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“But what began to aggravate and worsen ethnic relations in the early 1930s was a series of ‘pro-Malay’ policies, which the British initiated to help Malays cope with the economic depression and to meet the demands of rising Malay nationalism based on treaty obligations.???

This statement extracted from the article below should lead us to ask whether our leaders are repeating history and why they are not learning from the mistakes of history.

During the period of colonial rule in Malaya, the British favoured themselves and other whites first and foremost, and Malays second in their policies.

As ‘protectors’ of the Malays, the British created various policies that were anti-Chinese. Most non-European residents were either workers or poor. Since the various races were in different sectors and not in direct competition with each other, ethnic conflict was kept under the lid.

As the economic depression intensified, the British rulers found it easier to resort to race-based solutions rather than deal with the real causes and issues.

Today, as the global economy and its fluctuations impact on us, will race-based policies again rise to the fore?

The following essay by Dr Cheah Boon Kheng was published in the book Multiethnic Malaysia – Past, Present and Future under the title ‘Race and Ethnic relations in Colonial Malaya during the 1920s and 1930s’. CPI with permission from the author is carrying it here in two parts.

Dr Cheah is visiting professor at the National University of Singapore. He was previously history professor at USM, and has been visiting professor at the Australian National University and ISEAS. He is also author of several books.


‘Race and Ethnic relations in Colonial Malaya during the 1920s and 1930s’

By Cheah Boon Kheng

From the end of the First World War to the beginning of the 1929-1932 Depression, British Malaya experienced an “era of internal peace and unbounded prosperity??? and “racial relationships were a model of harmony and good feeling for all the world,??? observed American political scientist Rupert Emerson, in his book Malaysia, published in 1937.[1]

But the collapse of Malaya’s boom economy and trade followed the crash of the American stock market in 1929. Malaya’s markets for rubber and tin and other products soon wiped off their staggering gains and fell almost to stagnation.  Mines and rubber estates slowly came to a standstill. The tide of immigration, which had flowed so strongly into Malaya from China and India to meet the labour demands of economic production, was now reversed.

Social, economic and political turmoil set in inevitably in the swift transition from prosperity to poverty, and began to arouse latent ethnic hostilities and suspicions among the races, which just stopped short of open conflicts and bloodshed. 

As Emerson noted:

“When all classes of all races were being warmed by the golden sun of the boom there was no occasion to bicker either among themselves with the ‘heaven-born’; but when the sun was obscured and the chill rains began to fall it became necessary to crowd for space under the limited space.??? [2]

This paper demonstrates that the politics of race influenced the colonial government’s intervention during the worldwide depression. In trying to favour the economic interests of one group against another, its policies aroused rather than defused racial antagonisms and generated ethnic animosity and ethnic consciousness. 

This is a much-discussed topic in Malaysian economic history. What I present here are the major issues that raised ethnic tensions, but which did not lead to open violent conflict and bloodshed. At the end, I offer an assessment of the impact of these issues on Malaysian history.
Race and ethnic relations in colonial Malaya

