Penang Monthly’s cover story this month is about East Malaysia and how it has always been an unknown territory to Malaysians on the peninsula. To start with, we need to remind ourselves of how troubled the beginnings of the Federation of Malaya actually were – and I don’t only mean the Indonesian decision to initiate undeclared war against the new polity.
The situation in the region in the two decades following the end of the Japanese Occupation of South-East Asia was fragile whichever way you look at it – states were emerging without clear ideas as to which nations they would represent or craft, or even about territorial borders for that matter; and international communism was seriously challenging the world order in the wake of the failure by Germany, Italy and Japan to re-configure the power equation.
Furthermore, the old colonial powers were in hasty retreat from the region, and were therefore fully focused on political and military rear-guard actions. The US had just inherited the front position where the Western world was concerned. That was the larger picture.
The influence that global conflicts and late-colonial expediencies had on Malaysia’s constitution and history was undeniably great. However, local political, legal and notional factors impacting the nature of the new federation turned out to have left more traumatic aftereffects than even regional events like the Konfrontasi or the Vietnam War had done.
Despite the close proximity and the common history, Singapore fitted quite uncomfortably into Malaya at that point. Its unionist movement and labour laws were much more developed than on the peninsular mainland; its largely Chinese population on the island outnumbered all other communities taken together by 875,000; and the two education systems were politically incompatible.
As we know, the split between the Federation of Malaysia and Singapore came in 1965 after two years of mutual enmity, and with fear of civil war in the air. Sabah and Sarawak stayed with the Federation till today.
Unlike Singapore, the states in Borneo were underpopulated and undeveloped territories, not to mention politically underdeveloped in 1963. When they co-founded the Federation, they were granted a huge overrepresentation in parliamentary seats. Singapore’s 1,750,000 persons were given 15 members of parliament, while Sabah and Sarawak with a combined population of about 850,000 would have 40. Malaya would have 104 representatives.
A racial game of numbers was obviously being played, stamping ethnicity deeper into the Federation’s DNA.
By most accounts, the East Malaysian states were “not ready for independence” and, given the global political climate then, the powerful stakeholders thought it best to stake an early claim over the huge expanse of land. As Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, noted:
“Time is not on our side. The important aspect of the Malaysian ideal, as I see it, is that it will enable the Borneo territories to transform their present colonial status to self-government for themselves and absolute independence in Malaya simultaneously, and baulk the Communist attempt to capture these territories.”
There was, to his mind, a grave need to absorb Sabah and Sarawak in order to nurture them towards political maturity.
The case of Brunei is another convoluted story where an armed revolt was staged by A.M. Azahari, who wished to unite Sabah, Brunei and Sarawak under one sultan.
These are all just part of an exciting story about colonial withdrawal from a region where nation-states were a conceptual import. In the search for self-understanding and inspiration for enlightened policies, Malaysians – East and West – would do well to learn more about their own history.
* Main reference: R.S. Milne, “Malaysia: A New Federation in the Making”, In Asian Survey. Vol. 3, No. 2, A Survey of Asia in 1962: Part II (February, 1963), pp. 76-82. University of California Press.