Malaysia is a multicultural society that was born in the throes of protest, largely influenced by British colonialism. The historical effect of British colonialism on Malaysia brought into sharper focus the fusion of protest and revolution into the body of social theory.
Because colonial intervention, since its very inception in 1874, was accompanied by decades of both political and military anti-colonial struggles, it engendered a substantial ability to resist colonial domination through protest, ultimately leading to revolution. Indeed, such was the ferocity of the protests and uprisings that the colonial government did not enjoy a continuous period of peace for more than six months during its entire rule, up to the granting of political independence in 1957.
Located at the confluence of the main trade routes from the West, Southwest Asia, and East Asia, Malaysia was the center of trade and commerce of seafaring nations, especially prior to the initial advent of European mercantile capitalism. The country’s location resulted in a range of economic and political forces converging in the town of Malacca, creating a vast transient population made up of an estimated 90 different ethnic groups. The resulting pattern of inter and intra-ethnic relationships led to cultural assimilation that evolved into a new community known as Baba Chinese (the offspring of indigenous Malays and Chinese residents.)
In 1824, after the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty, the British government obtained sole and exclusive overall jurisdiction to enter into mutually acceptable treaty obligations with the Malay States, while at the same time allowing the nominal exercise of sovereignty of the local rulers. The practical application of contemporary ideals by the new colonial power became essential to the political economy in Malaysia. The demands of the industrial revolution, especially for the vital raw materials of rubber and tin, as well as the successful emergence of portfolio investment capital, radically undermined the existing local feudal-type subsistence economy. The importance and need for “good government” and law and order was paramount if political and economic interests were to be protected and sustained toward revenue generation and profit maximization.
Accordingly, because what was at stake was literally the transformation of villages and towns through the creation of modern institutions, the colonial government more or less issued a blank cheque to encourage foreign capital investment. But in practice such investment radically disrupted the feudal-type subsistence economy and especially the social structure of the indigenous people. This development crucially undermined the historical and traditional basis of interpersonal relationships and mutual responsibilities from being status-oriented to contractual-based relationships. The further maturing of the capitalist market economy through technology driven modernization, and transnational economic integration with the intervention of multinational corporations, resulted in a dependent political economy where local political and economic institutions were suppressed and became mere appendages as satellites to the colonial metropolis.
The new economic and political developments that accompanied modernization did not benefit all segments of society. Indeed, apart from the more urbanized areas centered around towns and cities that were linked to the cash nexus of the colonial economy, vast sectors of the rural economy relied almost entirely on the subsistence mode of production. Therefore, an economic dichotomy came into existence where the modern sector depended on the export of tin and rubber whereas the indigenous economy depended on agriculture. Largely, Chinese and Indian immigrants made up the workforce of tin and rubber industries, leaving the indigenous Malays confined to the subsistence sector. This factor would lead the indigenous population to resent the loss of their political sovereignty to the British as well as their economic opportunities to those imported workers.
Picture courtesy of http://www.britains-smallwars.com/Accordingly, a militant revolution and more widespread local resistance ensued, not only against colonial domination itself, but also, and more importantly, between the local ruling class that espoused a society based on the perpetuation of dominant vested interests, and a subject class seeking free association within democratic institutions. This ruling-class dominance was a formidable repressive force because it was in cahoots with the colonial power and took on an identity of its own, giving rise to unique patterns of resistance against progressive social change. These developments played a pivotal role in the evolution and transformation of the entire societal structure and ushered in profound changes in inter- and intra-ethnic and race perceptions. The intertwining of these perceptions occurred, in turn, within the polarization of ethnicity and race within the class structure.
The roots of protest and revolution in Malaysia, then, can be traced to the juxtaposition of ethnic and social variables as they became intertwined with political considerations. The British literally “inherited” a society that was ready-made for ethnic division. Such divisions were further exacerbated by overlapping geopolitical factors, such as enclaves of different groups living separately in settlements, mixing only for ad hoc domestic and social purposes, but never mingling. Eventually, Malayan society would evolve around “closed” institutions that were initially highly stratified and repressive in nature, both internally and externally.
Profound transformations of these rigid institutions gradually galvanized groups to seek more flexible arrangements that in turn made demands on the colonial social structure that were inimical to the status quo and sowed the seeds for organized protest and revolution. Such protests among the different ethnic and social class groups began mainly because their specific economic interests overlapped with their identities, so that the colonial power in fact managed successfully to suppress protests through the policy of divide and rule. This happened as a reaction when the protest movements gradually evolved and expanded their scope to include more than one economic activity and on a pan-Malayan basis, so that membership became multi-ethnic and interclass in composition. This development saw protest movements being propelled into new social formations in the political arena with the emphasis now on the ideology of anti-colonialism.
