samedi 12 avril 2008


In writing this book I have turned to a number of colleagues for advice
and assistance. They have been generous with their time and knowledge in suggesting references and checking details. Particular thanks
are due to Professor Geoffrey Benjamin, Professor Peter Bellwood,
Dr John Funston, Dr David Bulbeck and Professor Clive Kessler.
I alone bear responsibility for the narrative in the text.
Other colleagues have contributed a great deal and I extend
warm thanks to each of the following: Diana Carroll, Hugh Hickling,
M.B. Hooker, Deborah Johnson, Amrita Malhi and Anthony Milner.
The Malaysian High Commission in Canberra supplied recent data
and statistics, the National Archives of Malaysia allowed me to
consult their photographic collection and the staff of the National
Library of Australia and of the Menzies Library, the Australian
National University were most helpful. Rebecca Kaiser and Claire
Murdoch of Allen & Unwin were exemplary publishing colleagues
with whom it was indeed a pleasure to work.
Some financial support towards realisation of this project was
provided by the Australian Research Council’s Small Grants Scheme
(1999) and by the Faculty of Asian Studies, the Australian National
University. Their contribution is gratefully acknowledged.
It remains to extend my special appreciation to the Series Editor,
Milton Osborne, and John Iremonger, whose informed and intelligent
comments shaped the book’s final form.
As a modern nation state, Malaysia is not very old, but some of the
oldest known human remains and artefacts have been found within its
present borders. It is a multiracial federation formed without revolution and, although its territory is divided by the South China Sea
and organised into 13 states and two federal territories, it has remained
intact and weathered the economic upheavals of the late 20th century
better than many of its neighbours. Among its successes may be
counted the construction of a national history developed by successive governments to teach Malysian citizens and others about the formation of their modern nation state.
This book acknowledges the official version but it includes
other histories as well. Each of Malaysia’s constituent states has its
own rich local traditions and celebrates individuals who have influenced the course of events in their own time and place. The national
history and the local histories together are crucial for an understanding of the nature of modern Malaysia. A short history is necessarily
selective and this one has the perspective of hindsight (knowing the
outcome of critical events) and emphasises the contribution a variety
of individuals have made to their societies and peoples. In this way it
is hoped to give the general reader a real taste of the flavour of the Malaysian experience.
A ‘short’ history might suggest that it is possible to present a
survey of events from 40 000 BCE to the early 21st century as a compact
and neat package. To do so would be misleading because history is never
neat and the federation which is now known as Malaysia was, until
1963, a fluid and bureaucratically untidy conglomeration of disparate
and very varied parts. This book does not pretend Malaysia’s past was
neat but tries to describe the essential characteristics of its component
parts and the experiences which have produced its present shape.
Experts will note how much detail has had to be omitted. Selection has
been the most challenging task in writing this book. Hopefully the
bibliographic essay on page 299 will encourage and stimulate readers to
go on to more detailed and specialised works, of which there are now, thankfully, many.
Some of the complexity of Malaysia’s past is reflected in the
various changes of name which, like its neighbour Indonesia, it has
borne. In this account, the phrase ‘the Malaysian territories’ is used to
refer to Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore, the Riau islands and the Malay Peninsula before 1965. Thereafter, the practice followed by the Malaysian government since 1971 will apply; that is, peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.
Note to readers
Readers may find the Time chart helpful to establish the dates of ‘significant moments’ in Malaysia’s past.
The skeleton of the time chart is fleshed out by the Fact file, which is organised alphabetically by subject or event (Independence,
political parties, currency, etc) followed by a brief factual description.
It is here that one would look for details of Malaysia’s constituent
states or the date of the National Day, for example. Translations of
Malay words are contained in the Glossary. Acronyms and abbreviations have a separate listing under Abbreviations.
A series of maps, ranging over time as well as space, gives a
graphic impression of locations as well as indicating how outsiders
perceived the seas and coasts of the region. They also show vividly
that the mapping of the interior and inland regions was slow, gradual,
inaccurate and, until last century, incomplete. For this reason, it was
only relatively recently that Europeans gained a composite picture of
the complexity of the terrain and interior of the Peninsula and Borneo.
A short history is not a work of new research but draws on existing,
published material. The full bibliography at the end of the book
includes all works consulted during the preparation of the history.
Notes for each chapter at the end of the book indicate the sources of direct quotations. A bibliographic essay lists the main sources for individual chapters and suggests some futher reading for those wishing to follow up particular areas or topics. Many primary sources (Malay manuscripts, official colonial records, travellers’ accounts, court records,
Malaysian government records, memoirs of Malaysians and non-Malaysians) have been either published or integrated into published
analyses and translated into English, and so are available to non-Malay
speakers. Malaysians themselves have been actively writing about their
past since the days of the Melaka sultanate (15th and 16th centuries CE)
and wherever possible I have drawn on those invaluable resources.
It is easy to overlook the fact that not all records about the past
are in the form of ‘official’ documents. Evidence comes also from
archaeology, reconstructing older forms of languages to try and establish
core vocabularies to learn what they reveal about lifestyles, anthropology and so on. Each of these sources has something to contribute to
the picture of Malaysia’s past. And there are further sources which have
not yet been fully exploited. All cultures in the Malaysian territories are
rich in oral traditions. Customs, laws, wise sayings, prayers, agricultural
practices, forest lore, navigational methods and guides, origin stories
and cautionary tales used to be an integral part of daily life. Only a fraction of this material has been recorded and published. One of the
casualties of modernity is the loss of communal memory and individual
knowledge of oral traditions. Some attempts, both within and outside
Malaysia, are being made to preserve this specialist knowledge. Much of
it is recognised as ‘scientifically’ accurate, but a great deal has already been lost. The renewed interest by young Malaysians in their heritage provides hope for the future.

History is the root of nationalism. Guide to the Museums of Melaka1
Malaysia has a new image. The sleepy tropical backwater stereotyped in
the novels of Anthony Burgess and Somerset Maugham’s short stories
has been superseded by Malaysia the high-tech urbanised regional
powerbroker. The world began to notice when, in September 1998,
Malaysia hosted the XVI Commonwealth Games, the first Asian
country to do so. The government of Malaysia used the event to focus
international attention on the small nation and chose carefully the
image it wished to project to the world. In the decade leading up to
the Games, Malaysia had experienced boom conditions and its prime
minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had propelled the nation into the
forefront of technological development by completing the tallest buildings in the world (the 451.9-metre Petronas Twin Towers in the federal
capital, Kuala Lumpur), initiating a Multimedia Super Corridor, a
futuristic satellite capital, a state of the art international airport and a
Light Rail Transit (LRT) system designed to alleviate traffic congestion
on the new super highways and toll roads built during the 1980s. In the
midst of this technological upgrading, the government was also attending to the presentation of the past and a new-look Museum of National
History was opened in time for the Games.
It is important to note that this new museum was part of the
Games build-up because it is an indication of the importance the government attaches to the role of history in its depiction of Malaysia as an
Asian nation which is modern and technologically advanced. The
purpose of this public presentation of history is to emphasise the glorious achievements of the past in order to inspire today’s Malaysians to
re-establish that glory in the present. Significantly, the Museum of National History is located in an old colonial building at the northern end of Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), in the heart of Kuala Lumpur and near the site of the Declaration of Independence in 1957, to emphasise its central role in national culture.
In its presentation of history in the museum, the Malaysian government wants to reach as many people as possible—its own citizens as well as visitors—so captions are in both English and Malay.
The selection of the events and people of the past for inclusion in the
museum and the subtle emphasis given to some periods is revealing
about the kind of history the government wants to promote. It is this
version of the nation’s past which shapes school curricula, tourist
brochures and postcards and is evident also in the choice of street
names, buildings and public monuments. This is the ‘official’ version
of Malaysian history and it provides the framework for the way most
Malaysians understand their own history. For that reason this book
begins with a summary of the main points in the display of the
Museum of National History to try and understand the view of the
past that Malaysians themselves learn. But there is one important
issue which is not addressed in the official version of history in the museum—the idea of change. We might ask, for example, how were diverse populations of specialised traders, rice-growing peasants and fisher-people, experienced entrepreneurs and the aristocratic members of extended royal courts persuaded to give their allegiance to a new over-arching entity called ‘Malaysia’? Why were the present political boundaries established when there are a number of alternative possibilities? Another interesting question is why Islam is so influential in contemporary Malaysian politics when it is the religion
of little more than half the population (unlike Indonesia, where it is
clearly the predominant religion). Although these questions are not
answered by the ‘official’ version of history they will be addressed in this short history.
The official version
For the purposes of its national history, the government has defined
Malaysia as the territory occupied by its modern component states;
that is, the Peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak, with Singapore being
included in events which occurred before 1965. ‘History’ in the
Museum of National History, is interpreted as any event, person, or
artefact which provides evidence of Malay or Malaysian achievement
and ‘progress’. For the period of British government, the museum
focuses on individuals or movements which resisted this colonial ‘intrusion’ into Malaya.
The ground floor of the museum is devoted to the pre-history of
the territories of modern Malaysia. Exhibits begin with the ‘Natural
Environment and Prehistoric Era’ which show the geological formation of the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak to emphasise that the
territory now called Malaysia is one of great antiquity. There are displays also of human bones from the Niah caves near Kuching in
Sarawak, stone tools from Kota Tampan in Perak and Tingkayu in
Sabah, whose dates range from 38 000 to 18 000 years ago. They
provide evidence for human occupation of the Malaysian territories
during the Palaeolithic period (see map 1, page xv).
The Neolithic period (2800 to 500 BCE) is represented in the
museum by exhibits of pottery and stone objects from both the Peninsula and Borneo. At that time earthenware vessels were used for food
and drink and also as burial items in graves. Relatively few iron and
bronze artefacts have been found in Malaysia but most have been
linked with the most famous Bronze Age culture in Southeast Asia,
known as the ‘Dongson’. Named after a site in North Vietnam, the
culture flourished around 500 to 300 BCE and produced intricately
ornate bronze objects, including large drums, produced by the ‘lost
wax’ method of casting. The museum has five of these drums on
display, some dating back to the second century BCE, to indicate that
the territories of Malaysia participated in this highly regarded and advanced metal-age culture.
Evidence of contact between Malaysia and centres of other major
world civilisations is provided by the next set of displays which use first
century Chinese sources to show that during that period there were
settlements in the Bujang Valley (Kedah) and in Santubong (Sarawak)
(see map 2, page xvi). Captions inform visitors that trade relations
existed also between Malaysia and India and that the traders were
Chinese, Indians and Arabs. There is also a special section devoted
to ‘Megalithic Culture’ which refers to locations of megaliths (giant
carved stones) in the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak. Visitors are told
that although these sites seem to have been contemporary with the
early settlements in the Bujang Valley where Hindu–Buddhist temples
have been found, the people associated with the megaliths must have
practised a different religion. The display notes: ‘The situation shows
the existence of a diversity of concurrent ways of life in Malaysia’—a
theme the Malaysian government emphasises continually in its domestic policies.
The Hindu–Buddhist period is represented by models of the 7th
or 8th century temple-remains in the Bujang Valley. The captions
stress that the area was a centre for international trade and shipping
passing through the Straits of Melaka. Considerable attention is
devoted to the next phase of history which is called ‘Srivijayan
Culture’ from the name of a Sumatran-based maritime kingdom active
between the 7th and 12th centuries. Srivijaya had close links with
both China and India and was a centre of Buddhist learning. Captions
note that the temple-remains in Kedah resemble structures and objects
found in Sumatra, southern Siam and Sarawak (Santubong) which
were once under the influence of Srivijaya. This kingdom was a focus,
it is explained, for traders from Egypt, Persia and China, thus emphasising that settlements in Malaysia during this period were part of a
very wide network. It is significant to note that neither the Peninsula
nor Sarawak is said to have been ruled by Srivijaya, rather that there
are historical remains which show Srivijaya’s ‘influence’.
‘The Spread of Islam’ is the title of the next series of displays and
a map with flashing lights tracks the course of Islam through and across
the Southeast Asian region. Associated with the map is a replica of the
famous ‘Terengganu Stone’, an inscribed pillar which bears a date
equivalent to 1303 CE. The pillar’s inscription is in Malay written with
the Arabic script and describes Islam as the local religion. The Terengganu Stone is the earliest record of the presence of Islam on the
Peninsula and is cited as evidence that Malaysia has one of the oldest
links with Islam in Southeast Asia.
The arrival of Islam completes the displays on the ground floor
and the next stage of Malaysia’s history, the period of the famous 15th
century kingdom of Melaka, begins upstairs on the first floor of the
building. On the wall of the verandah which leads into the display
rooms on this floor is a massive bronze statue of the legendary Melakan
hero, the warrior Hang Tuah. Above him is the often quoted Malay
motto: ‘Malays will never vanish from the earth.’ The first display on
this second level of the museum is ‘The History of Early Melaka
1403–1511’ and there are no further references to Sabah and Sarawak
until the 20th century displays. The caption for medieval Melaka
establishes the ideological foundation for the multi-ethnic modern
Malaysian state as follows:
Through the determined efforts of its early rulers Melaka
became a dominant power and created a Malay Empire.
Melaka became an international port city and a magnet
for traders from around the world. Some of these adapted
to local conditions, settled down and served the government which thus evolved into a cosmopolitan society.
Government, power and the right to rule were the preserve of Malays . . . Foreigners in Melaka included Arabs, Gujeratis, Indians, Siamese, Chinese, Japanese, Cambodians, Persians, and Malay communities from throughout the archipelago.
The displays illustrate different aspects of the Melaka sultanate: as a
vital point for the spread of Islam, as a cultural centre (listing works of
Malay literature including the Sejarah Melayu [Malay Annals] which
were compiled there) and as a model for administration and trading
practices. The impression produced is that Melaka was the hub of political, cultural and commercial life for the whole archipelago.
The Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511 is represented by
several paintings of European armour-clad figures firing guns at Malay
warriors who are armed only with swords and spears in a contest that
is clearly unequal. Melaka’s ‘fall’ is not given the same attention as its
rise. The arrival of Europeans in the region is described by three displays entitled respectively, ‘The Portuguese Era’, ‘The Dutch Era’ and
‘The English Era’. They are concerned with the occupation of Melaka
after the defeat of the Malay sultanate in 1511 by a series of European
trading and administrative regimes and information is not very
detailed. However, the section entitled, ‘The British in the Malay
States 1786–1941’ is a more expansive examination of the colonial
presence. It is explained as follows:
In the beginning the British came merely for trade without any intention of interfering in matters of local politics or administration. However, the unstable political situation in the Malay states, the wealth of economic resources and certain socio-economic and sociopolitical changes in Europe pushed the British to interfere after all in the politics and administration of the Malay states. As a consequence in 1826 Penang, Melaka, Singapore and the Dindings were brought together as the Straits Settlements headed by a government. Administration in
Malaya began in 1874 with the Treaty of Pangkor. As a result a British Resident was appointed to help to manage the state’s administration. British interference continued to expand to Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang under the pretext of maintaining order in these states which were ultimately united under one administration of the Federal Malay States. A British Resident was appointed to administer finances and other matters with
the exception of Malay customs and the Islamic religion.
Here, the British presence is referred to as ‘interference’, yet it is also
described as being brought about by the ‘unstable’ political situation of
the Malay states. The visitor is left with the impression that if the
Malay states had been better governed by their sultans the British may not have ‘interfered’.
In a display entitled ‘The Unfederated Malay States’ one of the
consequences of British interference is depicted. This is in the form
of a diorama showing Malay leaders of the state of Perak discussing
what action they should take against the British resident J.W.W.
Birch, who ‘introduced a new administrative system which was in
conflict with the traditional Malay system of values and administration’. As a result, the caption states, he was murdered. It concludes with a note of warning: ‘This incident served as an eye-opener to the British to be more sensitive and tolerant in handling Malay affairs.’
Two final sections conclude the displays on the colonial presence.
Entitled ‘Foreign Powers in Sarawak’ and ‘Foreign Powers in Sabah’, they note briefly that the northwest coast of Borneo was ceded in perpetuity in 1876 by its nominal overlord, the Sultan of Sulu (in the Philippines) to Baron von Overbeck and Alfred Dent for an annual payment of $5000 and that Sarawak ‘was given over to James Brooke in1841’. There is no mention of the sultan of Brunei’s role in this transfer.
The third and last section of the museum begins with displays
which illustrate the growth of nationalism. Captions explain that
Malaysia lost its independence in 1511 when the Portuguese took
Melaka but that there are many examples of Malaysians who resisted
foreign authority including individuals in Sabah and Sarawak. Examples are given of people struggling against British rule from the
mid-19th century up to the late 1940s. One display in the rise of
nationalism is called ‘The Rise of Islam’. This explains that the Islamic
reform movement in the Middle East, particularly Cairo, influenced
events in Malaya through returning students who then established
journals and magazines and led campaigns in religious schools.
According to the captions, the pan-Islamic ideals of these individuals led to a more comprehensive nationalist spirit which in turn led to the formation of Malay associations in every state and prepared the way for later political action.
‘The Japanese Occupation 1942–1945’ is the theme of the next section which is described as a period of depression in economic terms but in political terms as giving many nationalist activists a new sense
of confidence. They realised that the power of the British was not
unassailable and the Japanese slogan ‘Asia for the Asians’ inspired
Malays to take the destiny of their homeland into their own hands.
Anti-Japanese action is described in one of the captions which notes
that ‘the people and nationalist fighters formed an underground movement to oppose the power of the Japanese military and to help the
Allied Forces’. The violent post-war clashes between Malays and
Chinese in some parts of the Peninsula are not mentioned.
The Malayan Union proposal (1946), promoted by the British after the war, is also described as a focus for nationalism. ‘For the first time in history,’ the caption reads, ‘the Malays rose in one movement to fight against the formation, putting aside parochial sentiments relating to individual states, districts or clans.’ The First Malay Congress, held in 1946, is described as the impetus which led to the formation of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in May of that year.
