On 27 May, 1961, Y.T.M Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, the Prime Minister, Federation of Malaya, at a press luncheon in Singapore made the proposal that a Federation of Malaysia should be created, comprising the eleven States of Malaya, Singapore, the three Borneo territories of Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei. The regularly quoted words of the Tunku were as follows:
“… Sooner or later she (Malaya) should have an understanding with the peoples of Singapore, North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak… these territories can be brought closer together in a political and economic cooperation” (speech made by Tunku Abdul Rahman on 27 May, 1961 to the Foreign Correspondents of Southeast Asia in Singapore).
Later, on 16 October, 1961, the Tunku explained to the Malayan Parliament the motivation and framework for the formation of the Federation of Malaysia as follows.
“… When considering the concept of Malaysia it is necessary to keep in mind that the independent Federation of Malaya has to take note of three separate elements and the special interests of each. These three elements are the State of Singapore, which is almost completely self-governing, the three Borneo territories which are still colonies, and the United Kingdom which has special obligations or duties in relation to the people of these areas.”
“… I will turn now to the problem of the Borneo territories in relation to the concept of Malaysia. These territories do not present the same complexity in the implementation of the concept as Singapore does. In a broad sense, it could be stated that the question is much simpler there, in fact so much simpler that they present a special difficulty of their own. The three Borneo territories have two political factors in common. First… vestiges for British colonialism. Second… their constitutional development has been very slow” (speech by Tunku Abdul Rahman, Prime Minister, the Federation of Malaya, in the Federal Parliament on 16 October, 1961).
Amidst all the rhetoric which accompanied the campaign for an enlarged Federation, the plan to include the States of North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei was, however, somewhat coincidental, for what the Tunku really wanted was Singapore. Nevertheless, the Tunku had one genuine aim for the Borneo territories – independence from the British colonialism. As he put it then:
“… it is our duty to help bring about an end to any form of colonialism. The very concept of Malaysia Plan is an effort to end colonialism in this region of the world, in a peaceful and constructive manner. We in Malaya won our independence by peaceful means and we are sure that the people of the Borneo territories would like to end their colonial status and obtain independence in the same way."
“… the important aspect of the Malaysia ideal as I see it, is that it will enable the Borneo territories to transform their present colonial status to self-government for themselves and absolute independence in Malaysia simultaneously.”
On the British Government’s side, it was not an issue to grant independence to the Borneo States (North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei), since the British Government had decided to allow these territories to attain their own independence ultimately. The question was one of timing and the form it should take. As one document puts it:
“… The declared aim of the British Government is to grant independence to all its colonial territories as soon as they are ready for it. Hitherto this has been thought of simply as independence fo North Borneo standing by itself or, more recently, in association with Sarawak.”
“… It is the view of the British Government that provided satisfactory terms of merger can be worked out, the plan for Malaysia offers the best chance of fulfilling its responsibility to guide the Borneo territories to self-government in conditions that will secure them against dangers from any quarters.”
“… Malaysia offers for them all the prospect of sharing in the destiny of what the British Government believes will be a great, prosperous and stable Independent State within the Commonwealth” (Extract from “North Borneo and Malaysia” published by Authority of the Government of North Borneo, Jesselton, February 1962)
Even at the point in time, there was considerable concern that the notion of ‘independence through Malaysia’ might not be the sort of independence that the Borneo States were looking for. There were those who were concerned about neo-colonialism. On this issue the Tunku had the following to say:
“… One reaction in the Borneo territories was that the Malaysia concept was an attempt to colonise the Borneo territories. The answer to this was, as I said before, it is legally impossible for the Federation to colonise because we desire that they should join us in the Federation in equal partnership, enjoying the same status between one another, so there is no fear that Malaysia will mean that there will be an imposition of Islam on Borneo… everybody is free to practise whatever religion.” (Extract of speech by Tunku Abdul Rahman, Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, in the Federal Parliament on 16 October 1961)
In addition, the colonial government of North Borneo had cautioned that:
“… It is necessary, therefore, for the people of North Borneo to consider what powers they are prepared to concede in order to bring Malaysia into being. It is understood that there should be widespread apprehension lest, in practice, Malaysia would mean that the people of North Borneo would have far less control over their own affairs than they exercise already, and that North Borneo would be relegated to the position of a relatively powerless province of a strong Federal Government situated 1,000 miles away” (Extract from ‘North Borneo and Malaysia’)
For this reason, in the same speech the Tunku raised the issue of constitutional safeguards:
“… Moreover in our future constitutional arrangement the Borneo people can have a big say in matters on which they feel very strongly, matters such as immigration, customs, Borneonisation, and control of their State franchise rights.” (Speech by Tunku Abdul Rahman in the Federal Parliament on 16 October 1961)
The need for consultation and non-interference in the normal affairs of the Borneo State was highlighted by the Tunku.
