No, Sarawak did not gain independence in 1841

SEPTEMBER 13 — If the Sarawak Association for Peoples’ Aspiration (Sapa) thinks it can make some kind of headway by choosing September 24 as the true independence date for Sarawak, it is mistaken.

Sapa recently said it plans to celebrate that date as part of its efforts to pile pressure on Putrajaya to comply with the full terms of the Malaysia Agreement, which bound Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya together as a nation.

“Why should we mark August 31 as independence day?” Sapa president Lina Soo was reported as saying by The Malaysian Insider. “Sarawak does not need to mark August 31 as the state did not gain her independence on that date.”

Soo further said Sapa intends to call September 24 Fair Land Sarawak Day after the state’s old anthem.

But the question here is did the cession of Kuching by the Brunei sultanate in 1841 to Brooke constitute independence?

First, a little history. On that date in 1841, the Brunei Sultanate ceded the Kuching territory to James Brooke, who then established the Kingdom of Sarawak and became the first White Rajah. Over time, this kingdom grew to encompass the area we know as Sarawak state today.

Some 43 years later, James’ successor Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke agreed to a British protectorate and 58 years later, the third White Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke ceded the state to the United Kingdom.

On July 22, 1963, Sarawak gained independence from the United Kingdom on condition that it join with Sabah, Singapore and Malaya to form Malaysia, which it did on September 16 of that year.

What happened was that Kuching was passed from one outside ruler to another foreign ruler. For all his benevolence as a ruler, James Brooke remained a British man whose dynasty had a private empire. The Kuching territory and the subsequent Sarawak nation answered to him and his successors.

In contrast, for a state to be considered independent, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 noted in 1960 the right to self-determination and the absence of alien subjugation, among others.

Clearly then, Kuching did not achieve independence on Sept 24, 1841. If anything, choosing a date which saw the transfer of Kuching from one alien subjugation to another makes a mockery of Sapa’s stated intention.

Make no mistake, I am all for a review of the Malaysia Agreement. As I have written previously, such a review is long overdue, though not too late. It is worth remembering that Tun Abdul Razak did establish a committee to review the agreement in 1973, though other events overtook the committee’s purpose that year and consequently the proposed review never happened.

And growing awareness and activism among Sarawakians in very recent years about the agreement — and about how Sabah and Sarawak may have lost much of what was agreed to when forming Malaysia — is welcome considering many of the state’s younger generation do not even know of the agreement, according to a survey three years ago.

But fighting for Sarawak’s rights as accorded in the Malaysia Agreement is a delicate process that needs to be done carefully.

The focus, to my mind, should be on cultivating awareness and sustaining the conversation while getting more and more people to join in. Once we have enough people talking about the issue, we can then push further forward.

In that sense, Sapa is raising some interesting talking points with previous statements on why the Malaysia Agreement may be invalid and why Sarawak did not really gain independence on July 22, 1963.

To fight for what Sarawak really deserves, we have a long way to go still. But choosing the day a British man was given his own private kingdom to celebrate Sarawak’s “independence” is just shooting ourselves in the foot.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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