Attention then shifts to ‘The Federation of Malaya’ and ‘The
Emergency’ and continues on to the ‘Proclamation of Independence’
in 1957 which is marked by an impressive bronze bas-relief of the first
prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, shouting ‘Merdeka!’ (Independence). Next comes ‘The Formation of Malaysia—Sarawak’ and
‘The Formation of Malaysia—Sabah’ with a further display entitled
‘Confrontation’, covering the 1963–66 period of hostilities between Indonesia and Malaysia.
The post-Independence period is divided into the terms of the
four prime ministers who have governed Malaya/Malaysia since
Independence. They are named according to the characteristic features of their terms in office. Thus Tunku Abdul Rahman (1957–70)
is known as Bapak Kemerdekaan (Father of Independence), Tun
Abdul Razak (1970–76) as Bapak Pembangunan (Father of Development) and Tun Hussein Onn (1976–81) as Bapak Perpaduan (Father
of Consolidation).
It is obvious that in comparative terms the most recent period has
been given the most space. It is devoted to displaying achievements
during the term of Dr Mahathir as prime minister (beginning 1981) and
is a detailed representation of Malaysia’s progress under his leadership.
The displays are entitled ‘The Magnificent Decade: The Vision of a
Leader’ and they depict industrial and technological progress. One of
the captions reads: ‘Dr Mahathir Mohamad . . . will be remembered as
the person who cares for the nation and the people—Malaysia in an era
of political stability and rapid economic growth.’
Before leaving the Museum of National History it is useful to
summarise the main periods and themes which the displays have
been emphasising. First, although spread over a geographically fragmented area, even from prehistoric times ‘Malaysia’ is depicted as a
real entity based on evidence of a shared history and shared nationalistic activities. Second, despite its recent political formation
(1963) there is evidence of human habitation extending back 40 000
years, so that Malaysia’s history can be said to begin in the prehistoric
period. Third, both the Peninsula and the Borneo territories have
been engaged in international trade since the early centuries of the
Common Era. The focus for this trade is the Straits of Melaka where
Kedah and then the port of Melaka attracted foreign traders in large
numbers. This engagement with international trade, visitors are told,
resulted in the acceptance of diversity and the development of skills
in diplomacy. Fourth, the displays depicting the rise of nationalism
emphasise that the history of nationalism in Malaysia extends back
beyond the 20th century and has its roots in the Portuguese conquest
of Melaka which stimulated Malays to want to regain their in-
dependence. The subtle sub-text associated with this theme is that
sultans are not always reliable or capable rulers.
The need for a national history
In 1969, violent riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur, an event not recorded
in the Museum of National History. Although they have not been
given a place in the official version of national history the tensions
which led to them have shaped the government’s political, economic
and social policies to this day. A direct result of the riots was a major
program to devise a national ideology of unity. It was believed that if
the citizens of Malaysia felt they had a common past and a stake in a
better future together, then the ethnic tensions which had fuelled the
riots would be lessened. The project of the Museum of National History
was designed to give Malaysian citizens a sense of past achievements
and to inspire them to work together for a common national purpose.
A second factor influencing the depiction of national history is
the colonial experience of British rule and the emphasis on nationalism. The territory of present day Malaysia is based on colonial
boundaries so although Malaysia rules as a sovereign power, its
sovereignty is based on colonial foundations. While recognising the
colonial past, a nation wishing to emphasise its independence had
to develop its own distinctive style. To explain the 1963 inclusion
of Sabah and Sarawak in a nation-state they had previously not
been associated with, the national history displays include evidence
of ancient human habitation which show links between Borneo and the Peninsula.
The themes emphasised in the National History Museum are
carried into the education system and are reflected in the way history
is taught to Malaysian school children and university students. Their
understanding of the nation’s past is based on concepts of unity and
nationalism. Even the history matriculation examination papers
reflect this concern and questions on nationalism are always set.
A national history has its own purpose—to interpret the nation
to itself in the mould determined by the government of the day. It
must necessarily be selective and it is important to recognise this and
to look for what has not been included. We have noted already that
the official history does not include consideration of the processes of
change because its purpose is to emphasise achievements and the formation of Malaysia in its present form. This focus on the formation of
the nation state has a number of consequences for the presentation of
Malaysian history: first, it tilts the balance towards the more recent
history of the 19th and 20th centuries; second, it favours urban events
rather than developments outside major centres; and third, it emphasises the activities of Malays rather than non-Malays (although this
imbalance is being partially redressed in the most recent versions of
national history). This selectivity in the official version of history
means also that little attention has been paid to Malaysia’s original,
tribal peoples, on the Peninsula and in Borneo. They are depicted as
‘minorities’ who have made relatively insignificant contributions to
the formation of Malaysia.
To understand Malaysia’s past in a context which is more broad
than the political interests of the modern nation-state, it is necessary
to go beyond the official version and to embrace wider themes.

Great streams of history, and of peoples, had for centuries met at that spit of land at Asia’s south-eastern extremity.
Rehman Rashid1
The ‘official’ version of Malaysia’s history can be deepened and expanded through five broad themes.
These are:
• the influence of terrain, climate and environment on lifestyles and occupations
• the character of indigenous social and religious systems
• the strategic position of Malaysia
• concepts of power
• Malay political culture (traditional Malay statecraft).
These themes are ongoing features in Malaysia’s past and future.
They influence how the peoples of the region live and contribute to
the way they interact with each other. They apply equally to events at
the local as well as the national level and help explain why some features of Malaysian sociopolitical culture continue to have significance
and have been maintained. Through these themes, the tensions which
exist in Malaysian society and are expressed in events such as the 1969
riots, are exposed and seen in a broader context of social change and
local interests. In essence, the themes provide a series of reference
points which, singly or in combination, suggest the why’s and how’s of
change over time in the region now called Malaysia.
Physical features and geographic location inevitably affect the
way societies live and interact with each other. Similarly, social organisation and the concept of power are features which characterise
individual cultures and underlie their distinctive forms. The fifth
theme, Malay political culture, is included because all modern
Malaysian leaders have incorporated stories, symbols and legendary
figures into their political rhetoric and acknowledge a political system
which draws on traditional Malay statecraft.
Geography, climate and environment
At the macro or regional level, the Malaysian territories of the
Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak lie to the south and the southeast
respectively of the landmass of continental Asia. The natural divisions, formed by southward-flowing rivers, mountain ranges and seas,
shape the cultural and commercial orientations of the inhabitants in the following ways:
1. From the earliest times of human habitation the inhabitants of the northern areas of the Peninsula had contact with the peoples of what are now Burma and Thailand.
2. Those living in the southern parts of the Peninsula had contact with peoples on the nearby coasts of east Sumatra and probably west Java and west Borneo.
3. Dwellers in the coastal areas of Sabah and Sarawak were in contact with peoples in the nearby islands of what are now the southern Philippines and Sulawesi as well as with those across the South China Sea in southern Vietnam and Cambodia. The inhabitants of
Sarawak probably also had contact with settlers in areas of Sumatra.
At the macro-level then, the peoples of what is now Malaysia had a
variety of opportunities for external contact depending on their location at a given time. The significance of these contacts and cultural orientations will be discussed as part of the third major theme, the strategic position of Malaysia.
Geologically, all the Malaysian territories belong to the Sunda
shelf or Sundaland, an extension of the Asian landmass. During
periods of low sea-levels in the prehistoric period (the Pleistocene)
much of Sundaland was joined as dry land to Asia. The distinguishing feature of Sundaland is that it is geologically stable and not subject to volcanic action. Although safer for human habitation, the soils of Sundaland were not renewed with volcanic lava and therefore are not as fertile as those of the volcanically active areas of Sumatra, Java and Bali. However, what Sundaland lacked in soil fertility it made up for with rich mineral deposits—tin, gold, copper, zinc, silver and lead, iron, manganese, chromium, cobalt, molybdenum and tungsten. The extraction of these minerals, in the distant and not so distant past, has created commercial networks which have had long-term consequences for the history of Malaysia. In fact, it was the easily accessible alluvial tin in several areas of the ;west coast of the Peninsula and the gold deposits in the interior mountain ranges which enabled a highly productive interaction to occur with ‘foreign’ traders, from at least as early as 500 BCE.
The climatic features of the region are influenced by proximity to the equator. Most of the territory of modern Malaysia lies
within 5 degrees of the equator (most of Peninsula Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak but not the northern Peninsula states). The climate in this zone is termed ‘equatorial’ and is characterised by heavy, frequent rainfall all year which leaches natural nutrients from the soil resulting in conditions of low fertility. As if to compensate, much of the zone is rich in tin and aluminium. There is no strong differentiation between wet and dry seasons. These conditions are perfect for dense rainforest formation but are not good for intensive rice agriculture.
The northern areas of the Peninsula lie in the so-called
‘intertropical’ zone which has a clearly differentiated wet and dry
season, with most rain falling between November and January. In the
intertropical zone, the soils are less leached than those in the equatorial zone and, equally importantly, the dry period allows grain crops to
ripen. In neither zone, however, was soil fertility replenished from
natural sources such as volcanic ash.
Besides the humidity and uniformly high temperatures (the mean
is 26°C), perhaps the best known climatic feature of Southeast Asia is
the seasonal winds known as the monsoons. The effect of the monsoons will be discussed in more detail below but the regularity and
strength of these wind patterns make them an important feature of the
pre-modern period when wind-powered boats were the main method of transport for goods and people.
Four distinct types of environment characterise the Malaysian territories.
1. The sea
This is the most obvious, but it is easily overlooked by outsiders. From prehistoric times up to the present, the sea has provided communication, high protein food,
opportunities for raiding (piracy) and marine products
suitable for trade and exchange. In fact, it has been
recently established that the seas of the Sunda shelf are
the ‘single primary centre of world diversity’ for marine
fauna. This is partly because these seas contain two
ecosystems unique to the tropics––coral reefs and
mangrove systems. Some groups of people spent their
whole lives either living on the sea in boats or living
above it in stilted dwellings, such as still exist in parts
of southeast Sabah and Bandar Seri Begawan, capital of
Brunei. The South China Sea, which lies between the
Peninsula and Borneo, has rich deposits of oil and gas.
2. The coastal estuaries
Mangroves are the key component of a rich ecosystem
of marine life which has long supported human
populations. Professional fisher-people still live here as
they have always done and grow coconuts, palms from
which sago can be extracted, bananas and kitchen
3. The inland river valleys
Travelling up the many rivers from the coast, at
locations where the water changes from salt to fresh, is
a third kind of environment characterised by a range of
agricultural activities. Here, small villages exist along
the rivers in areas between the coast and the hills and
mountain ranges which form the interior (of both the
Peninsula and the Borneo states). In patches of land
along the small valleys, as well as on swampy river flats,
grain crops are grown, cattle and buffalo are grazed and
fruit trees are cultivated.
4. The mountainous areas
These are heavily covered with evergreen rainforest in
the equatorial zone (‘the jungle’) and less densely so in
the intertropical zones of the north of the Peninsula.
Mount Kinabalu (4104 metres), is the highest
mountain in Southeast Asia and lies in Sabah but
because of its height and lowered temperatures (ground
frosts occur) has tropical alpine scrub to about 3000
metres and above that only very sparse and specialised
grasses and algae, giving a very bleak and spectacular
appearance. Elsewhere in Malaysia at lower altitudes in
the equatorial zone (to about 1000 metres) the ever
green rainforest thrives with a canopy 30–50 metres
above ground and supports a complex undergrowth of
saplings, vines and canes. In its primal or uncleared
state, these forests can exhibit an enormous natural
variation of species. In northern Sarawak, for example,
one 10-hectare plot yielded 780 different species of
trees. Equatorial forests provide very little that humans
can eat (except in Borneo where wild sago palms grow
and are harvested by Penans) but the primal forests are
the only source for trade items such as rare resins, waxes, camphor, fragrant timbers and high quality canes.
A few points should be made about the influence of topography and
climate. The soils and climate of much of Malaysia are not suitable for
long-term, intensive irrigated rice production of the kind which developed in Java and Bali. It is believed that in the prehistoric period,
carbohydrate needs were readily met by tubers (yams), foxtail millet,
seeds and fruit. These foods have the advantage of requiring less land
than rice, less labour to grow and harvest them, and they do not require
storage and complex preparation. Evidence of rice grains in pottery and
pestles and mortars show that from as early as the second millennium
BCE, rice was available in coastal Sarawak and in the northernmost parts
of the Peninsula but the rice may not have been grown where it was
found. However, it is believed that during the first millennium BCE, rice
began to be cultivated in swampy areas using a system of lengthy fallow
periods which enabled soil nutrients to regenerate. It would be fair to
generalise that before the 19th century, only in the coastal areas of
Kedah and Kelantan was wet-rice grown on any considerable scale.
Protein needs in prehistoric times were provided by domesticated
animals (pigs, poultry), fish and molluscs, and the capture of reptiles,
birds and wild animals (deer, wild boar, ox). Although modern
observers might realise that such a system was in harmony with the
environment and ecologically balanced, to almost any pre-20th
century European such a lifestyle would have appeared primitive and
in need of ‘development’. Population numbers were small and evidence of ‘industry’ or organised labour were not apparent to foreign
eyes. For Europeans, accustomed to measuring levels of civilisation by
monumental architecture and orderly fields of grain crops, before the
19th century the evidence in Malaysia for civilisation is scanty. It is
only with the West’s recent preoccupation with sustainable development that systems such as those practised by the ‘undeveloped’
inhabitants of Malaysia have been recognised as meriting further
investigation. It has now become a race against time to recover much
of this indigenous knowledge as increasing areas of natural environment are leased or sold to developers particularly in areas of primal
Indigenous social and religious systems
In pre-modern times, environment and mode of lifestyle had a great
deal of influence on the kind of social organisation that shaped the
way individuals related to each other. For example, small populations
dependent on mobility (foragers in upland forest areas, or boat-dwelling
peoples) might be expected to have different conventions concerning
marriage, child-rearing, inheritance and organisation of labour from
people who chose a more settled way of life. Sedentary groups, such as
peasant farmers, who relied on land for food production and passed the
‘rights’ to that land to their close relatives, would probably have quite
different forms of social organisation.
It is possible to see a set of shared beliefs common to the religious
systems of many of the groups indigenous to the Malaysian territories.
Among these is the understanding that all matter has its own spiritual
essence and that well-being and harmony results from their correct
matching whereas misfortune and disaster result from their mismatching or separation. The general term for this system is animism and the
specialists who can deal with the spiritual powers of the non-material
world are generally termed shamans. While other beliefs can (and
usually were) borrowed and added to this system, there was often a
process of adaptation in which the borrowed elements underwent
change to fit in with the existing body of beliefs.
Social systems were perhaps less prone to adaptation but individuals could withdraw and move to other systems if there were mechanisms
for acceptance in the new system, say through adoption or marriage. So
although distinct social systems and religious beliefs are evident in the
territories which now make up Malaysia they were not rigid or unchanging over time and space. A degree of flexibility is particularly necessary
in a region like Southeast Asia where high degrees of cooperation are
necessary between groups so that trade and exchange can occur. Nevertheless, some groups, such as the Malays, developed systems which could
include non-Malays if they adopted Malay customs. Others, such as
some upland swidden (fell and burn) and foraging groups, seem to have
consciously remained exclusive in their social systems in order to maintain their highly adapted and ecologically specific lifestyle.
It should be noted that it is no longer scientifically acceptable,
when describing the various groups of people in Malaysia, to talk
about ‘waves’ of migrations. The ‘wave’ theory does not reflect the
complexity of interactions nor does it explain the considerable
archaeological, genetic and linguistic data now assembled. On the
basis of genetic and biological evidence (including craniometric
studies and dental morphology), it has been established that people
recognisably the same as modern humans have occupied Borneo and
the Malay Peninsula from about 40 000 years ago. Beyond that, to
date there is no single theory which can convincingly explain the
prehistoric situation of all the peoples in the Malaysian territories.
The relationship between the prehistoric populations and modern
populations is a topic of hot debate among the experts with considerable differences of opinion still remaining. As one of the leading
researchers of prehistoric Malaysia expresses it: ‘If the results from the
Malay Peninsula are to be generalised at all, it would be to suggest
that Holocene [prehistoric] human evolution in Southeast Asia
should be understood not in terms of broad generalisations but in
relation to the specific historical circumstances of each study area.’2
One useful way of trying to understand the relationship between
the diverse groups of indigenous peoples of the Malay Peninsula is to
compare types of social organisation and lifestyle. When this is done,
four broad socio-cultural patterns can be recognised. They have been
termed: Malay, Senoi, Semang and Malayic.
The Malay pattern
This has been the dominant socio-religious pattern on the Malay
Peninsula only since approximately the 18th century. It should be
understood, however, that the category ‘Malay’ is a very fluid one, not
defined by physical characteristics, but by language, dress, customs and,
most importantly, by the profession of Islam. None of these characteristics is innate, in the sense that an individual is born with them.
Each can be adopted and it is now recognised that it is possible to
‘become’ a Malay by assuming these characteristics. It is therefore, to
some extent, a matter of choice as to whether groups and individuals
wish to identify themselves as ‘Malays’ and to accept the consequences
of being seen as ‘Malay’. In contemporary Malaysia, there are some
social and financial benefits from being thus categorised and some
individuals have ‘become’ Malay to gain access to them.
The Malay language is part of the very large group known as
Austronesian, whose speakers stretch from the Pacific to Madagascar.
Speakers of Austronesian languages also have many sociocultural
features in common, one of them being social ranking based on relative
age. Seniority is accorded status and respect. In marriage it is considered
that the husband should be older than the wife who should ideally be
of the same blood line (consanguine). Marriages with first or second
cousins are the neatest way of implementing these principles. Associated with this kind of society is a sedentary mode of livelihood in a
village context, where women’s labour is given high value and the
husband and wife form the basic labour unit. Descent is described in
terms of both father and mother and men give gifts or money to the
bride on marriage and these remain her property. It is expected that
men will travel beyond the village to extend the agricultural income by
fishing, trade or raiding. One of the results of the close-knit social
pattern is that each local community is a strong inter-related group,
which discourages loosely connected or ‘fringe’ members. As noted
above, however, if ‘outsiders’ choose to follow Malay customs and Islam,
they can become part of the Malay community and non-Malay children
are often adopted and regarded as Malays.
