SEPTEMBER 16 is a bitter sweet day for many Sabahans, said former state secretary Simon Sipaun.

While some will remember it as the day Sabah, Sarawak, Malaya and Singapore merged to become Malaysia in 1963, others see it as the day North Borneo disappeared, he said.

“From records and photographs of the proclamation of Malaysia at the Jesselton town padang, there were signs of jubilation and expectation.

“But, for me, September 16, 1963, was one of the saddest days of my life. It was a day when Sabah and Sabahans lost the only opportunity to experience what it was like to be truly independent,” Sipaun told The Malaysian Insight.

“At the time, I did not think that the proposed formation of Malaysia would ever materialise. I did not look at it very seriously,” said Sipaun, who was also a former National Human Rights (Suhakam) commissioner.

In the interview with The Malaysian Insight, he reflects on the history of Malaysia’s formation and whether his home state of Sabah is now where he expected it to be when the country was born 54 years ago.

Excepts from the interview:

TMI: On May 27, 1961, when Tunku announced the concept of Malaysia, what was the response of the Bornean leaders? 

Sipaun: In 1961, British North Borneo was very much under the control of the British.

Local leaders did not have the opportunity to have better and deeper understanding of the circumstances and situation associated with Tunku’s proposal.

The people of North Borneo were not politically conscious. There was no political party in North Borneo until August 1961 when the first political party, the United Kadazan National Organisation, was formed.

TMI: What was it like as a North Bornean looking at the merger in 1963? 

Sipaun: At the time, I did not think that the proposed formation of Malaysia would ever materialise.

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However, at the same time, I was keen to follow the development as a matter of academic interest because I was majoring in political science and one of the subjects I was doing was “federalism”.

I still remember my lecturer saying that before the federation, you were like a big fish in a small pond. After the federation, you became a small fish in a big pond. I thought to myself there was nothing very attractive there.

The Borneo Students’ Association at Victoria, comprising students from North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei, was opposed to the idea of Malaysia fearing that it could be another form of colonialism.

They were highly suspicious of the intention of the Malayan and Singaporean leaders.

They were aware that Malaya and Singapore and the Borneo territories had nothing much in common and were separated by almost 2,000km of South China Sea.

Should there be a political union, it would at best be very artificial. There would be more divisive than uniting factors. The potentially rich natural resources, such as oil and gas of the respective territories, would have to be shared between the central and state governments.

The Borneo territories would also lose the opportunity to experience what it means to be independent and sovereign with the ability to determine their own destiny and with a separate seat in the United Nations.   

TMI: What were the aims and objectives of the Malaysian solidarity consultative committee? Which leader played a key role? 

Sipaun: The committee was chaired by Donald Stephens (later Muhammad Fuad Stephens). It was established following a Commonwealth parliamentary association regional conference in Singapore.

Its purpose was to explain the concept of Malaysia to the public, especially to the people of North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei.

The key role was played by Donald Stephens since he was the chairman. It was a clever move by Malaya and Singapore to let him chair the committee and corner him to support the formation of Malaysia.

For the Borneo territories, he was regarded by the Malayan and Singapore leaders as the most influential and articulate and it was, therefore, useful for Stephens to be given the position where he felt important and could make a difference. In a way, he was being used without him realising it.

(Note: Stephens founded the political party United National Kadazan Organisation prior to the formation of Malaysia, and became Sabah’s first chief minister after Malaysia was formed.)

TMI: Why did leaders like Donald Stephens, who initially had reservations about the merger, change their minds by the end of 1961?

Sipaun: One theory is that Donald made the U-turn after meeting with Lee Kuan Yew. Apparently, Lee told Donald that he would be the next prime minister of Malaysia after Abdul Rahman and he would make Donald his deputy.

Donald would then become the PM of Malaysia, succeeding Lee. With the formation of Malaysia, Donald would also become the first Sabah chief minister. This was another incentive for him to support the formation of Malaysia. There could have been other incentives.

Lee felt at the time that it would be in the national interest of Singapore to federate with Malaya. Geographically, Singapore was part of Malaya. Singapore had no natural resources, not even enough water to cater for its own needs. Going alone for Singapore at the time was not an option.

Abdul Rahman on the other hand was aware that if the proposed federation only comprised of Malaya and Singapore, the Malays would be outnumbered by the Chinese. 

This was where the Borneo territories came into the picture. The recruitment of the Borneo territories was an afterthought. Both Lee and Abdul Rahman wanted Malaysia to be realised but for different reasons.

TMI: What is the Cobbold Commission? 

Sipaun: Following a series of meetings between the British and Malayan governments, it was agreed that before a final decision was made, it was necessary to ascertain the views of the people of North Borneo and Sarawak.

A commission comprising a chairman and four members, two nominated by the British government and two by the Malayan government would carry out this task.

The chairman of the commission was Lord Cobbold, the former Bank of England governor. Hence, it was popularly known as the Cobbold Commission.

The other members were Penang chief minister Wong Pow Nee, Malayan Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Ghazali Shafie, former Sarawak governor Anthony Abell, and former chief secretary of Malaya David Whetherston.

North Borneo and Sarawak were not represented. It was only a commission of inquiry. It was not a referendum.

The commission held 50 hearings at the 35 different centres. Ten in Sarawak, 15 in North Borneo. About 4,000 people appeared before the commission.

The report concluded that one third supported the idea, one third were in favour provided there were safeguards, and the remaining third were divided between those who preferred North Borneo to gain full independence first and those who rejected the formation of Malaysia outright.

The conclusion was not unanimous.

The commission interpreted their findings as the people were in favour of Malaysia and that it was in the best interest of North Borneo and Sarawak to merge with the other states to form Malaysia.

TMI: What do you think about the merger? 

Sipaun: Personally, I do not think the formation of Malaysia was the best option for North Borneo. The experience for the last 54 years supports this contention. Many problems Sabah experience today are post-Malaysia problems.   


These include an overdose of politics based on race and religion, corruption, inadequate attention to the practice of good governance, unfair distribution of development of funds and opportunities, crafting laws that allow the authorities to arrest without fair and open trial, bloated civil service, and affirmative action created by the majority race which already controls everything and anything associated with the government for their benefit.

There’s also illegal immigrants being allowed entry into Sabah without proper documentations, forced conversion, confiscation of Malay-language Bibles, the “Allah” dispute and quarrelling over dead bodies, and so on.

Brunei, which changed its mind at the eleventh hour from joining the federation, is doing better than Sabah. Its citizens do not pay income tax.

It does not have to share its wealth with anyone. Like Brunei, Sabah has oil and gas and other natural resources. For every 100 barrels of oil produced in Sabah, 95 barrels go to the federal government.   

Yet, according to the 2010 World Bank report, Sabah is the poorest state in Malaysia. This finding was corroborated by UNDP. I was told by a very senior UN official in KL at least 50% of the poor people in the country are found in Sabah.

To add misery to injury, Sabahans are subjected to the goods and services tax (GST). I can only see a litany of problems and suffering today. This is not the Sabah I expected to see more than 53 years later.

It was a blessing in disguise for Singapore that it either left or was kicked out of the federation on August 9, 1965. Look at Singapore’s progress today and it has no natural resources.

I still remember when Malaysia and Singapore parted, one Singapore dollar was equal to RM1. Today one Singapore dollar is equal to more than RM3. What does this indicate?

TMI: When Malaysia was formed on September 16, 1963, do you remember what was the feeling at the time?

Sipaun: I cannot speak for others. From records and photographs of event associated with the proclamation of Malaysia at the Jesselton town padang, there were signs of jubilation and expectation.

It would be interesting to ask those who were there to witness the event and are still alive today if they find Malaysia today is what they had expected 54 years later.

As for me September 16, 1963, was one of the saddest days of my life.   It was a day when Sabah and Sabahans lost the only opportunity to experience what it was like to live a truly independent and sovereign nation with the ability to determine its own destiny, and with a separate seat in the United Nations.