By Bunga Pakma
In the twilight days of 1941 Sarawak was a mess. Politics happened in a very small circle of very strange white people and what they got up to boggles the mind. If presented as fiction, readers would reject it as unbelievable. Once again, I point you to Bob ReecesThe Name of Brooke. Reece unravels the sordid tale with nigh miraculous clarity.
Vyner and his Constitution
Vyner had nothing on his mind but ensuring the comfort of his own ass and keeping his nephew Anthony, the heir-presumptive, as impotent as possible on the chance that the Raj should descend to him.
To compass both ends, Vyner promulgated a Constitution for Sarawak that would change the form of government from an absolute to a limited monarchy. The preamble of the constitution stated nine Cardinal Principles which rang with lofty ideals. Needless to say, the system of government specified in the body of the text contained next to no democracy. Henceforth the Rajah would have to consult with his nobles in the Supreme Council and the Council Negri, most of whose members were appointed. A step forward, true. England had made it 750 years before with theMagna Carta.
The constitution came with a price-tag of $2,000,000. Vyner negotiated a secret agreement with the Committee of Administration to ensure that whatever happened he and his family (a very strange bunch) continued to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed.
Welcome to the Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere
Then the Japanese invaded and render! ed the w hite peoples bickering and intrigue irrelevant. This is known as a metasolution,as when you win the game by overthrowing the chessboard. The people of Sarawak had passed under the rule of another lite. The Japanese had an army, and were thus the biggest and baddest master the country had known.
In the first two parts of this series, we have focussed on the politics of the lites. I propose leaving the Japanese aside and examining the first stirrings of political consciousness among ordinary Sarawakians.
Of course Sarawakians hadalways been conscious of politics. All races were aware of their rights. The Ibans of the Skrang and Lundu had been strong enough to do deals with Brunei on the footing of equals. The arrival of the Brooke Raj upset the Sarawak balance of power. Many Dayaks welcomed Brookes protection. Others resented his encroachment. This resentment was the motive behind the Chinese Insurrection of 1857 and the numerous rebellions that Charles (Jamess awesome and ruthless war-leader-in-chief) put down in the 1860s and 70s.
It became clear to every Sarawakian that no small polity (tribal or not) could resist the Brookessuperior organization. It is my sense, for what its worth, that most Sarawakians resigned themselves to accept the Raj and get on with their lives. If the world has seen anything even vaguely approximating a benevolent autocracy, this was it, and in such a case it was a relief to follow the path of least resistance. Ruling ones self is hard.
Rubber was booming in the 1920s. In that decade of prosperityas Reece observeseducation expanded. New schools, Malay, Chinese and Iban, were founded, and the old Kuching schools increased their enrollment. It is just marvellous how educationany education at allwill (so to speak) poison peoples minds.
A Digression on Education in Sarawak
It would be absurd to! say tha t Sarawakians did not prize education. Before the whites got in the way, the literate Malays studied Islam and Islamic jurisprudence and the literate Chinese possessed a venerable classical syllabus. The Dayaks had no script of their own, but no one can deny they too treasured and passed on an important body of knowledge. When they got the chance, the Dayaks leaped to acquire literacy.
One of the first missionaries, Rev. William Gomes opened a school seven days after his arrival in Lundu in 1853. Eighteen students immediately registered for classes. His son Edwin tells two further stories.
In 1861 the famous Saribas warrior Buda walked unannounced into the Banting mission-school. The young students, Balau Ibans, crowded into the corner, whispering munsoh! Buda took off his parang-ilang, laid it aside, and asked the teacher, Rev. Mesney, whether he could join the class and learn to read and write. Budas lessons started that day. Later on Gomes comments:
- A party of Saribas Dyaks going on a gutta-hunting expedition asked for a copy of the first Dyak reading-book, because one of them could read, and thought he would teach the others in the evenings when they were not at work. And this is indeed what did happen, and when the party returned most of them were able to read. The Saribas women are just as keen as the men, and many of them have been taught to read by some Dyak friend.
With the idea of education firmly in place, 1930 was the perfect time for the Crash and Great Depression to be felt in Sarawak. Nobody was going to starve or freeze to death, but people had tasted prosperity, their expectations had been raised and they looked around for ways to re-gain their well-being. The government had cut back on emp! loyment and offered few jobs to the educated. Sarawakians saw it was a matter of help yourself because nobody else will.
Rakawi Yusoff founded Kuchings first Malay newspaper,Fajar Sarawak, and wrote a history and Sarawaks first novel. Others in Rakawis circle later founded the Persatuan Melayu Sarawak, which aimed to promote Malay unity, business and culture. In 1939 a number of Iban small-holders in Paku and Rimbas banded together to form the Dayaks Co-operative Society, the first Dayak registered company.
Events in the outside world also brought Sarawakians to be more aware of their potentials. Sarawakians followed Gandhis movement in India, and developments in the big plantation-countries of Malaya and the Dutch East-Indies. Chinese Sarawakians looked with pride on the rise of the Kuomintang on the mainland, and reacted with horror and concern to Japans brutal imperialism. When Japan annexed Manchuria Chinese Sarawakians organized a boycott against Japanese goods, and in 1937 they established the Sarawak branch of the China Distress Relief Fund.
The Grass Grows from the Ground Up
I doubt that by 1941 the Brits had anything left to teach Sarawakians about the nature of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism.
The Japanese Occupation (which Prof. Reece has also treated in hisMasa Jepun) developed these political lessons. Strangely enough, the experience of being occupied taught many Sarawakians their own strength, and how confidently they could rely on their own powers. They had to learn to survive in a modern rgime of unprecedented resources for control. They learned to lie and to manage those in authority. In memoir after memoir from the time people describe how at last they were doing things and taking responsibilities they had never been a! llowed t o do or take before.
When the Australians landed and the Japanese had surrendered, Sarawak was a wreck physically, but political awareness, political aspirationsand political skills were already in place, ready to manifest themselves. The people of Sarawak had built the foundations of their own future themselves,from the ground up.
Filed under: Education, history, Human rights, Politics Tagged: Anak Sarawak Bangsa Malaysia, Bunga Pakma, Sarawak politics, Save Sarawak
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