Malaysia: 50 years of independence (Part 1) - Colonialism at the root of the national question

Today August 31, Malaysia celebrates half a century of independence from British colonial rule.  At the age of 50, Malaysia still suffers from a deep ethnic and religious divide sown by imperialism. Today's problems are the legacy of colonial rule and continuing capitalist interests pitting ordinary working people against each other.

Today August 31, Malaysia celebrates half a century of independence from British colonial rule. In 1957, the Federation of Malaya, later renamed Malaysia, was born out of the national liberation struggle, pushed by the Malayan Communist Party after World War II, but robbed by the right-wing nationalists of UMNO. At the age of 50, Malaysia still suffers from a deep ethnic and religious divide sown by imperialism. Today's problems are the legacy of colonial rule and continuing capitalist interests pitting ordinary working people against each other.

Merchant capitalism

Colonisation by the British Empire followed on centuries of colonial intrusion started by the Portuguese in 1511. Attempts in the early 17th century to establish English trade posts in the "East Indies" were drowned in blood when the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, Dutch East India Company) massacred the English in 1623 at Ambon (currently Indonesia). Dutch merchant capitalism was able to establish its rule over Malaysian-Indonesian territory in 1641 and the British decided to focus on India. Yet when the Netherlands was captured in 1795 during the Napoleonic Wars, Malaysia was given to the British to prevent it falling to the French. It was returned to the Dutch in 1818 under the treaty of Vienna.

However, after the defeat of Napoleon, the balance of forces on a world scale had shifted significantly in favour of the British Empire. The Dutch government still tried to prohibit British ships from trading in the archipelago (except at Batavia). Therefore, the British established a strategic port in the southern Malay waters in 1819. Singapore was born. In 1824, the Dutch ceded Malacca and recognized the British claim to Singapore, while the British agreed not to enter into treaties with rulers in what was to become Indonesia. In effect, the Dutch were granted the right to rule over the southern part of the archipelago in exchange for their silent recognition of British hegemony. Britain established in 1826 the crown colony of the Straits Settlements, uniting its three possessions in Malaya: Penang, Malacca and Singapore. This imposed an arbitrary frontier on the Malay world, in complete disregard of ethnic and linguistic factors. The Straits Settlements were administered under the British East India Company in Calcutta until 1867, when they were transferred to the Colonial Office in London.

During those first centuries of colonial rule, only small pockets of territory were occupied. This was the time of merchant capitalism in which European capitalists were mainly interested in trade: spices from the Moluccas, textiles from India, silk and porcelain from China. The Malayan peninsula was extremely well positioned as far as maritime trading and warfare goes. Through strategic ports, Britain wanted to bolster the defence of its Indian empire and secure the trade route to China. In fact, Singapore was established to safeguard the British opium trade with China. But until 1874 the British Malay possessions were limited to the three ports of Singapore, Malacca and Penang. With an almost unchallenged control over the world's sea-lanes, the British trade interests were easily served.

With the advent of the classical era of imperialism, things changed rapidly. Already in the 17th century, large deposits of tin were found in several Malay states. But it was only during the second half of the 19th century that investment in the tin mines started to boom when world demand dramatically increased due to, amongst others things, the American Civil War. European and Chinese capitalists from Singapore began to argue for the "pacification" (i.e. occupation) of the interior states to secure their returns on investment. The local press, financed by these capitalists, constantly called for intervention. D.R. SarDesai writes:

"The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the establishment of telegraph in Singapore in 1871, and the increasing use of steam-powered sea transport linked European ports directly with the Southeast Asian markets. British traders, unaccustomed to competition as yet, became restive as important inroads were made by European rivals into the tin trade and, even worse, into Singapore's entrepot business. (...) The British government's policy of nonintervention in the Malay states, repeatedly enunciated in the second and third quarters of the 19th century, stood in the way of trading interests." (Southeast Asia: Past and Present, p.102)

The Sultanate of Perak's wealth in tin mines made political stability there a priority for British investors. Hence, Britain manoeuvred to get it's own candidate, Abdullah, elected by the Perak chiefs as the new sultan. In an agreement worthy of the mafia, the British Empire promised to protect the state against its internal and external enemies in exchange for the supervision by a British "Resident". The sultan had to "ask the advice" of this imperialist representative on all questions other than those touching Malay religion and custom. The collection and control of all revenues and the general administration of the country had to be regulated under his advice.

However, the British were soon to discover that custom and tradition played a bigger role in the Malay world than in the world of the imperialist "advisers". As SarDesai writes: "Justice, tax collection, debt-slavery, and succession to the throne were all sanctified by custom and therefore, in the Malay view, beyond the pale of the Resident's advice." (ibid. p.105) When this led to the murder of Resident Birch in 1875, the empire reacted promptly and crushed the rebellion of Perak's chiefs in the so-called Perak War. The sultan was exiled. The capitalists had finally overruled the traditional ruling class. The Malay aristocracy was allowed to continue its formal rule over their subjects, but in effect it was the Residents that dictated the rules. During the 1890s, they intervened frequently in disputes in other Malay states, each time successfully extending the Resident system. By 1895 four Malay states were merged into a federation with a Resident-General who was headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, what was to become the capital of contemporary Malaysia.