Over the past two centuries, the terms ‘Malay’ and ‘Islam’ have
become so closely linked that the Malaysian Constitution uses
profession of Islam as one of the legal definitions of a Malay. The
religion of Islam originated in the Middle East in the 7th century CE
and its spread to Southeast Asia will be described in the following
chapter. It is important to note that Islam is a religion which was
imported and that local peoples in Southeast Asia accepted it for a
variety of reasons and at different periods in their history. Because it
is not a religion which originated in the region, it is perhaps surprising that it has become one of the defining characteristics of a major
group such as the Malays. Some of the anomalies this can cause are
illustrated in Sarawak and Sabah, all of whose indigenous populations
are considered by anthropologists to be Austronesian (and therefore
in linguistic and sociocultural terms belonging to the same group as
Malays). However, only those Sarawak peoples who profess Islam, or
convert to Islam (for example, some Melanaus and Kedayans) are
called ‘Malays’. The Ibans, the dominant indigenous group in
Sarawak, have not converted in large numbers, and are therefore classified as ‘non-Malay’. In Sabah, for blatantly political reasons many
recent Muslim migrants from the southern Philippines have been
classified as ‘Malay’, while non-Muslim, native Sabahans have not.
Putting aside issues of ethnic classification, the religion of Islam
is followed by more than half Malaysia’s present population. Being a
religion of adoption, it has developed in the Malaysian territories, as
elsewhere outside its heartland, in the presence of earlier belief
systems. Traces of these older beliefs and practices survive in traditional agricultural rites and at celebrations to mark specific life-stages
as well as at times of misfortune (such as disasters and illness). They
usually take the form of acts of propitiation to spirits and ancestors
conducted by experts who are skilled in dealing with the supernatural.
Turning to the remaining three sociocultural patterns, the
peoples who were already living in parts of the Peninsula before
the Austronesian speakers settled there in large numbers are known by
the generic name of Orang Asli, the ‘Original Peoples’. They have long
attracted scholarly interest, but it is only since the 1960s that they
have been studied with scientific rigour. Enough is now known about
their society and culture to recognise the three broad patterns of
Senoi, Semang and Malayic. These patterns are linked also with
dominant modes of environmental use: Senoi with semi-sedentary
horticulture; Semang with nomadic hunting and gathering; Malayic
with collecting forest and marine products for trade.
Peoples who follow this pattern mainly depend on swidden (fell and
burn) farming supplemented by trading. This way of life is found
mainly in the mountain areas of the central parts of the Peninsula.
Peoples following this sociocultural pattern include the Temiars,
Semais, Jah Huts and Btsisis (or Mah Meris).
Because swidden farming depends on allowing the land to lie fallow
after several seasons it is necessary to move regularly, even if the group
returns after many years to lands worked previously. While there are
many variations in religious systems among these peoples, the common
practice of swidden farming makes it possible to make some very
general points about their social systems. They respect individual
autonomy and the nuclear family is the basic unit of society, but house-hold units often consist of extended families who live together, work
together and share child raising. Care is taken not to offend, coerce or
frustrate others and decisions are reached through consensus and
discussion and even then, an individual is not necessarily bound by
the group decision. Individuals are, however, expected to practise
self-restraint and failure to do so is believed to lead to supernatural
retribution. Religious beliefs centre round the strength of cosmic forces
which can be unleashed by improper behaviour. In this system it is
thought that spirits inhabit natural sites and have to be appeased
before entering their domains. Shamans can be asked to ward off evil
spirits and to find lost souls by seeking aid from their spirit familiars.
The Semang pattern
This is based largely on a foraging (hunting and gathering) lifestyle. It is
rare in the 21st century that any people can live entirely off the natural
resources of the land, constantly on the move and without cultivating
crops. However, this was possible in the lowland forests of the northern
Malay Peninsula and in upland areas of Sabah and Sarawak until the
early 20th century. Today, the only true hunter-gatherer people in
Borneo are the Penans (also known as Punans) who live in isolated areas
in Sarawak, but who are physically unrelated to the Semang groups of
the Peninsula. Social organisation is characterised by low population
density of small groups—individuals and married couples—who maintain a wide network of acquaintances so that they can come and go from
other groups as they need to. Dispersal, not concentration, of population
is their key to survival. On the Peninsula, the following small populations still follow this pattern to some degree: the Kintaqs, Kensius,
Jahais, Batek Des and Che Wongs (see map 3, page xvii). Religious
beliefs are, in general, similar to those of the Senoi pattern, discussed
above, with particular attention being given to protection from calamities and cosmic disasters, as well as augury using signs from birds.
The Malayic pattern
This is followed by people who combine subsistence farming or fishing
with the collecting of forest or marine products for trade. Peoples
following this kind of lifestyle (which combines elements of both the
Senoi and Semang patterns) include Temuans, Semelais, Jakuns and
Orang Suku Laut the ‘Sea Peoples’. They are found in lowland areas of
the Peninsula (particularly in the south) in lowland areas of east and
south Sumatra, and the islands in the Straits of Melaka. They seem to
have adopted some of the cultural and linguistic features of early Austronesian settlers—suggesting they found it advantageous (probably for
reasons of trade) to establish regular contact with them.
Chinese and Indians
Most descriptions of the population of Malaysia include accounts of
Chinese and Indian groups as if they were not settlers of long-standing
in the region. This is based on the misapprehension that the majority of
the forebears of Chinese and Indians, now living in Malaysia, migrated
there in the mid or late 19th century. On these grounds, they are not
considered as ‘native’ as others. This is misleading in the sense that
during that same period there were also many migrants arriving from
Java, Sumatra and other parts of Indonesia (at that time the Netherlands
East Indies), but because their socioreligious organisation was recognisably similar to that of the Malays, they are regarded as ‘Malays’.
However, it is the customs and lifestyle of the Chinese and Indians
which distinguish them from other groups rather than their date of arrival.
Chinese and Malay accounts, of the 15th century and earlier,
describe commercial and diplomatic contacts being established
informally (between individuals) and more formally (through court
officials). Similar contact between merchants from southern Indian
ports, particularly traders in textiles, existed during this early period
and the commercial advisers to the Malay rulers of local kingdoms
were often from the Indian subcontinent. Although there is evidence
of permanent Chinese settlement from as early as the 14th century,
large-scale migration from China and India did not occur until the
19th century. Forced by dire conditions in their own country to seek
their livelihood elsewhere, Chinese from the maritime provinces of
southeastern China migrated to the Peninsula and Borneo. From
their work as labourers in tin-mines and the building industry, many
prospered and invested their savings in enterprises such as mines,
plantations, factories, shops and banks, forming institutional net-
works now regarded as characteristic of the overseas Chinese.
In Malaysia, the Chinese established a system of mutual help
through associations and societies for labour, trade, hospitals, schools
and funerals. These were strengthened by strong clan links at local
levels. Their commercial operations were similarly independent of
outside assistance and were based on a small number of leading
financiers at major commercial centres (Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Singapore) who dealt directly with Chinese firms in smaller centres. These,
in turn, traded with much smaller Chinese enterprises, often at the
level of village shopkeeper. Through this kind of networking and
control of capital, the Chinese succeeded in dominating the commercial sector of the Malaysian economy. Today, some Chinese are
Christians but the majority follow Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist
practices combined with reverence for the ancestors.
Links between the Malaysian territories and south India go back
to at least the first millennium CE, but substantial migration began
only with British interest in plantation agriculture (particularly rubber
from about 1900) and the colonial need for labour to develop public
works and railways. The British administration of India facilitated
linkages with British interests in the Malaysian region and workers
were mainly from Tamil, Malayalee and Telugu areas with some Sikhs
from the north. The majority worked on the west coast of the Peninsula where most development was occurring and people of Indian
descent in Sabah and Sarawak are much less numerous. In contemporary Malaysia visitors may note that the majority of money changers are
of Indian descent. They are probably Chettiars (moneylenders) whose
links with commercial life in Malaya are long-standing. Through their
hands flows much of the Indian investment in property in Malaysia.
Some Malaysian Indians are Christians or Muslims but the majority are Hindus or Sikhs.
The strategic position of Malaysia
For as long as the Middle East and China have been at the heart of the
world’s trading networks, the Malaysian territories have played a crucial
and pivotal role in global trade. In the early 19th century, one of the
first British administrators described the Peninsula as ‘centrically situated with respect to all the great and civilized nations of Asia’ with its
eastern extremity ‘within three days sail of China and its western not
above three weeks sail from Arabia’. The British observer then notes
that from the Malay Peninsula it was only 15 days sail to Hindustan and
90 days sail to Europe.3 He writes as if this information is his own
discovery but others had been travelling through the region for millennia before he arrived. His words emphasise the point that 19th century
European accounts of Southeast Asia––and it was those accounts which
shaped the European image and understanding of the region—rarely
acknowledged that Europeans were the last peoples to make contact
with this part of Asia. Not only were they newcomers, but they viewed
the region in terms of their own interests rather than as part of much
wider patterns and sub-patterns which had been in process since at least
the first centuries of the Common Era.
The map shows that the Malaysian territories lie across the sea
routes which connect West and East and a voyage from one hemisphere to another required two different wind patterns or monsoons.
Ships from the West needed the southwest monsoon winds which blew
from that direction between mid-May to September to cross the Bay of
Bengal and reach Southeast Asia. Vessels sought safe harbour in the
Melaka Straits to await the reverse cycle of the northeast monsoon
(mid-October to March) to take them back. Vessels from China travelling to the southern seas needed the northeast monsoon. The safe
harbours were not only places of transit, they became ‘entrepôts’ or
ports where goods were trans-shipped for an onward journey. When
shipping was no longer dependent on wind-power, the Malay Peninsula area remained a pivotal navigational zone. Today, its strategic
importance is undiminished—it is estimated that 40 per cent of the
world’s trade still passes through here.
The accessibility of the region meant that Peninsula and
Borneo peoples were especially vulnerable to hostile and to predatory
powers. Perhaps as a result of this, one of the characteristics of
successful leaders in the pre-modern period was skill in diplomacy
and an ability to establish diplomatic links and alliances with a wide
range of other leaders. Most commonly these were marriage alliances
with close neighbours (such as those in Sumatra and Java), or ‘tributary’ relationships with more distant leaders whereby symbolic
gestures of allegiance were initiated in return for protection. In this
manner connections were established and maintained with China
and Siam (now Thailand), and from the 18th and 19th century, with
Turkey and Japan as well as with European powers.
Concepts of power
The peoples of the Malay Peninsula and the west coast of Borneo were
ideally situated to participate in the international trade which flowed
between East and West. Leaders had much to gain, in terms of power
and influence as well as material prosperity, if they were able to control
points of exchange in the trading networks which spanned the region.
Not all peoples, however, were interested in full engagement with
commercial life, nor were they willing to exchange a lifestyle with a
high degree of autonomy (such as foraging and hunting and gathering)
for a more controlled and autocratic system. For groups who did not
need to be fully engaged in trade, concepts of leadership and power
were very different from those societies which relied on a hierarchically organised system to direct labour and support a ruling elite.
As noted above, the Peninsula and Borneo had, and still have, a
relatively low population density with little shortage of land and no
shortage of sea. The necessity to control large amounts of territory in
order to have power and influence was therefore not a major concern.
However, access to people—to provide labour and services—was crucial
to those who wanted to engage in full-time and centralised commercial
activities. In the Malaysian territitories, therefore, in those contexts
where organised labour was necessary for the maintenance of the socioeconomic pattern, power was understood as the ability to attract obedient
and willing followers. Conversely, in contexts such as self-sufficient
small groups (of foragers, swidden farmers, collectors and boat-dwelling
people), the concept of power and authority was more diffuse and was not
necessarily associated with only one member of the group.
In the section describing patterns of sociocultural organisation, it
was noted that those groups following a fairly self-sufficient lifestyle (for
example, the Semang and Senoi patterns) had a high degree of personal
autonomy, used consensus to reach decisions and worked in very small
groups (sometimes only two or three people) to accomplish tasks. In
this kind of group, power was linked with mastery of special skills in
those areas that were useful to the group. Such skills could be specialisation in certain crafts or tools, skills in spiritual matters (interpreting
dreams, for example), hunting, climbing, singing, or child-raising
(particularly for women). Other individuals might be recognised for
their skills in representing the interests of the group to outsiders and
acting as intermediaries between them and others in situations such
as the exchange of goods. To outsiders, these individuals may have
appeared to be ‘headmen’ whereas in fact they had ‘power’ in just
one area in their community and may not have been leaders in
other contexts.
In contrast to the concept of power as specialised skill which was
manifest in a number of members of a group is the understanding of
power which was restricted to just one member of a group. Power believed
to be from a supernatural source invested in one individual set them
apart. In the context of traditional Malay statecraft this power was
believed to be a sign of sovereignty and was restricted to the ruler. ‘Ordinary’ (non-royal) individuals were unable to withstand the force of this
power (known as daulat) and if mishandled it was believed to cause
death. The Malay ruler, the focus of power for the Malay community,
was also seen as the source of power and able to bestow some of it on
loyal followers. Such a system cannot function unless there are lower-ranked individuals who recognise and acknowledge the power. A greater
degree of social differentiation and hierarchy is required in this kind of
system. This may all seem rather theoretical but, in practical terms, if
labour is in short supply and must be mobilised to achieve particular purposes, there must be a leader who can activate those workers and the
workers must believe there is some reward or incentive for following the
leader. This, in crude terms, was the concept of power in most traditional
Malay societies.
These are just two ways of expressing and understanding power in
the territories that now comprise Malaysia. The only commonality is
that neither involves possession of territory. The distinguishing feature
is focus. One system acknowledges that a number of individuals in the
one community can have ‘power’ (in the sense of special skills) while the
other system can exist only if members of the community acknowledge
the possession of power by one individual, who becomes a revered figure.
It also seems that over time, the concept of power as emanating from
only one person—sometimes termed the ‘great man’ or ‘man of prowess’
theory of power—transformed that individual (and their descendants)
into sources of spiritual energy. The allegiances that power generates
provide the basis of the political organisation for that community. The
very personal nature of power in that kind of system has implications for
the understanding of power in contemporary Malaysia.
Finally, it should be noted that the diversity of the natural environment of Malaysia encouraged a corresponding diversity of social and
power systems to suit the physical context. If commercial networks of
trade and exchange were developed around these different environments (collecting from forests, growing food or extracting metals in
more open terrains, sea and strand collecting) success would depend
on the ability to respond to and adapt quickly to changes in market
demand. Tastes may change radically or greater quantities of particular
items may be needed. Thus, it was important to encourage diversity in
order to meet all eventualities and for middlemen and leaders to be in
regular contact with their suppliers. In difficult terrains with sparse
populations the most effective way to achieve this would have been
through individual contact and ties of personal loyalty to key individuals. If leaders failed to maintain a diversity of links, or encouraged and
protected a small group of favourites at the expense of a broader
network of alliances, they ran the risk of restricting their options
and decreasing their flexibility to respond quickly to new situations.
Diversity decreased these risks and successful leaders needed the skills
and incentives to encourage and exploit the advantages of variety.
Malay political culture
The politics of Malaysia today draws on these concepts of power and
leadership. Political culture (the way political concepts and experiences are expressed) implies the existence of politics and the
state—concepts whose origins lie in Western culture. Nevertheless,
Malaysia is a modern nation-state which has chosen a Western-style
democracy as its form of government. The pre-Independence nationalist movements had to develop symbols and rhetoric which would
inspire support and would stimulate the peoples of Malaysia to
combine to work for national (rather than local) aims. The majority of
nationalist leaders were Malays (rather than Chinese or Indians).
During the course of their colonial education from the period of the
late 19th century, these Malays had been introduced to selected works
of traditional Malay literature, sections of which were used in schools
as set-texts for Malay history. Chief among these were the Sejarah
Melayu (Malay Annals) and Hikayat Hang Tuah (Story of Hang Tuah)
both of which describe the sultanate of Melaka in its heyday before the
Portuguese conquest in 1511. Each of these works, formerly read aloud
in the Malay royal courts and later adapted for use in Malay schools,
had an enduring influence on Malay political life because the nationalist leaders drew on their stories and value-system to express their
visions for an independent nation. The traditional Malay works focus
heavily on Malays and Malay concerns with little attention given to
non-Malays. This was one of the reasons why Prime Minister
Mahathir’s ‘Vision 2020’ policy, elaborated in the early 1990s and now
the blueprint for development in the foreseeable future, specifically
includes all Malaysians in its aims.
‘Merchants from distant places congregate there. This country is therefore considered to be very prosperous.
Extract from the P’ing-chou k’o-t’an, referring to the port of Srivijaya in the early 12th century1 This quotation, from a Chinese source of the early 12th century,
reveals three things: that a place called Srivijaya was well-known to
Chinese merchants, that it attracted traders from beyond the immediate region and that it was regarded as commercially very successful.
Srivijaya was, in fact, merely one of a number of commercial centres
in the Malaysian territories that were visited by foreign merchants in
the first millennium CE. Another port which was well-known to international traders as a major entrepôt was in Kedah, a kingdom at the
northern end of the Straits. It flourished for several centuries but then
lost some of its influence to competitors. The reputation of Srivijaya,
in southeastern Sumatra at the other end of the Straits, outstripped
that of Kedah and other successful ports. In fact, Srivijaya was clearly
a model for the even more famous entrepôt of Melaka, which in many
ways was its successor. Srivijaya, Kedah and Melaka were major
centres of Malay power.
Austronesians on the move: navigating the first
millennium BCE
The Austronesians are people who spoke (and still speak) languages
belonging to the Austronesian language family. This very large language family is thought to have originated in Taiwan but its speakers
spread south through the Philippines, Borneo and Sulawesi and then
branched south and west into Java, Sumatra and the Indian Ocean.