Emerson repeatedly uses the terms ‘race’ and ‘racial’ to refer to the different communities in British Malaya, as these terms were in vogue then and refer particularly to physical characteristics, specific types or groups of peoples, and the colour of their skins. Ethnicity, however, is sociologically a broader term and encompasses not only physical characteristics but also identities and other aspects such as language, culture, religion and place of origin. We should bear these differences in mind.
In the colonial society of the 1930s, race and the colour of one’s skin determined the status of a person. Caucasians and whites regarded themselves in a position of superiority, and they looked down on Asians and others.
The colour bar was maintained intact in the Malayan Civil Service[3] and used to prohibit Asians and others from entering exclusively “white??? areas in racecourses, clubs and even railway carriages.[4] Within the social and economic structures of colonial society in Malaya, British administrators and traders and other Western entrepreneurs were at the top of the social hierarchy. Rich and influential Asians and Malay rulers and aristocratic Malays would fall within a level below them and may even occasionally be allowed to mix with them at social functions.
The British had acquired and opened up the ports of Singapore, Malacca and Penang in the Straits Settlements in the interests of British capital and Western enterprise and later they extended their control into the troubled peninsular Malay states for the purpose of creating political stability and ordered government of a Western type. Under treaty obligations with Malay rulers, British administrators offered them advice and later accepted Malay chiefs into state councils. Later, other Malays were taken into a special Malay administrative service, but they were relegated to junior positions.
The Malays came to play little part in the shaping of their lives, as British officials took all the major decisions. To all appearances, the form and substance of the Malay states was preserved, alongside the Western political system, administrative structure and economic growth. The bulk of the Malay population remained largely as peasant cultivators in the rural areas within the framework of traditional Malay society and behind the walls of British protection. But Malays were treated no differently from other Asian peoples when it came to the matter of social norms.
Cheap immigrant labour was imported from China, India and elsewhere for manual labour and services in jobs, which the Caucasians or whites or even the Malays were reluctant to undertake.
The British adopted an open door policy on immigration, so that large numbers of immigrant labour poured in, initially into the Straits Settlements, and later into the tin mines and rubber estates of the peninsular Malay states. In the Straits Settlements, where the population was predominantly Chinese, the British administrators attempted to accommodate Chinese interests by according them slight representation on the Legislative Council, and later into the lower rungs of the Straits Settlements Administrative Service. They also met their demands for higher education in Singapore by setting up the King Edward VII Medical College and the Raffles College.

Because the peninsular states remained legally ‘Malay states’ in character, the British refused to take into account the tendencies towards permanent settlement of the Chinese and Indians by granting them citizenship or other rights beyond the normal safeguards to life and property for fear of arousing Malay opposition.

The British thereby even avoided integrating the locally born and domiciled Chinese and Indians with the Malays as it viewed racial integration as a troublesome responsibility. The British as ‘protectors’ of the Malays preserved the distinctions between the separate communities based on the criteria of economic functions, ethnic origin and culture.[5]
The dominant British attitudes of superiority and racial hierarchy led it to adopt a policy of favoritism. In awarding government contracts, loans, and lands and in the protection of legal rights, they frequently favoured British and Western business interests over Asians and other non-Westerners.
These attitudes gradually forced the development of a certain level of ethnic consciousness within each of the three major races in Malaya. Ethnic relations in Malaya during this period, while harmonious, need to be viewed within the context of a colonial framework of a segmented, plural society within which these communities maintained a separate, parallel existence, united by the colonial political system, and which met only in the marketplace.[6] Each racial group kept to itself and performed mutually exclusive functions and received appropriate rewards. Most members of the different races were not in economically competitive roles, and therefore not directly in conflict with each other.

Given the constant flow and uneven nature of immigration from different parts of China, India, and Arabia and also from the Malay archipelago, including the Netherlands East Indies, the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians were themselves more culturally diverse and different than united in the early years of the 20th century. But largely owing to British communal policies and the competition for scarce resources, they began to move towards group formations and a common group ethnic identity. These processes were geared to safeguarding and protecting group interests and rights, requiring communities to close ranks and to de-emphasize their sub-racial, linguistic and cultural differences by adopting a common but larger ethnic ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ identity. 

For instance, the Chinese in Malaya came from different clans, guilds and provinces of China, and spoke different dialects. Except for those with formal education, few could hardly read, write or speak the official Chinese language, Mandarin. Hakka and Hokkien came from Fujian province, Cantonese from Guangdong province, and Shanghainese from Shanghai, but they were not close to one another as each kept to his own clans or guilds, and intermarriage between these sub-groups was even frowned upon. But for the sake of survival in Malaya these immigrant Chinese gradually began to break down their racial and cultural barriers and develop a sentiment of ‘Chineseness’ to unite and build up a larger ethnic ‘Chinese’ identity.

