Divergent strains of Malayan nationalism
For those in Malaya, it meant the primacy of Malay nationalism
By Janadas Devan, Senior Writer
Aug 31 was the day that Malaysia's centre of gravity - peninsula Malaya - became independent. For Malayans, as opposed to Malaysians, Sept 16 was but a way-station. Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak merged with Malaya that day; Malaya did not merge with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak.
It took Singaporeans a while to realise the implications of that historical and constitutional trajectory. Only in retrospect did it become clear that Aug 31, 1957 had rendered Sept 16, 1963 a secondary event in Malaysia's history - and Aug 9, 1965 an inevitability. Aug 31 instituted the first separation, though nobody in Singapore saw it that way in 1957; and Aug 9, the actual Separation, had its roots in the political calculations that led to the first, though nobody realised that till eight years later.
British territories in South-east Asia were a constitutional patchwork before World War II. While Singapore, Penang and Malacca - the Straits Settlements - were under direct colonial rule, the nine Malay States of peninsula Malaya were under indirect rule. The Straits Settlements had a British Governor, resident in Singapore, but the Malay States had a British High Commissioner. They were one and the same person, but wearing two distinct hats.
The Malay States were each headed by a Sultan. They were sovereign rulers with a treaty relationship with Britain. Constitutionally, the British High Commissioner had an advisory relationship with each. In Singapore, wearing the Governor's topi (hat), he had near-absolute powers; in Kuala Lumpur, wearing the High Commissioner's topi, he was legally on foreign soil.
The British considered changing this arrangement during the war, after the Japanese had booted them out of the territories. Ensconced in London, Sir Edward Gent, an official in the Colonial Office, dreamt of a Malayan Union that would encompass both the Malay States as well as the Straits Settlements - and at a latter date, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei too. But the British soon dropped Singapore from their plan. Demography forced their hand.
It took eight years for Singaporeans to realise that Malayan nationalism, as they had conceived it, did not coincide with Malayan nationalism, as it was practised in Malaya. It took eight years for them to realise that their own Merdeka had to be achieved through Separation, not Merger. The bilateral Singapore-Malaysia relationship over the past 50 years is rooted in this history.There were about 1.9 million Chinese living in peninsula Malaya at the end of the war in 1945, of whom 1.2 million were local-born. Including the 600,000 Indians, the non-Malay population exceeded the Malay population of 2.1 million. To have included Chinese-majority Singapore in the Malayan Union, the British decided, would have further alarmed Malays. Singapore was thus hived off as a separate crown colony.
Hiving it off though did not help the British gain Malay approval for the Malayan Union. Non-Malays generally liked the Union proposal, for it offered citizenship rights to all, regardless of race and creed. For the same reason, Malays objected, for the Union threatened their primacy. The abortive Union gave rise to divergent strains of Malayan nationalism.
Among Malays, it fostered Malay nationalism. The United Malays National Organisation (Umno) was founded in May 1946 to oppose the Union. Led by Datuk Onn Jaffar, then chief minister of Johor, the party mobilised Malays across the peninsula. Surprised by the ferocity of their opposition, the British jettisoned the Union and promulgated instead the Federation of Malaya in February 1948.
The Federation upheld the sovereignty of the Sultans and Malay special rights, and imposed tough citizenship requirements on non-Malays.
Only one-fifth of Chinese and Indians were given Malayan citizenship, though three-fifths of the Chinese and half the Indians resident then in Malaya were local-born. As one history of Malaysia observed, 'the term 'Malayan' was not recognised in the final Federation document, while Melayu was clearly reserved for those individuals who habitually spoke Malay, who professed Islam, and conformed to Malay custom.' Umno had triumphed - and it had triumphed by insisting on Malay, as opposed to Malayan, nationalism.
Malaya's constitutional development over the next 10 years, leading to Merdeka in August 1957, conformed to the pattern that Umno had established in opposing the Malayan Union. It agreed to more liberal citizenship provisions for non-Malays in independent Malaya than was provided for in the pre-independence federation, but only in return for constitutional guarantees of special Malay rights. Islam was declared the official religion and the primacy of Malay as the national language was emphasised.
The leading Malayan figures of the time - including Tunku Abdul Rahman - were sincere in their commitment to creating a Malayan identity that would transcend race. But they saw that ideal as a distant prospect. In the meantime, they established the new state on the basis of a modus vivendi between the three races, each led by a different political party. In practice, Malayan nationalism became predicated on the acceptance by everyone of the primacy of Malay nationalism.
Malayan nationalism remained strong, of course, an article of faith for many - and ironically, especially among Singaporeans. Though they had been excluded from the federation since 1945, most Singaporeans then thought of themselves as Malayan.