Others spread further east into Oceania. This extraordinarily wide distribution ‘reflects one of the most phenomenal records of colonization
and dispersal in the history of humanity’.
Researchers are agreed that although the details of the Aus-
tronesian movements cannot be known with certainty, they were very
complex. Based on linguistic reconstructions, for example, scholars
postulate that some Austronesian groups settled in southwestern
Borneo before others settled in Sumatra, while, later in time, other
Austronesians sailed from Sumatra to coastal areas of Borneo. This
demonstrates that the Austronesians were highly mobile and used
their sailing and navigational skills to specialise in collecting a wide
range of marine items for trade. They established networks of
exchange throughout island Southeast Asia and at points along the
coasts of the mainland. Those groups who found it useful to trade with
Austronesian speakers found it similarly useful to adopt some or all of
their language in order to negotiate with them. The Malay branch
of Austronesian seems to have developed comparatively late and there
is considerable speculation about the pre-Malay forms of Austronesian
spoken in the territories which later became Malaysia.
Early archaeological evidence for the presence of Austronesian
influence in southeastern Sabah has been found in a rock shelter at
Bukit Tengkorak where fragments of pottery, shell beads, agate tools
and obsidian flakes have been dated at between 1000 to 300 years BCE
(see map 1, page xv). It is particularly significant that the obsidian
flakes used as tools originated thousands of kilometres away in New
Britain, western Melanesia. New Britain and its export of obsidian has
been associated with an Austronesian culture known as the ‘Lapita’
culture. The most likely explanation is that the people in southeastern
Sabah were part of a trading network which involved both places and
doubtless other points in-between. During the first millennium BCE,
the Sabahans collected items from the beaches and seas and
exchanged them for the obsidian items. The archaeological evidence
includes remains of portable pottery hearths, suitable for use on boats.
The same hearths are associated with groups of maritime nomads, like
the Bajaus who still operate in Sabah waters, and it is not impossible
that the Bajaus have ancient connections with the prehistoric groups
who lived in the Bukit Tengkorak area.
Gold from the interior
The finds in Sabah indicate the existence of a network of marine
trade operating in an easterly direction towards eastern Indonesia
and Melanesia. Archaeological finds on the Malay Peninsula indicate that there were also other networks, using different items of
exchange but still associated with Austronesian cultures. Dated at
between 500 BCE and 500 CE, a number of stone slab graves similar to
those found in other Austronesian areas, have been identified in
southern Perak (see map 1, Bernam and Sungkai, page xv). Experts
interpret this as an indication that Austronesians were active on the
Peninsula from this time.
The location of the graves provides a clue about the kind of net-works the Austronesians were utilising on the Peninsula. They are all
near major sources of tin on the west coast and also close to the routes
which were used to reach gold deposits in the upper reaches of rivers.
These routes have been traced from the east and from the west coasts
of the Peninsula along the Kelantan River and its main tributaries
across to Perak (Bernam) and also along the Pahang River. Traces of old water-supply canals in remote parts of the jungle
along these rivers and primitive tools bear witness to ancient mining
activities which must have produced the gold that found its way down
the network of tracks through the interior to exchange points leading
to the coast. Researchers have reconstructed some of these routes,
which older reports say were still being used before roads were built in
the interior. The reconstructed routes link up points on both sides of
the Peninsula, as well as running north–south almost the entire length
of the Peninsula. This complex series of coastal–interior routes seems to
have linked the sea-going Austronesian traders working their way
round the coasts with the peoples skilled at collecting forest products
and finding gold in the difficult inland terrain, peoples who were probably the ancestors of the present-day populations of Orang Asli.
Tin and Indian beads: the Klang valley sites
Fairly rich archaeological evidence, dated between 500–200 BCE, has
been discovered at sites in a riverine area of the west coast of the
Peninsula, near the modern city of Klang (See map 1, page xv).
Whereas the Perak and Pahang finds from this period seem associated
with the extraction and exchange of gold, the coastal sites are in a very
rich tin-bearing region and a demand for tin probably stimulated
the prehistoric activity here. Six of the Dongson drums located on the
Peninsula were found in this region, together with a large number of
beads of Indian or Indian influenced manufacture, bronze bowls, iron
tools and resin-coated pottery.
The demand for tin at this particular time was not fortuitous.
Research has linked the increase in extraction of tin along a string of
ports on the eastern coasts of the Bay of Bengal (extending from
Myanmar to the southern parts of the west coast of the Malay Peninsula), with events on the Indian subcontinent. From about the middle
of the first millennium BCE, linked with the expansion of Buddhism
and Jainism, a series of urban coastal centres on the eastern seaboard
of India were established and began issuing coinage which included
bronze coins with a high tin content. Deposits of tin in India are rare
and the metal had to be imported. Tin-bearing regions across the Bay
of Bengal, on the Malay Peninsula, provided a ready supply. It was at
this time that the terms ‘Suvarnabhumi’ and ‘Suvarnadvipa’ were
being used in Sanskrit literature to refer to eastern lands (that is, in
Southeast Asia) which were rich in gold and tin. The finds of beads of
Indian origin at the Klang sites suggest that the region was a major
exchange point for incoming foreign goods and outgoing local items,
particularly tin and also gold, from the uplands of the interior with
other luxury items such as fragrant woods and resins.
The Dongson drums found in this area have been associated with
burial sites (as mentioned above) marked by megaliths in the form of
stone slab graves and standing stones. The drums provide evidence
about trade patterns and about some features of the society which used
them. Researchers have plotted the location of these drums in relation
to the reconstructed trade routes. Each of the drums has been found
close to the end-points of the routes, suggesting a close association
with the old networks. From the drums and their locations, it has been
suggested that first, the west coast of the Peninsula was linked into a
network which reached at least to the northern regions of Vietnam.
Second, the association of drums with megaliths which required organised labour for their installation implies ‘some degree of group effort’.
Third, because not many stone graves have been found, it is thought
that only people of status were entitled to, or could afford, these items.
This suggests that wealth was concentrated in a small social group who
must have acquired it by gaining control over important sectors of the
trading network. We know this is what occurred in later societies, such
as those of Srivijaya and Melaka. The Klang Valley sites, therefore,
provide us with very early evidence that elite groups were organising
significant parts of the trade in some (if not all) of these major
exchange points.
Two language families
Linguistic evidence provides further clues about the interactions
occurring on the Malay Peninsula. The existence of two quite distinct
language families—Austroasiatic and Austronesian (see glossary) in
close association but in fairly distinct territories suggests that their
speakers had distinct lifestyles and cultures. The archaeological evidence supports this. Many artefacts from northern areas of the
Peninsula, in territory now occupied by Orang Asli (Austroasiatic
speakers), are similar to artefacts from surrounding regions of modern
Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia/Vietnam. In the southern and
western parts of the Peninsula, however, the archaeological evidence
suggests contact with Austronesian-based cultures.
The languages of some Orang Asli groups in the south of the
Peninsula (those which follow the Malayic sociocultural pattern)
support this theory because they show evidence of extended contact
with Austronesian speakers. The evidence of the old inland tracks
and upland routes linking coastal points on each side of the Peninsula
strongly suggests that trade was the stimulus for contact. Thus, both
the linguistic and archaeological evidence from the first millennium
BCE points to a diverse range of cultures and ethnic groups living in
the Malaysian territories who interacted with each other and with
neighbouring regions through commercial networks which operated
on land and around the coasts.
These descriptions of prehistoric trade and exchange patterns
reveal that distance was not an obstacle to the establishment of extensive networks. Obsidian from Melanesia reached Sabah and large
bronze drums, most manufactured far from the locations where they
were found, travelled long distances to reach their exchange points.
Boats must have provided the primary means of transportation and
marine archaeology, still a relatively new science, has yielded good
results in Southeast Asian waters.
All the vessels so far discovered dating from the prehistoric and
early historic periods (up to about 6th century CE) have been of South-east Asian construction, providing very strong evidence that maritime
transport was in local (that is, Austronesian) hands. The networks
were even more extensive because many of the items originating in the
Malaysian territories were destined for delivery to markets in China,
India, the Middle East and from there, ultimately, to the Mediterranean and Europe. Centres, such as those in the Klang region (see
map 1, page xv), used local shipping networks to bring in luxury items
from the northern ports and items from Indian centres (to the West),
and then circulated these items into the local systems in return for
exportable items. Clearly, the networks were extensive and well developed even in the period before the Common Era and to understand
why, we need to examine what was fuelling the larger networks which
operated to link Southeast Asia with other continental systems.
An international system
The complex ethnic and cultural mix of peoples who were amalgamated into the Chinese empire produced powerful political and
economic forces which influenced the nearby regions and beyond. In
about 100 BCE, for example, the northern part of Vietnam which had
been producing the ceremonial bronzes (including the Dongson
drums) was absorbed into the Han empire and the export of the
bronzes through the southern-linked trading networks seems to have
stopped. The southwards expansion of the Han drew them into the
exchange networks operating with Southeast Asia and they became
part of the increasingly dynamic flow of goods and people. Bronze
items were still in demand in Southeast Asia and, when bronze goods
from Vietnam were no longer available, the exchange points on the
Malay Peninsula increased their contact with their closer northern
neighbours, particularly the Mons of Southern Burma, who were also
producing good bronze work. As well, the peninsular exchange points
strengthened links with the burgeoning ports of India.
South Indian ports were enjoying the increased demand for
exotic and luxury goods coming from the markets of the Roman
empire, at its zenith in the first century BCE and through the following
two centuries. It is believed that at this time the centres in south India
dominated the trade between the Roman West and the East—a trade
which drew goods from nodes in Southeast Asia and was carried
through and beyond that region by Austronesian vessels and sailors.
The two points to note are first, the skill of the Austronesians in
navigation and long-distance travel, and second, the demand for
particular items which made hazardous voyages attractive and worth-while. Although we do not know the full list of merchandise being
traded between Southeast Asia and other parts of the world in the
early centuries CE, reports from the 15th century indicate a mixture of
foodstuffs (bananas, grains, fish), spices, cloth, precious metals and
specialist luxury items such as birds’ nests, resins and aromatic woods.
A network linking China and the Mediterranean through the Straits
of Melaka was thus well established by the 1st century CE.
Even when empires, such as those of Rome and China, changed
their configurations, the trading networks did not disappear but
adapted and re-linked to respond to the ever-changing, but always
hungry, markets for specialist products. As Roman trade decreased in
the third century CE, some Indian ports suffered but others intensified
their links with the ports on the opposite side of the Bay of Bengal.
Through this period, Buddhism travelled with the merchants as their
favoured religion and played an important part in strengthening links between traders.
By the fourth century CE, the southern states of the Chinese
empire were able to exert some independence and engaged more
actively in trade with various Southeast Asian ports. From this period
come references in Chinese records to places in the Southeast Asian
region which were visited by Chinese merchants, travellers and pilgrims wanting to visit the holy sites of Buddhism in India. Travel was
not exclusively by sea and reports mention some routes which
involved portions of travel overland or took shortcuts using river links
between coasts. The landmass that was most often traversed by these
methods was, of course, the Malay Peninsula. As we have already seen,
inland tracks and river routes linking east and west coasts of the Peninsula date back to at least the first millennium BCE and were well
established and often used. Evidence of how these exchange points
functioned comes from a series of archaeological sites in the southern
river valleys of the Malay state of Kedah.
Sea and land: Kedah and Buddhism
In geopolitical terms, the southern rivers of Kedah offer great potential
for tapping into local and international trade networks. Situated at the
southern end of the Isthmus of Kra (see map 2, page xvi), and at the
northern end of the Straits of Melaka, this region was also the beginning of the overland route to important ports on the Gulf of Siam,
notably Nakhon Si Thammarat, Singora and Patani. The overland
routes passed through the territory of the Austroasiatic speaking Orang
Asli groups, who actively participated in the networks as porters, guides
and collectors of specialist jungle products for exchange. Before the
12th century BCE (when peoples later called the Thai were moving into
Thailand), this region was influenced by Mon culture and civilisation.
A number of Mon characteristics and Mon words are still evident in the
northern parts of the Peninsula. We will see that in the 18th century,
control of the isthmus region was a vital aspect in the relationship
between Burma, Siam and the northern Malay Peninsula.
Because it is sufficiently north of the equator to experience seasonal variation and because it has areas of fertile soil, Kedah has long
history of sustained agricultural activity and was known for rice,
pepper, cattle and poultry production. It is also within the tin-belt
which runs down the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal and into the
Malay Peninsula. It is not surprising that archaeologists have found
Kedah very rich in early settlement sites.
The earliest evidence (at the time of writing) of this region’s
links with ocean-going trade is a series of prehistoric cave paintings at Kodiang in northern Kedah. The
paintings show processions of human figures with buffalos, other
animals and ocean-going vessels with masts. Animal domestication
and sea-voyaging were obviously known to the inhabitants at that
time. By the 6th century CE, archaeological finds indicate that the
southern rivers of Kedah were the focus of activity and there is substantial evidence of wide-ranging foreign contact. Sites excavated in
the Sungai Mas area (a tributary of the much larger Sungai Muda)
have yielded a large quantity of Chinese ceramic fragments (7th to
13th centuries) and fragments from pottery which originated in the
Middle East (dated 8th to 10th centuries). There are also many
beads—of pottery, glass, bone, gold and semi-precious stones—as
well as some of local manufacture. This adds substance to the theory
that coastal sites, such as these, used locally manufactured products
as trade items with interior groups in exchange for jungle products,
or raw metals, which would then be fed into the international
trading networks. It also implies that there were local artisans who
specialised in producing items for exchange and who must have
been supported (paid in some way) to enable them to work and
produce goods in quantity. found at these sites, including Sanskrit inscriptions using local stone, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries CE. One of the sites has a
Buddhist inscription about ignorance and rebirth, as well as the head
of Buddha statue and a Buddhist votive tablet with the picture of a
seated Buddha. From these we deduce that Buddhism, the networking
religion of Indian merchants and artisans, was also being practised on
the Peninsula from the 5th and 6th centuries. It is not clear, however,
from these remains whether Indian visitors or settlers were involved, or
whether local people were actively following Buddhist rites and beliefs.
Further evidence comes from about 5 kilometres north of Sungai
Mas, from the next major river system, Sungai Merbok and its tributaries in the Bujang Valley (see map 2, page xvi). This region is near
Gunung Jerai, or Kedah Peak, a striking mountain clearly visible from
the sea and which is believed to have served as a navigational aid for
ships making for the port upstream, on the Sungai Merbok. On the
mountain are the remains of many small stone structures associated
with Buddhism and it has been suggested they may have marked a
route to the top of the mountain where there was a substantial temple.
A considerable Buddhist community lived here which constructed and
then maintained the temples served by monks and nuns.
South of Gunung Jerai, 16 temple structures dating from the first
millennium CE have been identified. At least six were Buddhist and
two Hindu. One of the Hindu temples, which has been partially
restored, is the famous Candi Bukit Batu Pahat (Temple on the Hill of
Cut Stone), probably dating from the 9th or 10th century CE. It is
approached by an extended flight of steps and has a base of 30 80
feet (924 metres), with 100 000 brick-sized pieces of stone being
used for its construction. On the basis of multichambered reliquaries
found here and at other candis close-by, it has been suggested that they
were built to commemorate a dead ruler or member of the elite and to
enshrine their ashes. These remains provide evidence of a high degree
of social organisation and leadership.
There is another important site which adds further information
about more mundane aspects of life in the region at this time. At the
village currently known as Pengkalan Bujang (Bujang Quay), which is
situated at the confluence (always an auspicious site for exchange
centres) of the Merbok and Bujang rivers, extensive finds of pottery,
glass and other objects dating from between the 9th to the 13th centuries have been uncovered. They provide evidence that:
. . . a prosperous trade conducted through the river
included Chinese ceramics, Caliphate coins (one dated
234 of the Hijrah, the [Islamic] equivalent of 848 CE),
pearls, gold, diamonds, beads, sapphires, moulded glass,
Chinese bronze mirrors and bronze temple hanging lamps
of the type used in South India, bronze images, ritual
objects and glass bottles of near Eastern origin. The gemstones came from Burma, the beads and glassware from
West Asia, clay votive tablets from India and porcelain
from China. Vivianite, a rare blue crystalline mineral
known only in Selangor and Borneo, was also in use.
Pengkalan Bujang therefore, had early trade contacts with
many parts of Asia.
The provenances of these items prove that ships from a variety of
international ports collected, deposited and transferred cargoes at a
point or points near the Kedah coast. The Kedah sites must also have
been able to provide two important services for visitors. First, they
would have been able to repair and supply ocean-faring vessels as
well as provide accommodation while crews waited for the monsoon
winds to change for return voyages. Second, they would have ware-houses with supplies and stockpiles of local items for exchange
(tin, gold, forest products) ready as cargo for ongoing vessels. These
coastal sites were probably also points where arrangements were
made to transport goods from the west coast to the east, so that shipment could be continued from ports on the Gulf of Siam. Adding
further weight to this picture is Kedah’s long history of shipbuilding
and supplying food for provisioning. The large numbers of Buddhist
votive tablets found along the river valleys in northern Kedah confirms that these were the routes used by carriers to tranship goods from coast to coast.
A major work of traditional Malay literature, Hikayat Merong
Mahawangsa (named after one of Kedah’s legendary early rulers)
recounts the origins of the royal dynasty and the deeds of some of the
rulers. As a written document, it has existed since at least the late
18th century but oral versions have been circulating much longer. Of
particular interest here are its references to close links between the
earliest Kedah rulers and other lands: Siam, Perak and Patani, as well as
less formal ties with China and the Middle East. In The Story of Merong
Mahawangsa, Kedah is presented as a kingdom with a wide range of contacts, and each is seen a centre of commercial and strategic interest to
the well-being of the kingdom. It has also been suggested that one of
the themes which runs through the work is the ongoing tension in
Kedah history between the attractions of the sea (trade) and the
demands of the land which requires governance and a degree of control.
