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Introduction by CPI

Dr Lee Kam Hing’s essay is originally titled ‘Forging Inter-ethnic Cooperation: The Political and Constitutional Process towards Independence, 1951-1957’ and published in the book Multiethnic Malaysia — Past Present and Future (2009).

CPI with permission from the author is reproducing his essay in three parts for online reading in our website. Today’s Part 1 is as below.

Dr Lee is research director at Star Publications. He was visiting Harvard-Yenching research scholar at Harvard University, and visiting scholar at Wofson College, Cambridge University. He was previously history professor of Universiti Malaya.

By Lee Kam Hing

Inter-ethnic cooperation was a prerequisite set by the British for the transfer of power to Malayans. The colonial authorities believed that the races needed to work together to create the necessary conditions for a smooth political transition and that this could then counter the Malayan Communist Party’s claim of being the only movement representing the people’s struggle. Local leaders themselves also accepted that only when the various races began working together could a start be made to the nation-building process.

Two forms of inter-ethnic cooperation were attempted in the pre-independence period. The first was a single multi-ethnic party, the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) and the second was a coalition of ethnic-based parties, the Alliance Party. Not without some significance, the founders of the ethnic-based political parties of the United Malay National Organisation (Umno), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) were directly involved in setting up IMP.

In the end it was the Alliance Party which prevailed over the multiethnic IMP. In 1955 the Alliance Party won resoundingly in the first federal elections and with this electoral success took the lead in negotiating for independence. Since then it has served as the dominant form of interracial cooperation.

Negotiations for the new nation’s Constitution in 1956 and 1957 involved difficult issues of a communal nature requiring tough bargaining among the leaders. Throughout the negotiations, however, a spirit of friendship and goodwill prevailed as the early leaders struggled to arrive at compromises to safeguard the interests of the respective communities.

Efforts were made to ensure that the Articles in the Constitution would be fair and balanced. This was not easy. The Constitution held inherent contradictions and tensions. Where it was possible in certain Articles, leaders chose to be silent on details because they feared that to do otherwise could provoke strong reaction from their respective communities and the resulting discord might jeopardise chances of early independence.

Still, differences in interpreting some of these Articles surfaced soon after independence and they gave rise to major political disputes. It was management of communal discord that remains the main challenge to inter-ethnic relations.

Inter-ethnic discourse took place within a changing political environment. There were the post-war ethnic disturbances in 1946 and the repercussions on race relations of the Emergency (1948-1960). At the same time, the British and the Malays realized that in the battle against the communists, the support of the Chinese was essential and that alienating the community from the mainstream of politics could undermine the political stability of the country. Increasingly, Chinese leaders were aware of their weaker bargaining position because sections of the Chinese community were implicated in the insurrection and also because after the 1955 federal elections, UMNO had a predominant share of seats won.

All sides recognized the need to work with one another and to reach compromises even though these might not satisfy fully their own communities. Achieving independence was foremost in their minds and this united them.

Rising communal consciousness: Seeking ethnic solidarity, 1945-1949

Efforts to achieve inter-ethnic political cooperation in Malaya have been relatively recent. While Chinese business leaders and Malay rulers developed commercial collaboration in the past, the rest of the respective communities had generally lived in defined and separate economic sectors, mixing only in the market place in what J. Furnivall termed as a plural society.

This separateness was further underlined by a growing but divergent political consciousness among the various communities in the early 20th century. Whilst the Malay community came under the influence of Pan Islamism and Indonesian nationalism, the Chinese were attracted to the reformist and revolutionary politics of China, and the Indians had their political influence stemming from the anti-British independence movement in India.1

This rising political consciousness instilled a sense of solidarity within each of the communities and a determination to protect the rights and interest of its members. Malay leaders in the pre-war years such as Dato Onn Jaafar and Zainal Abidin Ahmad (Za’ba) spoke out against government neglect of Malay welfare and expressed anxiety that the Malay population would be outnumbered by the continued inflow of Chinese migrants into the country, and they called on the colonial authorities to halt Chinese immigration.2

Chinese and Indian leaders, meanwhile, were divided between concerns in Malaya and what some still regarded as their homeland in China and India. Increasingly they were critical of colonial neglect of the educational and employment needs of their communities especially in the Depression years when price of tin and rubber fell. There were fears of social and labour unrest and dissatisfaction with the lack of government efforts to provide social relief.

Inter-ethnic relations deteriorated dangerously in the months after the Second World War. Japanese treatment of Chinese during the Occupation had been harsh while a policy to win over the Malays was practised.

