It’s Sept 16
By Puvaneswary Devindran
While he also had this printed as the title of his introduction in the books he had authored, these three little but powerful words could very well sum up everything needed to be said about the significance of Sept 16 to all Sarawakians.
“People don’t seem to understand or seem not to pay enough attention. Malaysia came into existence on Sept 16. Not Aug 31 which has no meaning to us Sarawakians,” he said in a fatherly tone which gave added piquancy to the aroma of thick coffee lingering in his office.
True to the testaments of other journalists who had covered this ‘grand old man of Sarawak politics’ before, Wong, even at 86, commands a conversation very well with his quick wits and blunt statements.
“He always has a knack for words with a bagful of useful phrases, idioms and proverbs,” a fellow journalist noted.
Wong’s interview on the subject of Sept 16 seemed long overdue, especially in these couple of years following talks about how important it was and how it should be celebrated.
Never mind that the date had been politicised somewhat, it is still an important day in Malaysia’s history and thesundaypost and its sister paper See Hua Daily News felt Wong’s opinion mattered.
“It is the day Malaysia was formed. If they want to celebrate on Aug 31, that’s up to them. In my heart, I know it’s Sept 16,” he said.
Obviously, respect for this date (Sept 16) runs deep in the heart of this paramount leader who played a pioneering role in Malaysia’s formation and in placing the nation in the eyes of world.
A telegram to Wong during a timber cruise in Baram in 1961 officially snowballed him into the quest to form Malaysia.
The telegram carried an invitation from the late Donald Stephens (later Tun Fuad Stephens) to come to Jesselton — now Kota Kinabalu — to meet and discuss Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj’s offer to form a federation.
Before this, the idea of forming Malaysia was introduced to the Tunku, who, on May 27, 1961, at a luncheon press conference in Singapore, made the surprise offer of forming a federation, comprising the four territories — Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah.
Wong apparently was no stranger to the idea, having been consulted before on the possibility of forming such a federation but nothing appeared concrete till then.
Accepting the invitation from Donald Stephens led to his appoinment as a delegate to the ‘Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee’ (MSCC), which frequently met to explore ideas of forming the Federation of Malaysia. At that point, Wong was only a Council Negeri member from Limbang.
Flipping through the pages of one of his books, Wong, who also happens to be the sole surviving member of the Sarawak delegation to the MSCC, pointed out that the best solution was to have a strong federation with special privileges and autonomy reserved for Sarawak and Sabah.
“It was impossible to even think Sarawak could make it on its own at that time,” he said.
As he put it, it was really a Hobson’s choice.
For one, Sarawakians did not have the expertise, experience and maturity to run their country if it were to become independent.
Sarawak was also short of financial resources, raking in RM75 million a year at that time.
“We had only little oil in Miri and we had not gone into gas discovery. Not to mention timber was not on yet. In fact, I arranged the first shipment of timber in the 1960s. We were still a broke country then,” he said matter-of-factly.
Moreover, Sarawak was facing threats from the Clandestine Communist Organisation (CCO) and its next door neighbour, Indonesia.
The concept of Malaysia was even more encouraging as the state had confidence in Singapore, Malaya and Sabah since they all had the same legislative system and government and were English-speaking, Wong said.
He shuddered at the thought of the threat posed by the CCO in the mid-50’s, especially one incident when a policeman was killed in Serian.
He too was not spared the terror when the CCO delivered two live bullets to his home as a ‘writing on the wall’ for being supportive of Malaysia’s formation.
However, his greatest fear was the possibility of a racial war breaking out among the 24 different ethnic races in Sarawak. With the people being very ‘clannish’ at that time, he feared the CCO would resort to instigating such a war and cause a bloodbath.
“What worried me then was if one of the CCO cadres were to dress like an Iban and go and kill a Malay for instance, then Sarawak could end up like the Congo,” he noted.
Wong also commended the formation of local councils in 1947 which were able to inculcate the teamwork culture in the people.
“We could not have defended ourselves. We did not have an army, our police force was very small. We could not have survived,” he said.
Meanwhile, once the MSCC had decided to federate, the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) was formed to discuss and draft the terms and conditions of the Constitution of Malaysia.
Here, Wong pointed out that in the case of Sarawak, special clauses were put in to guarantee that among others, land, civil service, local government and immigration would come under the state autonomy of Sarawak.
“I came up with my books because there were some complaints by one of the federal ministers on our immigration laws. He asked why must West Malaysians enter Sarawak with a passport.