A similar meaning, understanding and development of ‘Malayness’ and ‘Indianness’ also began to occur among the Malays and the Indians.
This is not the place to go into complexities of ethnic identity in great detail. Suffice it to say that ethnicity in colonial Malaya became a primary source of group loyalty and consciousness for most non-European peoples and served as a strong catalyst for competition and conflict. As American sociologist Martin N. Marger notes: “In no society do people receive an equal share of the society’s rewards, and in multiethnic societies, ethnicity serves as an extremely critical determinant of who gets ‘what there is to get’ and in what amounts.??? [7]       

As the economic depression worsened in Malaya, the British administration realized it had to juggle the economic interests of the respective groups. Exclusive preference to any one group would fuel ethnicity and communalism, but accommodation and integration of everyone would reduce ethnic tensions. But what began to aggravate and worsen ethnic relations in the early 1930s was a series of ‘pro-Malay’ policies, which the British initiated to help Malays cope with the economic depression and to meet the demands of rising Malay nationalism based on treaty obligations.

These policies were not aimed at instigating Chinese hostilities towards Malays as such, or vice versa, but they had this effect. They polarized ethnic identities and intensified ethnic consciousness among the various ethnic communities.

Ethnicity, it has been said, is the mother of nationalism, which is the mother of nationalism which is the desire to build a nation or a ‘nation state’. A nascent Malay nationalism began to emerge before 1941, demanding an exclusive “Malaya for the Malays???.  A multi-ethnic “Malayan??? nationalism was absent. What existed in Malaya were rival and different strands of nationalist sentiment in each of the ethnic communities with conflicting interests and different viewpoints that prevented the emergence of a united Malayan nationalist movement.
Curbing Immigration: A ‘Pro-Malay’ and ‘Anti-Chinese’ Policy

Due to large-scale unemployment brought about by the economic depression, the first target of British colonial policies was to repatriate surplus labour, especially those unemployed or displaced Chinese and Indian labourers in the rubber estates and tin mines.

The colonial government refused them unemployment benefits, as it did not accept that it had any responsibilities towards their welfare and regarded the immigration of alien labour as being regulated merely by the economic conditions of the country. The ebb and flow of immigration was tied to the fluctuating world prices of rubber and tin, so it held that alien labour should be prepared to bear the brunt of adverse economic conditions.

While thousands of unemployed or displaced workers accepted offers of free repatriation back to their homelands, thousands more on the estates and tin mines accepted wage cuts and even refused offers of free repatriation as they regarded themselves as permanent settlers in Malaya. Those who accepted repatriation had totally been unable to find employment. Estates and other employers were determined to cut operational costs by displacing workers, or by reducing their wages, although Western enterprises had no hesitation in retaining and maintaining the services of European staff without any pay cuts.

The administration, however, aroused ethnic resentment among the Chinese when it introduced several pieces of legislation towards the control of immigration of aliens which were seen to be discriminatory towards them. The Immigration Restriction Ordinance of 1928 was administered for nearly four years and was then replaced by the Aliens Ordinance on 1 April 1933.

The restriction reduced the quotas drastically of aliens allowed to enter Malaya each month. It applied to all aliens, but since the Chinese were the most affected by this measure, it was represented not only in China but also in Malaya as discrimination against the Chinese race.[8]  In the immigration debates in the federal legislative council, Tan Cheng Lock, a Malayan Chinese leader, said “the Bill is part and parcel of an anti-Chinese policy, probably with a political objective….???[9]

What Tan had referred to was a provision in the ordinance, which allowed for the banishment of any alien who was considered “undesirable already in the country???. This was seen as a warning to all Chinese, including the local-born Chinese or those who were British subjects to toe the line or be deported, despite the administration explaining it was aimed at communist elements in the trade unions, who were spreading “subversive political ideas??? and stirring up anti-British agitation.

The British were for the first time distinguishing aliens from ‘Malayans of all races’. But the local-born Chinese felt forced to make common cause with the aliens, and to close ranks, thereby strengthening Chinese ethnic unity. According to one source, in so doing, they “played directly into the hands of the pro-Malay faction among the British officials???.[10]

But this British policy was also meant to appease the demands of Malay nationalism. Malay rulers had earlier voiced opposition to increased immigration of Chinese and Indians, and they greeted the new legislation with satisfaction. In the 1931 census, the number of Chinese alone was reported to have exceeded that of the Malays and that in all except the four northern unfederated Malay states they had come to outnumber the Malay population.

The issues soon developed along the lines of ‘Malaya for the Malays’ and ‘Malaya for the Malayans’, with the Malay press and many pro-Malay British officials advancing the former argument. Local-born Chinese leaders like Tan Cheng Lock appealed for British protection for Chinese and those local-born who were British subjects.

