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1945-1963 - The Creation Of Malaysia

Regional association or at least cooperation in Southeast Asia had been a common topic of debate in most of the affected countries since World War II. Suggestions ranged from bilateral cooperation to an association of all British or formerly British territories, including Hong Kong, into a regional political entity. The first attempt to a formal association, which would have reached even beyond the area of Southeast Asia, concerned Australia, Ceylon, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand in 1950 and met with failure mostly because of disagreement on the form of association and on leadership. Less ambitious plans proposing association between the Malayan states, Indonesia and the Philippines or between the Malayan states, Thailand and the Philippines seemed to have more possibilities to succeed.

A strong stimulant for regional cooperation originated in the realization of the politically fragmented area's susceptibility to outside pressure concurrent to the gradual withdrawal of European powers. Especially serious consideration was given to China's uncontrolled population explosion, to its growing industry and to its rapidly increasing military potential.

Perhaps the first formal initiative to consolidate the Malayan states and the Straits Settlement was made by Singapore, which submitted such a proposition even before merdeka in 1957 and again after Singapore achieved statehood in 1959. The principal Malayan objection to such a proposal was based on fear from Chinese domi- nation within the proposed union. If Singapore's 1.1 million Chinese were added to Malaya's 2.3 million, they would have outnumbered the 3.1 million Malays (1957 census figures). In addition to their numerical strength, the Chinese represented stronger political and labor organizations, with pronounced leftist and Communist factions.

Singapore, to reduce Malayan fears, tried to develop a Malayan consciousness among its Chinese citizens and made Malay, and not Chinese, the national language. Many of the Chinese felt themselves to belong to Malaya, and it was feared that if isolated they might reorient themselves toward China. In terms of internal politics the leftist PAP, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, supported "independence through merger," whereas the Workers' Party, led by David Marshall, stood for "independence before merger." Only the Socialist Party opposed merger altogether, because British rule in Singapore enabled it to continue its "anti-colonial struggle" and subversion on the Peninsula.

In the second half of 1960, Prime Ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman of the Federation of Malaya and Lee Kuan Yew of the State of Singapore held a series of talks with Duncan Sandys, Secretary of Commonwealth Relations of the United Kingdom. As a result, the scope of association was enlarged to include the three Bornean territories of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (Sabah) and thereby provide an ethnic composition for the projected federation in which the Malays would have maintained their majority. When the plan was made public on May 27, 1961, it became the focus of domestic political controversies in all five territories and later evolved into an issue of international dimensions.

The announcement which expressed determination on the side of the governments involved sharpened the lines of demarcation between antimerger and promerger forces in Singapore. The crisis was climaxed in a referendum on September 1, 1962, in which the government provided a choice between three different forms of merger but none for the expression of opposition to it. In the compulsory vote, 25 percent of the electorate cast blank ballots to express disapproval of the merger, but 71 percent endorsed the most feasible plan of the government.

Great Britain supported federation because it believed that Singapore as a city-state could not survive long. It was even more convinced that the economically underdeveloped and politically unsophisticated crown colonies of Sarawak and Sabah and the tiny protectorate of Brunei could not stand on their own feet after British withdrawal. The British argued that complete independence would upset the economic balance and result in permanent political instability, thereby making the territories easy prey to an outside aggressor. By offering continuous cooperation and protection, the British also hoped to maintain most of their vital military bases and their economic interests. The British were also concerned about the rapid increase of the Chinese in Borneo, many of whom confessed loyalties to Communist China.

As in Malaya and Singapore, the governments of Sarawak and Sabah and the well-informed strata of the society favored federation. Although some opposition was expressed in the beginning by many political and religious leaders who feared Malay and Moslem domination in the new state, it dwindled down to the political extremists when special provisions to safeguard Borneo interests were promised by Malaya and Singapore. To ascertain public sentiment, a joint British-Malay group of investigators, the Cobbold Commission, was dispatched to Sarawak and Sabah in 1962, and found that two-thirds of the population favored merger. Based upon the recommendations of the Commission, the United Kingdom made preparations for the transfer of these two crown colonies to the Federation of Malaysia.

The situation was quite different in the Brunei Protectorate. Here a militant nationalist group had long planned an independent Brunei kingdom which, on historical grounds, would have incorporated Sarawak and Sabah. The dynamic leader of the nationalists, Inche A. M. Azahari, was in Manila on December 7, 1962, when his North Kalimantan National Army (Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara — TNKU) staged a revolt and planned to capture and force the Sultan to sanction their objectives. Although the TNKU has received enthusiastic support from its followers in the Limbang District of Sarawak, the little enclave between the two parts of Brunei, the assistance from sympathizers in Sarawak and Sabah did not meet expectations, and the 100,000 Indonesian "volunteers" allegedly promised by President Sukarno to join in the establishment of the Unitary State of Kalimantan Utra, never arrived. The Sultan escaped arrest and defeated the revolt with British and Malayan help within a few days. Some of Azahari's followers escaped in the jungles to the south and threatened the security of the territories through guerrilla activities. Azahari himself continued his mission first from Manila, later from Djakarta.

