Author: Kua Kia Soong
More than 50 years after Independence, Malaysians are still frequently reminded by Umno leaders of the so-called ‘Social Contract’ that was supposed to have been agreed upon by “the three races” whenever the non-bumiputeras demand civil liberties and the end to discrimination.
My new book ‘Patriots & Pretenders’ aims to put the historical facts in perspective so that the new generation of Malaysians understands the class forces that were arraigned during the anti-colonial struggle and gets to know who the real anti-colonial fighters were.
The publication of this book coincides with the recent announcement by the Education Ministry that history is to be a compulsory subject in the SPM. It led to vocal protest from several sectors who find the ‘official’ history in Malaysia rather suspect.
Ever since the ‘May 13 Incident’ and the promulgation of the National Cultural Policy, Malaysian history has been written from the point of view of the ruling party Umno in line with its Malay-centric populist ideology.
It is an official history that is used to bolster one ethnic group at the expense of the other communities in an attempt to divide and rule. Consequently, whole categories of people have been denied their rightful place in Malaysian history.
‘Patriots & Pretenders’ tries to set the record straight by providing a class analysis of the anti-colonial struggle and acknowledging the contributions of the patriotic forces in all the ethnic communities to Independence and nation building.
This ‘Peoples’ History’ which is based on academic research by respected scholars, has been hidden from official Malaysian history and by studying it we can uncover the roots of racial polarisation in Malaysia and lay the basis for a non-racial solution to our nation’s challenges.
The neo-colonial solution
From the Colonial Office and Foreign Office documents of the period uncovered from the Public Records Office in London, it has been possible to provide evidence of the thinking and calculation of Western interests with regard to Southeast Asia, but especially the importance laid on securing Malaya for economic, political and military-strategic interests.
They show the priority accorded to defeating the anti-colonial forces spearheaded by the workers. The post-war period was also one of re-dividing the world by the Western powers, which under the hegemony of the US, began to move toward an integration rather than division of interests. These records reveal the articulation of the whole Western, rather than solely British, interest in Malaya.
The atmosphere of repression during the ‘Emergency’ provided the British colonial power with an opportunity to deflect the forces of revolt and effect the neo-colonial accommodation. The entire colonial strategy – especially the aftermath of the Malayan Union crisis – had convinced the British that the custodians of an Independent Malaya would be the traditional Malay elite.
This was in keeping with the communalist strategy of British rule throughout their colonisation of Malaya. At the same time, the neo-colonial arrangement had to accommodate the upper strata of the non-Malay capitalist class who were a necessary link in the foreign domination of the Malayan economy. The repression during the ‘Emergency’ enabled the colonial government to exploit sectional interests and thereby isolate the working class and the peasantry.
Thus, the ‘Alliance Formula’ with all its contradictions was devised in Independent Malaya. The reform measures conceded by the colonial power and grudgingly agreed to by the Malay rulers were in many ways necessitated by the ferocity of the revolt.
Another myth that is purveyed during ‘Merdeka Day’ every year is that it was Umno who won Independence for the country.
The evidence presented in ‘Patriots & Pretenders’ will show who the main opponents of the British colonial power were and who put up a protracted struggle to end the exploitation of the country’s natural and human resources while forging a truly multi-ethnic peoples’ united front.
The Independence struggle and the Merdeka Agreement have to be understood in class terms – the ruling class in the making represented by Umno, MCA and MIC on the one side, and the truly anti-colonial forces in the PMCJA-Putera coalition representing the workers, peasantry and disenchanted middle class on the other.
The struggle for Independence
The Umno leadership after the Second World War represented the interests of the Malay aristocracy. They were by no means anti-colonial and did not challenge British interests. Malaya was still very much dependent on export commodities, largely rubber and tin. The industrial base was narrow and based on these two commodities, while the problem of the peasantry since colonial times was still unresolved.