In 1929, the last year of free immigration, the number of adult Chinese male labourers entering the Straits Settlements was 195,613, but in 1930 the number dropped to 151,693 and in 1931 to 49,723. No restriction, however, was placed on the immigration of women and children.

By 1933, however, when the economy started recovering, the administration realized that repatriation and the quota restrictions had created serious labour shortages for the mines and other industries. Trade unions, some under communist influence, took advantage of the labour shortages to demand wage increases and improvement in working and living conditions.
Protecting Malay lands and Malay rubber smallholders

The impact of the economic depression on the Malay peasantry and the rural population generally was less severe than it was on the immigrant labour force which depended on either rubber or tin exports, as most Malays were able to grow food on their lands and feed themselves.

But a sizeable number of Malays who planted rubber suffered badly, as their incomes fell sharply and widespread indebtedness was incurred. Smallholding land, outside and even inside the Malay reservations, was mortgaged and sold on an increasing scale and to an extent that aroused serious anxieties on the part of both the British and Malays. The total debts incurred by Perak smallholders alone to creditors (mainly Chettiars) in 1930 increased by 48 percent over the previous year.

As British Residents and European members in the Federal Council urged the government to protect Malay smallholders, the British administration finally decided to take “drastic action… not only in the interests of the Malay peasant himself, but also for the sake of the political well-being of the country???.[11]

As a result, in 1931, the government enacted in the Federal Council a Small Holders (Restriction of Sale) Bill that prohibited the sale of land in any smallholding without the consent of the ruler. Two years later a new Malay Reservations Bill was introduced to close the loopholes in the 1913 enactment and to “make dealings in land in Malay reservations as unhealthy as possible???.[12] The main concern of the government was to prevent Malay lands from passing into the hands of non-Malays, especially Chinese and Indians.

The amendments made irrecoverable all money paid by non-Malays for dealings in reservation, and it was estimated some $5 million in debts were secured on reservation land.  However, according to one author, the long-term effect of the amendments was to impede Malay economic development by denying them an important source of capital.[13]

On the other hand, the British administration was not averse to putting aside the reservation land policy in favour of British and other Western economic interests. Statistics revealed that the Europeans owned more than 43 per cent of alienated land in the Malay states, the Malays 27 percent and the Chinese and Indians between them only 23 per cent. In the mid-1930s when Western mining companies pressed to be allowed to mine in Malay reserves said to be rich in tin ores, the government gave in despite opposition from the sultans.[14]

Roff, in his study of Malay nationalism, says these measures to protect Malay smallholders led to growing demands among locally-domiciled Chinese for “equal rights and privileges with the Malays, for a greater share in government and administration than they had hitherto enjoyed, and, quite simply for the right to regard Malaya as their home and not simply their halting place???.[15]

Recent British repressive measures such as arrests and banishment against elements of the Communist Party and the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party of China) had worried the domiciled Chinese, who regarded these British actions as ‘anti-Chinese’.

Part 2 on the pro-Malay ‘decentralization’ policy will appear tomorrow.


[1] Emerson, Malaysia, University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur, (reprint), 1970, p.312.

[2] Emerson, p.313.

[3] Emerson, p.515.

[4] For a sociological study of this ‘white’ policy, see John Butcher, The British in Malaya,1880-1941 Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1979.

[5] William R. Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1967, p.111.

[6] This was Furnivall’s classic view of colonial society in Southeast Asia and it  held good for much of the colonial period. See J.S. Furnivall, Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1939; see also his Colonial Policy and Practice, Cambridge, 1948.

[7] Martin N. Marger, Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives, Thomson-Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 2003, p.16.

[8] Victor Purcell, The Chinese in Malaya, Oxford University Press, Singapore, reprint, 1975, p.204.

[9] See Emerson, p.513.

[10] Emerson, p.512.

[11] William R. Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1967, p.206.

[12] Roff, ibid., p.207.

[13] Lim Teck Ghee, Peasants and Their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya, 1874-1941, Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1977, pp.213-214.

[14] Lim, pp.214-215.

[15] Roff, p.2008.