16. September 1963: The Birth of a Nation

On 16. September 1963 the establishment of the Malaysian Federation took place. It marked the merging of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore (which left the federation only two years later) to form Malaysia. Today, the 16. September is a public holiday in Malaysia, known as “Hari Malaysia” (Malaysia Day). It should not be confused though with Hari Merdeka (Independence Day) which commemorates 31. August 1957. While the latter has been a public National holiday ever since, Hari Malaysia was declared public holiday only in 2009, giving Malaysians two celebrations related to the country’s independence.

Parts of the region that later was to become Malaysia had been subject to European colonisation as early as the 16th century. In 1511, a Portuguese expedition led by Alfonso de Albuquerque occupied Malacca. In the early 17th century the Dutch drove out all other Europeans from the area. In 1786 the British under Francis Light occupied Penang and founded Georgetown. This marked a turning point in the history of Malaya which led to the British ultimately gaining the upper hand in the peninsula. In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles founded a British trading post at Singapore. In 1824, the Dutch surrendered Melaka to the British. In 1896, a forerunner of Malaysia was formed comprising Selangor, Perak, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan to become the Federated Malay States (FMS).

In Sabah, British influence has an even longer history: in 1761, the British East India Company set up a trading post in North Borneo, as the state was officially called at the time. Sarawak, the other Malaysian state in Borneo, had its British reign starting in 1841 when the British adventurer James Brooke was appointed Governor of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei after he had helped to crush a rebellion. In 1846, Brooke effectively became the Rajah (equivalent to a King) of Sarawak and expanded the territory. After his death, his nephew took over. The Brooke Dynasty continued to rule the land until World War II.

After the end of World War II, during which Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore were invaded by the Japanese, decolonisation became the goal of the British. In 1947, independence was granted to India. Consequently, the British territories in South East Asia had to be prepared for independence.

In 1956, representatives of newly formed Malayan political parties and Malay Rulers met with the British Colonial Office in London to negotiate independence. At that point, the Federation of Malaya consisted of 11 states in the peninsula; the nine Malay states of Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor, and Terengganu, as well as the two British Straits Settlements of Penang and Melaka.

The long-awaited moment came on 31st August 1957. The Proclamation of Independence was read at Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, which was built specially for this occasion. Since then, 31st of August is celebrated as Hari Merdeka or Independence Day.

Evolution of Malaysia. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Malaysia#/media/File:Malaysia_tree_diagram.svg
Evolution of Malaysia. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Malaysia#/media/File:Malaysia_tree_diagram.svg

During the post-war years, the idea of merging Malaya with Singapore had been suggested and discussed several times by various influential individuals. In November 1949, the Secretary of State for the Colonies highlighted the common destiny of the British colonies there. In 1955, Ghazalie Shafie, a senior Malayan politician, spoke of the possible union. One year later, David Marshall, Chief Minister of Singapore, and Malaya’s leader Tunku Abdul Rahman repeated the call, as did Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in 1959.

However, it was only in 1961 that the idea attracted serious interest. Again, it was Tunku Abdul Rahman who took up the idea, this time before the Foreign Correspondence Association of Southeast Asia, saying: “Sooner or later Malaya should have an understanding with Britain and the peoples of Singapore, North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak […] it is inevitable that we should look ahead to this objective and think of a plan whereby these territories can be brought closer together in political and economic co-operation.”

During the following months, the idea began to spread. By August 1961, an agreement in principle between the Federation of Malaya and Singapore was achieved. At that point of time, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo were still under British control whereas the states on the peninsula were independent and formed the Federation of Malaya. Brunei was a Sultanate under British Protectorate.

In North Borneo, political activities increased dramatically as a response to the Malaysian proposal. Until then, there had been no political parties but in 1961-62, six political parties were formed. In Sarawak, too, the idea was being discussed controversially, with some supporting the merger while others favoured a three state Borneo Federation.

In Brunei, the opposition to the Federation of Malaysia was especially strong. In December 1962, a revolt against the monarchy and its support for the merger was attempted but failed. However, the incident influenced the Sultan’s 1963 decision not to join Malaysia.

The other potential candidates meanwhile went on to form the proposed state. In 1962, a referendum was held in Singapore. Although it did not include the possibility to vote aginst the merger—Singaporeans were only given the choice between three alternatives on how to integrate—it was seen as a true expression of the public’s support in favour of Malaysia.

The formation of Malaysia was finally made possible with the signing of the International Treaty the Malaysia Agreement 1963 between the United Kingdom, the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak, North Borneo and Singapore.

Prior to the formation of Malaysia, Sarawak gained its Self-Government Administration on 22 July 1963, while North Borneo began Self-Government Administration from the United Kingdom on 31 August 1963, thus coinciding with the 6th anniversary of the Malayan independence.

31 August 1963 was also the day on which the formation of Malaysia was planned to occur. Several issues related to objections of neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines to the formation of Malaysia (which could not be resolved and afterwards led to politics of confrontation especially between Malaysia and Indonesia) delayed the declaration to 16 September 1963. On the same day, North Borneo was renamed Sabah.

The declaration of Malaysia ceremony was held at Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur, the same place where 7 years earlier Malaya’s independence ceremony had taken place. In front of about 30,000 people, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman recited the formation of Malaysia Declaration followed by his chanting “Merdeka” (“independence”) seven times.

A new nation was born.

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