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Negotiating a new nation

National History - Negotiating a New Nation

Malayan Union

After the war, it was decided that Britain should resume control of Malaya but that preparations would be made for self-government. Plans for a unified British Malaya were made under the 1944 British government, which adopted a scheme to incorporate the separate administrations of the Federated and Unfederated Malay states, Penang and Melaka into an independent Malayan Union, in which citizenship would include non-Malays. This move was prompted by Britain’s position as a signatory to the Atlantic Charter which had laid down the right of nations to self-determination. Furthermore, de-colonization was a principal tenet of American foreign policy and Britain’s self-interest argued against arousing criticism from its powerful ally.

The Malayan Union proposal excluded Singapore because of its value to the British as a free port and as a naval base for its own strategic operations in the Far East.

The Borneo territories of Labuan, North Borneo and Sarawak were also excluded from the union, being made instead Crown Colonies in 1946. However, the proposed arrangements were met with opposition in Sarawak, where certain members of the Brooke family and Malay officials railed against the transfer of power. Although an orchestrated vote in the Council Negeri narrowly approved cession of Sarawak to the British Crown, opposition never completely subsided and in 1949, the British governor was assassinated by members of the Malay Youth movement who were against Sarawak’s inclusion in the new British Borneo. In light of such opposition, it was decided that the Malay Union would be confined only to the Malay Peninsula.

In order to make way for the new Malayan policy, the sultans, who had legally remained sovereign rulers over their respective states, were made to sign treaty arrangements that would change their constitutional status. Through negotiations with Sir Harold MacMichael, every sultan or regent was made to surrender their powers to the British Crown in a remarkably short period of time. The reasons for their agreement, despite the loss of political power that it entailed for the Malay rulers, has been much debated; the consensus appears to be that the main reasons were that as the Malay rulers were of course resident during the Japanese occupation, they were open to the accusation of collaboration, and that they were threatened with dethronement. Hence approval was given, though it was with utmost reluctance.

Manifesto of the Plan

According to the White Paper produced by the British government, the Union would create a unitary state comprising the Federated and Unfederated Malay states, Penang and Melaka. The Malay sultans were to retain their positions but sovereignty would be transferred to the British Crown and their political status was greatly reduced by the appointing of British residents as head of State Councils. Jurisdiction of the Union was placed in the hands of a British Governor, signaling the formal inauguration of British colonial rule in the Malay peninsula. Moreover, even though State Councils were still kept functioning in the former Federated Malay States, their administration was limited to the localities, acting as a mere extension of the Federal government in Kuala Lumpur.

Finally, Malayan citizenship was to be extended to all regardless of race or creed and all citizens would have equal rights, including admission to the administrative civil service. Citizenship was automatically granted to people who were born in any state in British Malaya or Singapore and were living there before 15 February 1942, born outside British Malaya or the Straits Settlements only if their fathers were citizens of the Malayan Union and those who reached 18 years old and who had lived in British Malaya or Singapore "10 out of 15 years before 15 February 1942". Moreover, the applicant had to live in Singapore or British Malaya "for 5 out of 8 years preceding the application", had to be of good character, understand and speak the English or  Malay language and "had to take an oath of allegiance to the Malayan Union".

On April 1, 1946 the Malayan Union officially came into existence with Sir Edward Gent  as its governor. The capital of the Union was  Kuala Lumpur.

Opposition to the Union

The British were unexpectedly confronted by vehement Malay opposition, which stemmed from the methods Sir Harold MacMichael used to acquire the Sultans' approval, the reduction of the Sultans' powers, and the granting of citizenship to non-Malay immigrants and their descendants-especially the ethnic Chinese, not only because of their racial and religious difference but also because their economic dominance was seen as a threat to the Malays. Under the leadership of the chief minister of Johor, Datuk Onn bin Jaafar (1895-1962), a new force had emerged to channel and articulate Malay opinion. In March 1946, an All-Malaya Congress was convened in Kuala Lumpure. Comprising 41 Malay associations (including the PKMM) and some 200 delegates, it adopted a resolution to form a new organization which would help galvanize nationwide Malay opposition to the Malayan Union.

Following on its heels, the pioneer Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu (UMNO) was established, in which Malays were brought together in a political movement which was supported by virtually all the key components of Malay society, from aristocrats and civil servants to radicals and Islamic leaders. The Congress, presided over by Datuk Onn, declared the MacMichael treaties to be invalid and demanded the repeal of the Malayan Union.

Meanwhile, the Chinese and Indian communities were also forming their own stance against the Union. The Malayan Indian Congress, formed in 1946, initially supported the Malay position but eventually broke away to join other parties advocating non-Malay political rights as it was excluded from UMNO-British talks. The Chinese were apprehensive that they would lose their Chinese nationality should they take on Malayan citizenship. Overall, all left-wing groups were critical of the proposal as it made no concrete arrangements for an elected government.

In the face of such determined opposition, the British finally revoked the Malayan Union in 1948.

The Federation of Malaya: an Alternative Union

The proposal for an alternative federation of Malaya was raised in a series of meetings between the Malay rulers, British officials and UMNO leaders. The outcome of these discussions was the formation of a Federation that promised to uphold the sovereignty of the sultans, the individuality of the states and Malay special privileges. A central government was established with legislative powers, although states received jurisdiction over a number of important fields. Citizenship was more restrictive, requiring a residence for at least 15 of the previous 25 years, a declaration of permanent settlement, and a certain competence in Malay or English. A high commissioner was appointed, as a symbolic gesture that authority derived from the Malay sultans rather than the British Crown.

Federation of Malaya Population
















Source: Annual Report on the Federation of Malaya: 1951 in C.C. Chin and Karl Hack,  Dialogues with Chin Peng pp. 380, 81.

Though the Federation was widely regarded as a victory for the conservative Malay opinion, it was greeted with dismay by other ethnic groups, especially the Chinese, among whom less than 10% would qualify for automatic citizenship. Significantly, a Malay minority was also disappointed at the non-realignment of the restrictive social order.

In December 1946, a Pan-Malayan (subsequently All-Malay) Council of Joint Action (AMCJA), led by the Malayan Democratic Union and other MCP-affiliated groups was established. Two months later, AMCJA entered into an alliance with left-wing Malay nationalist group Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (PUTERA). Chaired by the Straits Chinese Leader, Tun Tan Cheng Lock, whose advocacy of Chinese interests had since broadened to a concern for improved inter-ethnic relations, the two parties submitted a ‘People’s Constitution’ in March 1947 which attempted to meet the principal concerns of all ethnic races.

The partnership was ultimately short-lived due to cultural tensions and ended with the declaration of the Federation. MCP dialogue with left-wing Malay nationalists had nonetheless aroused concern among UMNO leaders and from that point onwards, opponents of government policy faced formidable obstacles as authorities were empowered to call on a battery of legal and political ammunition to quash any activities considered ‘seditious’. The new Federation, which underscored the exclusiveness of the Malay status, left many Chinese with a sense of betrayal and many saw their only hope for a just society in the promises of the MCP. The apparent political and demographic settlement provided by the Federation was soon to be subject to another challenge.



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