Malaya achieved merdeka (independence) in 1957. It officially became an independent country on August 31, 1957. Merdeka Square in the heart of Kuala Lumpur is where the Malaysian flag was first raised in 1957. Today this event is commemorated with world's tallest flagpole. The sultans retained a some power and control over the land, outlined by the constitution, after the British left.

Independence was followed by a period of instability due to an internal Communist uprising and an external confrontation with neighbouring Indonesia. In 1963 the north Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, along with Singapore, joined Malaya to create Malaysia. In 1969 violent interracial riots broke out, particularly in Kuala Lumpur, and hundreds of people were killed. The government moved to dissipate the tensions, which existed mainly between the Malays and the Chinese. Present-day Malaysian society is relatively peaceful and cooperative.

At the time of independence Malaya had great economic advantages. It was among the world’s leading producers of three valuable commodities, rubber, tin and palm oil, and also a significant iron ore producer. These export industries gave the Malayan government a healthy surplus to invest in industrial development and infrastructure projects. Like other developing nations in the 1950s and '60s, Malaya (and later Malaysia) placed great stress on state planning, although UMNO was never a socialist party. The First and Second Malayan Plans (1956–60 and 1961–65 respectively) stimulated economic growth through state investment in industry and repairing infrastructure such as roads and ports, which had been damaged and neglected during the war and the Emergency. The government was keen to reduce Malaya’s dependence on commodity exports, which put the country at the mercy of fluctuating prices. The government was also aware that demand for natural rubber was bound to fall as the production and use of synthetic rubber expanded. Since a third of the Malay workforce worked in the rubber industry it was important to develop alternative sources of employment. Competition for Malaya’s rubber markets meant that the profitability of the rubber industry increasingly depended on keeping wages low, which perpetuated rural Malay poverty. [Source: Wikipedia]

Cheah Boon Kheng of the National University of Singapore wrote: The independent Federation of Malaya was a further extension of Persekutuan Tanah Melayu and its constitution which included articles upholding the dominant position of the Malays and their rights, privileges and ‘special position’. Malay be came the national language, the Malay Rulers constitutional monarchs and citizenship was offered to qualified non - Malays who swore loyalty to Malaya and who were guaranteed their rights to practice their religion, language and culture. Most of these points had been embedded in an UMNO - MCA - MIC Alliance memorandum, which they called a ‘social contract’ that they had submitted to the constitutional commission. The national government under Tunku Abdul Rahman set to work to build up national unity among the var ious races and to achieve Malaya’s economic and social development, while fighting the insurgency. [Source: Cheah Boon Kheng, National University of Singapore, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 11, 1 (June 2009): 132]

In the 1948 Federation of Malaya Agreement, the British agreed to grant eventual self-rule, but ethnic tensions were a major obstacle to doing so. The British tried to promote national unity among different ethnic groups by encouraging dialogue among noncommunist ethnic leaders, but the eventual consensus was that Malays would only share political power with non-Malays if non-Malays helped improve Malays’ economic status. The details to implement this plan remained elusive, and the groups engaged in discussions were largely ethnically based: UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). However, from 1952 to 1955 UMNO, the MCA, and the MIC established a partnership called the “Alliance” that won municipal, local, and federal elections and thus emerged as an agent for unified Malayan interests. By October 1956, a Constitutional Commission had produced a document that included numerous compromises to satisfy the various ethnic, religious, and linguistic concerns of Malaya’s diverse population. For example, Malay was proclaimed the national language, but English would continue as a national language for at least 10 years. Islam became the official state religion, but religious freedom for all religious groups was guaranteed. Malays retained various special privileges, but non-Malay rights could not be hindered by prejudicial legislation or governmental intervention. On August 15, 1957, the Federal Legislature ratified the document, and on August 31, 1957, Malaya became an independent country. [Source: Wikipedia]