The mass-based anti-colonial movement, on the other hand, had very clear policies based on self-determination, civil liberties and equality. The workers’ movement was the main threat to colonial interests and the Federation of Malaya proposals culminating in the Merdeka Agreement were intended to deflect the working class revolt by introducing communalism in the Independence package.
The Emergency (1948-60) was as much a crackdown on the workers’ movement as it was a war against the anti-colonial insurrection. The subsequent ‘Alliance Formula’ comprising the Malay aristocratic class and non-Malay capitalist class was designed to deal with the workers’ revolt and put in place a neo-colonial solution.
The colonial Malayan economy saw a neglected peasantry while the crucial questions of exploitation by foreign capital, land ownership and size of landholdings of the Malay peasantry (for which the Malay aristocracy was responsible) were deflected into grievances against the non-Malay middlemen.
The Malayan Union (MU) proposal by the British in 1946 was opposed by the political left and right in Malaya for different reasons. Basically, the post-war Labour government in Britain had to grant civil rights including citizenship for the non-Malays as in elsewhere in the post-war world, but the Malay elite were opposed to this.
The latter also opposed the MU because it proposed to transfer the sultans’ jurisdiction to the British and abolish the need for royal assent to legislation. On the other hand, the peoples’ anti-colonial forces opposed it because it did not propose self-rule and no elections were contemplated. They were also against the exclusion of Singapore from the federation.
In their demonstrations against the Malayan Union, Umno carried banners calling for, among other things, denial of citizenship rights for the non-Malays but they did not oppose British colonial rule per se. Umno’s opposition to the Union had been mainly provoked by the brusque manner in which the British had forced the sultans to sign the treaties.
By contrast, the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP) called for, among other things:
- the right to self-determination of the Malayan people;
- equal rights for all races;
- freedom of speech, press, meeting, religion;
- improving standard of living of all the people;
- improving farming conditions and abolishing land tax;
- improving labour conditions;
- education reform on democratic lines;
- fostering friendly inter-racial relations.
On Oct 20, 1947, the AMCJA-Putera coalition launched a general strike and economic boycott or ‘hartal’ to protest against the constitutional proposals. It brought the country to a complete standstill. It also called on all parties to boycott the federal legislative and state councils.
Realising the different class forces opposing the Malayan Union, the British did a volte face and began to consult only with the Malay elite to the exclusion of all the other interest groups.
The colonial power again used its divide-and-rule strategy to put the anti-colonial forces on the defensive by tightening up citizenship rules from five to 15 years’ residence under the Federation of Malaya proposals of 1948; Singapore was to be excluded from the federation and no representative democracy was considered.
The constitutional crisis and labour unrest led to the Emergency being declared on June 17, 1948. During the period from 1948 to 1960, thousands were deported to China while some 500,000 were relocated to ‘new villages’.
In looking at the citizenship issue, it is worth noting that by 1947, three-fifths of Chinese and one-half of Indians in Malaya were local born but in 1950, only 500,000 Chinese (one-fifth of the total) and 230,000 Indians had Malayan citizenship.
The 1952 Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council elections, which saw the successful application of the Alliance formula, gave the British colonial power an indication of the political forces to back for the neo-colonial solution.
The 1955 federal legislative council elections confirmed their choice of the Alliance and when the Alliance reneged on its amnesty proposals for the guerrillas at the Baling talks in 1955, the British were assured of the Alliance’ reliability as the custodians of British interests.
When the Constitutional (Reid) Commission was considering the provision for Malay special position, it made the following comments:
“Our recommendations are made on the footing that the Malays should be assured that the present position will continue for a substantial period, but that in due course the present preferences should be reduced and should ultimately cease so that there should be no discrimination between races or communities.”
The proposal to review Malay special position after 15 years by the legislature was opposed by Umno and they got their way. The Alliance formula of three racially-based parties made up of the Malay ruling class and the non-Malay capitalist class was plainly the neo-colonialist alternative to the truly Malayan nationalist movement grounded in the workers’ movement.
