An exhibition in Muzium Negara on the communist insurgency. Merdeka, and later Malaysia, came amid communist insurgencies raging in the jungles both of the peninsula and Sarawak. FILE PIC

Standfirst: Malaysia is a living example of potentials and possibilities realised amidst communist insurgencies and other obstacles. THIS being Merdeka month, I intend to write throughout the entire month a series on this related theme as the nation gears up for its 60th year of Independence at month’s end.

I was born a year after Malaya attained independence in 1957, so this milestone anniversary holds almost as much significance for the nation as it does for me on a personal level.

The early years of Merdeka right up to Malaysia Day in 1963 are, of course, years I have little to no personal memory of, except for that etched in my young mind of being caught literally in the crossfire in the Limbang revolt of 1962 as our family hid in the concrete bathroom to dodge live bullets fired into our wooden, stilted government bungalow.

It was thus not quite true that our nation was born in 1957 and reborn as it were in 1963 as a larger entity without bloodshed and violence. Merdeka, and later Malaysia, came amidst communist insurgencies raging in the jungles both of the peninsula and Sarawak.

Like today’s terrorists, those of yesteryear operated as if international boundaries did not exist and their cause spanned such borders. Our security forces fought brave and dogged real battles, and the many casualties reached all the way to the very top, including a sitting inspector-general of police.

Early nation-building efforts in those years were thus marred, but not much deterred, by these battles. Rather than those debilitating security threats consuming the nation, our almost single-minded focus on economic progress based on free and open market principles eventually sapped those deeply committed terrorists of their motivating if misguided ideology.

It is an enduring and treasured memory that I will carry till the end of my days of the privileged opportunity to meet and interview Bapa Malaysia, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman in the early 1990s, when our best-known and best-loved leader was already an ageing but still active statesman, simple in demeanour and ways, and handling an encounter with this young writer then without the presence of even a single aide.

Another enduring memory was of the Tunku on one of his occasional visits to Sarawak in his later years, sitting rather stooped at the back of his limousine as it passed by me at a traffic intersection on his way to the airport. It was 1990, and despite being wheelchair-bound, he had come to dedicate a Heroes Monument at the Museum Gardens in Kuching. He died one week after.

Sarawak leaders loomed rather large on the national stage, too, in those early years. There was the unforgettable Tun Temenggong Jugah Barieng, the first Iban in the national cabinet, with his trademark pigtail.

The late Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kub made an indelible imprint as education minister before returning to serve as Sarawak’s third chief minister. His nephew, Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, followed almost in the uncle’s identical footsteps, serving in various capacities in the federal cabinet before also returning to become Sarawak’s fourth chief minister. The late Tan Sri Dr Sulaiman Daud held a particularly lengthy stint as education minister and later, agriculture minister.

Tan Sri Leo Moggie also served an illustrious tenure, instrumental in overseeing the privatisation of such critical national infrastructure as the power and telecommunications utilities. The late former leaders of the Sarawak United People’s Party Tan Sri Ong Kee Hui and Tan Sri Stephen Yong went on to become ministers representing the very Malaysia they had fought against earlier. Tan Sri Effendi Norwawi became the first minister from the east to oversee the powerful Economic Planning Unit (EPU).

Today, ministers from Sarawak and Sabah occupy almost half of the entire federal cabinet and fill such critical portfolios as foreign affairs, public works, human resources, communications and EPU.

Sarawak and Sabah, rather than being at the periphery and the margins of national life, have instead become integral to the national decision-making process.

The nation has grown to become a model of progress, modernity and stability in the developing world. It can reasonably be argued that we reached this far in spite of ourselves and the divisiveness almost inherent to our very being.

We are a living example of potentials and possibilities realised despite grave risks and pitfalls and obstacles along the way. The path ahead in the next 60 years will likely be strewn with equal if not greater challenges. With our usual sense of cheery optimism and dogged determination, there is no doubt we shall overcome.

John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak

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