YUSUF Mustanir was 5 on Sept 15, 1963, but he remembers that day very well. It was a Sunday and there he was among a crowd that had gathered in Pangkalan Batu, the ceremonial landing steps across the river from the Astana in Kuching.
The last British governor of Sarawak, Sir Alexander Waddell, was making his final exit from Sarawak.
Perched atop the shoulders of his late father, Mustanir Sirat, Yusuf was head and shoulders above others in the crowd.
Waddell approached to shake his hand and spoke to him. His words remain as fresh as if they were spoken only yesterday: “Happy independence, young man. Now, the country is yours.”
Thus, a new country was born — Malaysia — and with it, a tangled mixture of emotions, symbolisms, dates, hopes and misgivings.
As the late Sarawak chief minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem stated boldly, Sarawak did not shed its status as a British colony only to become a colony of Malaya.
It believes it gained independence on Sept 16, 1963, as an equal partner in the newly-created Federation of Malaysia that came into existence that day.
Just what being an “equal partner” means in a federation of 13 states is, of course, never clearly quite spelt out in the Malaysia Agreement and remains unclear in practical terms.
Is being “equal” vis-à-vis the Federal Government and not with the other states in the peninsula? Or is this merely a reflex against perceived heavy-handedness by federal authorities over the years?
No sooner had Sarawak started its own independent journey than political troubles started brewing.
In barely three years, the new governor, the late Tun Abang Openg Sapiee, dismissed his chief minister, the late Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan, provoking a drawn-out constitutional crisis that wound up at the Privy Council in London.
Former chief justice of Borneo, Tan Sri Jemuri Serjan, who was acting Sarawak attorney-general at the time of what is now known as the Ningkan crisis, recently mused privately over what transpired.
An obvious solution would have been to dissolve the Council Negeri as the state assembly was then called. But, greater political uncertainty would have followed.
The Council Negeri was not a directly-elected legislature. Dissolution would have meant triggering a drawn-out three-tier electoral system that existed then.
Demonstrations by men, armed with parang and other weapons, started appearing in Kuching.
The then prime minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, cut through a Gordian knot by declaring a state of emergency in Sarawak.
The late Datuk Penghulu Tawi Sli became Sarawak’s second chief minister.
The centralising impulses of the Federal Government seemed to move apace from then on and gathered momentum under the lengthy premiership of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The lesson posed by the rejection of the Malayan Union in favour a federation seemed all but forgotten.
A backlash was perhaps just waiting for the right moment to rear its head.
It would be wrong to assume many in Sarawak (or Sabah) are hankering for new arrangements separate from what were provided for under the Malaysia Agreement.
Many quarters, including those from the current Sarawak government, call for a return to what were originally provided for.
Symbolisms, too, matter a great deal for Sarawak and Sabah.
They uphold what people in the two states feel deeply and with pride: that the two states are indeed distinct from the rest of the country.
There is a high court for just the two states. The state police chiefs are called police commissioners.
Each state government is led by its own cabinet of ministers.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has been open to what Sarawak and Sabah have in mind and is all for talks.
The mechanism for these has, in fact, already been set in motion. That respectful tone — best exemplified by Najib and his deputy making unprecedented frequent visits to Sarawak and Sabah — augurs well for the talks.
A country can only attain true greatness if it is honest with itself and open about possible weaknesses or flaws and willing to take steps to rectify them. Fifty-four years after Malaysia is an opportune time to take stock and set the nation on a path that will sustain it for the decades to come.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak