1966 Sarawak constitutional crisis

The 1966 Sarawak constitutional crisis took place in the state of Sarawak, Malaysia from 1965 to 1966. This crisis was started by a group of politicians who were dissatisfied towards Stephen Kalong Ningkan's leadership as chief minister. Ningkan was later removed from the chief minister post by the Governor of Sarawak in June 1966. However, Ningkan was reinstated by the High Court in early September 1966. He was ousted from the chief minister office for the final time at the end of September 1966 and was replaced by Tawi Sli as the new chief minister. It was widely believed that the ouster of Ningkan was a result of interference by the Malaysian federal government due to him being a strong advocate of greater state autonomy.[1][2]

1966 Sarawak constitutional crisis
Caused byDissatisfaction towards Stephen Kalong Ningkan leadership
GoalsRemoval of Stephen Kalong Ningkan from the chief minister post
Resulted in
  • State of emergency declared in Sarawak
  • Amendment of Sarawak state constitution
  • Removal of Ningkan from chief minister post
Parties to the civil conflict
  • Parti Negara Sarawak (PANAS)
  • Barisan Rakyat Jati Sarawak (BARJASA)
  • Parti Pesaka Sarawak (PESAKA)
Lead figures
  • Abang Haji Openg
  • Tawi Sli


Stephen Kalong Ningkan was the leader of the Sarawak Alliance which comprised Sarawak National Party (SNAP), Parti Pesaka Sarawak (PESAKA), Barisan Ra'ayat Jati Sarawak (BARJASA), and Sarawak Chinese Association (SCA). On 22 July 1963, Ningkan was appointed as the first Premier of Sarawak following his party landslide winnings of the 1963 Sarawak district council elections. Temenggung Jugah (leader of the PESAKA party) was originally poised to become the first governor of Sarawak however he was transferred to a newly created portfolio called "Federal Minister of Sarawak Affairs" because of the opposition from the Malaysian federal government against the Dayaks to fill up the two highest posts in the state. Ningkan did not include any of the PESAKA representatives in his state cabinet despite the party contributing a significant number of seats for the Alliance. Ningkan did not have a good relationship with the federal government and also with his component parties such as PESAKA and BARJASA. He excluded both PESAKA and BARJASA from the cabinet decision-making process and opposed the usage of Malay language as the official language in Sarawak. Ningkan was also slow in replacing the expatriate officers from the state civil service to enable the Borneotisation of the state civil service. Ningkan opined that expatriates should hold the office until the locals were suitable to take over the positions. In the next three years, the Malays of PANAS and BARJASA were working together trying to topple Ningkan from power. They tried to bring the peninsular-based United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) into Sarawak to consolidate their power against Ningkan. However, after an assessment by the peninsular UMNO, the plan was cancelled because the party would require the support of other non-muslim Dayaks in order to survive in Sarawak as the group made up 50% of the total Sarawak population.[3]

In 1965, Ningkan tried to initiate a land reform law that would allow the natives to sell their land to anyone including the Chinese.[3] Such a law would also allow the natives to acquire large tracts of forest land.[4] Ningkan's action angered the leaders in BARJASA party. Subsequently, Sarawak Native Alliance consisting of Parti Negara Sarawak (PANAS), BARJASA party, and Parti Pesaka Sarawak (PESAKA) was formed in order to challenge Ningkan's leadership.[5] The land bill was subsequently withdrawn and PESAKA reaffirmed its standing with SNAP while accused BARJASA for splitting Iban's unity amongst SNAP and PESAKA. Ningkan then expelled BARJASA from the Alliance.[3] However, negotiations restarted between the Alliance and BARJASA. BARJASA and PANAS were later readmitted into the Alliance. Two ministerial posts were reinstated for BARJASA, two new ministerial posts were created for PESAKA and one ministerial post was created for PANAS.[3]

On 13 June 1966, Ningkan sacked Abdul Taib Mahmud (a BARJASA leader) from the post of Minister of Communication and Works for the second time.[6] Ningkan accused Taib for trying to topple the state government. On the following day, PESAKA and BARJASA ministers resigned voluntarily from the state cabinet.[3]

The political crisis

On 16 June 1966, 21 out of 42 members of the state legislature declared that they did not have confidence in Stephen Kalong Ningkan.[7] The 21 assemblymen wrote a petition to the Governor of Sarawak stating that they have lost confidence in the chief minister. The prime minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman also advocated the petition and asked Ningkan to resign.[5]

On the same day, the Governor, Abang Haji Openg, at the insistence of the federal government in Kuala Lumpur,[8] requested Ningkan to resign from the post. However, Ningkan refused to resign from the cabinet. Ningkan argued that the letter has not been supported by a formal motion of no confidence against him at the Council Negri (now Sarawak State Legislative Assembly). He also demanded the names of all the 21 Council Negri members who signed the petition.[7] Ningkan also claimed that he still commanded a majority of the state assembly members and challenged his dissidents into a formal debate of motion of no confidence in the Council Negeri.[5] Since Ningkan refused to resign, the governor then declared that Ningkan has ceased to hold office and appointed Tawi Sli as the new chief minister. The Governor also forwarded the names who had signed the petition to Ningkan.[7]

