Leaders in Sabah and Sarawak argued that too few people in the two states were asked if they wanted to merge with Malaya.
The road leading to the formation of Malaysia on September 16,1963 was a bumpy one, and as we discovered, more than just feathers were ruffled in the long struggle to create a new country.
We pored through history books, United Nations reports and dozens of legislation to find interesting nuggets about this development, allowing us to reflect on the bumpy journey Malaysia faced as it became a new nation.
Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo Island were merged – physically!
Even before Malaysia was formally created as a nation, the island of Borneo and the peninsular area of what is known as West Malaysia, was connected – physically. About 50,000 years ago, the island and peninsula were part of a larger Sunda Shelf, which was exposed during the Ice Age.
This area, known as Sundaland, had included Java and Sumatra, as well as surrounding islands such as Bali. Rising sea levels then caused major floods which massively submerged the Sunda continent, creating the South China and Java seas, and physically separating the Borneo island from the peninsula.
Evidence showed that similar species of animal and plants existed in Sabah and Java, despite having great distances between them.
Assuming if these areas were spared from the great floods, you could have possibly walked from Kuala Lumpur all the way to Bali!
Announcement of Malayan merger to journalists - in Singapore.
The news of a merger with Sabah and Sarawak was made public, ironically in Singapore. Malaysia's first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman announced the merger at an event hosted by the Society of Foreign Press in a hotel in Singapore on May 27, 1961.
He had suggested that the formation include the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak. This speech made headlines in the national papers the next day, with reports calling it Tunku's 'Big “Unity” Plan'.
September 16 is Singapore's founder Lee Kuan Yew's birthday.
Call it coincidence or fate, Malaysia shares the same birthday as the Father of Singapore.
He turned 40 when Malaysia was 'born'.
Balancing out the Chinese communities, fighting communism.
One of the main reasons why a merger with Sabah and Sarawak was introduced was to allow for better control by the central government on communist activities.
Soon after the second World War, the Federation of Malaya and Singapore had to fight long and hard battles against the communists.
The merger meant that the Chinese majority could be balanced out with Malay and indigenous communities in Sabah and Sarawak. If Malaya and Singapore stayed together, without Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysia (or perhaps by another name) could have had a population with a Chinese majority.
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Malayan merger caused Sultan of Brunei to abdicate.
Tunku had the agreement of the Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, for Brunei to join the three territories. But it was not to be.
Most of the Sultan's subjects were against the initiative. This then led to a revolt in December 1962. Relations between Malaya and Brunei worsened and after the revolt and the Sultan laid claim to Limbang in Sarawak.
Tensions were high and Brunei became involved in the Malaysia – Indonesia Confrontation at that time. With pressure from the British to join Malaysia, the Sultan stuck to his decision, and later abdicated the throne in 1967 in favour of his son Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Muzzaddien Waddaullah.
Over 80 % of people in Sabah and Sarawak said yes to Malaysia – but not in a referendum.
A special commission was set up and it found that over 80% of people in the two states wanted to join with Malaya. But this result did not come from a voting process or referendum.
Instead, the Cobbold Commission, led by the ex-governor of the Bank of England Lord Cobbold, gathered the views from some 4,000 people and studied over 2,000 memorandums.
These memorandums were from the public, various political parties, members of Government and Legislative Assemblies, municipal councils, religious leaders and trade unions.
Lord Cobbold worked with the ex-chief minister of Penang Wong Pow Nee, ex-Sarawak governor Anthony Abell, former chief secretary of Malaya David Watherston. Permanent secretary to the Foreign Affairs Ministry Mohammed Ghazali Shafie or popularly known as King Ghaz was also part of this team.
Calling Malaysia something else?
Malaysia may have been known by another name, if the Cobbold Commission sided with a few communities in Sarawak.
Non-Muslims from that state were anxious about the name Malaysia, reflecting similar anxieties about the decision of Malaysia's religion, language and head of Federation.
These communities felt that they may be pushed to an inferior position compared to the Malays and Muslims as a result of some of these decisions.
The Cobbold Commission however, stuck to 'Malaysia', as no others would do. In its recommendation report, the commission said Malaysia was appropriate, “in view of the geographical-historical relevance and its wide current usages.”
Citizens of Melayu Raya or Maphilindo?
There was a movement to merge Malaya with Brunei and Indonesia to unite the Malay race. This was an idea mooted in the 1920s by students and graduates of the Sultan Idris Training College for Malay Teachers, and then by Indonesian leader Sukarno in the 1950s.
If that had happened, we would have been known as Melayu Raya. When the Malaysian idea was suggested in the 1960s, the concept of Maphilindo emerged, with calls to unite Malaya with the Philippines and Indonesia, but critics slammed it for being a tactic to hinder the formation of Malaysia.
Malaysia's real birthday on August 31.
Malaysia would have been 'born' on August 31, 1963, to coincide with Malaya's fifth year of independence from the British administration. But Philippines and Indonesia strongly objected the merger, delaying the process of creating the new country.
Both countries initiated different campaigns to unite with Malaya and made claims of different territories in the region.
The Philippines laid claim to Sabah, and Indonesia leader Sukarno declared that he was going to 'crush' Malaysia. In the same year that Malaysia was being created, Sukarno launched an confrontation campaign using the Ganyang Malaysia slogan.
He was concerned that once Malaysia was formed, it would affect Indonesian rule as it could be turned into an extension of the British rule in the region.
The United Nations (UN) steps in.
We found correspondence from the Foreign Office of the United States, which expressed concern over the delays faced by the governments in uniting these territories.
Tensions in the region led to strong calls for a UN or independently administered referendum in Sabah and Sarawak.
A referendum would have allowed people in Sabah and Sarawak to vote for or against the merger, despite the Cobbold Commission's recommendations to go ahead with the union. Even Singapore held a referendum, which saw more than 70% of the population agreeing to the merger.
To diffuse the situation, the Manila Accord was signed under UN principles. Indonesian and Filipino governments supported the merger, “provided the support of the people of the Borneo territories is ascertained by an independent and impartial authority - the Secretary-General of the United Nations or his representative.”
But, instead of a referendum, the UN Secretary-General U Thant spent 10 days in Sarawak in early September 1963 and later toured Sabah. He spoke to elected representatives of the people, leaders of political parties and organisations, and according to him, “every effort was made to reach special groups like political detainees.”
In his final report dated September 14, 1963, he wrote, “the majority of the peoples of the two territories, having taken them into account, wish to engage, with the peoples of the Federation of Malaya and Singapore, in an enlarged Federation of Malaysia through which they can strive together to realise the fulfillment of their destiny".