KUCHING: The Sarawak government declares today a public holiday for the first time to mark the date when the state gained self government from the British colony as a prelude to forming Malaysia together with North Borneo (Sabah), Singapore and Malaya in 1963.
On April 22 Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem declared July 22 a public holiday for Sarawak in honour of past leaders who led the state towards independence.
University of New South Wales Canberra senior lecturer in International and Political Studies Dr John Walker when contacted yesterday said Sarawak remained self-governing until Sept 16, 1963 when Malaysia was formed.
Walker pointed out that self government is not independence but it meant that Sarawakians were responsible for governing Sarawak.
A political science senior lecturer Dr Neilson Ilan Mersat said the first Sarawak Cabinet formed on July 22, 1963 was only part of the constitutional reforms that paved the way for the formation of Malaysia.
“It is unbelievable that the British would grant Sarawak total independence as we understand it today because the early1960s was the height of communism in South East Asia.
I concur with a prominent political scientist on Sarawak, Prof Michael Leigh and our local historian Datu Sanib Said that Sept 16 was Independence Day for Sarawak through the formation of Malaysia,” he said.
Ilan pointed out that the last British governor Sir Alexander Wadell only stepped down on Sept 15, 1963.
“The British were worried that the domino theory would become a reality in South East Asia. The communism threat was real in Sarawak at that time. However I support the public holiday, but call it something else,” Ilan explained.
He pointed out that communist influence, communist infiltration, communist subversion, and communist elements were mentioned not less than 29 times in the Cobbold Commission Report 1962 indicating the seriousness of the communism threat then.
“In fact SUPP opposed the formation of Malaysia from day one and throughout the 1960s because they demanded that Sarawak be granted independence first. After that they can decide whether to be part of Malaysia or not. That was their argument then and I am sure the veterans still remember this,” he stressed.
An associate professor in socio-culture Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi said Sarawak Day was declared with the aim of gaining people’s support through politics and social agenda.
However the celebration and public holiday are useful to remind Malaysians of the early process of ‘independence’ for Sarawak, he said.
“We have to understand that Sarawak did not only exist after the formation of Malaysia but is in fact older than most want it to be,” he said.
Awang Azman said not many knew the significance of the date Sept 24, 1941 when the White Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke mooted the Constitution of Sarawak in conjunction with the 100 years of Brooke Rule in Sarawak.
The constitution, he said, emphasised the aspect of giving power to the people of Sarawak. The constitution was in written form but it was not implemented due to the outbreak of Second World War.
On July 14, Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg specifically said Sarawakians should not observe July 22 as Independence Day.
Abang Johari recalled that July 22, 1963 was the date when Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan was appointed Sarawak Chief Minister and when the Supreme Council comprising Sarawak’s first ministerial cabinet was formed.
As such he did not agree that the state should celebrate its independence day on that date as it was not fully independent until Sept 16, 1963.
He reasoned that when the Malaysia Agreement was signed on July 9, 1963 right up to Sept 15, 1963, Sir Alexander Wadell was still occupying the Astana and serving as governor of the British colony.
Personally he thought that Sept 16 should be celebrated as Sarawak Independence Day.
Before Sept 16, 1963 the Union Jack still flew over the Astana, and when he was 11 years old Sarawak gained its full independence when his father Tun Datuk Abang Openg Sapiee was sworn in as its first governor.
“Whatever it is, I’ll just leave it to historians on why we should consider July 22 Independence Day. This is just my personal opinion,” he said.