Ever since he arrived in Sarawak in 1962, Prof Michael Leigh has focused his academic life on that state.
His first book was The Rising Moon: Political Change In Sarawak (1974). Leigh has travelled extensively in Sarawak and talked to political and social leaders across the spectrum of Sarawak society. He understands the subtleties and the nuances among the different communities thanks to pain-staking research and immersion in life in the state.
His latest book, Deals, Datus And Dayaks, offers new insights into politics in Sarawak in the context of Malaysia’s formation.
In writing this book, Leigh had access to new sources that had previously been kept from public view due to their sensitivity to the British colonial government. These materials were squirrelled away for “safe keeping” in the British Foreign and Colonial Offices. Another valuable source of information were the records of the US Consulate in Kuching, then a listening post for the US State Department and the CIA. The third source were the Australian National Archives, again a rich treasure trove, as Australia was a significant player in Malaya during Malaysia’s formation.
The first chapter deals with the proposal of Malaysia; motivations of the various key players are discussed. The British were, of course, the prime movers, since four colonies were involved. In view of the rising tide of anti-colonial sentiments in the region, the British saw fit to reassess their role.
The Malayan experience had been a good pointer. Independence was granted, but British colonial interests were left intact. The British had handed power to the right people. According to Leigh, the British considered two possibilities: a federation of the three Borneo territories and a federation of five components which would include Malaya and Singapore.
The sentiments on the ground were, however, lukewarm. A commission set up by the Brunei Sultan found “almost 100 per cent opposition to merging Brunei into Malaysia”. In Sarawak and Sabah, major political parties were also opposed to the idea. They wanted independence before joining a larger federation.
Only Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore was keen on merger, to salvage his own political position. He saw merger into a wider federation as a way to neutralise his opponents, as tough action could then be taken by the Central Government without any responsibility being assigned to him. Both the British Government and Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, wanted a merger to prevent the advent of a left-wing government in Singapore.
Leigh then discusses in some detail how the opposition in Sarawak was weakened. The Ibans and Dayaks, who were the majority groups in Sarawak, were assiduously courted. Community leaders were brought to Malaya, to showcase progress that had taken place. Promises of similar programmes and extra privileges to elevate people’s livelihood were made. State autonomy was promoted. At the same time, they were warned of the rising threat of communism.
The Malayan and British Governments also appointed the Cobbold Commission to assess the feelings of people in the Borneo states.
The author then weighs in on the impact of the 1962 revolt in Brunei on the formation of Malaysia. The outbreak of violence forced the various parties to make haste with the larger federation. It also gave the governments a reason to detain leaders opposed to the idea of Malaysia in the Borneo states, Singapore and Malaya. Fearing instability and chaos, leaders who were not so antagonistic to the Malaysia concept were brought around.
In Sarawak, pro-Malaysia officials and organisations trumpeted the case for Sarawak’s membership of Malaysia rather than being a territory of Indonesia. Efforts were made to undermine the influential multi-ethnic Sarawak United Peoples’ Party which had been vociferous in its opposition to Malaysia.
Emergency regulations were introduced and the Malayan Government took the opportunity to ban newspapers, prohibit assembly, and arrest and deport political activists. The draconian action was successful in cowing opposition to the Malaysia concept among the common people. The result: Those opposed to the Malaysia proposal could not win a majority in the 1963 Sarawak elections.
With the opposition to Malaysia weakened in Sarawak, Singapore and Sabah, the British and the Malayan Governments accelerated their efforts. Concessions were made to make the new federation more palatable.
Sabah and Sarawak were given greater representation in the Federal Parliament relative to their population size, as well as autonomy over immigration into their states. Singapore was given autonomy on labour and education, but lower representation in the Federal Parliament.
Sarawak in Malaysia was not without problems. There were disputes over who should lead the government. Tunku and other Federal leaders thought that they could and should dictate terms as they did with the states in Peninsular Malaysia. But Sarawak leaders wanted autonomy to work out the state leadership among themselves.
The Chief Minister’s and the Governor’s positions were in dispute. The State favoured Iban and Dayak appointments while Federal leaders insisted on a position for a Malay. In the end, both sides asserted their Constitutional rights. The State leaders appointed an Iban Chief Minister – Stephen Kalong Ningkan – and the Federal Government decided on a Malay Governor – Datu Abang Haji Openg.
Prof Leigh also discusses at some length why Brunei stayed out of Malaysia eventually. Firstly, Brunei was a rich state with plenty of oil resources. So there was no need for Malayan resources to help develop the state, as Sabah and Sarawak required. On the contrary, the Sultan of Brunei was afraid that resources from his state would be channelled to other parts of the new country.
The second problem related to the position of the Sultan in relation to the Conference of Rulers. The Brunei Sultan maintained that he was the most senior of the Sultans and therefore should be the first Agong. The other Sultans in Malaya insisted the Brunei Sultan should wait his turn. And so the negotiations broke down.
Prof Leigh suggests that the British Government could have “forced” the issue with the Sultan of Brunei who was dependent on the British for his state’s security and defence. That did not happen because of the influence of the Shell Corporation which controlled all the oil resources, and therefore the economy, in Brunei. The company must have decided that the status quo would best serve its interest.
Brunei’s refusal to join in the formation of Malaysia also brought Malayan leaders into open conflict with President Soekarno of Indonesia who was sceptical of British motives in the region. He thus provided a safe sanctuary to rebels who fled across the border between Brunei and Kalimantan and offered them both moral and material assistance. Indonesia’s “Konfrontasi” movement that deemed the formation of Malaysia a “neo colonial” plot began in earnest from this period, in the early 1960s.
In his closing remarks, Prof Leigh weighs in on the problems facing the new Malaysian federation, given Indonesian confrontation and hostility from the Philippines, which laid claim to Sabah state as a part of the Sulu Sultanate in historical times.
Of greater significance was the internal conflict, particularly between the Singapore State Government and the Federal Government. And that conflict threatened to engulf the new nation in ethnic conflict. Already, ethnic riots had erupted in Singapore in 1964/65. In August 1965, the protagonists agreed to a peaceful separation.
In writing this book, Leigh has added one more feather in his cap as a scholar of Sarawak affairs.
Prof Khong Kim Hoong is Deputy Vice Chancellor, HELP University.
Deals, Datus And Dayaks: Sarawak And Brunei In The Making Of Malaysia
Author: Michael Leigh
Publisher: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre