Launch New CPI

Why did Umno and MCA to work together? Why did Tan Cheng Lock break off with Onn Jaafar? Could the whole political scenario for the country have taken a different direction in the early 1950s?

Local elections: The demise of the IMP and the emergence of the Alliance Party, 1952

In late 1951, local elections were introduced in Malaya to prepare the country for self-government. The first election was in Penang in December 1951. But it was in Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital and where IMP was contesting for the first time, that the elections in February 1952, attracted wide interest.

The Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) which fielded candidates in all 12 wards seemed formidable, having on its side Onn Jaafar, founder-leader of Umno, and Tan Cheng Lock, founder-leader of the MCA. Several other senior MCA leaders including Tan Siew Sin, Khoo Teik Ee and Yong Shook Lin were with the IMP too. The IMP was also supported by the MIC.

Selangor MCA, then headed by H.S. Lee, reached an agreement with Dato Yahya Razak, chairman of KL Umno’s election committee to field a single slate of candidates. Lee’s election manifesto which was released on 3 January stated that “the MCA Selangor Branch are also of the opinion that the interests of members of other communities should also be represented???.

This had attracted Yahya’s attention. He thereupon contacted a former school-mate Ong Yoke Lin, another MCA leader, who then fixed a meeting of representatives from Umno and MCA. On 7 January both sides agreed to fight jointly in the elections. The alliance fielded 5 Malays, 6 Chinese, and 1 Indian.12

The KL electoral pact was an entirely local initiative but the alliance drew strong criticisms not only from IMP but also from some MCA and Umno national leaders. Yahya Razak’s own division head Datin Putih Mariah resigned on 10 February just days before elections in protest at the pact. There were objections from other branches and Yahya was accused of selling out the Malays by working with a Chinese party.

On the MCA side, two senior leaders Tan Siew Sin and Khoo Teik Ee declared during the elections campaign that the party’s central working committee had not approved the Umno-MCA merger and both instead called for support of the IMP.

For MCA this was its first experience in participating in elections while for Umno it needed to improve on its Penang performance where it won only one seat. Both Lee and Yahya saw the elections initially as a battle for control of the KL Municipal and focused on local issues. But the elections turned out to be a test of strength between Onn Jaafar’s multi-racial IMP and the communally-based Umno and MCA, and soon questions of self-government and larger political concerns were raised.13

To the surprise of some observers, the Umno-MCA alliance defeated the IMP by winning 9 of the 12 seats at the KL elections.

Contemporary commentaries while suggesting that the “MCA-Umno victory is superficially proof that the Malays and the Chinese can work together for political ends??? noted that voting was along ethnic lines for both parties.14 Although the electorate numbered only about 11,000 and turnout was 75%, the result was a major boost to the new alliance and it marked the beginning of IMP’s demise.

The new alliance of Umno-MCA maintained its winning momentum and swept municipal elections held in the rest of the country later that year.

Formalising inter-ethnic cooperation in the Alliance, 1952-53

As observed, inter-ethnic cooperation in Malaya could have taken either the multi-racial IMP form or in the form of a coalition of communal-based parties. Tan Cheng Lock, on his part, remained cautious about an Umno-MCA alliance. He believed that several important issues had to be resolved before he was agreeable to formalising Umno-MCA collaboration.

He wanted to find out whether Tunku Abdul Rahman, the new leader of Umno, accepted jus soli in relation to the citizenship issue and the concept of a Malaya for Malayans. Writing to H.S. Lee on 29 February Tan explained that “there must be communal equality in the Federation involving equality of opportunity and treatment and in shouldering the duties and in sharing the rights of Malaya Citizenship among all the domicile communities making up the population of Malaya.???15

Tan and other mainly Western-educated MCA leaders had initially embraced Onn’s non-racial IMP and saw it as moderate compared to Umno. In particular Tan appreciated Onn’s willingness to stake his position as Umno president by insisting on liberalising citizenship requirements and opening the party to non-Malays.

It would appear that in 1952, the IMP with its multiracial platform as well as the quiet backing by the British was the preferred party to work with for some of the senior leaders of MCA. The IMP too was supported by the MIC. Many MCA leaders were unsure of the untested Tunku who had taken over Umno in August 1951.