Formidable opposition to federation came also from the Chinese-dominated Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP), founded in 1959 and strongly supported by labor and Chinese farmers. The SUPP was suspected by the British administration of cooperating with the clandestine Communist organization, a small but powerful group which has infiltrated the ranks of the party, the labor organizations, local Chinese newspapers and secondary schools. SUPP opposition to merger has stimulated a closer cooperation of the pro-Malaysia forces. Profederation Chinese and Malays joined with Dayaks and other indigenous peoples in forming the Alliance Party, which in the June 1963 district elections won, together with independent pro- Malaysian candidates, 73 percent of the votes. No such struggle ensued in Sabah, where the pro-Malaysia North Borneo Alliance Party won 90 percent of the votes in that territories' first election in December 1962.

Merger as a domestic issue was still not resolved when objections to the creation of Malaysia were raised by two governments, that of the Philippines and of Indonesia. The Philippine objection centered around its claims to Sabah, on the ground that it was part of the former Sulu Sultanate to which the Philippines were the rightful heirs and which was only leased to the British. The claim seemed seriously to threaten the existence of the Association of Southeast Asia, which Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines joined on July 31,1961. Philippine President Macapagal suggested a Malayan confederation composed of his country and the prospective Malaysian components in 1962.

Indonesia did not support the Philippine claim at the beginning, but after the abortive Brunei revolt, it denounced Malaysia as a "neocolonialist plot" which was "against our wishes and our revolution." President Sukarno, echoing slogans of the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia—PKI) vowed to block the creation of Malaysia or if unsuccessful to "crush" it by every means at his disposal.

The expansion of the Federation of Malaya, which had successfully defeated prolonged Communist subversion and guerrilla war on the Peninsula, has obviously not pleased the Communists. The inclusion of northern Borneo territories into such a political unit also obscured eventual expansionist plans of Sukarno toward this area. But Sukarno probably had further reasons for objecting. He was aware of the fact that Malaysia supported Indonesia in its claim for West New Guinea (Irian Barat), but he also knew that Malaysia had given support to the antigovernment uprising in Sumatra; according to some observers, Sukarno had little sympathy for Tunku Abdul Rahman, a man whose social background and political success are so different from his own. Sukarno dramatically named his policy toward Malaysia as "confrontation" (konfrontasi) and from the very beginning threatened invasion of the Bornean territories by "volunteers" and hit-and-run incidents by Indonesian gunboats on Malayan fishermen and had alleged training of irregular troops for the "liberation" of Sarawak and Sabah.

Adverse foreign reaction to Sukarno's undeclared war and hope that a joint Philippine-Indonesian action might delay the creation of Malaysia caused Sukarno to strike reconciliatory tones and to give theoretical consent to federation in May 1963. Negotiators of the three countries met in Manila in June and agreed to propose to their respective governments the creation of a consultative arrangement for collective defense within the framework of MAPHILINDO (Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia) and the submission of the Borneo problem to the General Secretary of the United Nations for assessment of public opinion in the territories of Sarawak and Sabah.

Prime Minister Rahman accepted the United Nations proposal and in theory also MAPHILINDO; nevertheless, he proceeded with federation plans and on July 9 signed the final agreement with the United Kingdom setting the date of federation for August 31, 1963. The announcement of the agreement infuriated Sukarno, who thereupon pledged to activate his "crush Malaysia" campaign by military action if necessary. At a "summit meeting" arranged to avoid open warfare, Prime Minister Rahman and President Sukarno met in Manila late in July, where through the intermediary role of President Macapagal, Rahman agreed to postpone federation by 2 weeks to allow the United Nations sufficient time for assessment.

In mid-August, nine United Nations delegates began their work to assess the attitude of the peoples of Sarawak and Sabah toward federation. Two observers each from Malaya, the Philippines and Indonesia were invited, but the Indonesian observers never appeared. The United Nations team reported that two-thirds of the people favored federation, basing their report on review of the results of recent elec- tions and on interviews with some 4,000 persons. Meanwhile, the final terms of merger were worked out between the respective governments, first in Kuala Lumpur, later in London. Allowances were made for the differences between the various components of Malaysia, in terms of economic and political development and ethnic composition; specific requests were honored and in part incorporated in the new constitution.

At the last minute Brunei declined to join the Federation, mainly because the Sultan was dissatisfied with the determination of his precedence among the heads of governments, which also determined his succession to the seat of Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or Supreme Head of the Federation. Internal political opposition, presumably encouraged by the oil interests who found it more convenient to deal with the Sultan than with the government of a federation, and controversy about the division of revenue received from oil also contributed to the Sultan's stand. Neither Brunei's negative decision nor Indonesia's "confrontation," however, prevented the Malay Federation, the state of Singapore and the crown colonies of Sarawak and Sabah from raising the flag of the Federation of Malaysia on September 15, 1963.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2012 18:32:48 ZULU