nephew but to his brother and why after the war he was very keen to hand over Sarawak to the British.”
Bujang Nor also highlighted the role of Vyner’s private secretary G.T. MacBryan who apparently had his sights on marrying one of the Rajah’s daughters in a bid to put himself in line to the throne.
MacBryan was also the man the Rajah entrusted the task of getting other Malay leaders to agree to the cession, including Abang Abdillah, which MacBryan did.
Lies and betrayal However, the Malay leaders later insisted they were deceived, saying MacBryan had not been straightforward about what the implications of signing the documents as he implied that not putting down their signatures would be seen as disloyalty to the Rajah.
Bujang Nor said he could not understand why the Rajah trusted MacBryan as the latter was twice expelled from the Sarawak Civil Service and had been serving under the Undesirable (Persons) Ordinance until he was taken by the Rajah as his private secretary in 1941.
The British Colonial office also found MacBryan untrustworthy describing him as someone they had “no confidence whatever”.
Perhaps the Rajah’s close relationship with MacBryan stemmed from isolation from his own family.
Relations between the Rajah and his younger brother Bertram was already strained since the time of their father Charles Brooke.
The second Rajah had lost confidence in the former as an administrator and subsequently put the latter in charge of the Sarawak Trust Funds which oversaw Sarawak’s wealth and audited the state’s revenues.
This move effectively curtailed Vyner’s power and enraged him.
“The British were not sure whether the time was right to take over, but generally they were very keen as Sarawak was very rich with resources,” explained Bujang Nor.
The British media and public as well as leading newspapers in Singapore and Malaya were very concerned to ensure that the cession of Sarawak was what the natives wanted.
Vyner and the British government were heavily criticised for seemingly trying to override the rights of the locals.
Despite much resistance and protest, the cession of Sarawak was put to the vote by the Council Negri on May 15, 1946 and passed by a narrow majority of three votes. On July 1, Sarawak officially became an English colony and the Brooke reign came to an end.
The aftermath The anti-cessionists objected strongly as the majority of the Council’s members were government officials and nominees of the Rajah. It was also argued that whether members of the council fully understood the implications of the bill being passed.
During the proposoal of the Cession Bill, Philip Jitam who earlier had seconded the bill, had crossed over in protest when he discovered that Anthony Brooke as Tuan Muda had not been consulted.
Pronounced dissatisfaction with circumstances leading up to the vote as well as during the vote itself fueled the spirit of opposition culminating in pro-cession rallies and demonstrations in villages and towns across Sarawak.
The new government responded by barring Anthony Brooke from returning to Sarawak and on Dec 10, 1946, the Governor of Sarawak issued Circular No. 9 which – as Bujang Nor noted in his book – “categorically demanded absolute loyalty from the civil servants and forbade any member of the Government service to indulge in any activity that might be perpetrated to revive the cession controversy”.
About 338 officials – 335 of them Malay – resigned in protest because they could not comply with the principles listed down in the circular.
A critical turning point came in Dec 3, 1949, when Duncan George Stewart the newly appointed governor of Sarawak was fatally stabbed in Sibu by two Malay youths belonging to an anticessionist movement.
Seven days later, he succumbed to his wounds.
Stewart’s violent death shocked the state and Bujang Nor was of the view that from then on, the anti cession movement struggled to find its momentum.
In February 1951 after five years of fruitless campaigning, Anthony Brooke announced his decision to end his anti cession activities, bringing the anti-cession movement in Sarawak officially to an end.
Final words Bujang Nor opined that the cession brought more benefit to the natives of Sarawak than if it were to have remained under the Brooke family.
“My book was based purely on an academic approach, but my father was against the cession.
At that time, I had no feelings. But now I realise that if the British did not take over Sarawak, development would be different.”
His father who was so close to the heart of the anti-cession movement also came to a similar conclusion before he passed away.