Tracing the origins of Malaysia

Tracing the origins of Malaysia

MALAYSIA - The famous announcement on May 27, 1961 by Tunku Abdul Rahman, then the Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, calling for forging closer political and economic cooperation between Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak, is generally taken as the starting point for the formation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963. The roots of the Malaysia scheme, however, go further back in time and were embedded in British plans hatched in 1942 for the decolonisation of South-East Asia in the post-Second World War period.

In fact, such an idea was first suggested in 1893 by Lord Brassey, director of the British North Borneo Company, who proposed the amalgamation of all British possessions in South-East Asia into "one large colony". Brassey's proposal, however, did not find favour with the British Government.

The outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent capture of all British colonial possessions in South-East Asia by the Japanese changed everything. The British felt humiliated and partly laid the blame for their defeat on the disunited nature of their territorial possessions in South-East Asia which made it difficult to organise a coordinated defence.

In 1942, the Colonial Office led by its Eastern Department headed by G. Edward Gent began to lay plans for a more coordinated post-war policy in South-East Asia. This policy was founded on two principles: preparing dependent territories for the goal of self-rule, and integrating smaller units into larger political blocs.

The justification given for the second objective was administrative efficiency, economic development, political stability and defence viability. Anchoring their policy on these two principles, the Colonial Office laid plans for a "Grand Design" in South-East Asia after the Second World War. This called for the creation of a "union", a "federation"; a "confederation" or a "dominion" of all British territories in the Malayan-Borneo region.

This large union or federation was to include the Malay states, Straits Settlements, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei. This "Grand Design", which may be appropriately named the "Colonial Malaysia Scheme", was to be achieved gradually and in stages beginning with political integration in two separate blocs, that is, between Malaya and Singapore on the one hand, and between the Borneo territories on the other.

Confirming this line of action, J. D. Higham of the Colonial Office minuted on Jan 20, 1953 as follows: "Our original idea was that Malaya and Singapore would form one bloc and Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei, another, and that the two blocs might then merge into some sort of confederation."

From 1946 to 1949, and even later, the British Government wished to push ahead with the process of integration within the two blocs, but political, strategic and economic exigencies and contingencies on the ground, such as the importance of maintaining Singapore as a naval base, the desire to push the Malayan Union proposals in Malaya, managing the Anti-Cession movement in Sarawak, and the wide gap in the political, economic and social development between the Malayan and Borneo territories, hindered all attempts to bring about any union within these blocs.

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