Britain secretly planned M’sia since 1953
Published on: Sunday, February 16, 2020
By: Syn Chew and David Lim
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The new Paktan Harapan administration was recently defeated when it tried to amend the Federal Constitution to do justice to the Borneo States by undoing the 1976 amendment so as to bring back the original wording used to describe the constituents of the Federation of Malaysia in the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

Voices demanding the rights guaranteed to the two Borneo states under the Malaysia Agreement have in the past year not only sounded louder, but also more vociferous. This sentiment, seen by some to be mere parochialism, may in fact be inarticulate, nascent nationalism that, having taken root in the Borneo territories, did not hitherto find the opportune circumstances to grow due to the enforced merger made expedient by the exigencies of post-colonial regional politics of the nineteen fifties and sixties. 

Caught between the competing interests of the Big Powers of the USA and Britain, and of the interests of the smaller regional powers of Indonesia and the Philippines, the legitimate rights and interests of the peoples the Borneo territories had counted for very little, if anything.

Two books that did look at this “big picture” behind the merger of Malaya and Singapore with the Borneo colonies with clear authoritative details are Dr Stanley S. Bedlington’s Malaysia and Singapore: The Building of New States (1978), and Dr Matthew Jones” Conflict and Confrontation in South East Asia 1961-1965, Britain, the United States and the Creation of Malaysia (2001).

To be fair, Bedlington did mention that the “local leaders in Sabah and Sarawak reacted strongly and adversely” to Tunku’s proposal. His assessment was equally accurate in characterising the Cobbold Commission as a “British contrivance activated and organized by British officials.” That the “Commission was an Anglo-Malayan exercise was immediately obvious from the fact that it did not include a single Bornean representative.” 

Moreover, it did not conduct any referendum in either British North Borneo or Sarawak to measure objectively the wishes and inclinations of the people on the issue of the “Malaysia” merger to assist in its enquiry. Bedlington added that the population of the two States was subjected to “sustained pressure” by British colonial officials to accept the merger. 

Matthew Jones in his book noted that the Governors of the two crown colonies were sceptical of the Commission, with Governor Goode of British North Borneo calling the exercise “a farce’. However, he observed, “objections from the local colonial service were not going to be allowed to interfere with the priorities that had already been established in London and Kuala Lumpur”. 

It is this aspect of the merger that this review seeks to revisit in the light shed by a recent book that has examined in detail the real forces behind the proposal for merger, how the true wishes of the majority of the populations of the two Borneo territories were seriously subverted, if not deliberately misconstrued and ignored, and how the voices of opposition to the merger were traduced. The book, The Genesis of Konfrontasi: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia 1945-1965 (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2014), by an Australian historian, Dr Greg Poulgrain, reveals surprising facts that have been censored or hidden from the public all these years and, in the process, cast the whole project of Malaysia itself in a fundamentally different light. 

Poulgrain has combined archival research at the Colonial Office, U.K. with interviews of surviving protagonists of the formative era of Malaysia who had played various roles in that period, thereby challenging the conventional version of the formation of Malaysia. 

For these invaluable sources of information on and insights into Sarawak’s history, future historians will be hugely indebted to Dr Poulgrain as will be seen below from his exemplary interview of Capt. Albert Young on the discovery of oil in off-shore Sarawak.  Considering that the area of focus of Poulgrain’s professional interest is Indonesia, not Malaysia, his book covers a lot more ground than just the formation of Malaysia,and, remarkably, contains much new material relevant to Sarawak.

Poulgrain firmly places the origin of the “grand design” for merging the five British-controlled territories of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei at Whitehall contrary to the conventional accounts of its origin. Citing a classified Colonial Office paper, “Political Objectives in British Territories of South East Asia” of 10th March, 1953, Poulgrain reveals that the British government (Her Majesty’s Government, or HMG) was “engaging in deliberate deception” for, while paying lip service to the Third Rajah’s aspiration for self government for Sarawak embodied in the preamble to the 1941 Sarawak Constitution, HMG was already planning for “some form of constitutional association” for the Borneo Territories and the Malaya/Singapore bloc coming together as a “British South-East Asia Dominion” in the early fifties. 

On April 2, 1955, Commissioner-General Malcolm MacDonald informed the British Secretary for the Colonies, Alan Lennox-Boyd, that “the Bornean leaders are perhaps less aware than those in Malaya of our grand design.” 

