A blast from Sabah's past

  • One Man's Meat
  • Monday, 16 Sep 2013

How Malaysia came to be makes for some interesting reading as the country celebrates Malaysia Day.

BISUK pun boleh masuk Malaysia! (Even tomorrow we could join Malaysia!),” Tan Sri Abdul Ghani Gilong told reporters in Kota Kinabalu after he returned from Kuala Lumpur in the early 1960s.

According to The Sabahan: The Life and Death of Tun Fuad Stephens written by P.J. Granville-Edge, Gilong was part of a delegation from North Borneo (as Sabah was called then) who were “shown projects and tangible achievements brought about (in Malaya) since Malayan independence”.

Gilong was impressed.

And today I wish all a Happy Malaysia Day! Fifty years ago, North Borneo, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya formed Malaysia.

During the weekend, I re-read Tun Fuad’s biography to get an understanding of why the man – of whom Tan Sri Khir Johari said “Malaysia, with Sabah, would not have been born, if not for Donald Stephens” – agreed to the Federation of Malay-sia.

There are still people in my home state Sabah who are dead set against our forefathers’ decision.

Tun Fuad (Donald Stephens converted to Islam in 1971) and other leaders in North Borneo and Sarawak had considered an alternative which was the exclusive union of three non-Indonesian states in Borneo – North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei.

“The idea appealed to the British Colonial power who did not want to relinquish influence and commercial interests in the region. But (Indonesian president) Sukarno’s plans for a ‘Greater Indonesia’ put paid to that suggestion,” wrote Granville-Edge.

“For the vulnerability of Sabah’s and Sarawak’s borders with Indonesia’s Kalimantan became the overarching issue. A slightly lesser irritant was the emerging contention of Philippines that Sabah had not been ceded but only leased to the Chartered Company (assigned to administer North Borneo).”

In 1962, Philippine President Diosdado Macapagal pursued his country’s claim on North Borneo, arguing that the title and dominion over the territory were ceded by the Sultan of Sulu to Manila.

This year, those who were not aware of such a claim were reminded that Manila has not given up its claim on Sabah. A group calling themselves “the Royal Sulu Army” was sent by Jamalul Kiram III, one of the many claimants to the throne of the Sultanate of Sulu, to invade Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu, Sabah.

In 1962, with Indonesia and Philippines showing interest in North Borneo, Tun Fuad asked himself: “What did Sabahans themselves want?”

His answer was “coming under the rule of Indonesia or the Philippines did not seem like the best route”.

“The years of mulling over the options for his homeland had helped Donald understand the big picture. The British Colonial legacy was something Sabah and Sarawak shared with Malaya,” wrote Granville-Edge.

“In Donald’s mind’s eye, a purely Borneo consortium did not seem to be the answer, it was obvious that the physical security of the peoples of the three sparsely populated non-Indonesian Borneo states was paramount.”

According to the book, “Donald also understood that the formation of a Federation, that included Singapore and the Borneo states, would allow a more equitable balance of racial interests to emerge: the Malays would be offset by the Chinese in Singapore, and the indigenous racial composition in Sarawak and North Borneo would offset the dominance of the Malays and Chinese predominantly in the western part of the proposed new country”.

In Tun Fuad’s view, according to Granville-Edge, who is his niece, “Sabah would be joining Malaysia as a partner equal in stature to the nucleus, Malaya. This supposition was to be the cause of much friction in the years ahead”.

Tun Fuad had insisted on the “Twenty Points” as he was concerned about Sabah retaining a significant level of state autonomy.

The most important of these safeguards were religion, language, immigration, tariffs and finance, special position of the indigenous people, education and Constitutional safeguards, wrote Granville-Edge.

“Along the way, the ‘Twenty Points’ had been amended, but the spirit within them was essentially retained. Sadly, subsequent to the formation of Malaysia, some of these safeguards were gradually whittled away,” she wrote.

“Ironically, some through Donald’s abang’s high-handedness. Down the road, Donald was to make his dissatisfaction at this very clear, not once, but twice in the years ahead.”

Then came the expulsion of Singapore from the Federation on August 9, 1965. Tun Fuad, according to his biography, was livid Sabah and Sarawak were not consulted.

“Donald felt he and Sabah had been lured into Malaysia along with Singapore. In the white heat of the moment, his thinking at that time was straightforward: since Singa­pore, Sabah and Sarawak – the 3S – had gone into this ‘marriage’ with Malaya together, they should also be allowed to leave together,” wrote Granville-Edge.

According to Tun Fuad’s friend George Chin, “when news of Singapore’s expulsion was released, Donald reacted very logically. He said: ‘The reason we joined Malaysia was to be with Singapore. If Singa­pore is out, Sabah’s position with Malaysia should be reviewed. And we must decide about staying or going’.”

Eleven days after Singapore’s expulsion, Tun Fuad tendered his resignation as Sabah Chief Minister to Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman after a round of golf.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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