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Roots of a nation

Millennium markers - British colony

Japanese surrender ceremony at Penang Malaya 8.1945

IT WAS 1945 and World War II had just ended. Ahead lay the daunting task of rebuilding not just Malaya's economy but also the very structure of her society.

The British had to re-establish their credibility in the eyes of the locals after their tanks-and-trucks army lost the war in Malaya to bicycle-riding Japanese troops. They had to restore the economy. Most importantly, they had to prevent the people from taking the "bloody revolution path" towards independence like the Indonesians and Vietnamese.

It wasn't an easy task to craft a political, social and economic compromise in such a diabolical situation. And then came the complications of the Cold War caused by tension between democratic nations of the West and the growing influence of communism.

All these difficulties, however, did not distract the British. They kept firmly in mind the crystal clear objective of staying on in Malaya - at any cost. For Malaya was indeed the "jewel in the crown", financially and economically the proverbial milk cow among Britain's many colonies around the globe.

The task for the British then was how to manage the complex situation in the country, to institute damage control. It was a tall order because the situation was delicate and the future uncertain.

What the British did was to take the modernisation path, one that was closely related to American expansionist interest that came with the Cold War, especially after the signing of the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 that shaped the world's financial system for more than 50 years after (by setting fixed exchange rates for major currencies and, subsequently, establishing the International Monetary Fund).

Modernisation then simply meant developing a nation economically, politically and socially into a clone of developed nations, such as the United States or countries in Western Europe at the time.

The modernisation project for this country specifically was motivated by two important agendas: to develop Malaya economically and to create a united Malayan nation through national integration.

The underlying philosophy of this modernisation project was homogenisation through entrepreneurship and social justice.

This was to be realised through planned change framed within the Bretton Woods Agreement, with the direct involvement of the World Bank and the IMF; these were all ideas inspired by the Marshall Plan, the aid programme suggested by US Secretary of State George C. Marshall in 1947 to reconstruct Europe and Japan after WW II.

The three central elements of the modernisation project inaugurated by the British were security, ethnic bargain and development planning meant to sustain peace and harmony in plural Malaya - which was surrounded then by a ring of "revolutionary fire" in the region, as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam struggled for their independence.

Securing the country

Malaya 1941-1945

Security was of primary importance in this unstable period. In Malaya, there was racial strife, labour unrest and insurgency. A number of draconian regulations were introduced to maintain law and order - and, hence, peace and stability - such as the Internal Security Act and the introduction of a PIN system that created the "identity card".

The whole security effort and paraphernalia were built around and anchored in the State of Emergency that was declared by the British in 1948 to battle communist insurgency; it ended in 1960. It is significant to note that Malaya achieved independence during the Emergency, that is, in 1957.

Also of significance is the fact that it was the police force (uniformed and non-uniformed) rather than the military that was the central instrument in the overall security strategy.

Striking bargains

The ethnic bargain was critical in maintaining some measure of socio-political stability within Malaya's multi-ethnic society. This was conducted mainly through a modern electoral process using an umbrella-like ethnic coalition model.

The genesis of the coalition concept, hence the ethnic bargain process, was in the formation of the Communities Liaison Committee in 1948. Created by Malcolm MacDonald, the British Malaya Commissioner General, the committee was supposed to solve inter-ethnic conflict in the face of the Malayan Communist Party insurrection.

The committee was essentially an elite coalition involving top leaders of the Malays (eg, Datuk Onn Jaafar), the Chinese (Tan Cheng Lock) and the Indians (E.E.C. Thuraisingam).

The major issues deliberated included citizenship for immigrant communities, Malay economic problems and their special rights, the secession attempt by Penang in February 1949, and the reorganisation of the education system.

The committee members came to a consensus on some issues and agreed to disagree on others. Eventually, with the backing and encouragement of the colonial government, the leaders formed a political team: the Umno-MCA Alliance party, which later was joined by MIC.

The Alliance, later known as the National Front or Barisan Nasional, has been ruling the country since 1955. This coalition model has also been adopted by opposition political parties, such as the Socialist Front, which was a combination of the non-Malay dominated Labour Party and the Malay-dominated Socialist Party, in the 1960s.

Various loosely organised political party coalitions emerged in the 1980s, such as APU (Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah). The recent formation of the Alternative Front, or Barisan Alternatif, has its historical roots in the ethnic bargain, too.

Planning change

Development planning, a kind of planned change or social engineering strategy not unlike the Marshall Plan, was introduced by the British mainly for the purpose of economic reconstruction and management of war-torn Malaya. They began with the Draft Development Plan 1950-55.

Since then, development planning, implemented through a series of five-year plans, has become a permanent feature in Malaysia's attempt to achieve economic development and to create a viable nation. There have been nine five-year plans since 1955.

The effort to create each of the five-year plans has become an important platform for "economic bargaining" among the different ethnic groups for the allocation of resources.

Major projects outlined in the plans were financed by the World Bank and the IMF as well as funds borrowed from other sources.

Trinity that built a nation

It has been the successful combination of the three elements mentioned above that has helped Malaysia tremendously to achieve what it has thus far in its push for modernisation and nation building.

For instance, the War Council, established during the Emergency period as part of the institutional security structure, became the National Operations Council. It is now the administrative backbone of the development planning effort, especially with the setting up of the Ministry of Rural Development in 1959.

Malaysians now know all too well how powers used during the Emergency have become the all-important, iron security grid that the government would like to claim is responsible for saving Malaysia every time the nation stood on the brink of disaster, such as during the May 13 incident in 1969 when racial riots broke out. Even during peaceful times, Emergency powers are used to contain criminal and other activities considered as threats to "national security".

It could be argued that the much-talked about but rarely defined "Malaysian mould" has been shaped by the three elements of security, the ethnic bargain and development planning.

Almost every single event that has taken place in the social life of Malaysians, as a social collective, whether domestically-initiated or externally-generated, would involve or invoke one or all of these elements.

Not that the presence of the three elements guarantee a problem-free Malaysia. There has always been, and there still is, a long list of problems we have to cope with, both conceptually and empirically.

If a new generation is to deal with these problems, they need to know the roots of the system that has steered Malaysia to its current position.

Prof Shamsul A.B. is professor of Social Anthropology and director, Institute of the Malay World and Civilization, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He writes, researches and lectures on "politics, culture and economic development" in developing countries, with an empirical focus on Malaysia and South-East Asia.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.

Notes: STF - : The post-Merdeka generation that is currently enjoying the fruits of Malaysia's success at nationroots of the country's achievements. In this pre-Merdeka issue of Millennium Markers, SHAMSUL A.B. looks back at the 'decisive' decade of 1945 and 1955 when many of the structul and institutional features of present-day Malaysia were put in place.

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