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The greatest threat to Britain’s continued presence in Malaya was the rising Malay nationalism during the several decades prior to Merdeka. To neutralize this threat, the British rulers chose to appease Malays with pro-Malay policies that protected the community while at the same time discriminating against Chinese and Indians – a strategy known as ‘divide and rule’.

The British colonial rulers prioritized the maintenance of white prestige and profits but they also sought to accommodate Malay interests in various ways due to their treaty obligations with the sultans.

As for the Chinese and Indian labour force, the British left them to fend for themselves during the severe economic depression. The Colonial Office and owners of capital felt no responsibility towards the welfare of these workers even when they were on the verge of starvation after having lost their jobs.

Instead of relief measures, restrictions were imposed by the British on non-Malay socio-economic mobility and advancement. Among the measures were exclusion from the administrative service and discouragement of agricultural and land settlement. These steps taken by the British rulers displayed “distinct racial overtones because they discriminated against the Chinese and Indians as races???.

Nor did British assistance to Malays go far enough in bringing them into the fold of the modern economy, or involvement in commerce and business.

Bottomline: The social, economic and political interests of the various communities in Malaya were never balanced equitably … Britannia-ruling-the-waves did not see the need to be even-handed. –

Below is Part 2 of the paper ‘Race and ethnic relations in colonial Malaya during the 1920s and 1930s’ earlier published in the book Multiethnic Malaysia – Past, Present and Future, and reproduced here by permission of the author.


The decentralization policy: A ‘pro-Malay’ policy

by Cheah Boon Kheng

The Chinese were further alarmed when alongside this legislation – the Federal Council a Small Holders (Restriction of Sale) Bill in 1931 that prohibited the sale of land in any smallholding without the consent of the ruler – Governor Sir Cecil Clementi announced in the same year a programme of reforms towards the formation of a Malayan union and the decentralization of the Federated Malay States (FMS), which comprised the states of Negri Sembilan, Selangor, Perak and Pahang.

The idea behind these reforms was to loosen the “overcentralization??? of authority in the FMS, which was largely in the hands of British officials, so that the FMS states could be put on a similar constitutional basis as the “unfederated??? Malay states of Johor, Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Trengganu, which enjoyed greater autonomy in administration than the FMS states.

The reforms would involve the transfer of powers and responsibilities such as posts, telegraphs, customs, lands, surveys, agriculture, and education, which were in federal hands, mainly in the hands of the federation’s Chief Secretary, to each of the respective FMS states. This would in turn mean eventually the abolition of the post of the Chief Secretary itself. The reforms, which were announced by Clementi at the durbar of the four FMS Malay rulers in Sri Menanti (Negri Sembilan) on 18th August 1931 were warmly welcomed and endorsed by the Malay rulers themselves.

The debates that ensued highlighted the strong “pro-Malay??? and “anti-Chinese??? features of the reforms.

They aroused “a resentment the unanimity, bitterness, and intensity of which are unparalleled in Malayan history,??? wrote Emerson.1

Opposition to the reforms now came not only from Chinese community leaders but also from the British/European business groups, while British Residents and other officials argued that the reforms were necessary otherwise “the Chinese would cut off the Malays from even the small share in their country which remained to them???. 2

The European unofficial members of the Legislative Council who argued against the reforms stated that the FMS states should not be returned to Malay rule as Malays “were not fitted to receive them, not much interested in getting them, and not able to hold them when they had them???. 3 They wanted the centralized and elaborate European administration to continue; otherwise they feared the reforms would undermine large-scale Western enterprise.

According to Roff, the Chinese representatives in the Federal and Straits Settlements legislatures “attacked the decentralization and pro-Malay policies, pressed for the inclusion of non-Malays in the Malayan Civil Service, and urged more rapid political development in a unified Malaya.???

One of the Legislative Council members, Lim Cheng Yan, of Penang, spoke in terms “scarcely calculated to soothe Malay breasts??? by declaring, “Who said this is a Malay country???? 4 The Malay press, while they did not challenge the right of local-born Chinese in the Straits Settlements to become British subjects, strongly opposed the granting of citizenship or other political rights in the peninsular states.

Padi cultivation policy: Further racial polarisation

Two other issues relating to the padi cultivation policy indicated further the political and racial considerations of the British policymakers. Besides creating the problem of unemployment, the depression brought about a severe shortage of food. Food production, especially the supply of rice, was needed to feed the local population, especially the labour force in the mines and estates. Although the administration in 1932 made a concession by issuing more than 50,000 temporary occupation licences for use of lands in the states to Chinese market gardeners to relieve their unemployment, it refused to go further by alienating land for Chinese and Indians to cultivate padi.5 Although the Chinese had earlier shied away from padi cultivation owing to the poor economic returns, the colonial government itself had been reluctant to allow the Chinese to cultivate padi, as they feared the Chinese would intrude into what was seen as a Malay preserve and arouse Malay resentment against the British.

The issue was debated n the Rice Cultivation Committee but the committee decided that “in any policy for the extension of rice cultivation due and full regard should be paid to the requirements, immediate and future of the Malay inhabitants of the Malay States whose interests should be adequately safeguarded by the decisions of the State Council in each state???.6

The Malay leaders had also put pressure on the British not to alienate land to the Chinese for padi cultivation. The Raja Muda of Selangor in a speech in the Selangor State Council said, the Malays were “a padi cultural people who could not do well in business or commerce and that the Malay people, unlike the Chinese, had nowhere else to go.???7

The second issue related to the imposition of duty on imported rice, which was approved by Governor Clementi, an idea that originated from the Sultan of Pahang and was supported by the other Malay rulers. The duty was to be used for financing padi development schemes and it was a means to boost local padi cultivation by making the price of local padi more competitive with imported rice. Even some British Residents and unofficial members of the Federal Council, Chinese and Europeans, spoke against this policy and argued that that the duty would not affect the consumers of local rice and non-rice foodstuffs but only the Chinese and Indian rice consumers. They stressed that it would cause hardship for the non-Malay masses whose standards of living were affected by the economic depression and who were already spending one-third of their income on the purchase of rice.

“What appeared to emphasize the racial overtones implied in the imposition of the duty,??? reveals a detailed study of this controversy, “was that the money ‘levied from one section of the community’ was ‘to be expended in assisting another’.8 Despite the strong opposition, Governor Clementi pushed through the policy as he decided not only to accommodate Malay interests, but he was also short of funds to pursue an extensive programme to help Malay padi cultivators.


The depression years marked a bleak period in the country’s economic history and highlighted the hardships that the various communities had to endure, but by 1935 the economic slump had lifted and ethnic tensions gradually diminished. The tensions did not lead to any outbreak of inter-ethnic violence and bloodshed, but they revealed fully how British policies came into play for each of the respective communities.

The British adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards non-Malays as they felt that they had no responsibilities towards their welfare. This very materialistic view was based on the assumption that immigrant labour chose to come into the country of their own free will and should be prepared to look after themselves when economic disaster struck. No unemployment relief or measures were introduced to accommodate the unemployed or displaced immigration workers except to provide them with free repatriation. Some 50,000 Chinese market gardeners were allowed lands with temporary occupation licences to plant food, but for a limited period only. Even in the case of the domiciled Chinese and others who were British subjects, the British attitude was one of indifference.

On the other hand, their ‘pro-Malay’ policies, such as decentralization, Malay lands reservations and padi cultivation, reflected the limited trusteeship roles the British were prepared to discharge towards the Malays. These worked against the best interests of the non-Malays, especially the Chinese, who were now able to see a policy of favoritisms, and the arguments the British used to defend the ‘pro-Malay policies??? clearly showed bias and discrimination, causing resentment and hostility to build up.

The demands of a rising Malay nationalism were evident as not only Malay rulers, but also the Malay press and voluntary associations began pressing the British administration to do more to improve the Malays’ welfare and economic position and to grant them greater participation in administration and government.

The Chinese position was particularly acute, as repressive measures had been taken against Chinese communist and nationalist elements, followed by a tightening up of British control, censorship and supervision, resulting in several thousands being banished back to china. These raised the anxieties of domiciled Chinese who wished to escape from this fate.

