“SINGAPORE was part of Malaysia according to this map but not Brunei. May I know why that’s so?” my nephew asks when I showed him a recent acquisition. The booklet issued by the Sungai Petani Town Council to commemorate the formation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963 was truly a lucky find.
The front cover depicts a map where the member constituents of newly-formed Malaysia in 1963 are shaded in light green. These include the 11 states in the Federation of Malaya together with their three merger partners — North Borneo (now Sabah), Sarawak and Singapore.
“Brunei faced an internal revolt and never got to join Malaysia while Singapore was with us only for a brief two-year period. The going was tough during the formation of our young nation and its path was fraught with many obstacles,” I explain to him. Instead of putting his query to bed, my fleeting answer seems to give rise to more questions as my nephew stares back at me blankly.
After making him a cup of hot Milo, I begin regaling him with the interesting tale about how Malaysia came into existence some 55 years ago. “It all began on May 27, 1961 when Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra made a landmark announcement to create a ‘Mighty Malaysia’ during his meeting with foreign correspondents at the Adelphi Hotel in Singapore,” I elaborate before moving on to the events that unfolded as a result of the shock statement.
While Tunku’s merger announcement came as a surprise for many, including the British, it was met with delight by Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. It took an enthusiastic Lee less than a month to issue a response affirming his support for Tunku’s grand proposal.
Things proceeded at breakneck speed then on and by Aug 24 that same year, both Lee and Tunku issued a joint statement announcing that they had agreed in principle the merger terms between Singapore and Malaya.
On Nov 1, 1961 Tunku made his way to England and held talks with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. They agreed on the principle of merger and for the United Kingdom to retain military bases at Singapore for the purpose of assisting in the defence of Malaysia and the preservation of
peace in South East Asia.
Things however were quite different in Borneo when it came to matters concerning the merger. Unlike Singapore’s open acceptance, the three territories across the South China Sea were less responsive to Tunku’s grand plan.
Sarawak’s Parti Negara wanted Sabah and Brunei to first combine with Sarawak and form a single entity before merging with Malaya and Singapore. It was perceived that the approach would give the Borneo states a much stronger political clout and with that came more bargaining power.
Tunku was undeterred and started working the ground. He met up with Sabah’s Tun Datu Mustapha Datu Harun and several leaders from Sarawak like Patinggi Tuanku Haji Bujang, Patinggi Haji Abdul Rahman and Temenggong Jugah in an attempt to shore up support for his merger plans.
After several successful meetings, Tunku managed to make the leaders see things his way. The last obstacle that would later prove to be unsurmountable for Tunku was Brunei.
In 1959, Brunei’s Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III established a legislature where half its members were nominated while the rest were elected. Elections were held in Sept 1962 and the left wing Brunei People’s Party won all of the contested seats.
The Brunei People’s Party was in favour of joining Malaysia under the condition that the three British crown colonies in northern Borneo first unify under Sultan Omar as the head of state. The Bruneians felt that the resultant Northern Kalimantan (Kalimantan Utara) sultanate would be strong enough to
resist domination by either Malaya or Singapore.
At the same time, the Brunei People’s Party was linked to a local militia supported by Indonesia called the North Kalimantan National Army (Tentera Nasional Kalimantan Utara or TNKU). The TNKU was in favour of the independence of Brunei rather than joining the proposed Federation.
In an attempt to throw a spanner into Tunku’s plans, the TNKU launched a revolt in Brunei on Dec 8, 1962. The rebels, under its 34-year-old leader A.M. Azahari, began coordinated attacks on the oil-producing town of Seria where Royal Dutch Shell installations were targeted.
At the same time, the TNKU also launched multiple strikes on Brunei Town where police stations, government facilities as well as the Sultan’s Istana, the Prime Minister’s house and the power station
became prime targets.
In response, two Gurkha infantry companies from the British Far East Headquarters in Singapore were despatched to Brunei. They took off in a Bristol Britannia and three Blackburn Beverleys military transports from the RAF airfields in Changi and Seletar.
Their initial destination was Labuan but they were diverted during flight to the Brunei airfield after British intelligence found out that it hadn’t fallen into rebel hands. With the element of surprise on their side, the Gurkhas, led by Captain Digby Willoughby, moved swiftly to rescue Sultan Omar
and escorted him to the Brunei Police Headquarters.
The next day, thousands of natives from the Dayak tribes in Baram and the Kelabits from the Bario Highlands answered the call for help from the British. Capitalising on their excellent knowledge of the interior, the loyal natives helped to contain the TNKU rebels and cut off their escape route
The rebellion was successfully quelled within days when more reinforcements poured into Brunei. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. The revolt became one of the primary reasons for Sultan Omar to decide against joining the Federation of Malaysia.