Despite that, Alan Lennox-Boyd on November 29, 1956, informed the Governor of North Borneo, Sir Roland Turnbull, “The possibility of a federation of North Borneo and Sarawak and indeed of all three Borneo territories ... is a matter for the people of the territories themselves to decide.” Yet, as Poulgrain notes, at no time did it [HMG] envisage self-government by the people of Sarawak. 

However, it must be noted that the colonial officers in the two territories were initially adverse to the idea of a merger of the Borneo states with Malaya and Singapore which they considered premature. 

More concerned with their populations of different ethnicities living in harmony, they had in mind a more gradual move towards independence with the possibility of first forming a Borneon federation before a merger with their more politically savvy neighbours across the South China Sea, Malaya and Singapore.  The “Borneo Proposal” was put forward in 1958, but, as Poulgrain notes, it was already foreshadowed by the 1953 paper, so even though the 1958 proposal presented the facade of official approval, “there was already an alternative plan” afoot. The Borneon proposal was in fact disparaged by the noted historian on South East Asian history, K.J. Tregonning as “a disguised MI5 exercise”. 

Despite that, it is still widely believed and propagated that the proposal for the “Malaysia” merger with the Borneo territories was made by then Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, on May 27, 1961, to the Foreign Correspondents” Association Club in Singapore. The British had more than ample reasons to let Tunku take the credit for what was in fact their brainchild, given the potential of the material benefits at stake for Britain. 

It may be noted here that after the war, British interests in Malaya in the form of investments exceeded those that they had in India and the revenue from rubber and tin was sorely needed for post-war debt payment and reconstruction. The financial stake in having a peaceful merger of the Borneo territories and Singapore with Malaya was, therefore, huge. 

Lee Kuan Yew, having been elected the Prime Minister of the self-governing colony of Singapore, then assisted the British to push forward the idea at the same time consolidating his own party’s position against that of the Barisan Socialis [Socialist Front] whom he characterised, together with the Chinese opposition in Sarawak, as having been directed to oppose the Malaysia plan by outside powers, namely, Indonesia and China. 

Lee between September 13 and October 9, 1961, made the 12 radio broadcasts (published as The Battle for Merger) in favour of the merger. 

To Poulgrain, however, the primary impetus for forming Malaysia was oil, not ethnicity, even though much was made in the press then and in the mainstream books since of the Tunku’s insistence in having the Borneo colonies aboard in order to balance out the large Chinese population in Singapore with the indigenous populations in the Borneo territories. 

In fact, as Poulgrain points out, by the time Malaysia was formed in 1963, the Chinese were the largest ethnic group in Sarawak, according to the census taken in 1962. The real focus was, therefore, on Brunei which Britain was determined to retain as “the biggest single source of dollars in the Sterling area.” 

The oil industry being under the sole dominion of the Sultan of Brunei, it was to the advantage of the British Malayan Petroleum (BMP), the forerunner to the present Brunei Shell Petroleum Company (BSP) and a subsidiary of the transnational Royal Dutch Shell Group, to continue the one-to-one arrangement to maintain its monopoly. 

As early as March 1956, the Sultan of Brunei, wary of the merger becoming a means of an enforced sharing of its oil wealth, had issued a press statement rejecting the notion of Brunei merging with Malaya. 

This was followed by the redefinition of the maritime boundaries by Britain in September 1958 by the Queen’s “Order in Council” separating the offshore areas of Brunei from those of North Borneo and Sarawak. 

Poulgrain notes that the delineation of new boundaries for Brunei was in contradiction to the purported intention of closer Borneo association, and, from the perspective of the Sultan, this timely redefinition of Brunei’s boundaries could only have been interpreted as support for his wish that the sultanate (and with it, the oilfields) remain distinct from any merger, amalgamation or plan for closer association. 

Poulgrain continues, “remarkably the boundary line between Brunei and Sarawak deviated in favour of Brunei to include the giant South West Ampa oilfield in Brunei territory, Even though a solution for the decolonisation of the Borneo territories had not yet been concluded, this arrangement prepared for an eventuality whereby Brunei and its rich offshore prospects would remain under a British monopoly and under a British defence treaty.” 