They and those who were British subjects continued to be alarmed by the implications of the decentralization programme and continued British attacks on Chinese political and economic ambitions from which the British claimed the Malays needed protection. Domiciled Chinese saw the decentralization programme as a further discrimination towards non-Malays especially their exclusion from the administrative services.

In his major study of the colonial economy, Lim argues that the British administration’s economic ‘pro-Malay’ policies – especially on land reservations, padi cultivation and protection of Malay rubber smallholders – did not go far enough to assist the Malays.9 The British attempted to shield the Malays from the dynamic sectors of the modern economy, and did not involve them in commercial and industrial projects or provide them with sufficient capital, loans and assistance, even in the field of rural agriculture.

They segregated the Malays from other communities instead of encouraging their fuller integration into a modern society. Lim concludes, “Furthermore, the colonial government, by its cynical use of Chinese interests to divert attention from its own shortcomings and as a scapegoat to explain the economic impoverishment of the Malays, was guilty of contributing to racial polarization and discord.???10

In a similar vein, Abraham’s The Roots of Race Relations in Malaya views the ‘pro-Malay’ policies of the 1930s as having “distinct racial overtones because they discriminated against the Chinese and Indians as races??? and led to group formations along lines of racial identity and racial consciousness between groups. 11

As a contemporary observer, Rupert Emerson was one of the strongest critics of British policies during the economic depression, viewing them as excellent opportunities for the application of the maxim of “divide and rule???.12 He argued that such policies were bound to come into play so long as the British administrators were not prepared to adopt policies of racial integration and political programmes for the subject peoples to move towards self-government.

Given the structure of colonial society being divided between two groups of masters and subject peoples, the exploitative nature of colonial rule, its denial of freedom, and its maintenance of white prestige and profits, it is not surprising that the British administration in Malaya had adopted such lopsided policies during the economic depression which resulted in racial polarisation.

In view of its treaty obligations, which formed the basis of its rule in Malaya, it could not ignore the demands of a rising Malay nationalism, as it feared that Malay opposition would increase further; and consequently, it attempted in a limited way to accommodate some of their demands.

It saw no necessity to balance the social, economic and political interests of the various communities equitably in the interests of all, but instead attempted to pander and appease Malay nationalism, which it considered as the ultimate threat to its continued presence in Malaya. The colonial structure of its government militated against it adopting racial integration and allowing the other races equal rights to participate in administration and government. For them to do otherwise, as Emerson rightly pointed out, would have meant that colonial administrators were working “toward their speedy supercession???.13

Part 1 on the British’s anti-Chinese policies appeared yesterday.

Dr Cheah Boon Kheng 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.

Abraham, Collin. The Roots of Race Relations in Malaya. Insan, Kuala Lumpur, 1997.
Butcher, John. The British in Malaya, 1880-1941. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1979.
Emerson, Rupert. Malaysia, University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur, (reprint), 1970.
Furnivall, J.S. Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1939.
Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1948.
Lim Teck Ghee. Peasants and Their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya., 1874-
1941. Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1977.
Marger, Martin N., Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives.
Thomson-Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 2003.
Purcell, Victor. The Chinese in Malaya. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur,
(reprint), 1975.
Roff, W.R., The Origins of Malay Nationalism. University of Malaya Press, Kuala
Lumpur, 1967.
Smith, Anthony. The Ethnic Revival. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981.
Stavenhagen, Rodolpho. The Ethnic Question: Conflicts, Development and Human
Rights. United Nations University, Tokyo, 1990.



[1] Emerson, p.320.

[2] Emerson, p.322.

[3] Emerson, p.322.

[4] Roff, p.209.

[5] Lim, Peasants and Their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya, p.206.

[6] Lim, pp. 187-188.

[7] Lim, p.188.

[8] Lim, p.189.

[9] Lim, 216.

[10] Lim, p.216.

[11] Collin Abraham, The Roots of Race Relations in Malaya, Insan, Kuala Lumpur, 1997, pp.250, 192.

[12] Emerson, p.510.

[13] Emerson, p.493.