Malaysian Economy After Independence in 1957

John H. Drabble of the University of Sydney wrote: “During the Japanese occupation years of World War II, the export of primary products was limited to the relatively small amounts required for the Japanese economy. This led to the abandonment of large areas of rubber and the closure of many mines, the latter progressively affected by a shortage of spare parts for machinery. Businesses, especially those Chinese-owned, were taken over and reassigned to Japanese interests. Rice imports fell heavily and thus the population devoted a large part of their efforts to producing enough food to stay alive. Large numbers of laborers (many of whom died) were conscripted to work on military projects such as construction of the Thai-Burma railroad. Overall the war period saw the dislocation of the export economy, widespread destruction of the infrastructure (roads, bridges etc.) and a decline in standards of public health. It also saw a rise in inter-ethnic tensions due to the harsh treatment meted out by the Japanese to some groups, notably the Chinese, compared to a more favorable attitude towards the indigenous peoples among whom (Malays particularly) there was a growing sense of ethnic nationalism (Drabble, 2000).[Source: John H. Drabble, University of Sydney, Australia +]

During the past 30 years or so Malaysian economy has evolved from an agricultural one based on a few products—namely oil, natural gas, rubber and palm oil—to one largely based on information technology and exports. Malaysia has succeeded despite being too small to compete in the cheap labor market with Indonesia, Vietnam and China and being a step behind the Tiger counties like Korea and Taiwan.

Malaysia’s “Look East Policy” looked to Japan rather than the West for inspiration and invested heavily in public health, and saw GNPs soar, family size shrink and lifespan lengthen. Malaysia had an average of 6.5 percent growth from 1957 to 2005.

Federation of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore

The original plan for Malaysia was to create a Federation of Malaysia comprised of states of Malaysia, joined with Crown colonies of Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak and the protectorate of Brunei. Singapore was "pressed into a Malaysian federation along with British colonial territories in Borneo.” The federation was proclaimed on September 15, 1963 but began to fall apart almost immediately after it was created.

Brunei withdrew from the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 to form its own state. One problem with the defection was the recently crowned Miss Malaysia, Catherine Loh, was from Brunei and she was expected to preside over independence ceremonies. In 1965 Singapore pulled out of the Malaysian Federation over fears that its mostly Chinese population would discriminated against in Malaysia, which was fighting a Communist insurgency supported by China.

After the Japanese surrender the Brooke family and the British North Borneo Company gave up their control of Sarawak and Sabah respectively, and these became British Crown Colonies. They were much less economically developed than Malaya, and their local political leaderships were too weak to demand independence. Singapore, with its large Chinese majority, achieved autonomy in 1955, and in 1959 the young socialist leader Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister. The Sultan of Brunei remained as a British client in his oil-rich enclave. Between 1959 and 1962 the British government orchestrated complex negotiations between these local leaders and the Malayan government. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1961, Abdul Rahman mooted the idea of forming "Malaysia", which would consist of Brunei, Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, all of which had been British colonies. The reasoning behind this was that this would allow the central government to control and combat communist activities, especially in Singapore. It was also feared that if Singapore achieved independence, it would become a base for Chinese chauvinists to threaten Malayan sovereignty. To balance out the ethnic composition of the new nation, the other states, whose Malay and indigenous populations would cancel out the Singaporean Chinese majority, were also included.

Singapore requested inclusion in the Federation of Malaya in 1957 and again in 1959, but Malay leaders were uneasy about Singapore’s leftist politics and feared that the addition of Singapore would make Malaya a majority-Chinese state. In order to overcome such concerns, Singapore and Malaya met with the British and proposed an association that would include Brunei, Malaya, North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak, and Singapore. The proposal generally neutralized Malay opposition because the projected federation’s states would all have indigenous majorities, but some groups in North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore opposed this proposal. Nevertheless, in 1962 and 1963 pro-merger political parties won elections in all of these territories. The 1957 constitution was amended to include numerous compromises among the states, and on September 16, 1963, the Federation of Malaysia came into existence. Brunei’s sultan, however, opted to remain independent since he was reluctant to be only one of 10 Malay rulers or to share Brunei’s oil revenues.


