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Path to independence

Millennium markers - Road to Independence

MALAYSIANS go to parliamentary polls today, the 10th after Independence and the last for the millennium. It was in 1959 when election for the first fully elected parliament was held.

First Parliamentary Meeting at Tunku Abdul Rahman Hall on September 11, 1959

But, in fact, there were earlier elections, and each of these can lay claim to marking the start of the electoral process in this country. Three of these earlier ones are especially worth noting: the elections for the Penang Municipality in December 1951, the Kuala Lumpur Municipality in February 1952, and the Federal Legislative Council in 1955.

Past elections, whether local or parliamentary, are all significant as markers of Malaysia's political history. The early elections and the circumstances surrounding them had impact on the course and character of Malaysian politics. This being so, it may be instructive to re-visit the first election. But deciding which of the early polls was the first may not be that easy.

Elections first became a possibility during post-World War II discussions on constitutional change in Malaya. It was accepted in London that there should be some moves towards eventual self-government in Malaya. Proceeding from this the British set up the Malayan Union in 1946 to replace the pre-war administrative units (Straits Settlements, Federated Malay States, and Unfederated Malay States) in the Malay Peninsula.

But the Malayan Union provoked strong opposition from the Malays who saw it as threatening their special rights as well as undermining the position of the sultans. This reaction led to the formation of Umno, and Datuk Onn Jaafar, one of the oranisation's founders, led the campaign against the Union scheme.

The British were eventually forced to hold discussions with Umno and the Malay rulers, and in 1948 the Malayan Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya arrangement.

Within the Federation agreement there was provision for "the means and prospects of development in the direction of ultimate self-government." It was proposed that election to local councils take place as soon as possible.

However, in June 1948, just four months after the inauguration of the Federation, a State of Emergency was declared nationwide following Malayan Communist Party-inspired disturbances. Several political organisations with suspected Communist links were either disbanded voluntarily or banned. The Emergency appeared at first to be a setback for those who had hoped for speedy constitutional change and meaningful participation in government.

But the British soon realised that, despite increasing military success in containing the Communists, backing from the people was still needed to win the war. To gain such support, the British agreed to hasten moves towards self-government and, consequently, the first local elections were planned.

Penang was where the country's first ever election was held. In the contest on Dec 1, 1951, the non-communal Radical Party won six of the nine Municipal seats. Umno and the Penang Labour Party were the other participating parties. The results had little consequence on subsequent politics and few today remember the Penang election.

It was the subsequent Kuala Lumpur Municipal election that really mattered and that is described by scholars as a major marker in Malaysian political history. For it was in this election, on Feb 14, 1952, that two national political forces confronted each other for the first time.

Leading one of these was Onn and his non-communal IMP (Independence of Malaya Party). Onn had left Umno to form IMP when his efforts to open Umno membership to non-Malays failed.

Opposing the IMP was an alliance of two communal parties--Umno and MCA. To defeat Onn, whose IMP was expected to win the mostly non-Malay constituencies, Tengku Abdul Rahman, Umno's new leader, agreed to an electoral partnership with MCA, then headed by Tan Cheng Lock, to gain Chinese support.

The election in KL, thus, became a contest between two emerging formats of inter-ethnic political cooperation and the outcome was to eventually determine which one would dominate Malaysian politics in the decades to come.

In the end, the Alliance defeated the IMP by winning nine of the 12 seats contested. The IMP was replaced by the Party Negara but Onn, who now led the new party, never regained the high standing he once held.

The KL results encouraged Umno and MCA to consolidate their alliance format of inter-communal cooperation. The election showed that no single ethnic group could win or dominate politics in Malaysia and that inter-ethnic cooperation was essential.

Soon afterwards, the British formed an election committee to plan the holding of elections for half of the seats in the Federal Legislative Council (the other half to be nominated). But the Alliance, as the Umno-MCA coalition came to be known, wanted a larger number of the seats to be elected. A crisis was averted when the British agreed that the party with the best results would be consulted before the appointment of nominated members.

A total of eight party symbols were registered for this first nationwide election held on July 27, 1955. Seven parties put up candidates. The Alliance fielded candidates in all 52 seats. Party Negara, still led by Onn, was the next largest contestant. The other important parties were the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (formed by the breakaway religious wing of Umno, and now known as PAS), the Labour Party, the Perak Malay League, Perak Progressive Party, and the National Association of Perak.

In the 1955 election, there were just over 1.3 million registered voters. This is about the same size as Selangor's 1999 electorate. Of the registered voters, 84.2% were Malays, 11.2% were Chinese and the balance of 4.6% were mainly Indians. In only two constituencies (George Town and Ipoh) did Malays form less than 50% of the electorate.

Interestingly, among the Malays there were nearly as many female as male voters while among the Chinese, male electors outnumbered female electors by about two to one. Among the Indians, male electors outnumbered female by about four to one.

Although Malays made up more than 80% of voters, Umno agreed to allow MCA to contest 12 of the 52 seats. There were strong objections from within Umno but Tengku Abdul Rahman threatened to resign if MCA were not allowed to contest those seats.

Campaigning on the platform of early independence for Malaya, the Alliance won 51 of the 52 seats and gathered more than 80% of popular votes. Such a margin of victory was never to be repeated. The PMIP won in the rice-producing Krian area in Perak where the electorate was predominantly Malay.

The outcome was significant because it convinced London that the Alliance, gaining majority support, had the mandate to negotiate for independence. More important, the winning coalition was taken as evidence of inter-ethnic cooperation, a condition for the granting of independence.

Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra with his first Cabinet after Independence. Seated from left to right : Abdul Aziz Ishak, V.T. Sambanthan, Dato’ Abdul Razak Hussein, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, H.S. Lee, Sulaiman Dato’ Abdul Rahman and Sardon Hj. Zubir. Standing from left to right: Ong Yoke Lin, Abdul Rahman Talib, Mohamed Khir Johari, Tan Siew Sin, and Bahaman Shamsuddin (Source: Arkib Negara Malaysia)

The experience of having jointly fought two elections drew the leadership of Umno and MCA (and later, MIC) closer and created a degree of trust and comradeship. It was this that held the Alliance together during difficult negotiations on constitutional matters.

At critical junctures during the independence talks in London and KL, the leaders relied on this newfound friendship to resolve some of the most difficult questions. The consensus arrived at on most issues formed the basis of the present multi-ethnic society of Malaysia.

The polls for the KL Municipal and the Federal Legislative Council underline the significance of elections as major historical markers. Both were introduced as steps towards constitutional change, and the results certainly speeded progress towards self-government and eventual independence. Equally influential, though less intended, they came to define the parameters and nature of subsequent inter-ethnic political alliances.

The electoral system in Malaysia, based on the British single-member constituencies, has encouraged inter-ethnic coalitions and cooperation and, because inter-ethnic support is needed to win power, has somewhat contained ethnic extremism.

There have been changes to the electoral process, and some of these have become issues of continuing debates; but competitive election, nevertheless, is accepted by all as the foundation of the Malaysian political system.

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.

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