The problems of governance seem to refer not only to the coastal
inhabitants but also to inland groups such as the Orang Asli, and possibly later, the Thais. In general circulation, then, are very old stories
about Kedah’s place in the wider world and its dual function as seaward-looking node for international trade and an inland-oriented collection
centre for local products.
This brief description of Kedah has hinted at its ambiguous position in the Malay sphere. Location and geopolitics incline it towards
contact with its northern neighbours and with the further coast of the
Bay of Bengal, while to the east, the overland routes across the
Isthmus of Kra connect it with ports on the Gulf of Siam. Archaeological evidence reveals its links with Mon culture and with
Buddhism. However, from about the 15th century, its links with the
traditional Malay courts to the south (Perak and Melaka) and the
adoption of Islam by the elite in the following centuries, show that
culturally it was also strongly aligned with the Malay world. The
range of orientations available to Kedah, and the tensions this caused,
are expressed as major themes in The Story of Merong Mahawangsa, its
most important literary text.
The advantages of Kedah’s geographical position and its terrain,
which yielded tin and could support mixed agriculture, attracted the
attention of its neighbours. From the 13th century after the Thai occupied Siam, they became interested in Kedah as a gateway to Burma and
the Bay of Bengal. From the 16th century, a range of peoples from the
Indonesian archipelago established power bases in the kingdom. But
even earlier, in 1025, the Cola rulers of south India were so disturbed
by Kedah’s success as a commercial competitor that they attacked and
destroyed Pengkalan Bujang in 1025. During this period, they also
attacked Srivijaya in southeast Sumatra, a well-known centre for trade
passing through the Melaka Straits. Although Srivijaya is now part of
Indonesia, its prestige was so great that all later Peninsula Malay kingdoms claimed connections with it.
Srivijaya: federation and the mystique of power
Srivijaya has left more traces of its existence than the early ports of
Kedah. The main sources are Chinese and Arab records, travellers’
accounts and stone inscriptions. Using these, archaeologists and historians have worked together to try and locate the exact site of this
ancient kingdom. The following account is based on the results of
many years’ research by scholars who have been dedicated to trying to
understand the mystique of Srivijaya.
The earliest evidence about Srivijaya comes from a number of
7th century stone inscriptions from southeast Sumatra which mention
the name ‘Srivijaya’ and from references in 7th century Chinese
records to a place called Shih-li-fo-shih—the Chinese rendering of
Srivijaya. The indications are that the centre of Srivijaya was near
modern Palembang (see map 2, page xvi) but it was not until the early
1990s that archaeologists were able to confirm this. They uncovered
over 55 000 artefacts from sites in the heart of Palembang, most of
local manufacture, but also more than 10 000 pottery sherds from
imported wares. Such a dense amount of material from one site indicates a significant concentration of people and these finds together
with the inscriptions found in the vicinity of Palembang have convinced most scholars that this was the site of the main port of the
kingdom of Srivijaya.
The references to Srivijaya in the Chinese records, and then
from the 9th century in Arab sources as well, describe it as a place of
significance and status in the region so that it attracted a great deal
of trade. It was also renowned as a centre of Buddhist learning where
Chinese pilgrims could go to study and prepare for visits to the holy
sites of Buddhism in India. That such a large centre could have
developed in southeast Sumatra surprised many modern researchers.
It was believed that large centres needed a strong agricultural base
and a rich and controllable hinterland. Like the coastal regions of
the southern areas of the Malay Peninsula (separated only by the
narrow Straits of Melaka), the southeast of Sumatra does not have
volcanically enriched soils and links with the many groups inhabiting the uplands had to be established with diplomacy and maintained
by mutual agreement. As one scholar has pointed out, ‘in spite of the
lack both of an agrarian base capable of producing substantial surpluses and of large concentrations of population, Srivijaya was one of
the first, not one of the last, large polities to appear in the maritime
region’.5 In other words, the patterns of government and commerce
which were established in Srivijaya were repeated in later Malay-dominated centres such as Melaka, Perak and Johor-Riau. Many of
the same characteristics can still be found in the most successful
modern port of the region, Singapore.
During this period both Srivijaya and Kedah were able to exploit
the strategic advantages of their positions as commanding points at the
crossroads of intersecting trade networks. Kedah had access to the Bay
of Bengal, the Isthmus of Kra and thereby to the east coast of the
Peninsula and the Gulf of Siam, as well as the northern entrance to the
Straits of Melaka. Srivijaya was on the China–India sea route which
hugged the coasts of the Gulf of Tonkin south to the Gulf of Siam,
through the South China Sea, then to the island of Bangka. From
there, ships could enter the Musi River of southeast Sumatra and sail
up it to reach Srivijaya where cargoes were waiting and facilities were
available to prepare for further travel: either to the east and Java and
the Spice Islands or, via the Melaka Straits, to India.
We are fortunate to have the detailed account of a Chinese pilgrim,
I-Ching (635–713 CE), who visited Srivijaya three times between 671
and 695. His perspective is of a foreign visitor who was attracted to Srivijaya by its facilities for scholars of Buddhism. His first visit took
20 days by ship from Canton and he stayed six months to improve his
knowledge of Sanskrit so that he could study effectively at Buddhist
centre of Nalanda in India. The vessel he took to India was owned by
the ruler of Srivijaya. He spent ten years in India, returning to Srivijaya to translate Buddhist texts (from Sanskrit into Chinese). He
went briefly to Canton in 689 and returned with four assistants to
continue with the translation work. I-Ching’s notes are invaluable
sources of information about how Srivijaya was viewed by Chinese
Buddhists (the place to prepare for pilgrimage to India and a rich
source of sacred Buddhist scriptures), and for information about the
sea links between southern China and Southeast Asia. I-Ching
describes the voyage which could take as little as three weeks and
notes that there was a steady and regular stream of merchant vessels
making the trip. He refers also to the large number of Buddhist monks
(he gives the figure of 1000) living in the ‘suburbs’ of Srivijaya, and
having among them very famous Indian teachers. A number of Buddhist images, very old bricks and the remains of a stupa have been
found on or near Bukit Seguntang (the small Hill of Seguntang near
Palembang—mentioned as a special site in the Malay Annals) and this
evidence, together with the fact that the land around the hill is suitable for vegetable and fruit cultivation, has led some scholars to
suggest that this was the region of Buddhist ‘suburbs’ which I-Ching
referred to in his account of Srivijaya.
I-Ching presents a picture of a substantial concentration of people
in the Palembang region and also records the expansion of Srivijaya’s
influence during the period of his visits (and this must have been only
one of many additions to its influence). In his account, he notes that by
the time of his last visit in 690, the region of Malayu had become a
dependency of Srivijaya. It is fairly certain that ‘Malayu’ refers to an area
north of Palembang, near modern Jambi, on the Batang Hari River (see
map 2, page xvi) and indicates that Srivijaya’s power was growing.
Inscriptions from the same period add to this information. In one found
to the east of Palembang (known as the Sabokingking Inscription), the
ruler of Srivijaya refers to ‘the large number of mandala under my system
of datus’. Although this may appear to be rather cryptic, the terms
‘mandala’ and ‘datu’ are known to mean ‘circle of power’ and an office
of leadership which could be rendered ‘chief’ or ‘headman’. (As the
modern word Dato, it is still awarded as a title for outstanding public
service in Malaysia.) From I-Ching and the inscription, we learn that
during the 7th century CE, the rulers based at Palembang, then known as
Srivijaya, were expanding their influence and that they did not totally
absorb these new additions, but administered them through leaders
called Datus. The word ‘mandala’, with its circle associations, suggests
that the modern concept of a federation of allies is more appropriate
than that of an empire to describe the organisation of Srivijaya. The
heartland of Srivijaya does not seem to have enforced tight control over
its ‘subject’ areas but rather, worked in cooperation with them.
Further information about how the mandala/datu relationship
probably worked in practice comes from Srivijaya’s inscriptions. These
inscriptions are so important it is worth describing them briefly. They
begin to appear in the late 7th century CE, using Old Malay and Sanskrit language, written in a script originating from south India. They
are the oldest evidence of a language which is recognisably similar to
modern Malay. To date, they have been discovered in the vicinity of
Palembang, on the nearby island of Bangka, and at locations much
further away, including upper reaches of rivers in Sumatra. Inscriptions
and artefacts linked with Srivijaya and dated from between the 10th
and 12th centuries have been discovered in west Java, islands in the
Straits of Melaka and on the Malay Peninsula, suggesting a wide
sphere of influence. The inscriptions found near Palembang can be
divided into three kinds: a prayer or mantra asking for success in an
enterprise (the same formula as the Kedah Buddhist inscription
mentioned above), announcements of royal gifts or royal victories and
oaths of loyalty apparently administered to chiefs who were affiliated
with Srivijaya. It is from the latter two types of inscription that we can
gain some idea of the system of trade and exchange on which Srivijaya’s standing as a port, and its system of administration depended.
The ‘oath’ inscriptions start with a short, non-Buddhist invocation to local spirits and continue with a list of curses and
punishments which will befall those who break this oath of loyalty to
their leader. One of these inscriptions is presumed to have been from
near the royal residence of the ruler because it was directed to the
ruler’s family, household, military chiefs, palace officials, port officials
and the datu. The other oath stones follow the same pattern but define
loyalty to the datu and are presumed to have been for allegiance to the
datu by lesser chiefs. From this we can reconstruct the levels of authority: lesser chiefs were bound by oaths to datu, who were bound in a
similar way to the ruler of Srivijaya.
The location of the inscriptions and the pattern of trade, follow
the type of exchange mechanisms which operated in prehistoric times
on the Malay Peninsula—that is, a network of upland groups collecting products for trade and, by overland routes and/or river tributaries,
bringing them to particular points where they would be exchanged for
other items (from the coastal regions). The inland goods were taken,
in stages and by various modes of transport, to coastal nodes where
they were fed into the international system. This model applies equally
to maritime trade networks where sea products were delivered to
agreed points along coastlines and exchanged with the other goods
which had been assembled there.
The advantages of this system were its capacity to respond
quickly to changes in market demands and its cost effectiveness in
terms of complex bureaucracy and long distances. The weaknesses
were always that the affiliated groups would not cooperate or would
transfer or shift their allegiance and deal exclusively with other nodes.
The options for coercion and active enforcement by those in control
of the central collection points were limited. They relied primarily on
the supernatural power of their reputations and the dreadful threats of
punishment contained in the oath inscription curses. Labour was a
precious resource in these fragile terrains and punitive military action
was avoided if at all possible. Although the Srivijayan inscriptions
mention military personnel as part of the ruler’s following, and give
two accounts of large military expeditions (one to an interior area and
the other to Java), later evidence of Malay political behaviour suggests that it is more likely that these expeditionary forces looked as if
they would use military means to gain their ends. In reality, they were
probably intent on achieving an outcome through negotiation and
gifts or inducements.
One inducement that was both attractive and effective was to
offer potential allies relationships with elite families through marriage.
There are many instances of chiefs marrying the daughters (monogamy
may not have been the rule then) of leaders of groups with whom they
regularly traded. The ruler and his relatives likewise married the
daughters of chiefs and neighbouring rulers with whom they needed
firm alliances. The children of these unions would find it in their own
interests to maintain the effectiveness of the system which sustained
them and would in turn make their own marital alliances.
The viability of the Srivijaya commercial system—a network
of collection and exchange points linked into a loose confederation of
groups under datus giving their loyalty to a ruler—rested on the ruler’s
ability to reward that loyalty and on his personal charisma. One historian has examined the relationship between the Malay ruler and the
acquisition of wealth. Using examples from the 18th and 19th century,
he argues that the rulers were motivated ‘not by avarice but by a desire
to acquire and retain subjects, and it is clear that wealth was one condition for gaining supporters’.6 Although the reference is to a later
period, it is very likely that the same principle was operating in earlier
times. The rulers of Srivijaya would have used their profits from trade
to reward loyal allies and to support their personal retinues and
perhaps some military personnel. In the sense that wealth was used to
attract and retain supporters, it became a key factor in attaining and
retaining power although it had a significant disadvantage. ‘Rich
Malays became powerful Malays and the Raja therefore sought not
only to enhance his own fortune but to prevent the accumulation of
wealth on the part of his Malay subjects.’7 In other words, the ruler was
always wary of those members of the elite who, through their own
trading success, were acquiring wealth and were therefore potential
threats to his power.
Wealth was a necessary part of the ruler’s power of attraction but
it was not the only aspect. Personal charisma associated with some
kind of supernatural aura was also essential, especially in a primus inter
pares system of confederation. One leader had to be different from the
others to serve as the focal point. The inscriptions of Srivijaya again
provide evidence about the aura, or mystique, of the late 7th century
ruler. In 684, one of the inscriptions announced that the ruler was a
Bodhisvatta—a being who has attained enlightenment but postponed
nirvana, or eternal bliss, in order to assist others to attain it. The same
ruler offered his ‘loyal’ subjects an ‘immaculate tantra’ and ‘eternal
peace’, indicating that he was the source of rewards not only in this life
but in the next. Those who maintained their oaths of allegiance to
him would prosper and also gain eternal peace; those who betrayed
him would be damned in this world and in the next.
Any ruler who made such extravagant claims and succeeded in
attracting the notice of a wide range of foreign merchants would
attract also the attention of competitors. The inscriptions mention
several military expeditions which were sent to nearby regions but
there must also have been threats to the major nodes in Srivijaya’s
network of exchange. Chinese records mention Javanese invasions of
Srivijaya between 988 and 992 and Srivijaya did not escape raids from
the Cola kings of southern India in about 1025, which Kedah also
experienced. There were probably other attacks but the geopolitical
advantages of Srivijaya, together with its reputation as major node for
international trade, ensured that it remained on the global map for
many centuries. From the Chinese point of view, Srivijaya was a reliable source of frankincense brought there from the Middle East and in
the early 12th century Chinese sources describe the number of ships
which congregated at Palembang and comment on its prosperity. In
the 1390s, however, the ruler’s residence in Palembang was destroyed
by Javanese forces from the kingdom of Majapahit and the focus of
Malay commercial activity moved elsewhere—further north on the
Sumatran coast, and across the Straits to the rapidly growing centre of
Melaka. Such was Srivijaya’s reputation, that Melaka’s royal chroniclers established a pedigree for their rulers which linked them directly
with Palembang and presented them as heirs to Srivijaya’s mystique.
Palembang was not completely abandoned and some of its trade was
maintained by the community of overseas Chinese who had settled
there during the centuries that Srivijaya dominated the intricate
system of exchange and international trade.
The legacy of language: an ancient pedigree
for Malay
The inscriptions from the late 7th century located in the region of
Palembang describing Srivijaya and its ruler, are the earliest surviving
evidence of the Malay language. The script is Indian and terms for geographical concepts are borrowed from Sanskrit, but the terms for
political relations and authority are Old Malay. Some of those Sanskrit
terms have remained in usage and appear in contemporary Malay and
Indonesian—terms such as desa (village) and istana (palace).
It has been shown recently that these Srivijaya inscriptions are
the earliest surviving examples of the graphic representation of the
sign for zero with its current function.8 Although the system of mathematics based on the power of ten and using the void to indicate zero
had its origin in India in the early centuries CE (or earlier), there has
not yet been any evidence of its graphic representation which
pre-dates the Srivijayan inscriptions. The significance of this ‘find’ lies
not only in the very early evidence of a written sign for the zero but
also in the fact that the Srivijayan inscriptions used Indian script, but
not Indian conventions, for recording dates. Inscriptions in India from
the same period record dates with words, not figures, and use a different dating system. The Srivijayan/Old Malay inscriptions reveal a
confident local culture which expressed itself in terms familiar to
foreign visitors while retaining its own identity.
The Old Malay of the Srivijayan inscriptions is formal in style and
tone and restricted to official royal business yet it is recognisably related
to standard modern Malay. If we compare Chaucer’s English with
modern English and Old Malay with modern Malay, the latter is recognisably closer than the former. Inscriptions using Old Malay have been
found beyond Sumatra—seven in Java and one in the southern Philippines—and date from between the 8th and the early 10th centuries.
Their distribution, near coastal centres, suggests they were associated
with trading contacts but it is significant that their language and style
is similar to those from Srivijaya and is evidence of the status which Old
Malay had achieved. The existence of these inscriptions outside south-east Sumatra reminds us also that trading networks were extensive and
that points along the network were in communication with each other.
Regional trade
The local networks which supplied Srivijaya with products for
exchange had counterparts throughout the region wherever coastal
nodes were linked into the patterns of international trade. Srivijaya
was a major centre, and we know some of the details of its organisation
because of archaeological evidence and travellers’ reports. This kind of
evidence has been harder to find for other centres. A small break-through came with the discovery of remnants of a characteristic type
of locally made pottery distributed in areas around the Brunei Bay,
the Sarawak River delta and at Johor Lama (in the southern part of the
Malay Peninsula). The pottery has been dated to between 700 CE and
1500 CE and its pattern of distribution overlaps with areas where
coastal Malays now live. The researchers responsible for making these
finds suggest that the pottery reveals a trading pattern linking south-
ern China with northern and western Borneo, the southern areas of
the Malay Peninsula and probably areas in between.
Marine archaeology conducted in the Brunei Bay in 1998 recovered 13 500 artefacts from the wreck of a 15th century vessel trading in
the South China maritime network. This find has added further detail
to our knowledge of the regional trade systems. First, the quantity and
range of goods is greater than has hitherto been suspected and second,
the diversity of geographical origins of the cargo. The pottery and
porcelain came from southern China and various places in Thailand
and ranges from high-quality decorative pieces and domestic ware to
everyday utilitarian ware and mass-produced small pots. The latter
appear to have been shipped to Borneo ports to be filled there with
expensive products (perfumes, medicines) for re-export to other
The Brunei Bay shipwreck cargo includes many items of Chinese origin and is from a period which saw increasing numbers of
Chinese vessels trading directly with Southeast Asian ports. This suggests that from about the 12th century, there were sufficient numbers
of Chinese vessels to enable a number of centres outside southeast
Sumatra to develop. Srivijaya was no longer the only major entrepôt
offering goods from the West and local produce. It now had rivals. The
Javanese kingdom of Majapahit was one, and, from the 13th century
onwards, the increasingly confident and powerful Thai at Sukhothai
and later Ayutthaya, demanded allegiance from regional centres in
Indochina and on the Malay Peninsula.