Poulgrain’s interviews in 1991 with both Captain D.R. Gribble, and Captain Albert Young confirmed that the huge oilfield was known to the authorities in 1958, years before its “official discovery” in 1963. 

As for the oil in Sarawak territory, the British were prepared to surrender that to the new federation under control of Malaya. Sir Anthony Abell, then Governor of Sarawak, in April 1956 observed in a communication to the Colonial Office that “the politicians in both Malaya and Singapore were showing considerable interest in the Borneo territories “including its empty spaces, its potential wealth, and its oil”. 

Poulgrain inexplicably added that it is “noteworthy” that the Governor could admit that Malaya had “imperialistic design” on the Borneo territories, and then to treat this as a reason for merger. 

He observed however, that the prospects of exchanging the existing colonial master for another one would certainly not be welcomed by those Sarawakians (and Sabahans) with a historic fear of Malay domination. In fact, by 1949, in “Malaya, anti-Chinese sentiment [had become] enmeshed with anti-communism.” Public Record Office documents reveal that the largest riots – called the Communist Front Riots of October 1956 – were deliberately provoked, for example, in Singapore by the authorities to enable the arrest of some prominent anti-British activists. 

In addition, Poulgrain makes a vital contribution to the formation narrative by drawing attention to the shadowy yet critical, but hitherto unknown, role played by the Deep State of the British Establishment in the shaping the final configuration of the Federation. In the face of post-war demand for decolonisation, the UK, to prime her political successors in the areas she would be vacating, was motivated by “the need to ensure that the Borneo territories, Brunei in particular, would be politically and militarily secure.” 

To ensure that (political control ) was met, the “second-in-command of MI5 of Britain was seconded for one year’s term of duty to reorganise and expand the Special Branch”. From that point onwards, Whitehall moved quickly to protect most, if not all, of its interests in the region.

Of critical concern to the colonial authorities was the surging sentiment among the local politicians in the three Borneo territories for self rule before merger, and of pre-empting the merger by forming a federation of the Borneo territories.  A meeting was held in Jesselton of the representatives from the three territories, Ong Kee Hui, from Sarawak, A.M. Azahari, from Brunei and Donald Stephens, from North Borneo and a joint statement in favour of a Borneon Federation issued in August 1961. 

The insistence of the Brunei nationalist, A.M. Azahari, upon his return to Brunei after his participation in the independence movement for Indonesian Merdeka, that self-determination for the Borneo territories must precede federation, “based on the consent of the people, not on the fiat of the colonial rulers,” raised the ire of the British authorities in London. 

Poulgrain notes that “British Intelligence aided by misinformation fed by the British Malayan Petroleum (BMP) corporate intelligence network, continued to depict Azahari as anti-British, an “irresponsible opportunist,” and a subversive backed by Indonesia. On the role of BMP providing intelligence to the British authorities, Poulgrain has this to say: “Because [BMP] intelligence sources had the power to restrict information being relayed to Sir Anthony Abell, this would suggest that the Seria oilfields, and not Kuching, had become the real centre of political power.” 

An example of the depth of the research Poulgrain conducted on the subject is his reference to an incident recounted by Kee Tuan Chye in his book, Old Doctors Never Fade Away (1988). Having collapsed with acute appendicitis in January 1959 on the eve of the third PRB congress in Brunei, Azahari was not operated on upon admission to Brunei Hospital by attending Doctor Joseph Wolf because he was prevented from doing so by “strict orders from [the British authorities] higher up.” 

So Azahari discharged himself and flew to Singapore whence he had intended to fly to India for the surgery, but once there, the Indonesian Embassy offered a mercy mission to fly him to Jakarta for the operation.

He then spent forty-five days recuperating in Indonesia, thus lending fuel to the British Establishment’s narrative of the depth of his complicity with the ruling party in Indonesia at the time. Poulgrain, relying on his interviews in 1990-91 of Azahari then in exile, said that this deliberate depiction of Azahari as having a political affiliation with Indonesia served to alienate the Sultan from Azahari despite his close relationship with the royal family of Brunei. 

At the time Poulgrain did his research, the Azahari “files” had not been released from the archives, the files having been classified for a period of fifty years.  Meanwhile, the colonial authorities in Sarawak witnessed an awakening of political consciousness, brought about undoubtedly by the “wind of change” speech made by the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and talks between London and Kuala Lumpur in early 1960.

