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Donald Stephens reads the proclamation at Padang Merdeka Jesselton, 16 Sept 1963.

by Stanislaus Yee
Some 16 days ago, on 31st August 2016, we celebrated National Day with no mention of how old the country was, unlike in previous years when the age of the country was reckoned from 1957. I wrote a few articles on this subject in the past, the last one in a collection of essays, Readings on development:

Malaysia 2057, published by Khazanah Nasional in 2009. Prime Minister Dato Sri Najib wrote the FOREWORD to this publication, As there have been a great deal of comments and discussions on Malaysia’s history pertaining to 16th September in recent times, I feel it will not go amiss if I post here an excerpt of the article I wrote on the subject to commemorate Malaysia’s 53rd anniversary. I apologise the article is somewhat lengthy for this forum.

In 2009 I wrote:

As the nation celebrated what was claimed to be the country’s 50th Merdeka Anniversary in August 2007, a fact of history bothered the minds of many who had half a century of memory span to recall the time when it all began:  the celebration was really about the 1957 Merdeka for the country once known as the Federation of Malaya.

On 31st August 2007, the country by that name would have turned 50 if it hadn’t ceased to exist on 16 September 1963 when the Federation of Malaysia was formed to replace it.

History does not lend itself to twists and turns after the fact. Unfortunately certain details may be glossed over or misrepresented in their interpretation.

Historically Malaysia does not have a “Merdeka” to its name, if by “Merdeka” is meant gaining freedom from colonial rule.

The 1957 Merdeka was not related to the formation of Malaysia, although it was part of Great Britain’s de-colonisation agenda at that time. Malaysia was created by the Malaysia Act, 1963, an act of the Malayan parliament made possible by the Malaysia Agreement entered into on 9th July, 1963 between the United Kingdom and an already fully independent country called the Federation of Malaya on the one hand, and the self-governing Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore on the other.

These three geopolitical territories gave their consent to federate with the Federation of Malaya. The 1957 Merdeka did not anticipate and had no direct bearing on the formation of Malaysia 6 years on.

Some people, surprisingly Sabahans among them, have brushed aside these facts as unimportant, arguing that whether the country’s age was 50 or 44 years (in 2007), it should not detract from the tremendous gains that Merdeka had brought to the country.

I maintain like many that historical correctness should not be compromised by considerations of post- independence progress and development, which are expected as a matter of course, not as a trade-off or excuse for ignoring history.

A great many people in Sabah and Sarawak object to having the nation’s age count from 1957. This is because they hold on to what they consider to be a historical fact: that the two Borneo states (and Singapore) did not join, were not incorporated or admitted to an existing federation that began in 1957, but were partners in the creation of a new one on 16 September1963, whereupon the former then ceased to exist.

In 1963 the participatory path to Malaysia was what the people of Sabah thought they would take, something that was stressed repeatedly by Malayan and local campaigners, and by British officers as well, when they tried to sell the idea of the Malaysian federation to the people.

Many Sabahans found it hard to accept being told after 44 years that the Malaysian federation, made up of 13 states they believed they were partners in forming in 1963, began in 1957 when the 11 Semenanjung states became independent within the Federation of Malaya.

The numbers did not tally and the facts did not tally. They regarded it as a blatant misrepresentation of history and an affront to the people of Sabah and Sarawak who are passionate about the way they became part of Malaysia. To many, calling the celebration in 2007 “Malaysia’s 50th Merdeka Anniversary” was as ridiculous as a man who had remarried and told his new wife that they should count their wedding anniversaries not from the date of their marriage, but from the date of his previous marriage. She would unlikely be overjoyed! Unless she was the kind of woman who could persuade herself that it was perfectly acceptable, considering the amount of jewelry she had been given and the good life she now enjoyed!

But there was another, far more important reason why many people in Sabah objected to have Malaysia’s age count from August 1957. If Malaysia was deemed to have begun on 31st August 1957, it could only mean that the two Borneo states were not regarded as partners in forming Malaysia, but were incorporated or simply annexed by the Federation of Malaya in 1963, like Hawaii was annexed by the USA.

That would have been a much less dignified way of becoming part of Malaysia. It is sad that some leaders in Sabah appeared to see no difference between the two ways of ending, or even not ending, our status as a colony or, sadder still, seemingly did not care.