Regional geopolitics were complex and shaped around centres
whose military capability added muscle to their claims to local loyalties.
During the 11th and 12th centuries Burmese influence was strong in
the northern parts of the Malay Peninsula but this was overshadowed
in the following century by the Thais, who considered areas on the
Malay Peninsula as part of their sphere of influence. Nodes in northern
Borneo had links with the southern Philippines, southern Vietnam and
Cambodia, and with other ports on the Borneo coast, in Brunei and
Sarawak and possibly also with parts of the Malay Peninsula. The intricacies of diplomacy were based on acceptance of the fact that the
imperial officials of China were the most powerful foreigners and
required regular missions of tribute to invoke imperial protection and
attract fleets of trading junks (boats). It is in this context of quite fierce
rivalry and a growing number of attractive entrepôt options, that Srivijaya’s hold on international trade was loosened and opportunities
opened for new initiatives.
Although big power politics influenced the most-favoured nation
policy of China, the major player in the region, the flow of trade
through the established regional networks was sustained wherever
collection points were maintained. So although the royal centre of
Srivijaya was destroyed by a Javanese attack in the 1390s, there were
sufficient numbers of Chinese merchants still living there to enable it
to continue to function as an entrepôt. By this time, the presence of
Chinese traders at active exchange points would have been widespread
through Southeast Asia and the stability and contacts they provided
enhanced the efficient operation of those ports. The movement of
Chinese overseas and the permanent settlement of many of them dates
back to at least this period. Henceforth, they would form a characteristic part of every major trading centre in Southeast Asia, occupying an
economic and social niche in the cosmopolitan milieu of a port city by
providing entrepreneurial and financial skills.
. . . and Melaka became a great city. Strangers flocked
thither . . . and from below the wind to above the wind
Melaka became famous as a very great city . . . so much so
that princes from all countries came to present themselves
before [the] sultan who treated them with due respect bestowing upon them robes of honour and of the highest distinction
together with rich presents of jewels, gold and silver.
From the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals)
The quotation above, from the famous 17th century Malay account of
the Sultanate of Melaka, was chosen by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir to
introduce the final section of his book The Way Forward, which was
launched in 1998 by Britain’s Baroness Thatcher. The prime minister
was using the passage, which describes the success and fame of Melaka,
to try to ‘show the way forward’ to contemporary Malaysians and prove
to them (and the world) that Melaka had been a great commercial
centre. It is a good example of the use of Malay Annals as an essential
part of modern political culture but it also illustrates Melaka’s reputation for being the greatest port in 15th century Southeast Asia. From
very early times, the demands of international trade and the strategic
situation of ports in the region of the Straits of Melaka contributed to
the working of a system of collection and exchange points which circulated through the region and fed into longer-distance trade routes.
Unlike most of the other ports in the region, however, visitors to
Melaka left written accounts describing its royal court, commercial
success and power politics. A Portuguese traveller, Tome Pires, in the
early 16th century wrote to persuade the Portuguese that Melaka was of
crucial importance to Europe: ‘Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand
on the throat of Venice. As far as from Malacca, and from Malacca to
China, and from China to the Moluccas, and from the Moluccas
to Java, and from Java to Malacca and Sumatra, [all] is in our power.
The Malay Annals is an invaluable source for trying to understand the priorities and values of a Malay sultanate and it will be a
primary source for this discussion. The system of governance and the
royal ceremonial developed at Melaka during the 15th century were
maintained by later Malay kingdoms, such as Kedah and Johor which
will be described in the following chapter.
International commerce
During the 12th and 13th centuries regional and international
trading activity was booming. One analysis of global trade patterns for
this period has identified three major interlocking systems: a European subsystem with Genoa and Venice as commercial centres; a
Middle Eastern network incorporating routes in and out of Mongol
Asia using the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea; and the Indian
Ocean–East Asia system, incorporating Southeast Asia and the
China–India networks. Venice and Genoa owed their wealth to their
roles as intermediaries between Asian goods and European markets.
The sea route for any of the cargoes from Eastern Indonesia and Java,
and from China, Indochina and Borneo, lay through the Straits of
Melaka. Any ports along the route had the potential to attract vessels
engaged in this trade and ports in west Java as well as others on the
east coast of Sumatra tried to do so. One such attempt was made by a
person known as Paramesvara from Palembang, who in the 1390s is
credited with establishing a settlement on the modern island of Singapore, then called Temasek.
Archaeological evidence from Singapore and the nearby islands
of the Riau archipelago provides confirmation of substantial trading
activity in this region during the 14th century but it was not sustained.
Malay, Javanese and, later, European accounts record attacks on Paramesvara’s settlement by Javanese and also by Siamese fleets, forcing
him to abandon Singapore and move further north. Chinese records of
the Ming Imperial Annals pick up his story in 1403 at Melaka, where he
had settled and made contact with Chinese ships, sent south by the
newly installed Ming dynasty. Chinese officials found it in their interests to recognise Paramesvara’s settlement and in return for his offers
of tribute, gave him gifts of costly silks and parasols and granted him
their protection. This meant that Chinese trade flowed to Melaka and
Chinese imperial protection shielded it from Siamese and Javanese
attacks, providing it with a special status in the region—a favoured
Chinese port. The early rulers of Melaka personally visited China on a
number of missions (each recorded in official Ming records) to ensure
continued Chinese protection for their port.
The influence of Islam
Paramesvara led Melaka until his death in 1414 when he was succeeded
by his son Megat Iskandar Shah, who is also mentioned in Chinese
records. He ruled for the next decade. As noted earlier, one of the early
Srivijaya inscriptions linked the ruler with Buddhism by presenting him
as a Bodhisvatta and it is thought that Paramesvara continued this
concept. But his son and successor is credited with being the first Malay
ruler to convert to Islam. Why would it have been advantageous for
him to present himself as a sultan as well as a raja?
To understand some of the reasons for adding Islam to the Melaka
ruler’s attributes, we need to understand the status of Islam in the
15th century. The Abbasid rulers of Baghdad (8th to 13th century)
had created a splendid image of Muslim kingship in which the ruler
was God’s shadow on earth. This Persianised expression of sovereignty
was attractive to many rulers in the Middle East and India. They
embraced Islam and the culture of kingship which the Abbasids had
developed. There was thus a growing number of medieval Muslim sultanates and this news would have quickly reached Southeast Asian centres.
Islam was attractive not only to the ruling elite but also to those
participating in the international trade network, whose feeders into the
Mediterranean and the European markets were through the heartlands
of Islam. In the 8th and 9th centuries, Buddhism had been the religion
of southern Indian merchants and artisans as recorded in the inscriptions of Kedah as well as Srivijaya. However, as the influence of Islam
spread, the merchant guilds and trading cooperatives in Gujerat and
Bengal began adopting the outward symbols of Islam and benefiting
from the solidarity and recognition this provided. There were also small
communities of Chinese converts, some of who were involved with
regional trade. Although these traders had been in contact with South-
east Asian networks since the 9th century, it was not until the Persian
expressions of Muslim kingship were circulating in India and then
Southeast Asia, that Malay and other local elites began to adopt Islam.
The reasons probably varied according to local contexts, but it has been
emphasised that the political cultures of the Malayo–Indonesian archipelago at this time were ‘compatible in important respects with the
prevailing political culture of medieval Islam’, and that local rulers
‘came to see their functions and objectives in Muslim terms’.
Paramesvara protected his new settlement at Melaka through
alliances with imperial China while his son and successor ensured its
commercial position and enhanced his own status by adopting Islam as
the official court religion. There were other advantages. As a patron of
Islam, the ruler of Melaka was able to assume the title of sultan,
placing himself on the same level as other sultans in the Middle East
and India and exploiting the rich traditions of Persian leadership
which included claiming descent from Alexander the Great.
Once Islam had become the court religion of Melaka, no time
was lost in making this widely known. Coins from 15th century
Melaka bore the new titles of sultan and shah and used Arabic phrases
to describe the ruler as ‘Helper of the World and of the Religion’.
Visitors to Melaka from other Muslim regions would have recognised
these formulae of authority and perhaps felt reassured that they were
dealing with a ruler who upheld Muslim values, respected Muslim law
and protected fellow Muslims.
Commercial life
The Ming dynasty’s need for pepper and sappanwood (for making
dyes) from Southeast Asia in the early 15th century provided the sym-
pathetic context for Melaka’s establishment, but the spice merchants
of Cairo, intent on dominating the trade into the Mediterranean, also
added new momentum to the demand for nutmegs and cloves from
Eastern Indonesia. Both these factors guaranteed a continuing strategic role for entrepôts along both sides of the Straits of Melaka, so that
ports on Sumatra’s east coast (such as Aru, Pasai and Aceh) also
attracted considerable trade. The centres in the Straits were in competition but each also had their own special attractions. Melaka, for
example, became the main centre for textiles from Gujerat and Coromandel, which were traded for spices from the Moluccas, silk and
porcelain from China, gold, pepper and forest products from Sumatra, camphor from Borneo, sandalwood from Timor and tin from the Malay Peninsula.
Melaka, like Srivijaya before it, became a major stapling centre,
distinguishing it from smaller ports and collection points where goods
were collected and exchanged during only brief interactions between
local traders. At Melaka, foreign merchants stayed for several months
trading, refitting and provisioning their vessels. The most numerous of
these long-term visitors were the Gujeratis, whose numbers grew to
about 1000 by the late 15th century. Other major groups of permanent
residents included Tamils, Javanese, Chinese, Bengalis, with smaller
communities of Chams (from southern Vietnam), Parsees, Arabs, Burmese and Siamese.
The supervision of the day-to-day business of running a complex
entrepôt like Melaka was delegated by the Malay ruler to officials
termed shahbandars. This was a position of power and was used by
incumbents to gain their own share of taxes and dues and grant
favours. In the early 16th century, when the volume of trade being
handled at Melaka was at its height, four shahbandars were appointed,
each working with a particular trading community. In this way the
Gujeratis and Chinese, for example, would have a shahbandar to
oversee their needs and collect taxes on behalf of the ruler. In a cosmopolitan port such as Melaka, those best-placed to liaise with foreign
merchants were themselves foreigners and the records indicate that
the shahbandars were usually not Malays.
The shahbandars were responsible for providing transport to
unload cargoes, collecting dues from ships’ captains and ensuring the
accuracy of weights and measures. Goods were sold by barter, or for
gold and coinage. Detailed regulations for all aspects of maritime
trade, at sea and in port, were set out in a special Melaka Maritime
Code (Undang-Undang Laut Melaka) which gives a vivid picture of
contemporary commercial and shipboard life. From it, and other
sources, we learn that women played an active role in commercial
life, in the local markets as well as in international trade. For this
reason, foreign merchants found it a great advantage to marry a local
woman who could engage in trade on his behalf and supervise his
business interests.
The available records for details of the types of goods being
traded through Melaka show that the port attracted large-scale, highreturn goods as well as lower-return, but necessary local trade. The
high-return trade was focused on long-distance markets (China, the
Middle East and Europe) and specialised in whatever luxury goods
were in fashion. It returned high profits, took little space, but required
a considerable investment to make the original purchase. The Malay
elite engaged in this kind of trade as well as foreign merchants. The
smaller-scale trade did not require vessels capable of making long-distance voyages and consisted of items needed for daily life: for
example, food (Melaka had to import most of its rice from Java and
Siam), spices and textiles for ordinary wear.
The Orang Suku Laut
Some of the small-scale trade was carried in local boats and many of
these would have been manned by members of the various sea-peoples known as the Orang Suku Laut. The islands, atolls and
sea-strands were their habitat, particularly in the southern parts of the Straits throughout the Riau-Lingga archipelago. They collected marine products for exchange and were
masters of the complex currents, hidden straits and treacherous
waters of the South China Sea between southwest Borneo, the
southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and the east coast of Sumatra.
They were recognised as the expert seamen of the region and seem to
have established working relationships with those local chiefs who
had contact with them. There is evidence that during the Srivijaya
period some of the groups had a special and direct relationship with
the rulers of Srivijaya. The rulers protected the Sea People in return
for services, such as acting as pilots and providing manpower for
Srivijaya’s vessels. It is also thought that the Sea People did not raid
vessels which traded with Srivijaya and that they may even have
actively diverted passing trade to enter Srivijaya-linked ports and
conduct their business there.
The Orang Suku Laut who operated in this area were known by
the names of the islands around whose coasts they operated. They had
then, and still lay claim to, specific locations where they came ashore
to take fresh water, collect firewood and food from the sea strand, and
settle for short periods. Any coastal trading centre in the vicinity of
Orang Suku Laut groups had to establish working relationships with
them or their independent trading and raiding activities would deter
larger commercial vessels from entering the Straits. In the 15th
century, when the Malay sultans of Melaka claimed that they were
descended from the old rulers of Srivijaya, the court was able to call on
some groups of the Orang Suku Laut to assist with special court duties.
The relationship between powerful Malays and the Sea People was
symbiotic and endured into the 20th century with groups in the Riau-Lingga archipelago claiming that their ranks and titles dated back to
descendants of the Melaka rulers.
Political culture
The second half of the 15th century was a boom time for Melaka.
Actual population figures for Melaka at its peak vary greatly. It was in
the interests of both the Malay rulers and the Portuguese conquerors
to exaggerate them. The Portuguese Admiral Alfonso de Albu-querque, gives 100 000 but the figure of 10 000 dwellings, or
40–50 000 individuals, the estimate of a Portuguese captured by the
Malays in around 1510, has been accepted as realistic, bearing in
mind that Melaka was heavily dependent on rice imports from Siam
and Java for food supplies.
Ruled by a Malay sultan whose court had diplomatic links with
the major centres of the time and whose ceremonial impressed foreign
missions, Melaka was well-organised and welcoming for foreign
traders. Foreigners were also reassured that orderly procedure and fair
practice was guaranteed in a framework of Islamic laws combined with
indigenous codes, implemented by senior officials who were close to
the sultan himself. The four most senior ministers were the bendahara,
chief executive for the sultan, the temenggung whose duties included
law enforcement, the laksamana or admiral of the fleet, and the
penghulu bendahari, or treasurer.
Malaysians are taught at school that the Malay court of Melaka
embodied the earliest expression of Malay ideals for governance and
correct behaviour. These are explicitly stated in the Malay Annals
which record a covenant made between the first Malay ruler and the
local chief, who became his chief minister and entered into the agreement on behalf of the ruler’s subjects. The covenant was initiated by
the local chief to protect all subjects from being humiliated or maltreated without just cause by the ruler. The ruler agreed, but added
the stipulation that all subjects, present and future, should never be
disloyal to the ruler, even if maltreated. If ever the ruler broke the
covenant by humiliating or publicly shaming even one of his subjects,
he would be punished by losing his kingdom. Thus, loyalty and public
humiliation were made the cornerstones of the relationship between
the ruler and his subjects. Throughout the Malay Annals, the symbiotic
link between ruler and subject is emphasised, expressed in sayings such
as, ‘There would be no tree if there were no roots and no ruler if there
were no subjects.’
The code for Malay subjects was unswerving loyalty to the sultan.
In return, the sultan, who was believed to be invested with supernaturally-given powers of sovereignty (daulat) at the time of his
coronation, had to treat his subjects with generosity, fairness and compassion. As leader of his subjects, the sultan had to show qualities of
courage and bravery. The literary conventions of the traditional texts
always describe the sultan as being handsome beyond compare, dressed
in the finest garments and surrounded by exquisite women, the most
beautiful of whom was his consort, and attended by brave and intelligent
young men.
One of the traditional stories set at the court of Melaka in its
heyday, Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Story of Hang Tuah), concerns the
relationship between Melaka’s greatest sultan and five of his bravest
young warriors led by one called Hang Tuah. The story is well-known
in modern Malaysia from school texts, comic books, films and videos
and describes the rise of Hang Tuah and his four comrades to high positions at the court of Melaka. The jealousy this arouses in other
courtiers leads to slander against Hang Tuah and the sultan orders him
to be put to death. The sultan’s wise chief minister (the bendahara)
does not carry out the order but hides Hang Tuah. His comrades
believe he has been executed, and one avenges this injustice by
occupying the royal palace and sleeping with the sultan’s women
attendants. This behaviour breaks all rules and is considered an act of
the highest treason (derhaka) but the sultan does not have any warriors
brave enough to confront the perpetrator. The wise chief minister is
able to summon Hang Tuah who places loyalty to his sovereign above
loyalty to his comrade, fights a gruelling duel and kills him. Hang
Tuah’s example of unswerving devotion to the sultan has traditionally
been regarded as the model for all Malay subjects to follow. During
the 20th century, however, some modern Malays have questioned the
appropriateness of Hang Tuah’s almost blind obedience to his ruler.
They championed instead the comrade who lost his own life trying to
avenge an injustice to his friend. Both Hang Tuah and his comrade
live on in contemporary Malaysian consciousness as symbols of the
strengths and weaknesses of the traditional sultanate.
The unsung hero of the Hang Tuah story is the wise bendahara.
He disobeys the sultan’s order to execute Hang Tuah on the grounds
that it is not only unjust but unwise, because he knows that Melaka
cannot afford to lose one of its most intelligent and courageous men.
The position of the bendahara in the traditional sultanate is second
only to the ruler. The bendahara did not have the daulat (sacred power
of sovereignty) invested in the sultan but he was the highest ranking
courtier and was usually closely related to the sultan by blood or marriage. It was appropriate for the daughter of the bendahara to become
consort for the sultan, thus maintaining the genealogical links
between the two senior levels of government. Besides serving as senior
adviser to the sultan, the bendahara was also responsible for the defence
of the kingdom and the implementation of its laws. The Malay Annals
devotes almost as much attention to descriptions of the bendahara as it
does to the sultan, thus emphasising his crucial role in the sultanate.