“… One very strong feeling was that they must be consulted on the future of their people and the future of the country. I have said on more than one occasion that Malaya can only accept Borneo people from an expression of their own free will to join us.”
Other observers noted that:
“… In conversation with members of the North Borneo delegation to the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee he (the Tunku) has made it abundantly clear that he has no wish to interfere in the internal affairs of North Borneo and is willing to consider sympathetically any proposal for the management by the people of this country of their own internal affairs.” (IGC Report)
Even the Colonial Government of North Borneo cautioned strongly that:
“… It would, indeed, be against the long-term interest of the Malayan Government to insist on excessive control against the wishes of the people of the Borneo territories, which would over the course of the years build up resentment and discontent leading to a repetition within Malaysia of the internal stresses and strains which, in recent years, have become apparent within the framework of Indonesia, and, more recently still, have culminated in the secession of Syria from the United Arab Republic." (‘North Borneo and Malaysia’)
Arising from the various public statements on the need for safeguards and conditions, formal steps were undertaken to identify these safeguards and to present them for discussion by political leaders and officials of all the parties involves. A strong starting point for these discussions was the submission of a Memorandum containing the ‘Twenty Points’ on 29th August, 1962 by the leaders of five newly formed political parties (The United Kadazan Organisation, The United Sabah National Organisation, The United Party, The Democratic Party and The National Pasok Momogun organisation). The Memorandum was a joint declaration setting out the basis on which Malaysia would be acceptable in North Borneo and embodying minimal safeguards in the form of Twenty Points which the parties considered necessary for North Borneo in its entry into Malaysia. The signatories to the 20 Points Memorandum were as follows:
The principles of the 20 Points were accepted in total. The implementation of the Twenty Points was discussed at length by the IGC and most of them were subsequently taken up and incorporated in the Malaysia Agreement.
Discussion of the details of the various safeguards and conditions is the subject of the next section of this Memo. Suffice it to emphasize here that security consideration and economic development were important motivations for support for the proposed Federation, which was identified with independence in the mind of the People. Certainly, there existed as expectation that the new Federation will be conducive to harmony among ethnic groups and economic advancement in the rural areas.
The process of bringing the Malaysia Project to fruition was of course a lengthy and arduous task. It involved, among others, the Cobbold Commission of Inquiry, IGC and UN Malaysia Mission. While these bodies all came to the conclusion that the leaders and people of Sabah generally “expressed strong support for the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia” it is crucial to note that their views were by no means unanimous. The main finding of the Commission of Inquiry deserves to be mentioned here:
“… In accessing the opinion of the peoples of North Borneo and Sarawak we have only been able to arrive at an approximation. We do not wish to make any guarantee that it may not change in one direction or the other in the future.”
“… About one third of the population in each territory strongly favours early realisation of Malaysia without too much concern about terms and conditions. Another third, many of them favourable to the Malaysia Project, asked with varying degrees of emphasis, for conditions and safeguards varying in nature and extent: the warmth of support among this category would be markedly influenced by a firm expression of opinion by Governments that the detailed arrangement eventually agreed upon are in the best interests of the territories. The remaining third is divided between those who insist on independence before Malaysia is considered and those who would strongly prefer to see British rule continue for some years to come…"
"There will remain a hard core, vocal and politically active, which will oppose Malaysia on any terms unless it is preceded by independence and self-government; the hard core might amount to near 20 per cent of the population of Sarawak and somewhat less in North Borneo.” (Extract of the Commission of Inquiry, North Borneo and Sarawak, 1962 – HMSO SMND, 1974).
The reservation exhibited by the people of Sabah (about two-thirds) as regards the proposed Federation served to emphasise the importance they attached to the provision of specific safeguards and conditions because of the uncertainty of their future in the enlarged Federation. The issue of safeguards and their fulfilment by the Federal government was very basic to their decision to form the Federation. Any violation of the safeguards would constitute a violation of the conditions upon which the State agreed to be a party to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia.
In retrospect, the vision of the Tunku, the aspirations of the Sabahan leaders and the consent of the Colonial Government as regards the formation of the Federation of Malaysia all converged on the important conclusion that:
(a) Sabah would participate in the formation of the Federation in equal partnership with Malaya, Singapore and Sarawak;
(b) The Federal government would not interfere in the internal affairs of Sabah, which would also be consulted on the future of her people and the future of Malaysia;
(c) There would be autonomy in specific areas of government;
(d) The new Federation promised an independence state and an improved economic well-being to the people of Sabah.