The greatest challenge to Tunku’s plan came in the form of Indonesia which reacted in an astoundingly hostile manner during the last days of the TNKU revolt. While issuing statements in support of the Brunei uprising, Indonesian President Soekarno charged that Malaysia was a neo-colonialist creation designed to impose on the people without reference to their expressed wishes.
That accusation culminated in a series of heated exchanges between Indonesia and Malaya. Matters finally came to a head when Dr Subandrio, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, announced a confrontational policy involving both economic and social relations against Malaya on Jan 20, 1963.
Conscious that a war would be ruinous to a newly emerging country like Malaysia, Tunku did his utmost best to make peace with Soekarno. The months that followed saw a series of intermittent attempts to cross the political divide and reach an understanding but, unfortunately, nothing concrete was resolved. This failure gave Indonesia the golden opportunity to escalate the already tensed relations.
On Apr 12, 1963 the police station at Tebedu in Sarawak’s First Division was attacked and captured by aggressors who came from Kalimantan. That incident is widely recognised as the flashpoint which sparked the Confrontation.
At this juncture, I produce a stack of letters sent to a Malaysian army officer serving in Tawau, Sabah. Almost immediately, my eagle-eyed nephew points out that they were all written between 1964 and 1968, covering a span of almost five years after the formation of Malaysia.
“Did Tunku’s greatest fear come true? Did we have to do battle with one of our most important and closest neighbours?” he asks in rapid succession. I look at him and raise my index finger to my lips to advocate patience before resuming my story.
During those early days, the raids, sabotage and attempted subversions on Sabah and Sarawak relied heavily on local volunteers trained by the Indonesian Army. With the passage of time, the militia became more organised with the inclusion of a larger component of the Indonesian military.
In May 1963, Indonesia’s President Sukarno and Tunku held talks and agreed that a referendum would be held before the Federation of Malaysia was formed. In that agreement, Sukarno gave his word that Indonesia wouldn’t stand in the way if the people of Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei supported the Federation.
Confident of success, Tunku proceeded to sign the London Agreement on July 9 where it was settled that the Federation of Malaysia would be formed on Aug 31, 1963. This was then revised to a later date due to several unresolved matters, including talks with Manila regarding its territorial claim
On Aug 29, 1963 Tunku officially announced that the Federation of Malaysia would be formed a little more than a fortnight later. Indonesia saw the act as a breach of faith and was deeply infuriated.
Despite the unresolved problem, Tunku made his way to Stadium Merdeka on Sept 16, 1963 and joined 30,000 Malaysians in celebrating the birth of their new nation.
Exactly nine days later, President Sukarno publicly announced the beginning of a campaign which he termed ‘Ganyang Malaysia’ (Crush Malaysia). From that day onwards, the Confrontation escalated dramatically into open cross-border military attacks in Sabah and Sarawak.
At the same time, the other parts of Malaysia across the South China Sea were also not spared. A letter in my collection sent from a member of Singapore’s 1st Malay Infantry Regiment stationed at the Ulu Pandan Camp on June 21, 1965 described in detail several landings by Indonesian troops in Johor and Singapore.
Between June and July 1964, Indonesian army units infiltrated Singapore with instructions to destroy transportation and other links between the island and Johore. Singapore was also hit by a wave of bombings with the first explosive device detonated just eight days after it joined Malaysia. The worst
incident happened when two people were killed while 33 others were injured when MacDonald House in Orchard Road was attacked on March 10, 1965.
Fortunately, the Malay Regiments, together with the British, Gurkha and other Commonwealth troops took swift action and began launching numerous successful offensives to repel the infiltrators
on both sides of the South China Sea. Their actions stemmed the tide of aggression and prevented further widespread incursions.
RETURN TO NORMALITY
Hostility towards Malaysia decreased dramatically after Sept 30, 1965 when the Indonesian army crushed an attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party (Parti Komunis Indonesia or PKI).
The aftermath of the failed takeover saw a massive crackdown of the PKI members. By March 1966, Sukarno, whose support base lay with the PKI, was forced to transfer power to General Suharto. Suharto immediately placed the former President under house arrest and ordered an and to the Confrontation.
On Aug 11, 1966 a peace treaty signed with Kuala Lumpur paved the way for the re-establishment of normal relations with Malaysia and Singapore.
As my story draws to a close, I notice that my nephew had become visibly quieter, presumably digesting everything that he’d heard. While helping to return my precious possessions to their rightful place in the cupboard, he vows never again to take our nation’s peace for granted.
His declaration to make future Malaysia Day celebrations more meaningful and special brings a lump to my throat. It certainly augurs well for our nation if all Malaysians were to share the same thoughts like his.
Hopefully we can all join hands and work together as one to preserve the hard-fought peace and security that came at a heavy toll during the birth of our beloved nation, Malaysia.