Persistence of the pre-capitalist mode of production

Malaya's obvious attractions were its tin mines and to a lesser extent gold. But in 1877 the rubber plant was introduced from Brazil, and rubber soon became Malaya's staple export, stimulated by booming demand from European industry, especially with the development of the automobile. Rubber was later joined by palm oil as an export earner. Over time, Malaya became the world's largest producer of tin, rubber, and palm oil.

All these industries required a large and disciplined labour force. However, the British were reluctant to use the Malays as workers in these industries, for different reasons. First of all, they did not regard them as reliable workers since most Malayans were peasants with according habits and mentality. As Marx has sufficiently explained, the peasant does not automatically become a worker because he is suddenly convinced of the virtues of capitalism. Talking about the new proletariat Marx stated that "these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire." (Capital Vol.I, ch.26)

In its European homelands, capitalism was born out of the crisis of feudalism. Yet when the European merchants established themselves in Southeast Asia, they were just interested in relatively small ports to trade, and left the existing modes of production largely unchanged. For centuries they coexisted, without a real crisis of these pre-capitalist modes of production. Although many areas were to some extent drawn into the world market through trade, the effect of exchange was to reinforce the hold of the pre-capitalist ruling class and the resistance to the implantation of capitalist relations of production. So, since the preconditions for capitalist production did not arise naturally in these areas, they had to be imposed by external force. This is what happened in many colonies, especially with the advent of the imperialist stage towards the end of the 19th century. Direct military and administrative coercion was used to recruit workers and to compel peasants to produce cash crops.

One good example is the Dutch Culture System in Indonesia. Starting from 1830, Holland forced the Javanese peasant to devote one-fifth of his land or sixty-six working days per year for the cultivation of cash crops for the government. Most soon had to dedicate two-fifths to meet production quotas. In the 1840s, 70 percent of the Javanese population participated in this forced labour. This resulted in a serious curtailment of subsistence food production and famines repeatedly ensued. The worst of these famines, the Semarang famine of 1850, claimed 300,000 lives. In contrast, Dutch capitalism fared quite well: the Culture System produced enough money for the Netherlands to pay off the national debt and finance the construction of the Dutch railway system. Nevertheless, this money came at the cost of constant peasant rebellions and a local people seething with anger.

In Malaysia, the British took however quite a different road. When they had finally subjugated the Malay states, the empire was already declining and challenged by other imperialist states. It was important to secure peace in the strategic Malay sea-lanes. Therefore, the Residents choose to rule via the Malay aristocracy while not creating social turmoil through extracting labour from their societies. The peasant population refused, as elsewhere, to supply labour for the mines and plantations because of the terrible conditions. But the colonial state had other options to recruit workers, who were already more adapted to capitalist relations.

The solution was the importation of workers from India and China. The Indians came mainly as labourers to work in the rubber plantations and public works. The mines, mills and docks attracted a flood of immigrant workers from southern China. Soon towns like Singapore, Penang and Ipoh were majority Chinese, as was Kuala Lumpur, founded as a tin-mining centre in 1857. By 1891, when Malaya's first census was taken, Perak and Selangor, the main tin-mining states, had Chinese majorities. In fact, Chinese had been in the region for centuries as traders and middlemen. These "Straits Chinese" often had become rich merchants and played an important role in attracting manual labourers from their home country. In the 1890s Yap Ah Loy, who held the title of Kapitan China of Kuala Lumpur, was the richest man in Malaya, owning a chain of mines, plantations and shops. Malaya's banking and insurance industries were run by the Chinese from the start. Nevertheless, real power remained safely in the hands of British imperialism, but they had severely altered the country's ethnic mix.

The emergence of classical imperialism in the second half of the 19th century went hand in hand with an ideology of racial superiority, the "White Man's Burden", which denied the fitness of subjugated peoples for self-government. In the same way so-called scientific theories of race were used to organize the division of labour in Malaysia. As Paul M. Lubeck analyses: "Officials assumed each racial and ethnic group possessed inherited predispositions toward performing needed roles in the colonial division of labour, be they martial arts, commerce, wage labour, efficient administration or subsistence farming. In turn, these beliefs provided the necessary ideological rationalisation of colonial Malaya's social order as well as the basis of profitability in the Imperial economic system. (...) Alatas (1977) documents the ubiquity of these stereotypes in The Myth of the Lazy Native, where he shows how officials constructed a discourse on the docility of the Indians, the indolence and courtesy of the Malay, and the industry and competitiveness of the Chinese." (in States and Development in the Asian Pacific Rim, edited by Appelbaum & Henderson, p.186)

