By Wilfred Madius Tangau

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia: HAPPY 60th Independence Day to the people and the government of Sarawak.

Few Malaysians, especially from Malaya, are aware that Sarawak and Sabah were briefly independent before joining Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia.


Because it was not emphasised or not written at all in the Malaysian history textbooks taught in the Malaysian education systems.

For 56 days, from July 22, 1963 to September 15, 1963, the British relinquished control, and Sarawak was self-governed under the first chief minister Stephen Kalong Ningkan’s helm.

Likewise, for 16 days from 31 August 1963 to 15 September 1963, Sabah was in self-rule under her first Chief Minister Donald Stephens.

It is, thus, important for us to celebrate Sarawak’s Independence Day (July 22, 1963), then of Malaya and Sabah (August 31, in 1957 and 1963, respectively) before we celebrate Malaysia Day (September 16, 1963).

This is a reminder that we had different colonial experiences and decolonisation trajectories, and we must not take for granted the merger of three countries as one federation.

We could have been three different countries the way Brunei is a separate nation to us now.

We must consciously avoid developments that make the alternative path necessary and more desirable than the status quo.

Narrative answer to 3R politics

Today, we are now talking about making new laws to fight the politics that wield the 3Rs (race, religion and royalty), when a legalistic approach should be the last resort.

If a country needs to put a CCTV at every traffic light to deter drivers from running red lights, then the country has failed in not just road safety, but civic consciousness.

What we need instead is a new narrative of Malaysia’s nationhood that recognises and celebrates its three precious elements: the Nusantara heritage, multiculturalism, and the liberal political system we inherited from the British.

Nusantara heritage

Nusantara, or maritime Southeast Asia, is the medley of islands and coastal lands that, in the widest definition, covers not just Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore and East Timor but also the Philippines, southern Thailand and parts of coastal Vietnam and Cambodia where the Cham-Malay people resided.

(Do not confuse it with Nusantara city. Indonesia naming her new capital as Nusantara is as awkward as if an Asian country were to suddenly name its new capital as Asia.)

The Nusantara world is resided primarily by Malay-Polynesians who speak languages related to Malay, but most of them are not Malays.

As maritime people, Malay-Polynesians have relatives in Taiwan to the north, Madagascar to the east, New Zealand (the Maoris) to the south and Hawaii to the east.

Islam and the Malay language are religiously and linguistically dominant in Nusantara, and Malays are certainly the dominant ethnic group in this part of Nusantara: Malaysia.

Recognising Malaysia as part of Nusantara, rather than the homeland of just the Malays, is not at all challenging the Malays’ dominance in Malaysia.

Instead, while preserving the dominance of Malays and Islam, it makes Malaysia more inclusive for the non-Malays, including the Sabah and Sarawak natives.  

In Malaya, Malays is a composite term that includes Muslims of many ethnic origins like the Minangkabau, Bugis, Javanese, Achehnese, Mandailing, and Banjar, that are classified as “non-Malay” in Indonesia.

Assimilation or erasure?

Some Peninsular Malaysians aim to shape Sabah and Sarawak in the “Malayan” mould by converting non-Muslim natives to Islam and assimilating Muslim natives as Malays.

To this end, they try to create different classes within Bumiputera.

They think that by homogenising Sabah and Sarawak natives and expanding the numbers of Malays, it would strengthen Malaysia and prevent separatism.

Counterproductively, such a mentality only weakens Malaysia because non-Malay natives in Sabah and Sarawak have our languages and cultures and do not want to lose our identity to become Malays.

I have many relatives and friends who are both pious Muslims and proud Dusuns, who do not want to become Malays, let alone Arabs.

We, Sabah and Sarawak natives, only want to be in the same category as the Malays and Orang Asli as Bumiputera, with no distinction of first, second and third classes.

Embracing Nusantara as our wider cultural category with the Malays would ease our fear of assimilation without changing the communal balance of power in Malaysia.

A core element of our Nusantara heritage in Malaysia is of course our beloved Malay rulers, who have been the inclusive guardians of not just the Malays but also all other Malaysians.

Hence, embracing Nusantara will only strengthen, and not weaken, the institutions of Malay rulers.

Embracing the Nusantara heritage will also change the wrong impression that the Malay language is the language of the Malays or of the Muslims.

That should help in further promoting the use of Malay as a language for all Malaysians, as the Indonesian language is for all Indonesians.

In the wider Nusantara, of which Sabah is a good example, Malay is spoken widely by non-Malays and non-Muslims in daily lives.

That’s the reason why our Christians pray in Malay and to Allah.  

Everywhere in Nusantara except Peninsular Malaysia, Christians praying to Allah does not cause any cultural shock and will not be painted as a conspiracy to convert the Muslims.

In Sabah, the Malay language is emerging as Bahasa Sabah. There are words in Bahasa Sabah such as bubut, limpas, ngam-ngam, kupi-kupi, kuruyok, gustan, buyuk, tapuk, and many more, which are not part of the vocabulary of “Malayan” Malays.