In the immediate post-war days, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, mainly Chinese, attacked those they considered collaborators. Many of the MPAJA victims were Malays and the retaliation from the community took on an ethnic dimension. Serious clashes occurred in Johor and in Perak. Significantly, one leader who played a major role in calming the situation was Dato Onn Jaafar, an emerging Malay leader from Johor. He brought community leaders together and organised relief operations in the affected areas.3

Then in the early months of 1946, the Malays mobilised themselves to oppose British plans to set up the Malayan Union. The Malayan Union would have led to the liberalising of citizenship requirements for non-Malays and the loss by Malay rulers’ of their sovereignty. The plan was strongly resisted by the Malays. Dato Onn led the opposition against the Malayan Union.

On 11 May 1946 Umno was formed with Dato Onn elected as its President. For the first time, the Malays in the country were united under one organisation. Faced with mass demonstrations and boycotts by the sultans, the British agreed to negotiate with Umno and the Malay rulers. The resulting 1948 Federation of Malaya agreement, which replaced the Malayan Union, included terms favourable to the Malays.4

Soon afterwards, moves were made to form a party to unite and represent the Chinese. The MCA was formed during what were probably the most troubling time for the Chinese. The community was still recovering from the difficult, and at times dangerous, years of the Japanese Occupation. Now in 1948 they were caught between an armed rebellion that was communist-led but largely Chinese-supported and a colonial regime seen increasingly as pro-Malay.

Nearly half a million people, mostly Chinese, were – as a consequence – resettled in the New Villages. Facing such a situation, many Chinese saw an urgent need to have a party to rally the community together and to represent them in the constitutional discussions that were expected.

Sir Henry Gurney, High Commissioner of Malaya, was keen that anti-communist Chinese should help fight the MCP-led insurrection. In December 1948, Gurney met 16 Chinese members of the Federal Legislative Council and assured them that the British supported the forming of a Chinese organisation.5 For several weeks then, Chinese guilds and association all over the country held meetings to select delegates to the inaugural meeting.

At a gathering on 27 February 1949 the MCA was formed and Tan Cheng Lock, a Straits Chinese leader, was elected president. In the subsequent months, the party was preoccupied with welfare work in the New Villages where a third of the Chinese population had been resettled.6

Political consciousness and mobilisation among the Indians drew inspiration from events in India. Many Indians sympathised with the independence struggle in India and during the war a number joined the Indian Independence League and its armed wing, the Indian National Army.

After the war, Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of the Indian Congress Part, visited Malaya, and at his suggestion a conference was held on 29 August 1946 to encourage active involvement of Indians in Malayan affairs. In that meeting, the Malayan Indian Congress was formed.7

Early efforts at inter-ethnic cooperation, 1946-1951

Both Tan Cheng Lock and Dato Onn Jaafar, although founders of ethnic-based parties, were also conscious very early of the need to develop inter-ethnic cooperation.

Tan was most aware of impending political change. He also had a keener sense than any other Chinese leader of what Malay aspirations were. There was recognition that in any political transition Chinese interest would be safeguarded only through cooperation with the British and to an extent with the Malays too.

When the Malayan Union which liberalized citizenship requirements was announced, Tan saw the proposals as offering hope to the non-Malays. Tan was therefore very disappointed when the British abandoned the Malayan Union in the face of strong Malay opposition.

He pointed out to the British the unique opportunity they had to weld together the different peoples in Malaya into one united nation. Tan called on British commitment to a democracy where there would be equality in rights and obligations for all. He strongly criticized the colonial authorities in October 1946 when they proceeded to discuss only with Umno and the Malay rulers on constitutional changes.8

There was a sense of bitterness in Tan when the proposals of the Federation of Malaya Agreement were made public. He criticized what he described as a pro-Malay character of the Federation proposal.

Tan thereupon took a more pronounced anti-colonial stance and sought out other political groups to oppose the Federation of Malaya Agreement proposals. On 7th December 1946 he together with leaders of the Malayan Democratic Union formed the Pan (later All) -Malayan Council for Joint Action. The MDU, multi-racial but mostly non-Malay led, modelled itself on the left-wing of the British Labour Party. The AMCJA in mid-1947 February linked up with several radical Malay organisations led by the Malay National Party.

Among Malay leaders in the MNP were Musa Ahmad, Ahmad Boestamam, Aziz Ishak and Dr Burhannuddin Al-helmy. They joined other Malay dissidents to form Putera in February 1947.