Newly independent Malaysia was soon faced with external threats from Indonesia and the Philippines. Indonesia opposed the Federation of Malaysia. For a number of years it supported guerilla attacks against Sarawak, Sabah and Malaya. In 1960, the northern states of Borneo, , which bordered on Indonesian Kalimantan, were somewhat reluctant to join Malaysia. Indonesian President Sukarno saw himself as the true leader of the Malay people. Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism. The Indonesian army increased its budget. British forces provided assistance to Malaysia in their fight against the Indonesians. A brief war—known as Confrontation (Konfrontasi) —soon involved Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China and eventually settled rival claims in Borneo.

The Indonesian government led by Sukarno contended that the new federation of Malaysia was a neocolonialist plan to prevent Indonesia and Malaysia from combining into a Greater Malaysia, an entity that Malaysian leaders had previously supported. Soon after the Federation of Malaysia was established, Indonesia attempted to spark a popular revolt in the fledgling country by engaging in acts of terrorism and armed confrontation in various places. However, these actions strengthened popular support for Malaysia, and in 1964 Australia, Britain, and New Zealand sent troops and military aid to Malaysia.

Sukarno was backed by the powerful Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Indonesia backed a Communist insurgency in Sarawak, mainly involving elements of the local Chinese community. The Indonesian army mounted offensives along the Kalimantan–Malaysia border and the PKI demonstrated in the streets in Jakarta. Indonesian irregular forces were infiltrated into Sarawak, where they were contained by Malaysian and Commonwealth of Nations forces.

On September 23, 1963, Sukarno, who had proclaimed himself President-for-Life, declared that Indonesia must "gobble Malaysia raw." Military units infiltrated Malaysian territory but were intercepted before they could establish contact with local dissidents. When the UN General Assembly elected Malaysia as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council in December 1964, Sukarno took Indonesia out of the world body and promised the establishment of a new international organization, the Conference of New Emerging Forces (Conefo), a fitting end, perhaps, for 1964, which Sukarno had called "A Year of Living Dangerously."

The period of Konfrontasi—an economic, political, and military confrontation—lasted until the downfall of Sukarno in 1966. An abortive coup attempt in 1965 forced Sukarno to step down, and on August 11, 1966, Indonesia and Malaysia signed a peace treaty.

Brunei Revolt in December 1962

In the 1960s, Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism there. In 1962, an armed rebellion linked to Indonesia was put down in the Sultanate of Brunei. President Sukarno of Indonesia supported a left wing inspired rural insurrection against the Brunei government. Although flying in police units from British North Borneo and Gurkhas from Malaya swiftly put this down, a hidden jungle campaign continued throughout Borneo for several subsequent years. British troops led by a Gurkha contingent together with the Brunei police and the new Royal Brunei Malay Regiment, saw-off these erstwhile "liberators". Unfortunately, the experience proved a watershed for democratic reform. The experiment with democracy was ended and the legislature dissolved.

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “On the night of Dec 8, 1962, simultaneous attacks were launched against the government and police throughout Brunei, in Limbang and down as far as Sibuti in Sarawak. Why such violence? In the most recent elections, the Parti Rakyat Brunei (PRB) swept all but one of the elected seats in the Brunei legislature, and expected the win would lead to legislative and executive power. The sultan, his British advisers and the Malayan government were not happy with PRB exercising real power in Brunei. So, the sultan kept postponing any meeting of the legislature, and meanwhile, was actively discussing the terms under which Brunei would become part of the proposed Malaysian federation. PRB was opposed to that policy, and firmly committed to a Borneo Federation of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo, with Brunei’s sultan as the constitutional monarch of “Bornesia”. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“Frustrated, a number of PRB members commenced military training in the jungles of Brunei and in the Lawas district of Sarawak. Their armed wing, Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara (TNKU), obtained a small supply of weapons from various sources. For the PRB, the constitutional path remained blocked, and they feared that security powers would shortly be handed to a new Malaysian government, as was the British intention in Singapore. Influential PRB members then planned to forcibly take over power in Brunei, and adjacent areas of Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), and to do so during celebrations on Christmas Eve — when it was assumed that the British would be least capable of responding! Arrests of TNKU leaders in Lawas precipitated the early action and the revolt did not go as planned. Capturing the sultan was key to success, as was his cooperation, but PRB failed to reach him. Instead, the sultan was surrounded by expatriates, and with their encouragement, he requested British military assistance to defeat the rebellion.\~\