Qu estions of status
An important aspect of Malay political culture was the distinction
between elite and non-elite Malays.
The elite
Those who were close to the sultan through blood-ties or position were
accorded the highest status in Melaka. The elite were differentiated
from others by a strict code of dress and ornamentation reserved for
them alone and by degrees of physical propinquity to the sultan.
Within the elite, status was graded. The bendahara and the other three
senior officials mentioned above took precedence.
The ruler and his family, his retinue and attendants and the senior
ministers were physically separated from the non-elite with residences
around the top of the small hill which dominates the rather flat area of
Melaka. The Malay Annals describe the palace built by the bendahara
for Sultan Mansur (1459–77), sixth sultan of Melaka. The bendahara
brought people from Bentan, his domain in the Orang Suku Laut region
of the Riau-Lingga archipelago, to construct the palace. The description of its seven-tiered roof, pillars, bays, cupolas, gilded spires, inset
panels of Chinese mirrors and roof of copper and zinc shingles, is so
detailed that the palace was able to be reconstructed in modern Melaka
and is now used as the Cultural Museum. The residences of lesser officials were on the lower slopes, while the non-elite lived in settlements
along the Melaka River.
The non-elite
Details of daily life in and around Melaka are available from sections
of the Melaka Law Code which mention the growing of rice, sugarcane, bananas, fruit trees, betel nut, buffalo, cattle and goats. The
fertile areas lay inland and rice may have been obtained from the hill
crops of Orang Asli groups living upriver and referred to in early
Portuguese reports as ‘Benuas’.
Slaves were used for labour in agriculture, to man vessels and to
perform household tasks. People were enslaved for debt or because
they were regarded as non-Malays, culturally inferior and available for
exploitation. Debt slaves could repay their debt and have their free
status restored. Other slaves were regarded as permanently in bondage
and many in this category were the children of Orang Asli who were
taken in raids and sold or exchanged in much the same way as natural
products from the interior.
The number of provisions in the Melaka Law Code concerning
slaves reflects their economic and social importance as the major
source of labour. The low population density of the Malaysian territories meant that manpower was a precious resource. Wealth was
measured not only in terms of material possessions but also in terms of
the number of slaves a leader controlled.
Foreign residents
Although the sultan and the highest ranking Malay officials directly
engaged in trade, they worked also with foreign merchants. These
merchants were divided into those who settled permanently in
Melaka and worked as intermediaries between other foreigners and
local merchants, and those who merely used Melaka as a staging post
on a return or a longer voyage. Those foreigners who resided permanently in Melaka were in a position to gain the trust of the Malay
elite. Several married into leading Malay families and founded lines
which became famous in Melaka’s history.
As well as large merchant groups from south India, there were
significant communities of Chinese and Javanese who had their
own districts, or kampungs, near the waterfront and along the river and
who lived from trading or worked as labourers (including small-scale
tin-mining), artisans and mercenaries. Other foreigners, including
Persians, Arabs, Burmese, Siamese and Cham (from southern Vietnam)
also chose to live permanently in Melaka, thus making it a very diverse
and no doubt volatile society. Many had local wives and their children formed the beginning of the mestizo communities which became a
characteristic and essential part of the major cities of Southeast Asia.
The majority of these people must have remained in Melaka after the
Portuguese assumed control in 1511 because population estimates for
the mid-16th century do not vary greatly from those of the late
15th century.
Several factors contributed to the value placed on diplomatic skills as
an essential quality for a Malay leader. Chief among these was the need
to avoid warfare or any direct conflict which would lead to extensive
loss of life. As well, trade and commerce relied on contact with people
from different backgrounds, who would take their business elsewhere if
they did not feel secure and respected. The strategic position of the
Malaysian territories also exposed them to the influence and designs of
powerful neighbours like Siam and China.
A careful reading of the Malay Annals suggests a range of strategies were employed to establish and maintain good relations with
neighbours near and far. For areas beyond Melaka, the ruler delegated
authority to trusted chiefs in a way that may have resembled the Datu
system of Srivijaya. The bendahara, for example, had authority over
the regions of Muar and Bentan (see Map 5, page xix), while other
chiefs were granted areas on the east coast of Sumatra, a region
whose access to the jungle products of upland Sumatra and to the
gold of the interior made it of crucial importance to Melaka, as it had
been to Srivijaya.
Other territories and centres were presided over by a close
relative of the ruling sultan of Melaka and there they established the
ceremonial of the Melaka court. In this way, Pahang and Kampar (on
Sumatra’s east coast) became linked with Melaka and, after 1511, the
ruler and bendahara of Perak came from the Melaka ruling line.
Alliance by marriage is referred to often in the Annals, and the
bride usually brought her husband the rights to particular territories.
Thus, when one of the Melaka sultans married a Javanese princess, he
was given the important centre of Inderagiri on Sumatra’s east coast
and later, in the 19th century, Inderagiri historians proudly emphasised
these links with Melaka. When Kelantan surrendered to a delegation
sent from Melaka, a Kelantan princess was chosen to become the wife
of the Melaka ruler.
Very different strategies were adopted towards non-Malay
centres such as those in Siam and China. It was the protection of the
fleets of Ming China which enabled Melaka to become established in
the Straits region, and Chinese records note that the early rulers of
Melaka made regular visits to the Imperial Court. The Thais were
consistently interested in the areas to the south of their heartland (as
they were in all their neighbouring regions). The Malay Annals contains accounts of several attacks on Melaka which were repelled, in
one instance, by tricking the Thais into believing the Malay forces
outnumbered their own. The ruler of Melaka then decided to use
diplomacy and formal relations were established. At the time Melaka
was settled, the centre of the Thai kingdom was at Ayutthaya which
established its own direct relationships with Malay centres in the
northern parts of the Malay Peninsula. A custom introduced by the
rulers of Ayutthaya, and accepted by Malay rulers wanting to remain
on friendly terms, was the sending of ornamental trees made from gold
and silver. These were recognised by both sides as a symbol of submission which did not cost the sender more than token obeisance.
In these ways—diplomacy, marriage, alliance, delegation of
authority and symbolic gestures of submission, as well as negotiation
and bluff—Melaka established its position in the region and maintained a prolonged relationship with Siam and China. These
strategies, however, did not work with the Portuguese who first made
contact with Melaka in the early 16th century.
Spices for Europe: the Portuguese attacks
By the late 15th century, the ruling powers of Portugal were determined to break the Muslim monopoly of the spice trade to Europe.
The Papal Bull of 1493, Insulae Novi Orbis, divided the world
between Spain and Portugal and gave each the task of propagating
the faith wherever they went. The Portuguese pursued their commercial mission with zeal and after establishing posts along the west
coast of Africa, then winning naval supremacy of its east coast, they
reached the west coast of India and gained a foothold in Cochin
(1503). After several years of intermittent naval battles against
Egyptian and Gujerati fleets, on St Catherine’s Day (10 November)
1510, Afonso de Albuquerque took Goa from the sultan of Bijapur
and made it the centre of Portuguese influence in the East.
Albuquerque implemented a policy of commercial contact rather
than military commitment. However, a Portuguese mission under
Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, despatched to open trade with Melaka in
1509, had ended in disaster with some of the mission being imprisoned. Malay accounts suggest that the Portuguese offended Malay
officials, while the Portuguese believe they were slandered by Gujerati
merchants. In July 1511, Albuquerque himself came to rescue his men
and also sought compensation and permission to build a fortified
trading centre. The Malays declined and Albuquerque attacked and
took the Melaka bridge but was beaten back. A month later the Portuguese again attacked and gained a foothold which they were able to
exploit in a later attack and take the town. The battle scenes are
described graphically in the Malay Annals, in Portuguese paintings and
in later representations. Although the forces of Melaka are often
romantically depicted as being overwhelmed by Europeans armed with
superior weaponry, contemporary accounts note that the local forces
had good supplies of firearms, possibly manufactured at Pegu and Ayutthaya, and that their heavy cannon caused considerable loss of life to
the Portuguese. One contemporary European account describes the
Malays as ‘most valiant men, well trained in war, and copiously sup-
plied with every type of very good weapon.’4 This suggests that the
battle was by no means one-sided but the Malay elite decided to retreat
from the town. For the next few years although they regularly sent
small fleets to harass Portuguese ships they did not succeed in dislodging them from Melaka.
Albuquerque stayed to oversee the construction of A Famosa, the
stone fortress whose remains are still a symbol of Melaka, and, on the
site of the Malay royal palace, built the church of St Paul’s. A wall was
built to encircle the main Portuguese buildings and the locals forced to
live outside, a separation started by the Malay elite. It was Albuquerque’s aim to maintain Melaka as it had been under the Malays and
to this end he kept as closely as possible to the existing system of
customs dues and continued the administration of foreign merchants
under their own representative shahbandars. When they first occupied
Melaka, the Portuguese were in a much weaker position than the Malay
rulers had been, because they controlled only the town and a small amount of surrounding territory. They did not have the support of
neighbouring chiefs and local rulers and one of their first moves was to
try to establish friendly relations with neighbouring states.
Albuquerque also believed that Portuguese long-term interests
would be well served by a permanent community of Eurasians working
in Melaka and he encouraged Portuguese men to marry local women.
As a gesture of good faith to those women who accepted Portuguese
offers of marriage, he gave dowries of the cultivated land which had
been left by the retreating Malay elite. Working with Indian merchants, the Portuguese traded Indian textiles for spices from the
centres in Sumatra and eastern Indonesia.
The move from Melaka
Some Malays remained in small settlements around Melaka exchanging produce with the merchants of the entrepôt as they had done
under Malay rule. The Portuguese did not impose their laws or religion
on them. The Malay elite, however, repeated the strategy of Paramesvara, Melaka’s founder who, when driven from Singapore by Javanese
attacks, simply withdrew and resettled elsewhere.
The Malay sultans and the Malay elite of Melaka had benefited
greatly from the profits of trade. In fact, so great were the profits during
this very active 15th century, that it was not possible for the sultan to
monopolise all the wealth which flowed from dues and taxes. Foreigners,
particularly Indians, and senior members of the Malay elite, like the
bendahara, the temenggung and the laksamana, became extremely wealthy
in gold and money, as well as substantial numbers of followers. The
sultan was no longer the sole source of advancement and, although
several sultans did have rivals executed or banished, this did not eliminate the problem of competitors. Only one royal prince could succeed as
ruler and many disappointed princes either left Melaka voluntarily or
married into ruling families at other centres, especially in east Sumatra.
Some remained at court and provided alternative foci for ambitious
The ruling line of the Melaka sultanate was not a straightforward
genealogy, especially in a system where father-to-son succession was
not the only path to the throne (younger brothers and senior male relatives were also acceptable). At a court where the ruler had more than
one royal wife, as well as numerous concubines, there was never a
shortage of potential male heirs. Theoretically, the mother of a royal
heir was one of the ruler’s queens, but at least one ruler was descended
from a mother who was not recognised as a queen and this injected an
element of weakness into the whole line thereafter. Rival princes from
the senior female line could challenge the incumbent line based on
their ancestry. This did happen during the 17th century.
A further element of instability and uncertainty which existed
during and after this period, centred round the power, wealth and prestige of the bendaharas. Their wealth was well attested and this was
combined with very close blood relationship with the sultans—either
grandfather, uncle, cousin, or by marriage with female relatives. They
were obvious candidates for the throne and this was recognised by their
official role as regents, if the ruler were a minor. Ambitious courtiers
might support the bendahara in the belief that he would come to power
and take them with him.
The ability of the elite to amass wealth for their own purposes
and the flexibility of the royal line during this period contributed to a
climate around the ruler that was tense and volatile. The physical
separation, symbolic of the distance between the status of the elite and
the non-elite, which was a feature of the political culture during this
time also contributed to a sense of tension in the community. The ruler
was literally isolated from the people and probably also from all but the
most senior of his chiefs. This would have made it difficult to inspire
the very close ties of loyalty which were an essential part of the
ruler–subject relationship in Malay political culture. As well, the
special links which the rulers of Srivijaya developed with the Orang
Suku Laut were no longer the sole preserve of the sultan. The benda-hara, for example, had the allegiance of the Orang Suku Laut groups in
his territory of Bentan, and the laksamana could also command his own
following. During the 15th century, the growth in access to material
wealth and the greater diversity of power relations resulted in much
greater potential for competition within the Melaka elite, as well as
between external centres which were keen to attract the Straits trade
to their harbours and away from Melaka.
When the Melaka elite withdrew from the Portuguese onslaught
of 1511, they were dependent on the local maritime people (Orang
Suku Laut) and the local Orang Asli the ‘Original people’, to help them
escape. An old story in the Philippines relates how a relative of the
sultan of Melaka escaped with his followers and, taken by the Orang
Suku Laut, reached Mindanao. Establishing allies there, he settled, and
the Orang Suku Laut returned to their domain in the islands south of
the Malay Peninsula. For the Malay sultan himself, it was probably too
risky to attempt to leave Melaka by sea because the Portuguese fleet
was still active. The main group of retreating nobles, therefore, took
the ancient overland route to Pahang (see map 2, page xvi), a six day
trip using river tributaries to cross the Peninsula from west to east.
They would have relied on the local Orang Asli for directions and assistance as porters. As already mentioned, the languages of some of the
Orang Asli groups—those following the Malayic sociocultural pattern
and living in the south of the Peninsula—show that they have long
been in contact with Malay speakers, extending back to at least the
16th century.
The displaced Malays from the Melaka court seemed to have
believed the retreat was not permanent for they did not attempt to
resettle for some years but spent the time with relatives at royal centres
in Pahang and on Sumatra’s east coast. They did, however, make bases
in the islands of the Riau archipelago and worked with the Orang Suku
Laut to raid Portuguese ships, prompting reprisals from the Portuguese
forces, now well established at Melaka. At some stage during this early
period of retreat, Sultan Mahmud ordered the execution of his son,
who was also his co-ruler, an indication that the old divisions among
the ruling elite were continuing. On Sultan Mahmud’s death in 1529,
another son, who ruled as Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah, succeeded
him and reigned for over 30 years. This sultan established settlements
along the Johor River (see map 2, page xvi) and, with him, began the
next phase of the Melaka dynasty. In a new location, it was known
thereafter as the kingdom of Johor.
In the year 1096, on the 28th day of the month Rabi’al-akhir
[April 3, 1685] . . . I Paduka Raja [royal prince] who rules
Johor and Pahang, have concluded this contract with Francois
van der Beke, Syahbandar, and Lieutenant Jan Rosdom when
they came as ambassadors to the Yang Dipertuan [the One who
is Lord], asking to trade in cloth with the Minangkabaus up the
Siak River.
Rulers of kingdoms in the Malay world were skilled in relations with
foreigners and the diplomatic activities of the Melaka elite during the
15th century indicate how assiduously they worked to keep open a
wide range of options in their local and foreign relations. Complex ceremonies were developed to honour visitors to royal courts and
Europeans participated in these ceremonies and conducted business on
local terms.
The permanent settlement of the Portuguese in Melaka, followed by the Dutch in eastern Indonesia and Java, brought some
changes to the way business was conducted. Europeans considered
precisely worded contracts important and tried to gain exclusive
trading rights to certain products. Misunderstandings were later to
occur because of basic differences in attitudes to the status of contracts. Dutch merchants, for example, believed in ‘the letter of the
law and the fine print of their eternal treaties’.2 Malay officials did not
view the contracts in the same way. For them, solemnly sworn oaths
were the most binding form of agreement. The earliest evidence of
the sanctity of oaths comes from the inscriptions of the Srivijayan
period when the datus and others swore eternal allegiance to the ruler,
believing that supernatural retribution would befall them if they
broke their word. The penalties for departing from the terms of contracts with strangers were not held in similar awe. After Islam became
the official religion of the Melaka court ‘oaths were sworn in the sight
of Allah, who was evoked as the ultimate guarantor of sincerity and
justice’ and contracts made with non-Muslims may not have had the
same ‘profound significance’.
The continuing presence of Europeans in Southeast Asia
demanded some adaptation on both sides and the Portuguese victory
of 1511 offers an appropriate moment to pause and briefly survey the
historical context of the Malaysian territories and the neighbouring
regions during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and to note the
realignments and responses which were occurring during that time.
Although the Portuguese aimed to keep Melaka operating as the
entrepôt it had been under the Malay elite, many of the Muslim merchants from India and from the Middle East, as well as local traders,
moved their business to alternative ports. This strengthened the position of several centres on Sumatra’s north and east coasts which had
long been Melaka’s rivals. The Malay Annals, for example, acknowledge that the only kingdoms which were Melaka’s equals (during the
15th century) were Aru (Haru) and Pasai, both on Sumatra’s north-east coast and centres which could collect and exchange the resins,
aromatic woods, pepper and gold which were staple entrepôt items.
Pasai was absorbed into its more aggressive neighbour, Aceh (see
map 2, page xvi) and, from 1520, the rulers of Aceh energetically promoted their ports at the expense of others in the Straits area. They
competed with the Portuguese by trading directly with centres in the
Red Sea, thus bypassing Melaka and Portuguese ports on the west
coast of India. This also threatened the trading networks of the ex-Melaka elite now in the Johor region, and in 1540 they formed an
alliance with their former rivals in Aru against Aceh. During the
1560s, Aceh retaliated by attacking and overwhelming the small settlements and royal sites along the Johor River. Aceh was now the
major power in the Straits region.
From the 1580s until the 1630s there was a resurgence in
international trade involving China, Japan, India and Europe. Contributing to this intensified activity, merchants in both England and
the Netherlands began to engage directly in voyages to the East.
English and Dutch interest in Southeast Asia begins from this period.
In 1607, the most successful of Aceh’s rulers, Sultan Iskandar Muda,
assumed power. He responded to the international demand for increasing amounts of pepper and tin by attacking Kedah and Perak, the
tin-rich areas of the Malay Peninsula, as well as Pahang, whose upland
gold deposits must have been very attractive.
