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Monday, 19 September 2011

Is Malaysia's history all about semantics? A lesson on Sept 16!


The debate over when is Malaysia Day, Aug 31 or Sept 16, will continue as there are still differing views. But one thing is certain – there are Malaysians who are very passionate about our history
A poster depicting the Malaysia Day celebratio...Image via Wikipedia

Last week I had my Zainal Kling moment. In case there are those who are clueless on the recent big issue concerning Malaysia, here’s a summary.

Datuk Prof Dr Zainal Kling of the National Professors Council stirred a historical controversy when he declared that Malaya was never a British colony but only a “protectorate”.

Last week, in this column, I wrote an article titled “A lesson on Sept 16” (see below).

It was a history lesson that the Federation of Malaya, not Malaysia, was created in 1957. And that Sabah and Sarawak did not join Malaysia – they formed the country together with the then Malaya and Singapore on Sept 16, 1963.

That was that, I thought. Until I received brickbats mostly from my fellow Sabahans. Though most comments were good-hearted ribbing, I felt as if I was a snake that bit its own tail.

There were jocular warnings that Sabah will use its special immigration power to bar me from entering my state.

There were also warnings that went for the jugular. I was accused of living in Kuala Lumpur too long.
Factually correct, as I’ve been living in Greater Kuala Lumpur for more than 25 years. But parochially incorrect as you can take Philip out of Sabah, but you can’t take Sabah out of Philip.

And it was as if I did not live through Parti Bersatu Sabah’s ‘Sabah for Sabahans’ political era.

Factually, there was nothing incorrect about my article. It is just that I neglected to mention something that is close to the heart of many Sabahans.

The first brickbat was from a reader who may or may not be a Sabahan or a Sarawakian.

Sonny68mak emailed: “If I recall correctly my history lessons, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore declared independence on Aug 31, 1963.

“They could not form Malaysia on that day because they were waiting for the official referendum results to be declared by the United Nations which was delayed by Jakarta and Manila’s protests at the UN,” wrote the reader, who could even be a Singaporean.

“So therefore the Borneo states independence was effective Aug 31, 1963. They formed Malaysia on Sept 16 as two-weeks-old independent sovereign states.”

“Please ask your Prof friend to recheck the facts so that the public is not confused.”

Fair comment, I thought. As if I was debating the issue, I would have taken a similar stand.

However, just to show him that I was not a hack, I replied: “Yes, I did check that fact with the Prof.”

“I told him for example, North Borneo gained independence on Aug 31, 1963 so it must have been an independent country,” I wrote.

“He said ‘no’ as even though the British granted independence to North Borneo on that day, it still administrated Sabah.”

As soon as I sent that email, I received an SMS from a Sabahan who is a veteran journalist. Though the timing of his SMS was coincidental, it was as if he sensed my “betrayal” in cyberspace.

The 40-something journalist SMS-ed: “I beg to differ. On Aug 31, 1963, the Union Jack came down and the Sabah flag went up. Sabah and Sarawak were independent nations until Sept 16, 1963. You’re selling propaganda. Ha ha”.

Immediately I called him. And after 30 minutes we agreed that history is about semantics. And, quoting Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors”.

Then I received a call from a Penangite who is more Sabahan than me. Well, he has lived in Sabah for more than 20 years.

“We can buang negeri (kick you out of Sabah) you!” he said.

“Your article missed the point. You should have written that Sabah was a country before it formed Malaysia! And you should have written that 1/3 of Sabahans wanted to form Malaysia, 1/3 did not want to and 1/3 were undecided.”

“You’ve also missed the point that it was four equal nations (Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore) forming the Federation of Malaysia.”

“But, but, but,” I replied. “The point of my article is just to discuss Sept 16.” “No, you missed the point!” he said.

“Do you know that Sept 16 is also Lee Kuan Yew’s birthday?” I said, just to change the topic.

However sharp the comments I received throughout the day, it was delightful to know that 48 years after the fact, Sabahans are still passionate about their history.

Still, it made me feel as if I had sold Labuan to the Feds. Wonder where’s Zainal Kling? I need a hug. And some historical semantics.

A lesson on Sept 16


The federation of Malaya, not Malaysia, was created in 1957. Sabah and Sarawak did not join Malaysia – they formed the country together with the then Malaya and Singapore on Sept 16, 1963.

ON AUG 31, I spent my Mer-deka Day holiday tweeting history lessons. I found certain historical inaccuracies on my Twitter timeline as annoying as – to misquote a tweet from @ATM2U – seeing a straight man eat cupcake.

For example, one of Malaysia’s tycoons tweeted: “Independence day for Malaysia today.”

As a Sabahan, I just had to correct him even though he is worth a billion times more than me. So @PhilipGolingai admonished: “Sir, independence day for Malaya. Malaysia was formed on Sept 16, 1963.”

Then someone – not the billionaire – tweeted: “Why Singapore not celebrating Malaya’s Indepen-dence day?” History was definitely not her favourite subject.

I replied: “When Malaya dec-lared Merdeka, Singapore was under the British. On Sept 16, 1963, Singapore, Malaya, Sabah & Sarawak formed Malaysia.”

My colleague @ChiaYingTheStar (Lim Chia Ying) tweeted: “How can a tv station say Happy Birthday to M’sia on Aug 31?? My gosh, no wonder kids can never learn real facts?”

On Merdeka Day, Faridah Stephens, daughter of one of Malaysia’s founding fathers, Tun Fuad Stephens (Sabah Chief Minister), reminded her Peninsu­lar Malaysian friends of our country’s history.

“(Some of) my friends wished Happy 54th Birthday Malaysia. They always say Malaysia. But it is not Malaysia’s independence but Malaya’s,” she lamented.

On Facebook, Faridah watched a video clip of Negaraku sung in Chinese. The rendition was “beautiful” but the ending of the video was a “dampener”.

Alamak, I thought, when I saw ‘Happy 54th Birthday Malaysia’ at the end,” she said.

How did her friends’ respond to her reminder?  “Some people went quiet,” she said, laughing heartily.
Some Malaysians mistake Aug 31 for Malaysia’s birthday, according to Faridah, because “we tend to be West (Peninsular) Malaysia-centric”.

“Many forget that Malaysia did not exist until 1963. Malaysia was not created in 1957. Sabah and Sarawak did not join Malaysia, they formed the country,” she said, adding that “I’m just stating a historical fact.”

To get my historical facts right, I called my old classmate, then a history buff, at La Salle secondary school in Tanjung Aru, Sabah.

“Why are there Malaysians who confuse Hari Merdeka as Malay-sia’s birthday?” I asked Danny Wong Tze Ken, a history professor in Universiti Malaya.

Wong lectured me on the birth of Malaysia. Here’s a summary: On Aug 31, 1957, the Federation of Malaya was established. It was expanded into the Federation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963. The country became larger with the inclusion of Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah. And in 1965, Singapore left.

“If you think of the day for independence for Malaysia, then Sept 16, is logical for Sabahans and Sarawakians as that was when both states achieved independence, in 1963. But for the people of Peninsular Malaysia clearly it was Aug 31, 1957, as that was when Tunku Abdul Rahman declared Merdeka,” Wong ex-plained.

“So when is Malaysia’s birthday?” I asked.

“The best answer is to take the case of the United States. Their independence day is July 4, 1776, even though at that time there were only 13 colonies. Although the rest of the United States was incorporated only later, all the 50 states observe July 4 as Indepen-dence Day,” he said.

“So when is Malaysia’s birthday?” I asked again.

“As a newly formed Federation of Malaysia the birthday of Malaysia will be Sept 16 whereas the Independence Day of the country remains on Aug 31,” he said.

Wong said over the years, Sept 16 was no longer celebrated as Malaysia Day.

“In Sabah it was celebrated as the TYT’s (Governor’s) birthday. And Sabahans wondered why that day was then celebrated as the TYT’s birthday and not as Malaysia Day,” he added.

“It was only last year that Sept 16 was declared a public holiday to commemorate the formation of Malaysia.,” the historian said.

So, on Friday, if you are on Twitter, don’t forget to tweet “Happy 48th Birthday Malaysia!”

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