It is also sad that federal leaders were not altogether mindful of these sensitivities. No doubt, Sabah had achieved much progress in the 44 years since it became part of Malaysia. That was undisputable and few would want to speculate how the two Borneo states would have fared, or what the British would have done, if they, along with Brunei, had held back and refused to be part of Malaysia. Such speculations would probably yield interesting conclusions.

I like to think that our state leaders led Sabah into Malaysia with their eyes wide open.  I believe the Malaysia Bill was attached to the Malaysia Agreement to let them know what they were leading their people into, assuming they understood it all. On entering into the Malaysia Agreement Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore gave their consent for the Federation of Malaya to table the Bill in the Malayan Parliament to include provisions for the three territories to federate with the Malaya.

When the Bill became Act of Parliament and was assented to by the Yang Di Pertuan Agong on 26th August 1963, the legislation abolished the Federation of Malaya as a country and replaced it with the Federation of Malaysia on Malaysia Day, which the Malaysia Act originally stipulated as 31st August 1963, but later changed to 16th September 1963.

With that, let it be said, “Malaysia Day” was accorded a place of honour designated by an Act of Parliament. As such it should stand to reason that the National Day for the country was necessarily 16th September.

Yet since its inception Malaysia Day has had no holiday to its name and has not been observed as such anywhere in Malaysia in its own right on an established basis. Every year it is hardly mentioned in a country with a penchant for celebrating and observing other dates that are far less important.

Perhaps all this while the federal government has been on a different wavelength. Perhaps it has in fact regarded Malaysia as merely a new name for the Malayan Federation. That seems to be implicit in the commencement date of Malaysia’s membership of the United Nations. As from 16th September 1963, the name “Federation of Malaya” was substituted for the “Federation of Malaysia” to note the “admission” of Sabah and Sarawak (and Singapore) to the federation. Significantly, the commencement date of membership of the renamed federation remained 17 September 1957. The change in the UN record must have been done at the request of Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, which seems to indicate that KL may have all along considered Malaysia as just the new version of the Malayan Federation with a new name and two large territories to boot.

So far the federal government has seemed adamant in its stand on the matter of the country’s National Day. However, if I read the present mood of Sabah and Sarawak correctly, the issue concerning “Malaysia Day” as being also the country’s national day could be revisited.

Granted, the proclamation of independence by Tunku Abdul Rahman on 31st August 1957 was a psychological moment for the people in the Semenanjung states, and an historic day the memory of which they would want to re-live and preserve for posterity. That is understandable, but Merdeka Day could be observed and celebrated without confounding history by simply celebrating August 31st as Merdeka Day, without mentioning the age. Sabah would have no problem celebrating Merdeka day on August 31, as it too gained independence on 31st August 1963 as a prelude to taking part in creating Malaysia. Sarawak too has its Merdeka close to 31st August.

As long as Malaysia’s existence is not by implication or otherwise construed to count from 1957, but from 16th September 1963, it is historically correct and all can celebrate the 1957, 1963 Merdeka in its own right with relish.

It seems a sad commentary on our political culture if the country’s leaders have no qualms about glossing over historical facts. What kind of legacy such an attitude will leave for the young in this country? Truly, ignoring 6 years in historical data is incompatible with the scholarly integrity that we would like our students in institutions of higher learning to strive towards.

There is also an even more serious danger: if a perception is formed that the government is not very particular about accuracy and is seen as misrepresenting historical facts, its credibility will become suspect right across the board, including the accuracy of the country’s official statistics. That will have dire consequences. Perhaps it is precisely to prevent that kind of political culture from taking roots that we must try to put the records straight.

The continued practice of celebrating 31st August in place of 16 September suggests that the Federation of Malaya’s independence is more important on the country’s calendar, even though that country ceased to exist a long time ago. Sabahans and Sarawakians hold the view that Malaysia should be the focal point of the nation’s devotion, which means observing 16 September as the country’s national day.

If the nation is to address anomalies, heal wounds and put things right, this very important matter pertaining to the country’s National Day deserves attention in earnest. Hopefully, when Malaysia turns 50 on 16th September 2013 its anniversary will be appropriately observed and celebrated.

Postscript: (1) PM Najib Razak declared Malaysia Day (16 September) a national public holiday in 2010. (2) There was a big celebration to commemorate the 50th Malaysia Day on 16 Sept 2013. The Agong went to Kuching and the PM to Kota Kinabalu, but as far as I know none of the Malayan states except Penang held celebration.


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