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IGC failed to carry through on the importance of English
Published on: Sunday, September 11, 2022
By: David C C Lim and Syn Chew
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The Cobbold team during hearings.
THE Cobbold Commission which preceded the IGC has been characterized by Dr Stanley Bedlington, the Cornell scholar as a “British contrivance activated and organized by British officials.” (Stanley S. Bedlington, Malaysia and Singapore: The Building of New States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978).

The historian, Dr Tan Tai Yong, in his book, Creating “Greater Malaysia,”: Decolonisation and the Politics of Merger (ISEAS, 2008) calls the Commission, ‘an Anglo-Malayan exercise’ there being ‘no cultural or social basis for the state[Malaysia]: Malaysia was strictly a product of political expediencies.’

One such example is the provision for the use of English as an official language and medium of instruction in the two Borneo states – one of the items considered by the IGC. 

Although the Cobbold Commission had noted that one of the long-term issues which aroused strong emotions is education and the use of English as the medium of instruction (Item (h) of the Report), the IGC failed to carry it through.

The resulting Article 161 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, providing for the use of English subject to a timeline that is arbitrary and without any inherent basis, becomes, in effect and practice, restrictive of the use of English in the two States. 

The crippling anomaly in the Article is that while English is allowed to be used as the official language in the states for the next ten years following, there is no corresponding provision for the right to use English as a medium of instruction in schools until such time as the state legislatures should decide.

The outcome, as expected, is that generations of Sarawakians and Sabahans were, and still are being, robbed of the opportunity to master what is now an international medium of communication. English has become an essential tool for any one hoping to be effective, and to excel in whatever field one chooses, including those of politics and international diplomacy. 

The lack of proficiency in the language in those fields is telling.

For Sabah and Sarawak, both hastily shepherded into a union that turned out to be far from advantageous, their fortunes, tied to that of Malaya, continue to slide to this day. 

Writing in 1997, the historian Dr.Vernon L. Porrit in his book, British Colonial Rule in Sarawak, 1946-1963, (Oxford University Press, 1997) observes that the election system in the new federation ‘left the Malays with a political advantage through the Malay-dominated Federal political system, the indigenous peoples with virtually no political experience, and the political voice of the majority of the Chinese discredited.’ 

He adds:

“In the absence of any secession clause in the Malaysian Constitution, the special rights of Sarawak within the Federation of Malaysia were vulnerable to erosion through any future changes in the Constitution.”

It appears Lansdowne had failed to appreciate the importance of having the right of secession to be integrated into the new constitution given the circumstances of the two Borneo states. 

Apart from his experience in the Congo the year before, he appeared to know little about Britain’s other far flung colonies.

Indeed, colonial Governors of North Borneo and Sarawak who knew the local population better than their superiors in Whitehall had at the time expressed their opposition to the merger that was being pushed on the two Borneo colonies. William Goode, Governor of North Borneo had reported that the state was on its way to becoming economically self-sustaining at the time. 

Sarawak was judged to be too politically immature for the proposed merger.

Even the Permanent Secretary in the Malayan Prime Minister’s Department, Dato Abdul Aziz bin Haji Abdul Majid, is reported to have said to Governor William Goode that “whereas in London he had thought the Governor’s attitude obstructive, he now realized they had only been representing the true views of the people.” (Tan Tai Yong, Creataing “Greater Malaysia” (2009)).

It is clear that the two Governors did express their displeasure at the hurried and forced merger: 

“The two British governors kept making statements which were extremely discouraging but Lansdowne was quite firm.” (Ghazali Shafie, ‘Memoir on the Formation of Malaysia’, (Penerbit UKM, 1998)).

Ghazali was frank on his opinion of Lansdowne: “At the meeting he [Lansdowne] showed very little political sense and even put up a fight about dates…Duncan Sandys had to control him.” 