“Greg Poulgrain, in his book, The Genesis Of Confrontation, sees that revolt in the context of broader British strategy to undermine President Sukarno. He accords a more manipulative and Machiavellian role to the UK in the abortive revolt, but I think he gives too much credit to British intelligence. However, there is still much to be discovered about the events of December 1962. After some significant casualties, especially in Seria and Limbang, the Brunei revolt was suppressed, but it sent shockwaves throughout Sarawak.” \~\

Impact of the 1962 Brunei Revolt

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “The government immediately gazetted a range of emergency powers and gave wide publicity to these new threats of violence. Newspapers were proscribed, political activists arrested and held without trial, and the participation in the revolt of many Malay and Kedayan Sarawak United Peoples PARTY (SUPP) members, especially those in the Sibuti area, was widely publicised. Following the crackdown, there was a steady flow of young Chinese communist cadres across to West Kalimantan, training in preparation for armed struggle. TNKU was headed by a highly influential Sarawak Malay leader. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“This threat to public order had a decisive impact on public opinion in Sarawak and was crucial in swinging Dayak opinion in favour of Malaysia. No longer was it easy to argue that Sarawak should continue as it was, or seek independence just on its own — as SUPP had been arguing. With the welter of government publicity, there was a groundswell either toward active support for the idea of federation or the passive view that Malaysia was a better option than Indonesia.The Sarawak government made much of the links between PRB leader Azahari and Indonesia, even though it has since been shown that top Indonesian security officials had no confidence in Azahari’s ability to work strategically. \~\

“The government trumpeted clear that the simple choice for Sarawakians was a promising future in Malaysia. Radio Sarawak, beamed throughout the state, gave considerable publicity to resignations of native members of SUPP, and certain government officers pressured influential Dayaks to abandon their membership and support for SUPP, stressing the themes of communist influence and subversion. Just the month before statewide elections in Sarawak, credibility was given to government arguments when Indonesian “volunteers” attacked the Tebedu police station, seizing weapons and killing officers — including the brother of Sarawak’s future first chief minister.” \~\

Brunei Revolt and the Indonesian ‘Konfrontasi’

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “That was the start of the Indonesian armed konfrontasi against Malaysia. One might well argue that the title Bapa Malaysia should be held jointly by Tunku Abdul Rahman and President Sukarno, for without Indonesia’s support for the PRB and commencement of armed confrontation, it is quite unlikely that a majority of Sarawak’s Council Negri would have supported Sarawak making Malaysia. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“The actual outcome from the 1963 District Council elections was much, much closer than many care to remember. The actual votes cast gave the SUPP/Parti Negara Sarawak (Panas) coalition 35.7 per cent, the Alliance 34.2 per cent and Independents 30.2 per cent. In 1963, the composition of the Council Negri was based on a three-tiered system, with each district council selecting members of the Divisional Advisory Councils (DAC). They would then chose who would represent them in the Council Negri. At each level it was “winner takes all”. Whether the Alliance would carry the day was actually in doubt until the last minute. That was because Panas and SUPP had formed a coalition, a link based upon pragmatism, not ideology. Panas and its leader, Datu Bandar, were savagely attacked for “selling out the Malays”. \~\

“Intervention of the Malayan Alliance added ferocity to that attack and the intense hostility between the top leaders of Barisan Rakyat Jati Sarawal (BARJASA) and Panas became both personal and political. After polling, the SUPP-Panas coalition controlled the 1st DAC and only needed to win a majority in the 3rd DAC in order to nominate 21 of the 36 elected members of Council Negri. In the 3rd DAC, the Alliance and the coalition had secured 10 votes. The outcome swung on the support of one independent member of the Binatang District Council, who held the pivotal swing vote. \~\

“Had the Panas/SUPP coalition then won the 3rd DAC, with the support of just one of four Mukah independents, they would have gained control of the Council Negri. The Panas/SUPP coalition agreement, signed by their respective leaders, stipulated that the United Nations conduct a referendum before the implementation of Malaysia. Had that agreement held, it is doubtful that the Tunku would have waited for a favourable outcome, given the international and domestic pressures bearing heavily upon his government, and his absolute refusal to merge with Singapore prior to the inclusion of the Borneo states.” \~\

Philippine’s Claim to Sabah

In the 1960s there were disputes between the Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah in northeast Borneo, The Philippines objected to the formation of the Malaysian federation, which including Sarawak and Sabah in northern Borneo, claiming North Borneo was part of Sulu, and thus the Philippines. It was discovered, after an army mutiny and murder of Muslim troops in 1968 (the "Corregidor Incident") that the Philippine army was training a special unit to infiltrate Sabah.

Philippine Muslims regard themselves as descendants of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu. The Royal Sultanate of Sulu was an Islamic kingdom that ruled the islands and seas in the southern Philippines and northern Borneo long before the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century.

In 1966 the new president, Ferdinand Marcos, dropped the claim, although it has since been revived and is still a point of contention marring Philippine-Malaysian relations. The Philippines’ differences with Malaysia did not involve organized violence but were longer lasting. A legally complex territorial dispute over Sabah led to the occasional suspension of diplomatic relations between 1963 and 1968, although relations were restored in December 1969. Relations were later strained as Sabah’s chief minister allowed Muslim insurgents from the Philippines to use Sabah as a haven until he lost an election in April 1976. [Source: Wikipedia]

Secession of Singapore

Malaysia’s independence was also followed by difficulties with Singapore. Under the terms of federation, Singapore accepted underrepresentation in the House of Representatives and also accepted that its residents could not participate as full citizens in Malaysia without fulfilling stringent naturalization requirements. Singapore’s chief minister Lee Kwan-Yew was, however, critical of Malays’ special status, and Malays perceived Lee’s efforts to reduce their special status as an attack on Malay rights and on the country’s racial harmony. In August 1965, officials from the federal government and Singapore held secret meetings to arrange for Singapore’s peaceful withdrawal from Malaysia, and Singapore became independent on August 6, 1965. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

Although Lee Kuan Yew supported the proposal, his opponents from the Singaporean Socialist Front resisted, arguing that this was a ploy for the British to continue controlling the region. Most political parties in Sarawak were also against the merger, and in Sabah, where there were no political parties, community representatives also stated their opposition. Although the Sultan of Brunei supported the merger, the Parti Rakyat Brunei opposed it as well. At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in 1961, Abdul Rahman explained his proposal further to its opponents. In October, he obtained agreement from the British government to the plan, provided that feedback be obtained from the communities involved in the merger. The Cobbold Commission, named after its head, Lord Cobbold, conducted a study in the Borneo territories and approved a merger with Sabah and Sarawak; however, it was found that a substantial number of Bruneians opposed merger. A referendum was conducted in Singapore to gauge opinion, and 70 percent supported merger with substantial autonomy given to the state government. The Sultanate of Brunei withdrew from the planned merger due to opposition from certain segments of its population as well as arguments over the payment of oil royalties and the status of the Sultan in the planned merger. Additionally, the Bruneian Parti Rakyat Brunei staged an armed revolt, which, though it was put down, was viewed as potentially destabilising to the new nation. [Source: Wikipedia]

After reviewing the Cobbold Commission's findings, the British government appointed the Landsdowne Commission to draft a constitution for Malaysia. The eventual constitution was essentially the same as the 1957 constitution, albeit with some rewording. For instance, giving recognition to the special position of the natives of the Borneo States. Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore were also granted some autonomy unavailable to the states of Malaya. After negotiations in July 1963, it was agreed that Malaysia would come into being on 31 August 1963, consisting of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. The date was to coincide with the independence day of Malaya and the British giving self-rule to Sarawak and Sabah. However, the Philippines and Indonesia strenuously objected to this development, with Indonesia claiming Malaysia represented a form of "neocolonialism" and the Philippines claiming Sabah as its territory. The opposition from the Indonesian government led by Sukarno and attempts by the Sarawak United People's Party delayed the formation of Malaysia. Due to these factors, an 8-member United Nations team had to be formed to re-ascertain whether Sabah and Sarawak truly wanted to join Malaysia. Malaysia formally came into being on 16 September 1963, consisting of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. In 1963 the total population of Malaysia was about 10 million.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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