“But he forgets that immigration is one of the autonomy given to Sarawak. You see, when Malaysia was formed, everyone had their rights. The states in West Malaysia have their own sultans and state governments, so we have our own too,” he explained.
On the oil royalty for Sarawak, Wong said: “It was discussed before (in the 1970s) that we wanted 15 per cent royalty but only got five per cent.”
He said Sabah also had five per cent oil royalty although according to recent newspapers reports, its former Chief Minister Datuk Harris Mohd Salleh had demanded more — 25 per cent to be exact.
Wong pointed out that Sarawak too should be getting up to 15 to 25 per cent in royalties.
The state government, he said, should stick to the London Agreement (Malaysian Agreement) signed in London.
Wong believed it was important for all Sarawakians to know their place in Malaysia, particularly their rights.
“Sabah gave away their rights on immigration when they gave away Labuan. When you go to Labuan, you can get into Sabah easily.”
He said it was unfortunate Malaysians in Sarawak in their 40s and even 50s, seemed ignorant or did not have the opportunity to know how Malaysia came about because at the time of the formation of Malaysia, those within this age group were still too young to understand the change that had taken place.
“Make no mistake about it. But for the grace of God and Malaysia, the fate of these Malaysians who I refer to would have been very different today. That’s why it’s so important for them to know the historical origin of Malaysia,” he said, reading from an excerpt of his book.
Looking at the current scenario, Wong said Sarawak had indeed progressed well but the most treasured essence of all was Sarawak had peace.
He reminded that other countries were not as fortunate as Malaysia — even the weather here is so kind and so Malaysians are indeed very lucky.
Wong pooh-poohed the Permatang Pauh by-election incident, which saw Umno chief for Bukit Bendera, Datuk Ahmad Ismail, labelling Chinese as immigrants.
He said this was not the government’s policy but rather an individual issue.
Although not denying the possibility of ‘some’ politicians resorting to racial issues to gain political mileage, he agreed it was not proper to blame the whole community just because of one individual.
“But I have no regrets — because if we do not have Malaysia, God help us.
“So there are advantages and disadvantages in being part of the federation,” he said.
Still, Wong feels disappointed and sad that the federal government has failed to recognise Sept 16.
To him, one of the biggest misconceptions some Malaysians might have is Sarawak joined Malaysia when truth be told, it helped form Malaysia.
Asked if Sarawak had ever requested for Sept 16 to be recognised, he said: “Look, you will always have as much right as you are prepared to fight for. On Aug 31, see how we celebrated it? But officially, it should be on Sept 16. You can’t get away from this. It’s not (from) me — it’s in our proclamation of Malaysia.”
Wong then referred to the state’s proclamation read by Sarawak’s first Chief Minister Dato Stephen Kalong Ningkan on Sept 16: “Now, therefore I, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, do hereby proclaim that Sarawak has this day attained independence as a state of Malaysia.”
He also said the Tunku, in announcing the proclamation of Malaysia, declared: “Now, in the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful, I, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj Ibni Almarhum Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah, Prime Minister of Malaysia, with the concurrence and approval of His Majesty, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of the Federation of Malaya, His Excellency the Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore, His Excellency the Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Sabah and His Excellency the Governor of Sarawak, do hereby declare and proclaim on behalf of the peoples of Malaysia that as from Sixteenth Day of September in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-three, corresponding to the twenty-eight day of Rabi’ul Akhir in the year of the Hijrah one thousand three hundred and eighty-three, that Malaysia comprising the states of Pahang, Terengganu, Kedah, Johore, Negri Sembilan, Kelantan, Selangor, Perak, Perlis, Penang, Malacca, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak shall by the Grace of God, the Lord of the Universe, forever be an independent and sovereign democratic State founded upon liberty and justice ever seeking to defend and uphold peace and harmony among its peoples and to perpetuate peace among nations.”
Wong said after all that had been said and done, without Malaysia today, Sarawak would have been in one ‘hell of a mess — our lives would have been very different’.
But being in a big family, he stressed, required Sarawakians to be prepared to stand for their rights for they have as much rights as the others ‘lest we forget Malaysia is a federation of equal partners’.
Looking back, Wong said as a Sarawakian, he had made his contributions in making Sarawak a happy place to live in through what happened 45 years ago on Sept 16.
So come Tuesday, the Malaysian Flag will fly outside his office.
As for us, this Tuesday may just be the day to re-discover when the federation of Malaysia was actually formed and where we stand as Malaysians, lest we forget or worse, never know at all.