All this together with the preparation for elections to the new municipal and district councils led to the formation of political parties among the various ethnic communities. The first, the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), was registered in June 1959, with the slogans, “Sa’ati” and “Sarawak for Sarawakians,” aspiring for the unity of all ethnic groups in Sarawak to fight for independence so that Sarawakians could enjoy the abundance of their natural resources instead of being exploited by a colonial power. 

However, these first indicators of the infusion of a nationalist spirit within Sarawak were construed by the British colonial government to be moving in a direction that was likely to jeopardise “the grand design” of the British, who were then already experiencing difficulties trying to impose the same on their colonies in Central Africa and in the West Indies.

In July 1960, Sir Alexander Waddell, the new Governor of Sarawak, issued a White Paper, entitled “Subversion in Sarawak’, warning of communist activity among the Chinese educated. 

SUPP, aware of the attempt by the colonial government to alienate the general public, especially the natives and their leaders, from the party warned party members, “of people against the SUPP who were always trying to paint it red,” and advised “those with artistic inclinations and talents not to carry this pot of paint into the party premises’. 

In August of the same year the editor of a Chinese newspaper was deported to China despite the fact that he was born in Sarawak, and, therefore, technically a British subject at the time. Tim Hardy, then the deputy head of the Special Branch, Sarawak, recounts in his book, The Reluctant Imperialist (2009), what followed: [When news of a “communist organisation” (CCO) filtered up], “the affected governments wanted information. 

Malayan and Australian Cabinet ministers together with Singapore-based brass hats and big-shot spooks came to Kuching looking for on-the-spot-news. ... The Americans were prodding London – what are you doing about the lefties in Borneo? London prodded Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and at the end of the chain it was Kuching that took the jabs.” 

Poulgrain’s book confirms that the authorities went beyond just isolating the pioneer political party of SUPP from broadening its membership base among the indigenous groups to the extent of attempting to sabotage the party. 

The Anglo-American intelligence organisation based in Singapore, Security Intelligence Far East (SIFE), stepped in as agent provocateur to “politically engineer” an entrapment set-up. William Andeas Brown (CIA), assisted by Frank C. Starr (CIA) and John Slimming (MI6), in 1962 ran a covert arms-running operation supplying rifles to the so-called underground Sarawak Chinese youths with strong historic ties with the Chinese across the border in Indonesian Borneo. Sir Alexander Waddell later in an interview in 1991 with the author confirmed the involvement of the CIA in 1962 in instigating the “leftist” elements in the party by supplying them with rifles. 

So apart from these connections that were politically engineered by the Establishment, there was otherwise nothing tangible to connect the Brunei Malays in the North to the Sarawak Chinese located in the First Division at the southern end of Sarawak. This was confirmed by Hardy, who did not think much of the Chinese schooled Marxist ideologues that preached anti-colonialism and proletarian revolution. According to him, “What support there was for [them] came not from the advocacy of Maoism which few people either understood or desired but from its uncompromising opposition to plans to federate the country within Malaysia, a prospect that left the majority of Chinese fearful of Malay domination.”

The analysis of this British colonial officer of the situation in Sarawak on the eve of Malaysia is most telling: “On its part, the Malayan government more or less openly promised to bankroll any political party that would do its bidding in Sarawak. 

Five brand new parties registered in quick succession, each claiming to represent group interests but each in turn doing no more than provide the screens behind which opportunists hoped to lay hands on Kuala Lumpur’s money and influence.  KL knocked them all together into a pro-Malaysia “Alliance” which by “winning” the 1963 elections cleared the way for KL and London to claim that absorption within a Malaysian federation was confirmed as the choice of the majority of Sarawakians.” 

Azahari’s Partai Rakyat Brunei (PRB) was in fact “well penetrated” by agents-informers of the Special Branch including Zulkifli and H.M. Salleh at the executive level. This penetration would later allow Roy Henry, the head of the Special Branch, to engineer a “false flag” operation in instigating the Brunei Rebellion in late 1962. 

The penetration is perhaps not surprising, considering that the British secret service in Malaya had even recruited the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), Lai Teck, as a double agent for the British. He was the Secretary-General of CPM from April 1939 to March 1947 when he absconded with the party funds.  The Brunei State Intelligence Committee was linked to the Special Branch in Sarawak and Brunei. 