The Alliance won the upper hand mainly through the help of British colonial repression of the mass-based nationalist movement and the failure of the latter to mobilise the Malay peasantry.
Lessons from the past
Frantz Fanon has commented that decolonisation is invariably a violent phenomenon. The Emergency in Malaya from 1948 to 1960 was certainly a violent chapter in Malayan history and predated the Vietnam War in its scale and intensity of repression.
Many lost their lives and freedoms, thousands were banished from our shores and some, such as the families who lost their loved ones in the Batang Kali massacre during the Emergency are still seeking justice and closure.
The restrictions on workers’ organisation and activities were initiated during the Emergency repression and the labour movement has scarcely recovered since.
The Malayan peoples’ independence struggle is an inspiring story of patriots who were prepared to give their lives and freedoms to rid the country of colonial exploitation and repression. The anti-colonial movement demanded self-government and their AMCJA-Putera coalition put forward their ‘Peoples’ Constitutional Proposals’. Imagine what our nation would have become had this ‘People’s Constitution’ been the federal constitution at Independence.
This coalition encapsulated a more genuine multi-ethnic approach compared to the “communal formula” of the Alliance that was made up of racially-based parties and fraught with contradictions from the start.
The component parties in the Alliance (now BN) were unashamedly racial and have been dominated by Umno from the start. They would find it difficult to justify themselves if there was a Race Relations Act or if Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination.
The Malayan workers’ movement and radical intelligentsia in the anti-colonial coalition of AMCJA-Putera displayed strong organisation, solidarity and inter-ethnic unity and this history is a source of inspiration and a model of genuine multiethnic cooperation for Malaysians today. Through this struggle, they developed an awareness of nationalism and anti-imperialism and the socialist road to egalitarian development.
The British colonial power used its communalist strategy to divide this anti-colonial movement by raising the issue of citizenship for the non-Malays and reneging on the promises of civil equality for all. What would it have been like if all Malayans had been granted genuine civil liberties and political equality?
The anti-colonial movement was defeated largely because the Malay peasantry had been isolated from the movement, buffered from capitalist exploitation in the estates, factories and other urban industries. The colonial state did not hesitate to use crude racial and religious propaganda against the movement.
But despite the compromises made to civil rights by the British colonial power under the 1957 Federal Constitution, it seems logical for us to abide by that Independence Agreement rather than its subsequent amendments. Our fundamental liberties are inscribed in that Federal Constitution which confers upon every citizen basic rights we all enjoy as citizens. The status quo today is a far cry from what it was in 1957. May 13, 1969 changed all that.
The ‘May 13′ incident in 1969 and the ascendance of the Malay capitalist class has enabled the total dominance and hegemony by this ruling class in Umno.
The fait accompli presented to the country during the Emergency decree proclaimed after the 1969 riots and the creation of a ‘broader BN’ has led to the notion of “Malay dominance” being bandied around with impunity by Umno leaders and far-right Malay extremists.
The amendment to Article 153 has transformed completely the so-called ‘social contract’ of 1957. Following the amendment, the so-called ‘quota system’ which has led to gross racial discrimination has been laid down as a fait accompli up to the present day.
Pointers to the future
Today, the Malay masses are no longer isolated in the rural sector but they have become part of the capitalist economy since the industrialisation of the 60s. Nevertheless, the state has relied on its populist ‘bumiputera’ policy with the implementation of the New Economic Policy in an effort to win their electoral support.
With growing intra-ethnic inequality within the Malay community and exposures of corruption and crony capitalism by Umno leaders, the opposition has been steadily attracting Malay support away from Umno.
If Malaysia is to have a viable future and a new agenda for change involving all Malaysians, we must demand a fair, socially just, equal and democratic country that respects human rights as laid out in the conclusion of ‘Patriots & Pretenders’.
KUA KIA SOONG, a former MP, was principal of New Era College, Kajang. He is also a director of human rights group Suaram. His latest book is ‘Patriots & Pretenders.’
This article first appeared in Malaysiakini.