Then why did Tan break off with Onn? Some studies criticized Tan for letting Onn down. If Tan and the MCA had sided with IMP instead of Umno, could the whole political scenario for the country have changed? Could we have a situation of a dominant or competing multi-racial parties instead of a coalition of ethnic parties leading the independence movement.

H.S. Lee favoured expanding the Umno-MCA alliance. In the weeks after the KL elections, Lee was in regular contact with the Tunku. The Tunku was the first to congratulate Lee on the KL election results. On 22 February Lee informed Tan that the Tunku favoured enlarging the alliance into a nation-wide organisation and that the Umno leader would be asking party heads to contact the various local MCA branches.16

H.S. Lee’s role in events affecting Umno-MCA alliance was crucial. He was worried about the continued association of Tan Cheng Lock with the IMP. On 22 March 1952 he wrote to Tan that senior MCA state leaders had expressed to him their deep concern about Tan calling an inaugural IMP Malacca meeting, and there was a possibility that he would be made state chairman while still leader of the MCA. More importantly, Lee wrote, “They feel that if you accept the Presidency of the IMP in Malacca, it might not be conducive for frank discussions with the Umno in the future.???17

Unwilling to abandon Onn and the IMP, Tan proposed giving MCA branches the right to work with either IMP or Umno. Speaking to the press on 18 February 1952, Tan declared, “I support the principle of IMP-MCA-Umno cooperation???.18 To Lee on 22 February he explained, “You are materially aware that influential members of the MCA want cooperation with IMP. So probably the MCA is divided on this question???.19

Umno, which regarded IMP as its main rival, would certainly not have accepted Tan’s proposition. And neither did Lee and the more politically conservative Chinese. Writing to Tan on 1 March 1952 Lee revealed that the Tunku indicated to him privately that he accepted jus soli although there was a minority within Umno strongly opposed to such a concession.

It might have been, as some writers had argued, that Lee preferred an Umno-MCA alliance because he and Onn were not on good personal terms. But correspondence at the end of 1951 showed that there was cordiality between the two leaders and even after IMP’s inaugural meeting Onn again invited Lee to join IMP.20

Rather, Lee did not believe that the multi-racial IMP could get popular support. On 18 February 1952, Lee wrote that “ seems unlikely that the IMP will be able to achieve any success elsewhere. Indeed they have obtained the two seats [in Kuala Lumpur] by a very small margin (50 odd votes)...??? 21

Lee’s stand was more likely influenced by his association with groups in the MCA which were worried about the future of Chinese education, language, and citizenship. These groups believed that the Chinese were politically weak and divided, and a distinctly Chinese party was therefore needed to safeguard the community’s interest especially at a time when British policies were interpreted as anti-Chinese. They therefore believed that MCA’s future could best be pursued by retaining its identity, and therefore an alliance with another communal party like Umno was a more suitable and workable option.22

Lee managed to eventually bring Tan to his viewpoint. On 5 March, Lee alerted Tan to the Select Committee’s Report on the Immigration Ordinance of 1950. Onn was a signatory to the Majority Report with recommendations unfavourable to the Chinese and this was opposed by Chinese members of the Legislative Council. Lee therefore raised doubts in the mind of Tan about Onn’s commitment to multi-racial fairness.23

Eventually, Tunku and Tan Cheng Lock met on 18 March. After several more rounds of talks involving other MCA leaders, a nation-wide Umno-MCA alliance was institutionalised.

Consolidating inter-ethnic coalition, 1953-55

The Umno-MCA alliance could have turned out to be no more than a temporary arrangement of convenience. Given that the first real electoral contest took place in Kuala Lumpur which was largely Chinese-majority, Umno found it necessary to work with MCA to defeat its rival, the IMP.

Had elections been held elsewhere where Chinese votes were insignificant, there might not have been a reason for Umno to seek a Chinese electoral partner. Nevertheless 1952 it was more than just electoral battles that led Umno and MCA to work together. They now had to forge a common front to negotiate with the British on constitutional change.24

In March 1953 the coalition declared that its aim was to achieve self-government and eventual independence in Malaya. As a first step, the Alliance called for elections to the Federal Legislative Council and for at least 60 per cent of seats be elected directly by the people. Up until then, Council’s members had all been nominated

The Alliance leaders encountered resistance from the British over their demands for political reforms. The British still favoured the non-communal IMP and disregarded the political strength of the Alliance as revealed in the elections. Furthermore, some colonial administrations were not convinced that Malaya was ready for independence and they anticipated a long period of British mandated rule.

