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How Sabah Day and Sarawak Day came about
Published on: Monday, August 28, 2023
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What course the region’s history would have taken had Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore teamed up after the declaration of independence on August 31, 1963 instead of joining to form Malaysia on September 16, 1963

That was one of the unexpected options available to the three states when Britain ignored the fervent protests from Malaya and granted independence to the three states and left the region before the birth of Malaysia on August 31, 1963. 

The unexpected and dangerous developments annoyed the Malayan government. The Kuala Lumpur leaders feared that there was real danger of foreign interference and manipulation by outside forces in view of the volatile political situation in Singapore and the relatively inexperienced political leadership of Sabah and Sarawak. 

If by some remote chance Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore were to turn their backs on Malaysia and set up a rival union or go their separate ways, it could cause regional chaos.

If that occurred, the two years of hard negotiations on the proposed Malaysian federation, the resolute fight to overcome the Indonesian armed confrontation and the outright rejection of the Philippines claim to Sabah would be completely wasted. 

The Malayan leaders held their breath for two long weeks hoping that nothing untoward would take place. And nothing happened that caused upheaval during the two weeks of brief independence that Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore enjoyed. 

Who was responsible for this last moment political maneuvering that posed even the greater risk to the proposed Malaysian federation than the Indonesia confrontation and the Philippines claim to Sabah? 

And why did the British agree to grant freedom only for sixteen days to the three states? 

It was Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who masterminded the move ostensibly for his own state’s advantage. Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore were very keen that Malaysia should be born on August 31, 1963, as originally planned. 

The drama began to unfold at the August 8, 1963 session of the North Borneo Legislative Council when Chief Minister designate Donald Stephens asked that the standing orders of the House be suspended to allow him to introduce an emergency motion to reaffirm the Council’s previous decision that Sabah should attain independence by joining Malaysia on August 31, 1963.

Governor Sir William Goode, President of the Council, allowed the motion which was passed without knowing the full ramifications of the resolution! 

The Sabah Alliance National Council meeting the day after, August 9, hotly discussed Stephens’ motion and asked him to explain whether it was possible for Sabah to arbitrarily join Malaysia on August 31. Stephens could not satisfactorily explain and was asked to consult Kuala Lumpur to find a way out. 

At this crucial time, Lee Kuan Yew turned up at Sabah’s doorstep with a bold plan that stunned all Sabah leaders. Lee asked the local leaders, in particular Stephens, simply to declare independence for Sabah on August 31 as originally agreed and hold it in trust until September 16 when it will officially join Malaysia.

Lee had also urged Stephen Kalong Ningkan, Stephens’ Sarawak counterpart, to do likewise. 

Singapore would declare independence with or without Sabah and Sarawak and its leaders would also hold it in trust until it joins Malaysia.

When Kuala Lumpur learnt about Lee’s so-called bold initiative, the Tunku and his colleagues launched a counter offensive to stop the move.

The Malayan Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie was entrusted to dissuade the Borneo and Singapore leaders from taking the perilous and unsafe step. 

The Malayans worked on the British by urging them to reject or thwart plans to prematurely announce independence by the three states.

If the British refused to grant independence, at least Sabah and Sarawak would listen and the Lee plan would collapse. 

The British Governors, who had been bullied into supporting the federation proposal, did not cooperate with the Malayans.

Whitehall condoned their actions. Stephens and Ningkan flew to Kuala Lumpur to see the Tunku to explain the Lee proposal but the Malayan Prime Minister snubbed them.

Instead they saw Tun Abdul Razak, the Tunku’s deputy, who told the two chief minister designates that their intentions were illegal and unconstitutional. 

However, with the British being the willing partner, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore declared independence on August 31 as planned despite the strong protests from Kuala Lumpur. 

Lee had outsmarted Stephens and Ningkan by making them accessories to his bigger, covert scheme of using the two weeks of independence to hammer out with Kuala Lumpur better bargains for Singapore’s benefit. 

Lee would not dare to unilaterally declare independence for Singapore on his own. He needed Stephens and Ningkan on his side to help in his plan to achieve better terms of entry for Singapore.

Why did the British cooperate with Lee and ignore the Malayan protests? The British Governors in Sabah and Sarawak originally opposed the Malaysia proposal. 

They only came around it after Whitehall made it clear to them that the British government supported Malaysia and the two should ensure its success.

They grudgingly fell in line with the official stand. During the debate, the Chinese, the Muruts and some of the Dusuns demanded that North Borneo should obtain independence first before joining Malaysia. 

The Cobbold Commission made a similar finding when it said that one-third of the North Bornean’s were for Malaysia, another one-third wanted safeguards before joining Malaysia and the remaining one-third opposed the proposed federation and wanted the British rule to continue or gain independence on its own. 

The British were constantly blackmailed into giving in on many of the demands by the Malayans during the negotiations because Whitehall was eager to hand over Singapore to Malaya and save it from turning into a communist enclave in Southeast Asia. 

Perhaps they saw in Lee’s plan their chance to kill two birds with one stone – grant the two Bornean states independence before they join Malaysia and get back at the Malayans who had bullied them so far into agreeing to everything. 

Moreover, Sir William Goode had befriended Lee when he served as Governor of Singapore before his North Borneo posting. Sir William perhaps wanted to help his friend by granting Sabah independence on August 31. 

The move eventually backfired on Stephens, Ningkan and Lee because it was the last straw that broke the Tunku’s proverbial back. There have been many differences between Stephens, Ningkan and Lee on the one hand and the Tunku on the other.

The Tunku had been trying to prevent Lee and his PAP’S influence spreading to Sabah and Sarawak from the start. But the more he tried to ward off the more appetising Lee’s policies and programmes tasted to Stephens and Ningkan. 

Stephens and Ningkan were drawn closer to Lee as the Malaysian negotiations progressed. Moreover, it was Lee who was instrumental in Stephens’ change of heart on Malaysia when he convinced him during the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Singapore that the Federation would be good for all.

From then on Stephens always wanted Lee and his PAP in all groupings and discussions, including the Grand Alliance Party of Malaysia. 

The Tunku flatly rejected Stephens’ proposal to include PAP because it did not belong to the Alliance. The Tunku could not forgive Stephens, Ningkan and Lee for endangering Malaysia by declaring independence for their states on August 31, 1963.The Malayan Prime Minister would never trust the trio again. 

The Tunku saw in the triumvirate a real challenge to his government and set out to systematically chop them down to size one by one and eliminate them eventually. 

Of course, Lee had no intention to undermine the Malaysian proposal by setting up a rival union or encourage each going its separate, independent way.

That would be mad because even if all the three states were to combine their resources, they did not have enough strength at that point in time to stand on their own. All that Lee gained was some negotiating advantage. 

However, all three of them paid a heavy price because they lost the Tunku’s trust and confidence. And in the federation, the Tunku was the real boss.

The threesome were merely the pretenders. 

In view of his opposition to any special rights for the bumiputras, how differently Lee would have treated Sabah and Sarawak, particularly the indigenous peoples, had the hypothetical union of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore materialised? 

Would he have any success in keeping Sabah and Sarawak corruption-free and make them administratively as efficient as Singapore? 

What would have been the position of bumiputras of Sabah and Sarawak? 

These and many other issues come to mind for the so-called union of the three states that never really gained momentum. 


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