Alternate history – if you are not familiar with the term, it means just that, an alternative to the history of something or an event as we know it; a historical shot that happens in scenario B instead of scenario A.
Usually, an alternate history happens when we start with the question “what if…”.
“What if Nazi Germany won WW2?”, “What if the US is divided into two countries after its civil war (1861 – 1865)?”, “What if the Ottoman Empire joined the Allies, instead of the Central Powers during WW1?”.
What if, just what if, the Federated States of Malaya, along with the North Borneo and Sarawak (and Singapore) had decided not to form Malaysia?
During WW2, the British, through the Atlantic Charter, made a commitment to the US to decolonize its colonies. independence of the British colonies in Southeast Asia was then just a matter of time.
The more important matter to consider was: are the colonies better off joining hands and setting a federation, or become an independent sovereign state on its own?
Regional Politics (1950s – 1960s)
During this decade, Southeast Asia was touted as the ‘Asia’s Balkan.
‘Balkan’ refers to a region in eastern Europe, occupied by people of Yugoslav descent (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria), Albania and Greece. From the 16th century until late 19th century, the Balkan area was part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
One by one, they gained independence from the Ottoman Empire. However, war broke out between the countries, which led to two Balkan Wars (1912- 1913). When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia) in the hands of Serbian nationalist, it triggered the start of the WW1.
The reason for the conflict of the Balkan nations is a phenomenon known as ‘irredentism’, the tendency for new nations to claim for bigger regions. Greece wants a ‘Greater Greece’, Bulgaria wants a ‘Greater Bulgaria’, Serbia wants a ‘Greater Serbia’.
Their rationale is that their nation is incomplete without the inclusion of those regions, that it logically belongs to them. Unfortunately, the areas they claim overlap, hence conflict and war were unavoidable.
The Irredentism phenomenon also affected Southeast Asia post WW2. Upon gaining its independence, the ‘new’ nations put forth their claims in order to fulfil each country’s vision of nationalism.
Sukarno wanted to claim the ‘Greater Indonesia’ (or Indonesia Raya), unifying the whole Malay archipelago (Nusantara), including the island of Borneo.
The Philippines, under Diosdado Macapagal, on the other hand, made a claim for part of North Borneo (Sabah), based on the historical regional sovereignty of the Sulu Sultanate.
There was also a movement in Brunei that fought for a ‘Greater Brunei’, which includes Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak, as ‘Northern Kalimantan’, which was supported by Sukarno. Had they succeeded in claiming these regions, it would have suffered the same fate as Kalimantan and Sumatra; absorbed and put under the rule of Indonesia (The Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia, or NKRI – Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia).
Had we not formed Malaysia, Indonesia would have executed the annexation of Sabah and Sarawak. We would not know how long Sabah and Sarawak are able to sustain themselves, especially when the British, citing financial reasons, closed all its bases ‘East of Suez’ from the year 1971.
Perhaps, an armed battle for independence, similar to what we saw in Irian Jaya and Timor Leste, would have occurred in Sabah and Sarawak. Perhaps, the Philippines and Indonesia would face a clash due to their overlapping claim of the northern state of Sabah.
Instead of the peaceful ASEAN as we know now, we could have been a region trapped and involved in a long-term conflict for decades.
What would have happened to Malaysia and Singapore? Had the dream for a ‘Greater Indonesia’ be realised, Indonesia’s waters would be directly connected to the South China Sea, giving Indonesia an advantage to dominate the maritime trade in Southeast Asia.
The Straits of Sunda and Lombok would be the main routes, instead of the Straits of Melaka. The Malay States would then be left behind.
Awful scenario for Malaysia!
Thank God, none of this happened
What did happen was that the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak decided to create an alliance? Not only do they unite and share their strength in defending their regions, but Tunku Abdul Rahman (the leader of the Federation of Malaya) also successfully formed the only country in Southeast Asia, which encompassed a land and maritime area in the Southeast Asia. This puts Malaysia as the ‘gateway’ to two sea areas (the Pacific and Indian oceans). Sukarno got a checkmate. He was pissed off and determined to fight Malaysia; he initiated the ‘Ganyang (crush) Malaysia’ campaign.
Sequence of events
Malaysia was successfully formed, hence the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation. The failure of this confrontation then affected the image of Sukarno, which leads to his downfall in 1965. With his downfall, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, were finally able to sit down in a roundtable and finally agree to establish ASEAN in 1967, which played a key role in ensuring peace in this region.
The establishment of Malaysia was clearly a ‘win-win’ situation for all. It provides freedom to the newer nations from security dilemma, and built the foundation for Malaysia to emerge as the pivot state in ASEAN. Our Malaysian founding fathers obviously had the foresight to consider these matters, on top of the need to fight against communist threats. This is the encouragement needed to get them to join hands and be in arms for a greater good.
Appreciate what we have. Resist voices that calls for a separation, resist the calls for a disunity, for we are, greater together.
This article was written especially coinciding with the Malaysia Day, 16 September 2018.