When the People's Action Party was founded in November 1954, for instance, it declared itself as 'interested in the problems of our fellow Malayans in the Federation as we are in those of Singapore'. And in 1958, after Malaya became independent, the party reiterated its determination to demonstrate to the 'three million Malays in the Federation that the one million Chinese in Singapore are ready, willing and able to be absorbed as one Malayan people, all able to speak Malay'.
It took eight years for Singaporeans to realise that Malayan nationalism, as they had conceived it, did not coincide with Malayan nationalism, as it was practised in Malaya. It took eight years for them to realise that their own Merdeka had to be achieved through Separation, not Merger.
The bilateral Singapore-Malaysia relationship over the past 50 years is rooted in this history. The leading figures in both countries - Mr Lee Kuan Yew and others in Singapore; the Tunku, Tun Abdul Razak and others in Malaysia - began with divergent conceptions of Malayan nationalism. They discovered they could not achieve their respective ideal polities without going their separate ways. Many in Malaysia today find it difficult to view Singapore other than through the prism of their own domestic racial arrangements.
The judgment of history can be ruthless in its dismissal of past sentiments, but it is inescapable. Fifty years after Aug 31, 44 years after Sept 16 and 42 years after Aug 9, Singaporeans sincerely wish Malaysians well - as a separate people.
Happy birthday, Malaysia.
MALAYSIA'S 50th year of independence gives occasion for both celebration and retrospection. And there are certainly many things in Malaysia to celebrate. The country's steady industrial progress through the years has broadened the middle class, which has, in turn, produced a vibrant civil society that is deeply committed to political and religious issues. This engagement of civil society keeps political apathy at bay and continues to lock Malaysian citizens in the nation-building process. Meanwhile, the variety of newspapers and blogs spanning the political spectrum also ensures a multi-dimensional perspective of issues. This remains crucial to the health of national debate. The result of all this is a politicised, critical and robust Malaysian citizenry.
This is also a time for retrospection. At a time when the government's stance on Malaysia's status as an Islamic state is unclear, it might be useful to look back to the early character of Malay nationalism and see how it has evolved over the years.
It is difficult to imagine a time when Islam and nationalism did not collapse into a single entity, but such a time did exist. Before the current debate on whether Malaysia is or is not an Islamic state, before the dakwah movement of the 1970s, was a time when Malay nationalism was founded on the progressive values embedded in Malay literature.
In the 1920s, the English-educated Malays were too comfortably ensconced in the colonial administration to engage in nationalism. The Arabic-trained religious reformists were too far on the periphery to make a difference. This left the Malay-educated intelligentsia, comprising journalists and teachers, to define Malay nationalism.
Previously impoverished, Malay education underwent reformation when the Sultan Idris Training College, a facility for teacher-training, began to emphasise the study, use and development of the Malay language, history and literature. Students received a liberal-arts education where all lessons were conducted in the Malay language.
This access to higher education and awareness of a Malay literary tradition nurtured a self-confident Malay-educated intelligentsia which began to re-examine its socio-political relationship with the British. This core of Malay-educated intelligentsia went on to establish the nationalist-literary movement Angkatan Sasterawan 50 (Literary Generation of 1950), or Asas 50, on Aug 6, 1950.
The reformist nature of Asas 50 meant the values that Malay literature ought to embody were loyalty, goodwill, anti-colonialism, justice, freedom, unity and development. This embodiment was transposed on a national level when the slogan Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa (Language is the soul of the nation) was co-opted by Umno politicians.
On an ideological level, Asas 50 did not only reject British rule for its cultural impositions on the Malay community, but also for widening the chasm between the Malay elite and the masses. Given the economic and ideological rift within the Malay community, Asas 50's brand of Malay nationalism did well to harness elements from the rural, agricultural Malay world as well as ride the tide of anti-colonialism across the region.
Notions of 'Malay-ness' were derived from the masses, drawing upon folksy values like brotherhood, friendship and togetherness while being wedded to progressive values like justice and anti-colonialism. Malay language and literature became an embodiment of the Malay nation.
Gradually, however, with the separation of Singapore from the Federation, the 1969 riots and the dakwah movement, Malay nationalism moved away from its original progressive character. The Iranian revolution and the returning religious scholars in the late 1970s and 1980s resulted in the Islamisation of the Malay identity and Malay nationalism. Over the years, elements of Malay culture, traditions and practices have been dropped because they are not deemed Islamic enough, while the Arabisation of the Malay community has also caused concern among Malaysians themselves.
At one time the embodiment of the Malay nation was the Malay-educated teacher-journalist. This historical actor was ascribed with anti-colonial and socialist principles that pointed the way to a post-colonial modernity. This historical actor is no longer evident in today's Malaysia.
