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Articles, Commentaries, History, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy, The Edge

One Country’s Merdeka is Another’s Damage Control

Merdeka podium

By Ooi Kee Beng
For Penang Monthly, October 2015. [Also published in Digital Edge Weekly, 31 August 2015 as “Merdeka – Unfinished Liberation”]

It takes two hands to clap; there is no shore unless there is sea; and one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, as the poet rightly claims.

You get the point. There is always a bigger picture, and that bigger picture always changes the picture, as it were. More key players are always involved, more historical trends are always being played out; and more overlapping and contesting agendas are at play than meets the eye.

It is like piecing together a puzzle. To gain a fuller insight into Malaysia’s attainment of independence, we need to view the adjacent pieces as well. And the piece that cannot be ignored is the one involving the retreating colonial masters, the British.

On one side, we have the chain of interwoven events known to all Malaysian schoolchildren, which led to Merdeka. Tunku Abdul Rahman shouting “Merdeka” seven times at the stadium in Kuala Lumpur on 31 August 1957 was in orchestration reminiscent of Mao Zedong screaming “The Chinese people are finally back on their feet!” eight years earlier at Tiananmen Square in Beijing; and to be sure, of many other such ceremonies where national independence and liberation were declared.

But such were the times. The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were an era when nation states sprouted into being like mushrooms all over Africa and Asia. What this excess of cases in so short a time has meant is that the uniqueness of each case, and the legacy and lasting significance of the conditions configuring the post-colonial system of government particular to each country, tended to be disregarded. Yet, it is these conditions that have to be considered if we are to understand the now half century or so in the history of each of these countries, and if we are to identify the elements particular to each case, which have been leaving the most lasting impact.

On the other side, we have the British withdrawal to wonder about. This closing down of empire was a pan-global one, and the sun would soon never rise again on the British Empire, let alone set on it. The First World War and Second World War had been fought within a span of three short decades, and although the British emerged victorious, the costs were such that the Empire could not hope to win the ensuing peace.

This insight that the empire would not hold, and would in fact crumble very quickly is the factor that needs to be properly studied. The decimation of British soldiers in the ditches of Western Europe between 1914 and 1918 denied the Empire a whole generation of servicemen.

The decades to follow saw Germany rise again, and this time in alliance with Japan, the rising empire in the East and, until recently, Britain’s ally. The Second World War saw Britain under siege, and it could hardly have imagined resisting in any sustained manner the onslaught of the Japanese on its Southeast Asian colonies. The port of Penang was simply abandoned, while the fortress of Singapore fell surprisingly easily.

While the British could return to their colonies in 1945 without facing armed resistance from their colonial subjects, their fellow colonialists in Indo-China and Indonesia could not. This bought them time to experiment their way towards an exit strategy that would maximize advantages – or at least the least disadvantages – to them in light of the nascent Cold War and the wildfire spread of nationalism throughout the world.
Their attempt at a starkly simplified administration in the form of the Malayan Union in 1946 quickly failed. Seen from the Malayan side, this was because it riled up the Malay elite throughout the peninsula. However, at exactly the same time, the ending of colonialism in Sumatra across the Strait of Malacca was seeing popular extreme violence being exercised on traditional leaders and the western-educated class; and by August next year, the Indian sub-continent had broken free from British rule. The violence that ensued was not something the British, or anyone else, wanted to see repeated anywhere else in their retreat from the East.

The chilling geopolitical situation the British now found themselves in could not but influence how they were to proceed in Malaya. The reorganisation of the Malayan administration now switched to being a rear guard action as well as a damage control exercise. The proper transition to self-government and independence had begun—for the Malayan Union, for Singapore, for Brunei, for Sabah and for Sarawak.

The Malayan Union quickly became the Federation of Malaya. Power was principally handed back to the Malay elites, and from that point on, the situation of the minorities had to be negotiated from a position of weakness, with UMNO and the Malay rulers.

The Malayan Communist Party reacted by taking to arms, and the British hurriedly moved in to pressure Malay leaders to consider seriously the lot of the minorities for the sake of future stability and as resistance against the communist insurgency. China had just gone communist after all.

The war against the communists proceeded well after a few difficult years, and the focus moved strongly to the political front. Eager to ensure stability and keep communism at bay, the British invested in conservative –read “anti-communist” – forces to be their successors.

In Malaysia, the success of the pact forged between Kuala Lumpur UMNO and Selangor MCA in the municipal election in Kuala Lumpur in February 1952 – one achieved between equals, it must be added – promised a possible way out. The Alliance was formed and it was to this coalition as victors in the elections of 1955 that leadership of the new country was awarded on 31 August 1957. In the process, however, some significant compromises were entered into, which in effect sidestepped the most serious controversies, and perpetuated them as part of the fabric of Malayan politics and society.

The issue of language use remained for the future to solve, for example. More fateful were: the agreement to include religion in the otherwise secular constitution with Islam being noted as the official language; the queer decision to define ethnicity – Malayness – in the basic law of the land; and the declaration of Malay special position in that same revered document.

These would stake out the perimeters of Malaysian politics. Furthermore, by 1959, the MCA had lost any public perception of it being an equal to UMNO. In the early 1960s, the Federation of Malaya became the pillar upon which the British could pull out from the rest of its territories in the region. Malaysia was formed in 1963, and the vanity of that project was seen in Singapore’s separation from the rest in 1965. Sarawak and Sabah remained in the federation, and their situation would become hot issues in later decades.

The devaluation of the British pound soon followed, which along with the federal government’s gradual withdrawal of Penang’s free port status, led to rioting in that northern state. By the way, Penang and Malacca being combined with the rest of the peninsula in 1946 was another contingent move by the disoriented returning British colonialists.

Inter-ethnic rioting took place in 1969, following serious controversies being hotly debated in the electoral campaign of that year. When parliament was reinstated in early 1971, exactly these controversies were banned for ever more from public – and parliamentary – discussion.

Another curiosity in this story is how both Malaysia and Singapore, despite their basically Westminster parliamentary system, are the countries where the ruling parties – the parties that succeeded the British – presently hold the world record for being in power the longest time.

Much of the credit for this must go to the enviable way in which the British, no doubt in response in exigencies of the time, managed the hasty dismantling of their basically mercantilist empire to their advantage.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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