Monday, July 30, 2007

Looking back - the story of Malaya (Malaysia) - Part 1

(The Pangkor Treaty, 1874, was start of the Residential system. In this group photo from left are: Dr. Anderson, Capt. Innes, Lieut. McCallum, Governor Sir Andrew Clarke, J.W.W. Birch, first Resident, Perak, and Frank A. Swettenham)

World War II was the end of an era in British Malaya. The tremendous shock and catastrophe of the Japanese invasion and occupation lasting three and half years and the sudden collapse of the old regime - these were experiences that could not but cause profound internal reactions.

But externally, too, World War II changed the whole environment of Malaya. Before the war all South-East Asia, except Thailand (Siam), was under European colonialism in one form or another. After the war, there was ferment throughout the region, and indeed all over Asia. India, Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) gained independence. in peaceful and amicable negotiations with Britain. The Dutch East Indies of pre-war days became the independent Republic of Indonesia, but only after bitter fighting. In French Indo-China the Vietnamese were in revolt, too. Outside colonial Asia, the whole of China went Communist.

Only Malaya began in 1945.

But, in addition to all these upheavels in the outside world to which a liberated Malaya had to adjust itself after the world War II, the British came with plans for a complete internal reorganisation. There was to be a new national state called the Malayan Union, in which the nine Malay States would be joined with two old colonial Settlements of Penang and Melaka (Malacca). Singapore was to be a separate colony.

The proposal for Malayan unification was good: it was indeed the genesis of the Federation of Malaya. But the Malayan Union plan went much further than that. Its architects proposed to introduce a common citizenship, which was premature, to say the least: the special position of the Malays, protected for so many years by tradition and treaty, would have been swept away; the autonomy of the individual States would have disappeared; and the position of the Malay Rulers would have been reduced to a merely religious status.

The whole Malay people, from north to south and east to west, rose in protest, in the first united political movement of their history, under the leadership of Dato Onn bin Ja'affar, then Mentri Besar (Chief Minister) the state of Johor. That was how the United Malays National Organisation - the Malay nationalist party known ever since as UMNO - began. The blunder was quickly realised and corrected. The controversial features of the Malayan Union were shelved at once, and a working party was set up to work to hammer out a new plan in the light of the Malay nationalist objections.

On February 1, 1948, the Federation of Malaya came into being. It was only a transitional plan, for the British High Commissioner was to retain his reserve powers; all the key positions in the Federal Government were to be filled by British officers; and all members of the central legislature; State councils and the municipal and town boards were to be nominated, as before the war. But pledges were given of self-government as the recognised goal and of the introduction of elections at all levels as soon as possible. In the meantime, a significant advance was made immediately by making the Menteri Besar the executive head of the government in each state capital. The old title of British Resident had not been revived after the war, and in all states the British Advisers were now advisers and nothing more.

Before the war there was a Mentri Besar in each Malay State, but under the Residential system the functions of the Mentri Besar in Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang became limited to purely Malay affairs with the general State administration. In the Unfederated Malay States of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Johor and Perlis however, this was never so. Another step forward was taken in 1951, when, following in the footsteps of pre-war Ceylon, the "Member" system was adopted in the Federal legislature. Nine Asian members took over ministerial portfolios, having the same relationship to the High Commissioner as Ministers in other countries.

In the meantime, however, the new Federation had been faced with a mortal challenge, only five months after its foundation. The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) went underground in June, 1948, with the objective of setting up a Communist republic, and began an armed revolt. This was at first called the Emergency, and that name has stuck.

In 1947 and early 1948 there had been several political parties such as the Malay Nationalist Party and a Left-wing multi-racial federation of political parties and groups, pressing for political advance, but the Emergency brought all such agitation to an abrupt halt. During its first four or five years the Federation Government while continuing to follow progressive social and economic policies, was necessarily preoccupied with the drastic measures required to fight Communist terrorism. But once the back of the Emergency was broken, the advance towards self-government was resumed.

The Malays had never ceased to voice the demand for Merdeka, especially after Indonesia attained its independence. That event greatly influenced Malay opinion on the other side of the Straits of Malacca.

"What about Indonesia?" was a question asked with increasing insistence at meetings in the villages (kampungs) at which Government spokesmen and party leaders sought to explain the gradual approach to self-government to Malay audiences. But in fact there was no wish or intention to delay this advance. A representative committee was appointed in July, 1953, to consider the introduction of elections in the Federation; it reported in 1954; and the decision was then taken to hold the first national elections in 1955.

(Part 2 The election triumph)

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