The writer is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is a personal comment
Remember the Merdeka lesson
By Jonathan Kent, In Kuala Lumpur (Straits Times, Sept 3 2007)
After all, independence in 1957 was won amidst an occasionally vicious civil war with local communists.
The 1960s brought turmoil: a military stand-off with Indonesia, the split in 1965 with Singapore, the race riots of 1969.
There was paranoia in the 1970s, recession and political repression in the 1980s, a crash and unrest in the 1990s, yet here Malaysia is today and it is doing all right.
Now it is a nation of skyscrapers and microchip plants, highways and sprawling cities where the government talks of Malaysia's role in biotech or conference hosting or Islamic finance.
It is almost unrecognisable from the independent Federation of Malaya of Aug 31, 1957, when its first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj, stood tall in a specially built stadium in Kuala Lumpur and raised his right arm as the crowd echoed his three cries of 'Merdeka!' - freedom.
His was a land of impenetrable jungles, small villages of wooden houses, rubber plantations and tin mines, genteel colonial cities with grand administrative buildings and rows of traditional shophouses.
'At that time 60 per cent of Malaysians were living in poverty, below the national poverty line,' said Dr Richard Leete, head of the UN Development Programme for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei and author of Malaysia: From Kampung To Twin Towers.
'Over time that proportion has declined remarkably and currently there are less than 5 per cent of people in poverty,' he said.
Dr Leete knows the country well, having been seconded from the British government in 1980 to help Malaysia with its economic planning.
'(In 1957), the majority of the population were illiterate, now just a tiny fraction of Malaysia's population are unable to write,' he said.
Yet despite its complete transformation on a physical level, there is frustration that attitudes have changed less.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has said time and again that while Malaysia has the 'hardware', it lacks the 'software' to be truly modern. In other words, it builds fast highways and millions of cars but people still drive as though they are on village roads.
Mr Abdullah Ahmad, formerly an MP, Malaysia's special representative at the UN and editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times Group, agrees.
'The remarkable thing is that during the 50 years of Merdeka...the Malay mindset has not changed very much,' he said.
The majority-Malay community has long relied on patronage: in times past, from their sultans; and since 1970, through government programmes aimed at helping Malays specifically.
It has bred a culture of entitlement.
'Everything is for them, yet they are way behind the other communities because they are not seizing the opportunities,' he said.
Yet the affirmative-action policies persist and rankle with many.
And there are other eerily familiar themes as Malaysia turns 50.
In the years before independence, there was a fierce debate about whether non-Malay immigrants should be given Malayan citizenship.
In the end they were, in return for constitutional guarantees to ensure the Malays were never marginalised in 'their own country'.
Now the debate has shifted and many non-Malays have taken the anniversary as an opportunity to ask what place patriotism has in a country that classifies its people by race, treats them differently according to their ethnicity and then, when the flags come out, expects them to all cheer with equal vigour.
It seems some are in danger of forgetting the whole lesson of Merdeka.
They could be forgiven for having done so, because from the way the story of Malaysia's independence is told by some within the dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno), you might think the Malay community secured independence on its own, driving the perfidious British into the sea. It is not true.
Indeed the one surviving key player from the independence struggle is not Malay at all. He is Malaysian Chinese, and he is not welcome in the land of his birth.
Chin Peng, leader of the Communist Party of Malaya, did as much as anyone to bring about then Malaya's independence. With up to 10,000 armed guerillas, he tied down tens of thousands of Commonwealth troops in a ruinously expensive war.
'If there hadn't been a boom in rubber and tin prices in the 1950s, the British wouldn't have been able to afford to fight him,' said Mr Khoo Kay Kim, emeritus professor of history at University Malaya.
The communists focused British minds on a political settlement.
Up stepped the leaders of the Alliance, which consisted of three parties - Umno, the Malayan Chinese Association and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) - between them representing the three main races.
Early on, the British saw a unifying force with which they could do business. The Alliance's broad appeal meant it all but swept the board in pre-independence elections in 1955. The appeal of the communists rapidly evaporated thereafter.
'One of the things we were concerned about was to continue in the same spirit and to perpetuate this multi-communal understanding and harmony that had come out in 1955,' said Mrs Uma Sambanthan, widow of then MIC leader V.T. Sambanthan.
Professor Khoo agreed. 'Before he died, Sambanthan told me that all three parties were absolutely determined to show the British that they could work together in order to ensure they granted independence.'
The Alliance in one form or another has governed Malaysia ever since.
Then, as now, the Merdeka lesson is the same. When Malaysians come together and act as one people, success is theirs for the taking. When they are divided, failure beckons.
If modern Malaysia's leaders remind themselves that unity does not come through threat, discrimination and coercion but through equality and mutual respect, they may yet lay the foundations for a glorious 100th birthday.
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