Friday, December 24, 2010

Communist : Malaysia, protest and revolt

This article is Dr Abraham’s ‘Malaysia, protest and revolt’ entry in the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (published by Blackwell Publishing, 2009). It is reproduced in full by CPI with permission by the author.

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
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.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

World Federation Trade Union Demanding Enquiry over Ganapathy's Death (9th May 1949)

My reference sources at National Library of Singapore have become saturated now. Almost all articles contained the phase “S.A Ganapathy", I have laid my eyes upon. I was thinking that I have come to an end, not able to move forward, may be my next stop should be the Public Records Office, Kew, in London, which housed the most of declassified documents of colonial era.

But my intense focus in the matter drove me unintentionally to a book launch last Sunday, 19th Dec 2010. The author is no stranger to us, the Adviser of Human Right Party Malaysia, Lawyer P. Uthayakumar. His book "Nov 25, 2007-Hindaf Rally" was launched with another book contains declassified documents from Public Records Office titled " Public Forum on 50 Years of Violation of the Federation Constitution by The Malaysian Government", which in my opinion one of the fine great work ever produced. It taken me by surprised to read his dedication note in the book which goes like this:

“The research Publication is dedicated to Mr. Ganapathy, President of the Pan Malayan Federation Trade Unions who was executed by the British on 4/5/1949, his successor Mr. P. Veerasenan who was (mysteriously) shot dead by a patrol on 3/5/1949. Both championed Indian labour rights.”

Without wasting time, I flipped through the pages that contained letters of condemnation sent to British Embassy against S.A Ganapathy’s execution. One of the letters that caught my attention, which was written with severe condemnation and criticism without fear and favour against British government, was written by B. Gebert Assistant General Secretary of World Federation Trade Unions based in Paris, France. The letter as follows ( I shall be providing the scan copy later, extracted from "Public Forum on 50 Years of Violation of the Federation Constitution by The Malaysian Government")

World Federation of Trade Unions
Secretaire General
1 rue Vernet, Paris 8

9th May 1949

His Excellency
The British Ambassador
The British Embassy
39 rue du Fog.St.Honore

Your Excellency,

The WORLD FEDERATION OF TRADE UNIONS has the honour to request you to be good enough to transmit to your Government its energetic and indignant protest against the execution of Messrs. GANAPATHY and VEERA SENAN, leaders of the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade unions (PMFTU)

Mr.GANAPATHY, a young trade union leader of 24 years of age whose only crime was to defend the interests of the workers of Malaya, was hung on may 4th 1949, in the prison of Kuala Lumpur on a ridiculous, improbable and inadmissible pretext.

In reality, the murder of Mr. GANAPATHY, which has aroused horror and indignation among all the workers of the world, gives proof of the resolute will of British authorities to impede, by every means, the functioning of free and representative trade union organisations, as well as the free exercise of trade unions rights in Malaya.

This attitude is not of recent origin. As early as 1945, a great number of trade union leaders were deported and imprisoned on the pretext of “intimidation” and “political agitation”.

In August 1946, the British authorities established a complicated procedure for registration of trade unions, designated to eliminate the trade unions truly representative of the workers. However, a great many trade unions were registered nevertheless and they then formed the Pan Malayan of Trade Unions, with a membership of 300,000 members and with which the WFTU established official relations.

But the authorities refused to recognise the PMFTU, although the trade unions affiliated to it were all officially registered. This refusal to recognise the PMFTU attributed to the desire to create a completely new official and government trade union movement which however met with no success among the workers.

In these conditions and being able no longer to tolerate the activity of the PMFTU which was directed towards uniting and defending all the workers, without discrimination and to nationality, race, religion, political or philosophic opinions, the British authorities obtained the adoption, on the 1st June 1948, of trade union rights, banned the federation of trade unions grouping workers of different trades.

Consequently, on 13th June, 1948, the disbanding of PMFTU was officially decreed.

This decision is to be explained by the fact that, since the end of hostilities in Asia, the workers of Malaya, increasingly conscious of their rights and their community of interests, have unleashed a vast movement in support of their demands, attempting in the way to change the miserable conditions of the existence in which they are forced to live. In fact, the well known poverty of the workers of Malaya have deteriorated even further since the end of hostilities as a result of the closing down of rubber factories, the employers’ policy of wage freezing and maintaining profile at a high level, and by the growth of the black market.

Instead of alleviating the situation of Malayan workers, the British authorities mobilised the police and army against the workers and arrested and assassinated a great number of tade union leaders. We would indicate as an example, the murder on 5th July 1948 of Mr. TAN KAN, President of the Johore Rubber Workers’ Trade Union.

These movements, which were purely in support of the workers demands, were described by British Commissioner-General for South East Asia as “a bestial campaign of agitation” and followings a now classic formula, the Commissioner-General attributed them “to the restless and impatient directors of international communism”.

The W.T.F.U openly declares that the situation existing todat is due to the inhuman exploitation of the Malayan workers by foreign monopolies and trusts, as well as to the desire of the British authorities to annihilate the spirit of resistance and the means of action of the Malayan workers. Moreover, our organisation can in no way stand aloof from the events in Malaya since the mission of the W.F.T.U is precisely that of defending and assisting the workers of the world, whatever their nationality, race, religion, political or philosophic opinions.

We therefore request your Government to take immediate measures to ensure the free exercise of trade union rights in Malaya, in accordance with the provisions of resolutions 84(V) of the Economy and Social Council of the United Nations and 128(II) of the General Assembly, and the article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provisions which were approved by the British representatives within the United Nations bodies in question.

Already in 1946, the WFTU was considering the dispatch of a mission of enquiry to Malaya and its plans were received at the time with obvious hostility by the local authorities.

In the light of recent events, it appeared yet more urgent for the WFTU to make known to the workers of all countries the real situation which exists in Malaya. Consequently, we have the honour to request your government for permission for a trade union Commission of Enquiry appointed by the W.F.T.U to enter Malaya.

In asking you to be good enough to transit this letter to your Government and in the hope of favourable reply in the shortest possible time, we are,

Yours truly,

For the Secretariat of the

(signed) B. Gebert
Assistant General Secretary

Jananayagam - 5th May 1945 - Ganapathy's Short History

Jananayagam (Democracy) published on the 5th May 1949 carried the life story of Ganapathy on its first page - "Thukkilidapatta Ganapath...