Judicial intervention in the political dispute

Following the ouster, Ningkan decided bring the case into Kuching High Court and named the Governor as the first defendant and Tawi Sli as the second defendant.[7][9] On 7 September 1966, Chief Justice of Borneo, Justice Harley, delivered a verdict that reinstated Ningkan back to his chief minister post. According to Section 21 of the Interpretation Ordinance of the Sarawak state constitution, only the Council Negri has the power to appoint or dismiss a chief minister. The Governor does not have the power to dismiss a chief minister. However, chief minister can only be dismissed if he had lost the confidence of Council Negri or he refused to resign from the chief minister post but he also failed to advise a dissolution of the Council Negri.[7]

The removal of Ningkan

Following the court's decision, Ningkan tried to initiate a dissolution of Council Negri so that he could seek a fresh mandate from the voters.[4] However, in September 1966, the federal government declared a state of emergency in Sarawak,[10] citing chaos in the state.[11] Through the Emergency (Federal Constitution and the Constitution of Sarawak) Act, an amendment was made to Article 150 of the Sarawak constitution. Such amendment authorised the Governor of Sarawak to convene a Council Negri meeting without going through the chief minister.[12][13] A Council Negri meeting was commenced on 23 September 1966 and Ningkan was successfully removed from the chief minister post.


Ningkan decided to bring the case to Federal Court of Malaysia after his second ouster. Ningkan also tried to seek legal advice from the British government about Britain's role in setting the conditions of Sarawak entering Malaysia and the signing of the London's agreement on behalf of Sarawak.[13] Ningkan also argued that the Sarawak constitutional amendment was illegal because the state of emergency was declared under unusual circumstances. There was no riots or disturbances taking place in Sarawak. Furthermore, Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation was already over in August 1966. However, the federal court held that the word "emergency" has a broad meaning and it would also include the Sarawak constitutional crisis because such a crisis would cause a breakdown in the Sarawak state government and harm the political stability in Sarawak. Therefore, such declaration of emergency in Sarawak is legal. On 1 August 1968, Judicial Committee of the Privy Council dismissed Ningkan's appeal. MacDermott stated that, "their Lordships could not find any reason for saying that the emergency was not grave and did not threaten the security of Sarawak."[14]


  1. "Weakened federalism in the new federation". The Sun (Malaysia). 25 July 2007. Archived from the original on 19 March 2012. Retrieved 29 April 2011.
  2. Boon Kheng Cheah (2002). Malaysia: The Making of a Nation. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 60. ISBN 9789812301543.
  3. Jayum, A Jawan (September 1991). "Political Change and Economic Development among the Ibans of Sarawak, East Malaysia" (PDF). The University of Hull. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 February 2019. Retrieved 14 December 2019. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. "Background: Constitutional Crises" (PDF). The Edge (Malaysia). 3 February 2009. Retrieved 3 February 2015.
  5. Syam, M.F (2012). In Domination and Contestation: Muslim Bumiputera Politics in Sarawak. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 109-110. ISBN 978-981-4311-58-8. Google Book Search. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
  6. "Minister told to resign". The Age (Australia). 15 June 1966. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  7. "The saga of Stephen Kalong Ningkan – the conclusion". The Borneo Post. 26 April 2010. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  8. Shaari Isa (2014). Vendetta and Abuse of Power. MPH Publishing. p. 62. ISBN 9789674151508. Archived from the original on 7 April 2014. Retrieved 2 April 2014.
  9. Stephen Kalong Ningkan v. Tun Abang Haji Openg and Tawi Sli, 2 MLJ 187 (1966).
  10. "Sarawak crisis brings state of emergency". The Sydney Morning Herald. 16 September 1966. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  11. Imtiaz Omar (1996). Rights, Emergencies and Judicial Review. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 135. ISBN 9041102299.
  12. Sundaram J.K., Wong S.N (2008). In Law, Institutions and Malaysian Economic Development. NUS Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-9971-69-390-9. Google Book Search. Retrieved 3 February 2015.
  13. "Crisis over Sarawak". The Age (Australia). 26 September 1966. Retrieved 26 September 2015.
  14. Porritt, Vernon L (1 January 2007). "Constitutional change in sarawak 1963-1988: 25 years as a state within the federation of Malaysia". Borneo Research Bulletin. Retrieved 2 November 2015. Ningkan's petition against his unconstitutional dismissal progressed slowly though the courts for another two years, finally ending on 1 August 1968 when he was advised that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had dismissed his appeal. Commenting on the controversial declaration of a state of emergency, Lord MacDermott observed: "their Lordships could not find any reason for saying that the emergency was not grave and did not threaten the security of Sarawak."
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