Being a maritime living space, Nusantara has always been cosmopolitan and open to immigration from within and without the region.

Before the emergence of nation-states, the ancestors of Nusantara natives moved in and out of islands and peninsulas.

Sometimes, our ancestors clashed with each other, but eventually, we found ways to accommodate and live with each other.

Often, the early comers helped the latecomers, and the late comers respected the early comers.

In many parts of Nusantara, gift and exchange of “pinang dan sirih” (betel nut and leaf) is still the ritual of establishing fraternity or reconciling conflicts.

The Nusantara peoples were, of course, not always angelic or saintly, but our ancestors have taught us to be cultured and not to pride ourselves with rudeness or prejudice.

Our leaders are expected to be even more cultured and refined now.

Many of the Nusantara peoples, especially those in coastal areas on trade routes, excelled in trading.

Our ancestors were constantly exposed to foreign languages, religions and cultures, and they welcomed traders and missionaries who brought them.


Albeit smaller in scale and lesser in range, plural societies started before colonisation by the Western powers.

Sometimes, they emerged as local kingdoms pursued economic advancements in response to early globalisation.

In Johor, the Chinese were brought in alongside the Javanese to work on agriculture by Temenggong Ibrahim and his son Sultan Abu Bakar decades before his grandson Sultan Ibrahim accepted British suzerainty in 1915.

In Borneo, we had the Hindu kingdom of Kutai Martadipura, which existed for 1,236 years (399-1635 AD) in East Kalimantan just south of Sabah and, as narrated by Silsilah Raja-raja Brunei, a Chinese aristocrat named Ong Sum Ping in the Brunei royal court during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Hassan (1582-1598).

Celebrate diversity

We must move beyond the old-school view propagated by the likes of J.S. Furnivall that plural society in Southeast Asia was merely the product of colonial rule that brought in foreigners and kept different ethnic groups apart to divide and rule.

We should celebrate our multicultural society, not lamenting it as a historical error needing assimilation as the solution.

Some have the wrong idea that the New Economic Policy (NEP) can only be justified if the non-Bumiputera are denounced as unwanted and ungrateful because they resist assimilation.

This is untrue: if we want NEP to be more accepted by the non-Bumiputera, respect their rights – much like our right as Sabah and Sarawak natives – to not be assimilated.

And, lest we forget, Islam explains beautifully the purpose of cultural diversity: we humans are made into different tribes and nations to know each other.

Liberal politics

The toughest challenge in reconceptualising an inclusive Malaysia lies in overcoming the anti-colonial hangover.  

This requires an honest recognition of three important facts.

First, Malaysia is a post-colonial state with British rule as the single most important commonality between Malaya and Borneo.

Denying our common colonial past is denying our strongest historical tie.

Second, persevering the liberal political system we inherit from the British: the federal constitution, constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, and civil and political liberties – including religious freedom, judiciary independence, common laws, and impartial and professional bureaucracy – is at the core of the social contracts that have preserved Malaysia: the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).

If you tear apart the liberal political system, you also tear apart the moral basis of Malaysia’s existence.

No, “liberal” is not a dirty word. It appears in the preamble of the Rukun Negara as something that “menjamin satu cara liberal terhadap tradisi-tradisi kebudayaannya yang kaya dan berbagai-bagai corak” (guarantees a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions).

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Vision 2020, listed “establishing a matured liberal and tolerant society” as its fifth challenge.

(“Liberal” here refers to the classical idea of “limited government” and cautioning against “tyranny of majority”, not America’s liberalism in its cultural war of identity politics.)

Third, decolonisation is not the restoration of the pre-colonial indigenous political system, but the realisation of democracy.

There can be no colonisation when every citizen is politically equal, and the government exercises its power on the consent of the governed.

In the opposite direction, Sabah and Sarawak suffered internal colonisation when one-party rule crippled our liberal institutions and disabled democracy.

For Malaysia to stay decolonised, we must pursue decentralisation of power for all 13 states to prevent the re-emergence of power concentration that, in the worst case, would empower Malayan extremists.

Narrative battle

Those of us who love the multi-ethnic, multi-faith and free post-colonial Malaysia promised by MA63 must fight off the extremists who want to revert Malaysia back to a mono-ethnic, mono-faith and authoritarian pre-colonial “Tanah Melayu”.

We must fight and win this narrative battle through writing, research, art, culture, and whatever other ways.

In Borneo, more dangerous than the Malayan colonialists are our own Sabahan and Sarawakian leaders who follow or bend over to justify such colonialist thinking.

I am not surprised at all by former chief minister Harris Salleh who dismissed my condemnation of Malayan colonialism and imperialism espoused by Dr Mahathir, Tan Sri Abdul Hadi Awang and Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor.

His use of religion in politics was approved by Kuala Lumpur but was rejected by Sabahans – so much that he lost his job in 1985.