Proposals for a confederation of all British dependent territories in Southeast Asia were complicated from the mid-1950s by differences in political momentum in the various territories. Malaya gained independence in 1957, and progress towards self-government was speeded up in Singapore, but Borneo territories remained political backwaters.
After the Alliance gained a sweeping victory at the first Malayan federal elections in 1955, the country moved rapidly to full independence two years later. The Alliance was a grouping of anti-communist communal parties, dedicated to preserving and expanding the export-oriented free economy of Malaya, and maintaining links with Britain and the Commonwealth, with its defence guaranteed under the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement.
With independence agreed, the Alliance offered an amnesty to the communist guerrillas, but this failed to end the Emergency which continued, officially, up to 1960. And the problem of reconciling economic divisions between the different racial groups–and notably between the Chinese and Malays–was further complicated by racial affinities either to communist China or to the concept of a Greater Indonesia.
Meanwhile the neighbouring colony of Singapore had embarked on cautious constitutional reform in 1948 when, four the first time, a small number of legislative councillors were elected by a restricted franchise. The pace of change quickened after a more liberal constitution was granted in 1955, and in 1959 Singapore attained internal autonomy with a People’s Action Party (PAP) government under Lee Kuan Yew, which was pledged to attain full independence by merger with the Federation of Malaya. Singapore’s turbulent politics in the 1950s and early 1960s, combined with the constant wariness of the island’s Chinese majority and its commercial dominance, at first deterred Kuala Lumpur from any closer association. But by 1961 political unrest in Singapore reached a pitch where Lee Kuan Yew’s government was in danger of falling to left-wing extremists, and the Malayan prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, decided that merger with Singapore would be less dangerous than the risk of an independent ‘second Cuba’ on Malaya’s doorstep.
To minimize the problem of absorbing Singapore, Tunku Abdul Rahman decided on a wider federation, which would also incorporate the three Borneo territories. This was welcomed by Britain as a means of providing a secure independence for these small, seemingly unviable states, and after protracted and at times acrimonious negotiations, the Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963. The 1957 Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement was extended to cover the whole of Malaysia, which incorporated Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and British North Borneo (renamed Sabah).
The sultanate of Brunei opted out. London considered Brunei too small to stand on its won, but Sultan Omar preferred to seek internal autonomy, while retaining British protection. In 1959 a new but cautious constitution had been agreed, whereby Britain remained responsible for foreign affairs, defence and internal security, but Brunei acquired internal self-government. The sultan was to rule with the aid of executive, legislative and district councils, but only the latter were directly elective, and the sultan retained dominant power as chief executive.
Sultan Omar’s wish to direct nationalism from above by means of paternal enlightened despotism brought him into conflict with the protagonists of democracy, led by Ahmad Azahari, whose left-wing Parti Rakyat Brunei (PRB) had links with radical peninsular Malays and with the Indonesian Communist Party. The PRB demanded immediate independence for Brunei, with full parliamentary democracy, as part of a federation of the three northern Borneo states. The party staged mass rallies and demonstrations, attracting considerable popular support. As a counterweight, Sultan Omar at first favoured joining the proposed Malaysia, as a means to acquire greater protection for Brunei from both external aggression and internal dissidence. But the PRB, fighting on an anti-Malaysia platform, swept the polls at the first district board elections held in August 1962. The following month Azahari formed an Anti-Malaysia Alliance with left-wing politicians in Sarawak and North Borneo, and rallied support in the Philippines.
Despite the strength of his constitutional position, in December 1962 Azahari needlessly resorted to armed force and declared himself prime minister of a unitary state of Kalimantan Utara (North Borneo). This alienated his more moderate supporters, and, with the intervention of British troops from Singapore, the sultan was able to crush the revolt within days. He proclaimed a state of emergency, proscribed the Parti Rakyat Brunei, imprisoned or drove its leaders into exile, and proceeded to rule by decree.
Initially the rebellion reinforced the sultan’s enthusiasm to join Malaysia, but the final negotiations in June 1963 broke down, partly because of insensitivity on the part of peninsular Malays to the special nature of Brunei nationalism and the sultan’s status in the proposed Council of Rulers, but mainly because of arguments about Brunei’s oil revenues. In consequence, despite pressure from London and summit meetings between the sultan and prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, Brunei refused to join the federation.
The factors affecting Indonesia’s opposition to Malaysia were complicated. There was an element of personal ambition in Sukarno’s motives for promoting perpetual revolution and destabilizing the area. But there was also a measure of principle in his contention that colonial territories would achieve true independence only by cutting economic and defence ties – as well as political ties – with former colonial masters. Indonesia contrasted its own protracted fight for independence with the negotiated settlements achieved through constitutional means in Malaya and Singapore. Sukarno denounced as neo-colonialism the continuing links with Britain, and in particular the Anglo-Malaysian defence arrangement. Indonesia also felt some genuine fear that the far-flung Federation of Malaysia posed a physical threat. The proposed new grouping cut traditional links in the Malay world: the centuries-old contacts between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula; prewar Young Malay Union nationalism; the combination of Sumatra and Malay peninsula into one administrative zone during the Japanese occupation; the aspirations of Ibrahim Yaacob’s KRIS movement and the Malay Nationalist Party; the shadowy concept of an Indonesia Raya, which would embrace all Malay people. Malaysia was an artificial colonial creation, a consequence of British imperial rule. Sukarno’s Indonesia itself was also an artificial relic of Dutch imperialism. But Indonesia gave support to Azahari’s revolt in Brunei, and argued in the United Nations Assembly against the Malaysia proposal.
The Philippines also objected, and in 1962 officially laid claim to Sabah on the grounds that this came within the fief of the former sultanate of Sulu. In 1963 the Philippines convened meetings in Manila with representatives of the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia to try to settle their differences, and the three countries tentatively agreed to a ‘Maphilindo’ (Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia) confederation. But this was unworkable. Sukarno launched a ‘Crush Malaysia’ campaign, leading to armed confrontation between the two states after the Malaysian federation was formed. This lasted for nearly three years and was marked by raids along the Sarawak-Kalimantan border and incursions into Singapore and the Malay peninsula. In January 1965 Indonesia left the United Nations in protest at the admission of Malaysia to the Security Council. While the Philippines did not join Indonesia in armed confrontation, it broke off diplomatic relations with Kuala Lumpur, and the Sabah claim was to be an irritant in Philippines-Malaysia relations for more than twenty years.
Confrontation was brought to an end only after a coup in Jakarta in September-October 1965 following an abortive attempt, which the army attributed to the Indonesian Communist Party, to eliminate the entire top military command. Hundreds of thousands of communist supporters were massacred over the ensuing months, and the party was outlawed in March 1966. In the same month General Suharto, the most senior surviving army officer, took over executive authority. Sukarno, who three years earlier had been made president for life, remained as nominal head of state for another eleven months, but finally surrendered all his powers to Suharto in February 1967. Suharto introduced a New Order to replace Guided Democracy. He called a halt to Sukarno’s aggressive foreign policy, including confrontation with Malaysia, which formally came to an end in August 1966, and Indonesia rejoined the United Nations a month later.
The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia
Volume Two, Part Two
From World War II to the Present
Chapter 5 Regionalism and Nationalism
C.M. Turnbull, formerly University of Hong Kong
Resources: The Manila Accord: United Nations Treaty Registered No. 8029, Manila Accord between Philippines, Federation of Malaya and Indonesia (31 JULY 1963) [PDF]