Clearly this racist ideology was based on false assumptions and a complete lack of historical analysis. For example, far from being indolent and lacking an industrious spirit, Malayan merchants in the 15th century had swarmed throughout the immense Indonesian archipelago, making bahasa Melayu the trading language of the region. (As a consequence, today the national Indonesian language is not the language of the central island Java, but a variant of bahasa Melayu.) It was only with the brutal intrusion of the Portuguese and the Dutch fleet that this Malay merchant class ceased to exist. The Malay Sultanates were encapsulated by colonialism as feudal, peasant societies that could only interact with the world market through European merchant capital. They were frozen in their development and in fact backwards in terms of classes. In the same way historical materialism can help explain the so-called inherited predispositions of the Chinese and the Indians in Malaya.

Clear-cut ethnic "realities", that still persist today, were constructed by the colonial state according to its capitalist interests, but they did not exist before. Though sharing a common Han cultural identity, the Chinese belonged to regionally distinct linguistic groups and organised themselves in Malaya through dialect associations with often violent clashes between them. The Indians were also not at all a united community, since they were divided between Hindus and Muslims and along lines of language and caste. Although an Indian petty bourgeoisie emerged during the early 20th century, the majority of Indians remained poor in rural ghettos in the rubber-growing areas. Cutting through the ethnic divisions were indeed class divisions. In terms of classes the vast majority of the Indians, the Chinese and Malays were exploited by a minority. Yet what hindered the solidarity between the exploited masses was a class divide along ethnic lines: Malay peasants, Indian and Chinese workers, a Malay feudal aristocracy, and European and Chinese capitalists.

The real reason behind the racist ideology was of course a British strategy of divide and rule. Chinese merchants were tolerated and used as middlemen. But British capital wanted to keep them away from direct political power. Since the Malay Sultans tended to spend well beyond their incomes, they were soon in debt to Chinese bankers, and this made them dependent. To counteract Chinese capitalist political aspirations, the British leaned on the Malay feudal lords and allowed them a virtual monopoly of positions in the police and local military units, as well as a majority of those administrative positions open to non-Europeans. Although these positions did contain only minimal power, they gave them the necessary prestige. After all, the indigenous elite was in desperate need of some pride as they resented the success of the Chinese capitalists and their own dependence upon them.

The British educational policies also segregated the different ethnic groups, providing minimal public education for the Malays, and leaving the non-Malays to their own devices. While the Chinese mostly built and paid for their own schools and colleges, importing teachers from China, the government fostered education for Malays.

Meanwhile, the colonial authorities preserved the traditional aristocracy with greater pomp and security than existed before. Through indirect rule, they supported the aristocracy's right to administer customary law and extract wealth out of the Malay peasants. Lubeck writes: "Thus the British wedded the power of the colonial state to the decaying cultural authority of a backward feudal ruling class and, because of the organisational and technical superiority of the colonial state, actually strengthened the aristocracy's capacity to exploit their subjects through taxation, licenses, corruption and, above all, indirect control over land title transactions. As salaried officials who dominated recruitment to the civil service, the ruling groups had privileged access to state economic affairs like allocating mining concessions, the purchase of Malay-reserved land, and access to higher education." (ibid. p.187)

The Malay peasants were kept in misery. The agricultural rights of the indigenous Malays, the Bumiputra (Sons of the Soil), were protected by law to soothe them against colonial domination. In reality, Malay peasants were encouraged to grow rice for local consumption, as they had done for ages, but were prevented from planting rubber, a more lucrative crop reserved for plantations and commercial farmers (often Chinese). British colonial administration not only discouraged Malay rubber production but introduced in 1913 a land reservation policy that blocked Malay land sales to non-Malays, thus driving down land values by as much as 50 percent. Khoo Boo Teik notes: "As a consequence of this ethnic division of labour, the Malay peasantry escaped the harsh conditions of early colonial capitalism that took a heavy tool on migrant labour. But the rural Malay community was thereby locked into an immiserating close-to-subsistence sector." (in The Political Economy of South-East Asia, edited by Rodan, Hewison and Robison, p.181)

Continuation under Japan

During the Second World War, the Japanese managed to capture Malaysia. Japanese imperialism had a racial policy just as the British did and continued the policy of appointing Malay officials. They regarded the Malays as a colonial people liberated from British imperialist rule, and fostered a limited form of Malay nationalism, which gained them some degree of collaboration from the Malay administrators and traditional aristocracy.

The occupiers regarded the Chinese as enemies, and treated them with great harshness. During the so-called sook ching (purification through suffering), up to 40,000 Chinese in Malaya and Singapore were killed in an attempt to crush the Malay sections of the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. Racial tension was also increased by the Japanese practice of using Malay paramilitary units to fight Chinese resistance. However, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), consisting mostly of Chinese, organised the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which became the most effective resistance force in the occupied Asian countries. With it began the real struggle for national liberation.


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