In the twentieth century the British government continued its policy of indirect rule and in doing so failed to shape a constitutional ideology in Malaysia. Instead, it continued on a path that regarded the Malays as amiable but unsophisticated and rather lazy. While the British utilized them as good soldiers during World War I, in the end they deemed them incapable of self-government. As for the Chinese, the British held them as a formidable ally and foe, considering them both clever and dangerous. In the 1920s and 1930s, with political events in China coming to a climax, the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Communist Party of China began to build their own rival clandestine organizations in Malaya. This development led to constant conflicts in the Chinese towns which further led the British to believe that there would never be any form of solidarity among such a disparate array of different races.
By the end of World War II the British government would find itself in near financial ruin as it became tied to the United States for basic support for its ailing economy. Nowhere was this scenario felt more clearly than in Malaya. Because the revenue earnings from tin and rubber exceeded that of all other colonies put together throughout the entire British Empire, the colonial government treated Malaya as the “jewel in the crown” for sustaining the British economy with the latter’s essential export-driven economy. It was consequently imperative to consolidate military and political power to ensure that the revenue-earning capacity of the colony was not disrupted, and toward this end various repressive measures against local movements were adopted, such as toward trade unions where industrial strike action was damaging vital exports.
In response, these movements themselves were forced to adopt militant strategies to fight back and achieve their objectives that ultimately resulted in having to fight for political independence itself. Certain other movements, such as political parties of the left, also gradually came under the influence of the ideologically committed leadership of the Malayan Communist Party. For the first time, the negative implications for the political economy became evident when a nationwide work protest hartal (total work stoppage) was successfully carried out that included Singapore, creating alarm in the colonial government because it established the link between the working classes and the peasantry. A final total rejection of constitutional plans for reforms in the form of a comprehensive “Peoples’ Constitution” by the colonial government set the stage for the demand for outright political independence among all protest groups, including those that espoused a militant revolution.
In the light of widespread industrial unrest, and the accompanying retaliation against the provisions for colonial law and order, the government declared a state of emergency, which in effect meant rule by the military forces, including that under the Anglo-Malayan Defense Treaty, as well as local police forces. The rationale claimed by the British was that the Malayan Communist Party had initiated complete disruption of the economy, resulting in the breakdown of law and order in an attempt to take over the government and establish a communist state. In this connection it was also submitted that the political parties of the left were legitimate targets to maintain law and order, and accordingly the British implemented widespread repressive measures, many of which violated basic human rights.
The strategy of utilizing the massive propaganda machine was intended to demolish the popular nationalist demands for constitutional reforms, leading to a popularly elected democratic and independent government. These measures, both external and internal, did in fact achieve the objective of crushing the protest and revolutionary movements in Malaysia. The central theme that runs through Malaysian protest is a “top-bottom” scenario of society, where decisions involving power and its implementation were essentially the domain and monopoly of the traditional, political, bureaucratic, and social elite groups of the main ethnic and racial communities in the country. These elite formations were the direct legacy of colonialism that would later be inherited by the government of independent Malaya and Malaysia. After independence these elite groups continued to be intertwined in the structure of the post-colonial power status quo as they further consolidated and entrenched the unequal distributive system.
Throughout its colonial domination over Malaysia the British Empire never had more than a few months of breathing space without protests being mounted against it. Protests were a natural outgrowth of the situation in which political power was devolved to a consortium of local elitist groups, within a race-based political system, anxious to protect and perpetuate their colonial interests. Despite the seeming diversity of the groups involved in the movements for political independence (Malay nationalists, trade unions, Malay left, Islamic radical parties, the MDU, and the Malayan Communist Party), however, there was absolute unanimity in the struggle for freedom in the context of national unity and national integration.
On April 1, 1946, one year after the conclusion of World War II, Britain relinquished its power over Malaya, and a Malayan Union was formed without the inclusion of Singapore, which remained a crown colony. However, local Malays opposed the union because it had loose citizenship requirements and it reduced the Malayan power to rule. After a great amount of pressure was exerted, the Union was later replaced by the Federation of Malaya on January 31, 1948. Formally, the Federation gained independence on August 31, 1957 and later consolidated with other Malayan states, including Singapore, on September 16, 1963. It was then renamed Malaysia.