Friday, September 14, 2007

Turbulent times in Sarawak: The end of Expatriate Influence and the Struggle for Power over and within the State

Expatriate influence in the Sarawak State Government came to an abrupt end on 30 July 1966. This was some three years after Sarawak became part of the Federation of Malaysia. Prior to becoming part of Malaysia, Sarawak had been a British colony (1946-1963), an independent state under the Brookes (1841-1946) although occupied by the Japanese (1942-1945) during the Second World War, and before 1841 part of the Brunei Sultanate. The end of expatriate influence in 1966 was the outcome of an ongoing struggle for power over and within the state played out with all the inevitability of a pre-scripted Wayang Kulit from the moment Sarawak became a state in the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963.

The first elected Chief Minister was Stephen Kalong Ningkan, a forty-three year old Iban from Betong who was selected by the Sarawak Alliance which was comprised at the time of four political parties. (1) Although the Sarawak Alliance only received thirty-four percent in the first round of voting in the mid-1963 three-tier elections, very adroit political maneuvering secured over two-thirds of the seats in the Council Negri (Legislature), which enabled the Alliance to form the Supreme Council (Cabinet/Government). The Sarawak Alliance was made up of the pro-Malaysia Barisan Ra'ayat Jati Sarawak (Berjasa) headed by Tuanku Bujang, a high ranking Sibu Malay; Party Pesaka Anak Sarawak (Pesaka) headed by a Third Division Iban leader, Temenggong Jugah; the Sarawak Chinese Association (SCA) headed by a Sibu Chinese businessman, Ling Being Siew; and the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) headed by Ningkan. Collectively the socialist and predominantly Chinese Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP) with Stephen Yong Kuet Yze as secretary general and Party Negara Sarawak (PANAS) with Abang Haji Mustapha as chairman secured 1.5 percent more primary votes in the elections than the Sarawak Alliance, but were consigned to the opposition.

Prior to the formation of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman had shown his willingness to intervene in Sarawak politics by announcing that he only supported the pro-Malaysia Sarawak Alliance. (2) Also the Sarawak Alliance had sought and was given help by the ruling Malayan Alliance in conducting its campaign during the 1963 elections. During this period the ruling Malayan Alliance leaders established strong links with the prominent Berjasa member Abdul Rahman Ya'kub, a pro-Malaysia, thirty-five year old Muslim Melanau from Mukah. A UK trained lawyer, Ya'kub was the Deputy Public Prosecutor in the Sarawak Legal Department from 1959 to 1963. He had ethnic, political, and religious empathy with the Malayan Alliance leaders, who supported an unsuccessful attempt to secure his nomination as Sarawak's first Chief Minister (Leigh 1974: 83). Showing the high regard in which United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) leaders held Ya'kub, he was appointed an executive member of UMNO Malaya on 16 May 1965 in the midst of the Land Bill crisis in Sarawak. He became a key player in molding the politics of Sarawak in the UMNO image.

The first dramatic scene in this epic was set just prior to the formation of Malaysia, when a controversy erupted between the Malayan and Sarawak governments over who would be the first governor of Sarawak as a state within the Federation of Malaysia. The Sarawak Alliance, in which the Dayaks were predominant, nominated an Iban, Pesaka leader Temenggong Jugah, for governor. (3) However, the Tunku rejected this nomination and, supported by PANAS, insisted on the appointment of a Malay. (4) But Party Pesaka represented over thirty percent of the Sarawak Alliance's strength in terms of elected district councillors and had forfeited any representation on the Supreme Council in exchange for nomination of the party's leader as governor. Rejection of their leader aroused strong resentment among Party Pesaka members, compounded by their lack of representation in the Supreme Council (Leigh 1974: 78-79). To appease Jugah and Pesaka members, mainly the Third Division Ibans, the Federal Government created for Jugah the post of Federal Minister for Sarawak Affairs (Porritt 1997: 104). Abang Haji Openg, a prominent Malay aristocrat and civil servant, was duly appointed Governor. With the appointment of a Malay head of state paralleling the Malay Sultans in Peninsular Malaysia, the molding of Sarawak in the UMNO-led Malayan Alliance image had begun.

Another key player pertinent to this saga was introduced on 22 July 1963 when Ningkan formed Sarawak's first elected government. This was Abdul Taib bin Mahmud, a 27-year old Australian-trained lawyer who was the nephew of Ya'kub. Taib had joined the Sarawak Government's Legal Department in early 1962. He was not a contestant in the 1963 elections nor had he been involved in any political activity prior to the formation of Sarawak's first elected government. (5) However, under an agreement between the member parties of the Sarawak Alliance, Berjasa was entitled to nominate two members as State Ministers. On the recommendation of his uncle, Taib was nominated and duly appointed as a State Minister in the Ningkan government. Like his uncle, Taib had ethnic, political, and religious empathy with ruling Malayan politicians and is said to have envisaged Sarawak politics as re-structured on the Malayan pattern of "a dominant Islamic-led native party, with a more or less subservient Chinese partner" (Leigh 1974: 87). "Islamic-led" in this context translated into the Malay and the majority of the Melanau people as they were the only significant Muslim native ethnic groups in Sarawak.

Thus, all the elements to mold Sarawak in the UMNO-led Malayan Alliance image were already in place when Malaysia was formed. Ya'kub had not been successful in the local council elections, the first stage in the three-tier election system to the Council Negri, but as a Berjasa leader was nominated to the Federal Parliament. (6) He was then made the Assistant Minister for Justice and Rural Development in the Federal Government, providing a strong link between the top federal government leaders and the Sarawak body politic through his nephew Taib, who was appointed State Minister for Works and Communications. Ya'kub, Taib, the Tunku, and UMNO shared a common vision for the future of Sarawak's politics. A setback occurred in the latter part of 1965 when UMNO leaders decided to open a branch in Sarawak to unite the Sarawak Malays, who were then divided between Berjasa and PANAS. However this was not successful, serving only to annoy Chief Minister Ningkan as one more sign of federal interference.

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