The Malay radicals had been marginalised in the talks among Umno, the British, and the rulers. The MNP saw the Federation agreement as a move to maintain colonial rule in Malaya. The AMCJA-Putera called for a hartal on 20 October 1947 to protest against the Federation of Malaya Agreement. Towards the end of 1947, the government banned the AMCJA and Putera and most of their leaders, except for Tan, were arrested or went into exile.9

For Dato Onn, the shift from a narrow communal stance to a more inclusive approach in Malayan politics came following the signing of the Federation of Malaya Agreement. In 1949 he called on the Malays “to obtain closer ties with the other people in this country???.10 Now seeking self-government and eventual independence, he wanted greater accommodation with non-Malays who had settled in Malaya and he persuaded Umno to change the party slogan from ‘Hidup Melayu’ to ‘Merdeka’.

Meanwhile Sir Malcolm MacDonald, the British Commissioner General for Southeast Asia, set up the Communities Liaison Committee (CLC) in 1949 to provide a platform to help resolve political differences among the various communities. There was inter-ethnic unease lingering from the immediate post-war months and this was heightened by the outbreak of a largely Chinese communist insurrection. Tan and Dato Onn, as leaders of the two major communities were brought into the CLC and both tried to work out a more enduring inter-ethnic understanding.

At the CLC Tun Tan and Dato Onn developed a friendship and through this reached some broad agreement to resolve contentious issues affecting inter-ethnic relations. Citizenship based on jus soli for non-Malays and special rights for Malays were the two pressing issues. Dato Onn agreed to liberalise citizenship requirements for non-Malays while Tan supported the Malay special position. Both agreed that the future government of Malaya should be multiracial and as well as one that was inclusive.

In June 1951, Dato Onn declared at the Umno General Assembly that independence could only be achieved if there was unity with the other races.11 He therefore proposed opening Umno membership to non-Malays and the party renamed as the United Malayan National Organisation. It has been suggested that Malcolm MacDonald encouraged Dato Onn to take the new position. But it could argued that Dato Onn himself recognized the political realities of the changing times and hence this accounted for his bold approach regarding working with the other races.

However, while senior party officials were prepared to accept Dato Onn’s proposal, the general body within the party rejected moves to open Umno to other races. Unable to gain wide acceptance to his proposals, Dato Onn left Umno to set up the non-communal IMP on 16 September 1951. Tan supported Dato Onn and the IMP. He chaired the inaugural IMP meeting in Kuala Lumpur and headed the party’s Malacca branch. Tan was joined by several senior MCA leaders including Tan Siew Sin, Khoo Teik Ee and Yoong Shook Lin.

These early efforts by leaders of different communities to work together were tentative and temporary. The promoters of the experiment such as the AMPAJA-Putera collaboration and the CLC had to reconcile almost irreconcilable positions involving communal issues. But these attempts laid the groundwork for future inter-ethnic partnership that were more sustained.

Part 2 will appear tomorrow

Articles on pre-Merdeka race composition:

'Malaysianisation' of the Melayu identity

A plural peninsula or Tanah Melayu? (1)

A plural peninsula or Tanah Melayu? (2)

[1] William Roff, Origins of Malay Nationalism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 56-90; Yen Ching Hwang, The Overseas Chinese and the 1911 Revolution, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 36-145
[2] Abdullah Hussain dan Khalid M.Hussein, Pendeta Za’ba dalam Kenangan, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2000. pp.188-233; Adnan Hj. Nawang, Za’ba dan Melayu, Kuala Lumpur: Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd 1998, pp. 160-219; Adnan Hj. Nawang, Memoir Za’ba, Tanjong Malim: Univesiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, 2005, pp.50-73
[3] Cheah Boon Kheng, The Making of a Nation, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2002, pp. 1-48;Ramlah Adam, Dato Onn Ja’afar: Pengasas Kemerdekaan, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1992, pp.58-80
[4] Gordon P.Means, Malaysian Politics, London: University of London Press,1970, pp. 99-102
[5] Richard Stubbs, Hearts and Minds of Guerrilla Warfare: The Malayan Emergency 1948-1960, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp.202-203
[6] Heng Pek Koon,??? Cheng Lock’s Vision and Mission???, The Star, 9 July 2007; Fujio Hara, Malayan Chinese and China: Conversion in Identity Consciousness, 1945-1957, Tokyo: Institute of Developing Economies, 1997, pp. 53-77
[7] S.Arasaratnam, S., Indians in Malaysia and Singapore, London: Institute of Race Relations, 1967,pp. 112-113
[8] Tjoa Hock Guan,??? The Social and Political Ideas of Tun Datuk Sir Tan Cheng Lock???, in Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley (eds), Melaka: The Transformation of a Malay Capital, 1400-1980 Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies/Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 299-323.
[9] K.G. Tregonning, ‘Tan Cheng Lock: A Malayan Nationalist???, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol.X No.1, March 1979, pp.25-76
[10] Joseph Fernando, “The Rebel in Onn Jaafar???, The Star, 18 June 2007
[11] Ibid