The London head office of British Malayan Petroleum (BMP) was also in close liaison with the Colonial Office. In the early 1950s, BMP had set up its own oil intelligence network which closely collaborated with Special Branch to look after its own interests, which no doubt included confidential information of the discovery of the giant West Ampa oilfields. 

The secret required political discretion to ensure that British interests remained paramount and, secondly, political manipulation, to ensure that those interests were implemented. 

Roy Henry of the Special Branch of Sarawak and Brunei in his open admission in 1991 to Poulgrain of his role in starting the Brunei Rebellion, supplied the key to the “spontaneous outbreak” of the rebellion in Seria. as well as confirmation that “Konfrontasi ... was a joint program set by British and American Intelligence.” 

When H.M. Salleh of the PRB executive decided in the absence of PRB leader A.M. Azahari from Brunei to launch an ill-prepared and ill-timed armed rebellion before dawn on December 8, 1962, those Chinese youths in faraway countryside of First Division of Sarawak, who managed to escape the dragnet of arrests coordinated by the Special Branch, had to flee across the border to seek refuge in Indonesian Borneo. 

In the wake of “Operation Cold Store” of February 2, 1963, in Singapore, followed by its counterpart in Malaya on February 13, 1963, “the leading figures in the left-wing political parties in Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya were detained prior to the formation of Malaysia.” The way to the formation of “Malaysia” now appeared cleared in one fell swoop with the arrest of the political activists who could reorganise and lead any grassroots resistance.

It is now clear from the evidence Poulgrain uncovered in the British archives and further supporting evidence gathered from the oral interviews provided to him by the British government and security service officials that these coordinated moves to put the blame on “the Communists” collectively, “was a political contrivance.”  The Brunei Rebellion also “cemented the relationship between British oil interests and the Brunei Sultan; and it led on to Konfrontasi which forced the decision of Sarawak into joining the proposed Federation of Malaysia” as well as securing Brunei oil for the British.

These research findings of Poulgrain have been confirmed and supported by the independent research of Dr Yong Kee Howe, the Malaysian anthropologist and ethnographer, in his book, The Hakkas of Sarawak: Sacrificial Gifts in Cold War Era Malaysia (2003). Yong documents the harrowing experiences of those who opposed the colonial authorities in their push for merger in interviews with the survivors of the era in his field work in Sarawak in the nineties.  

Yong has given voice to the surviving victims of state/governmental violence that had hitherto remained mute, unexpressed and silent in the written records deposited in the official archives.

Setting aside political correctness, Yong’s blunt characterisation of “the annexation of Sarawak into [the greater Malaysia Plan] in the context of the Cold War military gift economy” receives confirmation from two surprising yet conventional sources. First, the historian Dr Tan Tai Yong makes the following assessment in his book, Creating “Greater Malaysia” (2008): 

The Tunku was therefore clearly not interested in having Singapore; the real prize he was after was the Borneo Territories, and Singapore was the price he had to pay to secure it. … There was clearly no cultural or social basis for the state; Malaysia was strictly a product of political expediencies.

The second source is none other than Tunku Abdul Rahman himself, the former Prime Minister of Malaya and then of Malaysia, who in the early 1980s engaged in a series of conversations with Abdullah Ahmad, which was later published in 2016 in a book entitled, Conversations with Tunku Abdul Rahman. The Tunku candidly admitted thus: 

“Yes and they [the British] gave us Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore and so many other things in 1963 [with the formation of Malaysia]. The British could have given Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak independence, but they did not. Instead, they handed them to us”.

Given that its primary focus is on the Indonesian policy of Konfrontasi in response to the proposal to bring the Borneo territories into a federation with Malaya and Singapore, The Genesis of Konfrontasi covers in great detail the upheaval in the regional politics resulting from the proposal, in particular the moves deliberately engineered by the major powers behind the scene.  This review in contrast focuses only on that portion of the book that touches on Sarawak, in particular, the devious manipulations and stratagems driven by a hidden agenda to “push” her involuntarily into a federation. 

In this respect, the book deserves to be read by all Sarawakians, and, yes, studied, for it is an instructive trove of information that hitherto has remained personal or been deliberately kept hidden/censored from the general public.





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