Lansdowne in his report to the Colonial Office, End of Empire Project,(10-9-1962) had without basis, dismissed any opposition to the merger as being ‘Communists’:

“The only organized political opposition to the concept of Malaysia is from the Communist controlled left-wing of the SUPP in Sarawak.”

In fact, the very vocal opposition party in Sarawak, the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party had written a letter to the UN Decolonisation Committee in August, 1962, disputing the findings of the Cobbold Commission and stating that the majority of the people of Sarawak preferred self-governance. 

Stephen Yong, the SUPP Secretary-General, recalls the UN response:

“A reply was received notifying us that the UN committee would meet our delegates, along with the representatives of the Peoples’ Party of Brunei during the UN December session.” (Stephen Yong, A Life Twice Lived, (Estate of Stephen Yong, 2010)).

Unfortunately the meeting was aborted due to the “politically engineered” outbreak of the Brunei revolt in December, 1962. (For further details, see, “Britain secretly planned M’sia since 1953” Daily Express (Sunday Edition), February 16, 2020).

Thereafter permits for the delegation to leave Sarawak for the UN were withdrawn by the colonial authority. 

According to Yong, when the Acting Secretary-General of the UN , Mr. Narasiman, visited Sarawak prior to the arrival of the UN Mission, he submitted a memorandum apprising him of the actual conditions on the ground; that the majority of the people of Sarawak were opposed to the Malaysia plan and that they were facing hostility and intimidation from both the British and the Malayan government. 

Yong even proposed that the UN take control of Sarawak and Sabah in the interim while a referendum is prepared (OPEX?). The result was expected:

“I must have been dreaming to think anything would come out of the meeting. Neither I nor the party received even a courtesy note to acknowledge that we had ever discussed these matters.” (Yong, 2010)).

The opposition parties in the Borneo territories could not be faulted for their apparent naivety for thinking that the UN would be prepared to do anything for their aspirations to be independent. 

The UN had by then subjugated its own role in world affairs to the agendas and elitist dictates of the big powers. Others who had trusted them had found out too late to their grief:

“If Lumumba’s greatest error was believing he could choose his own allies while the Cold War raged, his other important one was trusting the United Nations. 

“He fully misunderstood its mission. In his imagination, it was a supranational body with the will and power to crush all who sought to break nations apart. Too late, he recognized it as a tool that powerful countries could use to impose their will.” (Stephen Kinzer, ‘The Brothers, John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War’ ( Times Books, 2013)).

If there is any doubt today that the position of the UN has not changed since, one has only to sense the Orwellian irony underlying the speech made by the last Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, on 18th January, 2012:

“In 2011, history took a turn for the better. The responsibility to protect came of age….at the end of the day, tens of thousands of lives were saved. We gave hope to people long oppressed in Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria, by our words and actions, we demonstrated that human protection is a defining purpose of the United Nations in the twenty-first century.” (Quoted in Diana Johnstone, ‘Circle in the Darkness’ (Clarity Press, 2020)).

The stark reality is that world has changed dramatically with the exit of Dag Hammarskjold; Libya, the Yemen and Syria cannot by any stretch of the imagination be seen as successful examples of states ‘protected’ by the UN These are countries devastated by war through no fault of theirs, but the subversive machinations funded by foreign powers, and have become a source of refugees for Europe.

For the two East Malaysian states, the events in the Congo in 1961, including the role of the 8th Marquess of Lansdowne there and in Malaysia, had perhaps changed their fortunes for the worse. 

However, all is not lost, for there is hope that their peoples and leaders having seen the truth will learn to do justice, just as the world will learn, as the Hammarskjold Commission puts it, ‘[that] the truth about an event of global significance which deserves the attention both of history and of justice’ is of the greatest importance.

Addendum: The report of the Eminent Person of the UN on the death of Hammarskjold is scheduled to be announced to the Assembly this September. It is hoped that truth and justice will prevail.

- In the last of a series, David CC Lim and Syn Chew look at what happened on the world stage when colonialism was being dismantled to understand the decisions that also had a bearing on the future of other colonies like British North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak.

 





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