On 1 February 1954 the committee set up by the colonial administration to look into federal elections recommended that only 44 of the 92 members of the Federal Legislative Council, or less than half, would be elected. Significantly too, the committee did not recommend early elections.

On further discussions, the number of elected seats was raised to 52 out of 98 seats. But Alliance leaders rejected the proposal and sent a delegation to raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, Oliver Lyttelton. The Secretary of State turned down the request for 60 per cent of elected members.

In reaction, the Alliance called for an independent commission to consider constitutional reforms, failing which they would carry out a boycott of the government and withdraw all its representatives from the legislature, municipal, and town councils. This request was rejected and the Alliance members went ahead with the boycott. They organised a nation-wide demonstration and also met the Malay rulers to get support.

The boycott forced the British to come to a compromise. The Colonial Office proposed that five seats that would have been nominated by the High Commissioner should now be decided by the majority party in the Council. These five seats could then ensure an elected majority at the Federal Legislative Council.25

In July 1955 the first federal elections were held. Dato Onn had disbanded the IMP and formed Parti Negara to contest the elections. The inter-ethnic Alliance coalition fielded candidates in all seats and in its manifesto promised that it would seek early independence. Now joined by the MIC, the Alliance won 51 of the 52 seats. It formed the first locally-elected government with Tunku Abdul Rahman as the first Chief Minister.

After the elections, the Alliance called on the British Secretary of State, Alan Lennox-Boyd, to set up an independent commission to draw up a Constitution as a step towards independence for Malaya. Lennox-Boyd soon afterwards invited the Alliance to send a delegation for discussions in London.

Alliance leaders gained national support and prominence from the 1955 elections and won the right to negotiate for independence. They had enhanced their political position by taking a strong stand together against the colonial administration over the issue of federal elections. They were willing to risk detention by their boycott of the representative bodies.

In the end they succeeded because of the evolving inter-ethnic solidarity and by showing that they could act together. The experience created a bond of friendship and this enabled them to resolve contentious matters during negotiations for a new constitution and independence.

Part 3 will appear tomorrow; Part 1 ‘Birth of Umno and Malayan Union’ appeared yesterday.

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 2 is as above.

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.


[12] Malay Mail. 15 February 1952
[13] Straits Times, 20 January 1952
[14] Singapore Standard, 19 February 1952
[15] Tan Cheng Lock to Col. H.S.Lee, 29 February 1952, Malacca, in unpublished H.S.Lee private papers, Kuala Lumpur
[16] H.S.Lee to Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan, 5 March 1952; H.S.Lee to Tengku Abdul Rahman, 7 March1952, both letters in unpublished H.S.Lee private papers, Kuala Lumpur.
[17] H.S.Lee to Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan, 3 March 1952, Kuala Lumpur, unpublished HS.Lee private papers, Kuala Lumpur
[18] Straits Times, 19 February 1952
[19] Tan Cheng Lock to Col H.S.Lee, 22 February 1952, Singapore, in unpublished H.S.Lee private papers, Kuala Lumpur
[20] Dato Onn Jaafar to Col H.S.Lee, 4 September 1951, Kuala Lumpur, Unpublished H.S.Lee private papers, Kuala Lumpur.
[21] H.S.Lee to Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan, 18 February 1952, in unpublished H.S. Lee private papers, Kuala Lumpur
[22] Straits Times, 20 January 1952
[23] H.S.Lee to Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan, 5 March 1952, Kuala Lumpur, in unpublished H.S.private papers, Kuala Lumpur
[24] Heng Pek Koon, Chinese Politics in Malaysia: A History of the Malaysian Chinese Association, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp.179-220
[25] Joseph M.Fernando, The Making of the Malayan Constitution, Kuala Lumpur: Monograph No 31 of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2002, pp 35-63


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)