In August 1963, 24-year-old Ben D’Cunha was called up by his editor Hugh Savage and told: “Pack your bags, you’re going to Sarawak to cover the United Nations’ fact-finding mission.”
Ben was stunned. This was big and he was still new to the game.
Malaysia was in the process of being formed but Indonesia and the Philippines were against it. They claimed the people of Sabah and Sarawak were being forced to merge with Malaya.
So, at a meeting between the leaders of the three nations, it was decided that they invite the UN to assess the wishes of the people of these two British colonies so as to ascertain whether they really wanted to form Malaysia.
At that time, Ben only had a vague idea about the UN’s involvement. As the enormity of the task began to sink in, he had another shock: the office gave him $120 (Malayan dollars) and told him to be on his way. He had to make do with this during his two-week stay in Sarawak.
To save money, just after midnight in mid-August, the intrepid young man climbed aboard a newspaper van bound for Johor which dropped off newspaper bundles at locations along the way for news vendors to collect and distribute. From Johor, he made his way to Singapore and took a flight, which had been booked for him by his newspaper The Malayan Times.
It was the first time he was on a flight. Upon landing in Kuching, he went to meet two people his boss had told him would take care of him while in Sarawak: Rahman Yakub and Ivor Krall. Rahman was then with the state legal office (he went on to become chief minister and governor) while Krall was with the state Information Department.
“They put me up at a hotel called Ariff Hotel, a wooden building, where I shared a room with Utusan Malaysia news editor Rosdin Yaakub,” Ben, now 81, told me.
Travel and transport were a big problem in the Sarawak of the 1960s. The journalists travelled long distances by an aircraft made available by the Royal Malaysian Air Force and often had to board longboats to traverse rivers.
The UN team headed by Lawrence Michelmore arrived on Aug 16 to conduct the assessment. They were greeted at the airport by a huge demonstration against the formation of Malaysia. Ben went to some of the places where the UN mission held meetings with political parties, trade organisations and civil society groups to gauge their views about merging to form Malaysia.
When the team arrived in Sibu on Aug 27, Ben was there. At the airport, about 2,000 people carried placards denouncing the Malaysia plan. They said they wanted to be free of both London and Kuala Lumpur and to be able to determine their own future. Many of them were members of the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) which did not want to be ruled by another group of “foreigners”. SUPP leaders later appealed to the demonstrators to disperse.
The UN team proceeded to the Sibu Methodist School.
“As I was walking along with some local dignitaries into the school, hell broke loose. Groups of protesting youths began shouting and pelting those in front with stones. I saw some overturning a few cars and others holding sticks. People were scattering.
“I ran for my life. I was the youngest of the journalists and had never experienced such a thing. I didn’t even know where I was running, I just ran from the area where protesters were screaming, stones were falling and where there were clashes. I managed to escape the stones and I also escaped being hit by the protesters or the police who were called in to quell the rioting.”
Three cars were overturned by the protesters, many of whom were demanding the release of four youths who had been arrested at the airport demonstration. Police fired two warning shots and used batons to prevent anyone from entering the school proper where the UN team and other officials had sought refuge. SUPP leaders present used loudhailers to appeal to the crowd to behave and to disperse but they were ignored.
A government spokesman later blamed SUPP for the protests but secretary-general Stephen Yong denied that his party was behind it, saying that all branches had been told not to carry out demonstrations during the UN team’s visit.
The divisional superintendent of police B R Edwards estimated the crowd at between 2,000 and 3,000. Soon the riot squad from Malaya, which had been stationed in the then British territory, arrived and after firing warning shots baton-charged the protesters and dispersed the crowd.
Three policemen were injured but there is no official figure on the number of protesters or members of the public who were injured in the rioting.
The following day, there was a similar riot in Miri when the UN mission was conducting its assessment. Here, eight policemen and at least 10 protesters were injured, two of them with gunshot wounds.
In those days, there was no handphone and getting a landline was difficult. Ben had to go to the nearest Post Office to send his stories by telegraph to his office. There was no Post Office in interior Kapit, where the UN team met people, and so he had to travel by longboat to Sibu to send his report.
But Ben managed to overcome the obstacles and file his reports, even if these were sometimes delayed due to the distance, largely because Sarawak people were very helpful.
His bosses were happy with his work. Later, Ben went on to join the Straits Times for about a year before leaving and returning again in 1974 when it was known as The New Straits Times.
I met Ben when I joined the NST and found him to be friendly and helpful. Ben, who’s wonderfully cheerful and sprightly even at 81, retired at 55 as Foreign Editor. He continued working long after that in the NST, including the period when I was Foreign Editor. He then moved on to work with other publications before calling it quits three years ago.
Upon his return to Kuala Lumpur from Sarawak, Ben got back to the routine coverage of Kuala Lumpur. On Sept 14, the UN announced that its assessment team had found that there was overwhelming desire among the people of Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia. It said 100% of Sabahans and 73.3% of Sarawakians were for it.
Ben had also had the impression that the majority of Sarawakians were for it when he was on the ground talking to people and following the UN team.
While some of the areas Ben visited are vague in his memory, the rioting in Sibu is still clear, the stones raining on people is still vivid.
I find irony in the fact that the town that was the fiercest denouncer of Malaysia is today hosting the national-level Malaysia Day celebration. I don’t know how those who had participated in the protests feel today. Are they happy? Do they think their fears have been proved wrong?
But it is good that the celebration is happening in Sibu, for it shows that Sarawakians, and Malaysians, have moved on.
As we celebrate the 57th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia, let us move on from old suspicions and fears to positivity. Let’s work to make this a happy nation, as first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman dreamed.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.