Sultan Iskandar Muda ruled Aceh until his death in 1636. He is
Aceh’s most famous sultan and his reign is celebrated in several Malay
prose works, which he commissioned from scholars at his court. He also
brought scholars from India and the Middle East to strengthen Islam in
his kingdom and to write religious treatises in Malay, the earliest exam-ples we have of Muslim texts written for Malays. He established Aceh
as a glorious centre for trade and religion but this was achieved at the
expense of his neighbours. Large numbers of people were taken from
the Malay Peninsula—11 000, it is said from Pahang alone—to serve as
labourers and cultivators in Aceh. In 1613, his forces again destroyed
the Johor royal centre on the Johor River and the royal family was
taken to Aceh where a Johor prince was forced to marry an Acehnese
princess and returned to Johor to rule under Aceh. This prince was no
obedient son-in-law and, in 1615, joined an alliance against Aceh
which consisted of Melaka’s old allies, Pahang, Palembang, Jambi,
Inderagiri, Kampar and Siak. The alliance continued to form a close-knit group of Malay kingdoms in the south of the Peninsula and on the
east coast of Sumatra, sometimes at odds with each other and jostling
for status within the group, but sharing the same traditions of kingship
based on versions of the Malay Annals. Each of them claimed sacred the
links with Palembang-Srivijaya and regarded its dynasty as as their
common point of origin.
During the early part of the 17th century, the royal family of Johor
made marriage alliances also with Patani, the rising Malay centre in the
north of the Peninsula which provided entrepôt facilities for regional
and international trade passing through the South China Sea and the
Gulf of Siam (see map 2, page xvi). A court chronicle in Malay records
the establishment of this port and the conversion of its ruler to Islam,
at about the same time as the ruler of Melaka converted. The Thai
kingdom of Ayutthaya, which had already threatened Melaka, also
actively tried to govern Patani but was appeased with pledges of cooperation. From the mid-16th century, however, Ayutthaya had to
defend itself against attacks from Burma and was concerned with its
own defence until the end of the century. During the 17th century, the
Thais were again active in requiring the Malay kingdoms in the southern reaches of their sphere of influence to send symbols of submission,
and Patani and Kedah were particularly targeted.
In the southern part of the Peninsula, the Acehnese continued
to menace rivals, including the Portuguese at Melaka. After several
attempts, the Portuguese succeeded, in 1629, in defeating a large
Acehnese fleet, thus curbing their ambitions and activities in the
Straits. The former Melaka elite (or their descendants) in Johor sought
any opportunity to reactivate their own trading links and networks and
seized the moment to attract merchants and make Johor a major
trading centre. With Aceh no longer patrolling the Straits, this left the
Portuguese at Melaka as the only other hostile presence to these plans
and, before long, it became clear that the increasing Dutch presence in
the region could be used against the Portuguese.
During the 16th century in Europe, the United Provinces of the
Netherlands had prospered and its experienced merchants had
capital to invest in a United Netherlands Chartered East India
Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) which was
established in 1602. The VOC was governed by a Board of Seventeen which was represented in the East by a governor-general.
Despite his instructions not to engage in local politics, he nevertheless used his men and funds to dislodge a local ruler in west Java and
establish his headquarters at Jayakarta, which he renamed Batavia.
For the Dutch governor-general, as for the Malays and other local
powers, the Portuguese control of Melaka was a factor inhibiting
their own trading plans. In 1640, the Johor ruler agreed to assist the
Dutch to blockade Melaka in return for Dutch support to build
several armed and fortified centres on the Johor River.
It took six months for the Portuguese to surrender but in January
1641 they withdrew and the Dutch occupied the site established two
centuries earlier by Paramesvara. They used the port as a centre to
collect tin from the neighbouring regions to supply the demand which
had begun earlier in the century. The operations of the VOC in Southeast Asia were more centralised and better organised than previous
commercial networks, except perhaps, for those of Srivijaya. It was
Dutch policy, however, to develop Batavia as the central focus for all
their trade and treat other ports as feeders for the centre. This was to
have negative repercussions for Melaka and would be the determining
influence on VOC policies in the Malay Peninsula.
The late 16th century saw a major increase in the number of
Chinese junks trading with Southeast Asia and this level of activity
lasted for almost a century. In 1571, the Spanish, in accordance with
the Papal Bull which defined their sphere of influence as the Philippines and western South America, developed their interests and
founded Manila. The implications for north Borneo, especially Brunei,
were considerable. A new and very profitable network developed and
became known as the (Spanish) ‘galleon trade’—Chinese silks, porcelains and other luxury items were transported from Macao to Manila
where they were traded for silver from Mexico and Spanish America.
The Brunei sultanate (for it was now an Islamic court) and the Tausug
of the Sulu archipelago (see map 2, page xvi) collected local products
such as pepper, birds’ nests, mother of pearl, tortoiseshell, sea cucumbers (trepang), camphor and wax as items to be traded for goods
brought by the Chinese junks. Brunei flourished on this trade and the
elite strengthened their links with their chiefs and representatives to
ensure their networks of supply for local products were secure.
The Tausug also specialised in human captives and conducted
raids themselves or purchased slaves from neighbouring maritime
peoples such as the Bajaus. From the late 18th century, slave raiders
worked the coasts of Borneo, Sulawesi, the islands of eastern Indonesia
and Papua, northern Java, southern Sumatra and the east coast of the
Malay Peninsula up into the Gulf of Siam and through the southern
Philippines, seizing men, women and children who were sold to
wealthy Southeast Asians and to Europeans. It was a profitable trade
which terrorised local populations throughout the region and earned
the people of Sulu a fearsome reputation as warriors. They were hired
as mercenaries in Johor and Kedah in the late 18th century.
Movement of peoples is a recurring theme in the history of
Southeast Asia. When Paramesvara migrated from Singapore he must
have been accompanied by a number of followers and, after he settled
at Melaka, it grew from an unknown settlement to a major centre
within half a century. Immigration was essential for its development.
The Malay Peninsula had a long-standing Orang Asli population but
their need for mobility militated against large population increases.
Sizable increases in population, therefore, had to come from immigration and it is not clear where the 11 000 carried out of Pahang by the
Acehnese early in the 17th century came from. We do know that at
about this time groups from east Sumatra and from Minangkabau areas
on Sumatra’s west coast were crossing the Straits and beginning to
settle in the valleys of what is now called Negeri Sembilan. They
maintained close contact both with their original villages and with the
Minangkabau royal family as well as preserving the matrilineal descent
system which is regarded as characteristic of the Minangakabau.
The Bugis of southwest Sulawesi were another major ethnic group
which also began dispersing through the region during the 17th century.
The exodus of considerable numbers out of Sulawesi (the Celebes) was
precipitated by the aggressive policies of the VOC which, having
expelled the Portuguese from Melaka, turned its attention to the eastern
archipelago and tried to enforce a monopoly on spice trading. The VOC
was determined to control Makassar, which was the centre of this
eastern trade, but had to fight a bloody war over three years before negotiating a treaty with the sultan in 1669. This coincided with a period of
intense rivalry between several leading figures in the Bugis homeland
and the less successful leaders found it expedient to migrate with their
followers and establish new ventures outside Sulawesi. During the
17th century the Bugis became known for their exceptional skills as
navigators and pilots as they sailed, like their Austronesian ancestors,
across the Indonesian archipelago, even reaching northern Australia.
They were skilled with firearms and fearless fighters so many found
employment as mercenaries, with the VOC as well as with local rulers.
Their qualities earned them respect and, in many of the places where
they settled, they married into the families of the elite and became permanent members of those societies. They were particularly successful in
the region of the Straits of Melaka, including Johor.
The kingdom of Johor
The Portuguese defeat of the Acehnese fleets in 1629 opened the way
for more diverse trading opportunities. The ports along Sumatra’s east
coast served as outlets for gold, tin and pepper from the interior and
local leaders gained prestige if they associated themselves with the
charismatic royal centre of the Minangkabaus, called Pagar Ruyung.
As the rulers of Melaka had done, the Minangkabau royal house
claimed descent from the ancient and legendary rulers of Srivijaya at
Palembang. Thus, when leaders from the east coast of Sumatra claimed
they had the blessing and authority of the rulers of Pagar Ruyung, they
were accorded respect and several joined the diaspora of Minangkabau
who migrated to the Negeri Sembilan areas of the Malay Peninsula.
They were accepted as leaders by the Minangkabau migrants there and
founded lineages which can still be traced. In the early years of the
18th century, the opportunity arose for another east Sumatran leader
to attempt to gain a following among Malays in the kingdom of Johor.
The decision of the Johor elite to support the Dutch attacks on
Portuguese Melaka had long-term benefits. The Dutch not only
fulfilled their agreement to help fortify Johor settlements, they also
negotiated trading agreements with the Johor elite which granted the
Dutch special privileges and gave the Johor nobles rights to trade in
goods which elsewhere were restricted to Dutch monopolies. One of
the treaties granted the Dutch rights to trade with Siak, on Sumatra’s
east coast, suggesting that Johor claimed authority over this important
export region. The authority of the Johor nobles at this time seems to
have been very strong and there was intense rivalry among them.
In 1699, one of the nobles murdered the reigning sultan of Johor,
Sultan Mahmud. Contemporary reports indicate that the ruler was a
cruel and brutal man, and apparently without heirs. He was succeeded
by the bendahara, the chief noble, who was closely related to the
Melaka ruling line. Nevertheless, this provided the opportunity for the
authority of the Johor sultanate to be questioned and rumours circulated that the royal line of Melaka, with its reputed links back to
Srivijaya, had been broken. The accession of the bendahara, who traditionally had the right to replace the sultan if he was without heirs
and who acted as regent if the sultan were underage, was ‘legal’ in the
context of Malay political culture. However, the dissension which the
1699 accession aroused reflects the prize which the Johor throne represented, as well as the inter-elite rivalry which had long been evident.
These internal divisions were, in part, made possible by the access to
profits from trade which the nobles enjoyed, as they had in Melaka
times, and the support they could call on from their individual
domains which the sultan had granted them.
A decade after the bendahara’s accession, Raja Kecil, a chief from
the east Sumatran region of Siak, claimed he was the legitimate ruler
of Johor because he was the posthumous son of the murdered sultan.
He announced that he was recognised as such by the Minangkabau
royal family and had their support. Many believed him and he
attracted a following of Minangkabaus along Sumatra’s east coast.
Raja Kecil’s claim to be descended from the royal line of the Johor
also drew the allegiance of many of the Orang Suku Laut who had
maintained their respect for the Srivijaya-Melaka rulers. With their
assistance and with a force of Minangkabaus, Raja Kecil succeeded in
displacing the sultan of Johor who retreated to Terengganu, which
had very close links with the Johor elite. In about 1720, Raja Kecil
married one of the sultan’s daughters, proclaimed himself ruler of
Johor and invited the former ruler to return. When the former sultan
reached Pahang he was murdered, allegedly on Raja Kecil’s orders.
The Johor elite who had stayed with the sultan announced that Raja
Sulaiman, the young son of the murdered bendahara-sultan, would
succeed him and they negotiated with a group of Bugis mercenaries to
remove Raja Kecil from Riau where he was ruling and replace him
with Raja Sulaiman.
The Bugis warriors had links with their fellows in the various Bugis
settlements which had been established as a result of their diaspora from
Sulawesi, in the tin areas around Melaka, particularly Klang and Linggi
(see map 2, page xvi). They had made money trading in Borneo and Java
and along the coasts of the Peninsula but had no power-base in the
Straits region. They agreed to assist the Johor nobles in return for a
permanent and senior position in the Johor government. It was agreed
that one of them would be appointed as under king (Yang Dipertuan
Muda), second only to the sultan in rank. The Bugis began their attacks
on Raja Kecil and fought a series of battles on land and sea which succeeded in dislodging him from his Riau centre from where he retreated
to Siak. Raja Sulaiman was installed as sultan of Johor and one of the
Bugis warriors was married to his sister and installed as under king. Other
Bugis warriors married Malay princesses and assumed senior positions in
the kingdom. Their children, with royal Malay and Bugis blood, provided Johor with its rulers and senior officials into the 20th century.
The events of the kingdom of Johor from 1699 until the 1860s
are recorded in an epic chronicle entitled Tuhfat al-Nafis (The Precious
Gift), compiled in the 1860s by Raja Ali Haji, a talented and intelligent descendant of the original Bugis under king. His account,
unsympathetic to the claims of Raja Kecil of Siak, the enemy of his
ancestors, is the first Malay history to name the primary sources on
which it draws and to present varying versions of an event. Raja Ali
Haji’s scholarship, his consistent use of dates and careful attention to
veracity established a standard for Malay historiography and rekindled
interest in the history of Johor and its status as heir to Melaka. In The
Precious Gift, it is clear that the 18th century was a period of strong
competition for the trade of Sumatra’s east coast, control of the tin
resources of the west coast of the Peninsula and access to the networks
linking the east coast of the Peninsula with the Gulf of Siam.
Raja Kecil and his sons continued to attack Johor and its
dependencies until the 1740s but thereafter the Bugis were in full
control of the security of kingdom. Once free of the Minangkabau
harrassment, the Bugis turned their attention to Dutch monopoly
practices at Melaka and launched several attacks on the city in 1756.
In 1766, one of the Johor Bugis was installed as the first Sultan of
Selangor, thus ensuring Bugis dominance of the tin-rich rivers in that
region and making the Dutch even more nervous about Bugis designs
on Melaka.
Bugis contacts and the strategic position of the Johor capital on
the island of Bentan (see map 5, page xix), with all the advantages of
modern Singapore, attracted Asian and European traders who could
buy spices, tin and pepper there more cheaply than from the Dutch at
Melaka. The commercial success of the Bugis created dissension
between them and the Malay elite, many of whom had been displaced
when the Bugis were granted senior court positions. Some of these
disgruntled nobles withdrew to Terengganu, always a haven for the
elite Malays of Johor, and persuaded its sultan to try and oust the Bugis.
His failure only strengthened the position of the Bugis who were
openly masters of the kingdom. In 1784, the fourth Bugis under king,
Raja Haji, renowned for his valour and with alliances with Pontianak
(on Borneo’s west coast) and southeast Sumatra, and supported by his
brother, the sultan of Selangor, laid siege to Dutch Melaka. The city
was very hard-pressed for nine months and was saved only by the
arrival of a fleet sent from Europe. Raja Haji was killed in the fighting
and was buried on the island of Penyengat, offshore from Bentan,
where his grave is still revered.
The Dutch followed up the defeat of the Bugis by making a contract with the Malay sultan, whose residence was at Riau, on the island
of Bentan, to establish a Dutch office and trading centre. The Precious
Gift records that the sultan employed a fleet of Sulu warriors (Illanun)
to destroy the Dutch post in 1787. Knowing Dutch retaliation was
inevitable, the Malay sultan left Riau and re-established his court on the
island of Lingga, considerably to the south, while other leading Malay
nobles moved to Terengganu and Pahang. Lingga remained the site of
the sultan’s court until the late 19th century and the remains of his
palace are still visible. After the Sulu warriors left Riau, the Dutch
returned and, in 1788, declared Riau a toll-free port in an effort to
restore its trade. There was already a considerable Chinese population of
5000 from Canton and Amoy and these people became the backbone of
Riau’s commercial life. Events in Europe, however, were to affect Dutch
activities in the Straits and reshape the political map of the archipelago.
The kingdom of Kedah
The kingdom of Kedah provides an interesting comparison with Riau-Johor. Geographically, it is a land-based kingdom whereas Johor, until
the mid-19th century, was predominantly a maritime entity. The soil
and latitude of Kedah were favourable for agriculture and by the late
16th century, European visitors were commenting on its rice and
pepper production, and by the late 18th century the flat areas of Kedah
were described as having plenty of rice, bullocks, buffalo and poultry.
During the 15th century, while Melaka was growing, Kedah seems to
have kept a low profile. Towards the end of the century, however, the
Malay Annals record that the ruling prince of Kedah made a personal
visit to Melaka, which the sultan of Melaka recognised by granting
him honours. This Kedah ruler, according to Kedah’s own chronicle,
The Story of Merong Mahawangsa, was the first to embrace Islam which
replaced Buddhism as the official religion of the kingdom. Melaka may
also have provided the model for Kedah’s own system of ministers and
nobles. The Kedah court had four senior ministers, with similar titles
to those of Melaka, and eight less senior ministers. Each had their own
domain, living from its revenues and sending some to the ruler.
Like Melaka, Kedah’s main port had a cosmopolitan population
of Chinese, Javanese, Acehnese and Indians. The Portuguese at
Melaka regarded it as being under the sway of Siam (with whom they
wanted good relations) but attacked it once in 1611, possibly on
behalf of Siam and to punish Kedah for showing sympathy to Burmese
interests. This was the period of Aceh’s aggressive and expansionist
policies. It attacked Kedah in 1619, probably to control its pepper and
tin trade (competition for Aceh’s own), and took an estimated 7000
Kedah people back to work in Aceh as labourers. By linking the trade
of Aceh with that of Kedah and surrounding ports, the sultan of Aceh
was creating a triangle of trading networks, or in modern terminology,
a ‘growth triangle’, in precisely the region that the governments of
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia planned to create a special trade
zone in the 1990s.
The Dutch capture of Melaka in 1641 controlled the agression of
Aceh and removed the Portuguese, but initiated a new trading regime.
The Dutch negotiated for trade monopolies under which the major
ports in the Straits had to sell as much as half their tin to the VOC for
fixed prices and agree to trade only with merchants carrying Dutch
passes. While Kedah agreed to these conditions, it nevertheless continued to pursue its traditional trade with ports in south India and also
to use the ancient land route across the Peninsula, activities which the
Dutch could not control.
From the 1620s, the Kedah royal court suffered a series of succession disputes. A century later they were still a problem. In 1720,
learning that the Johor nobles were using Bugis warriors to assist in
their dispute with the Minangkabaus, a Kedah prince invited them to
Kedah with the promise of a handsome payment if they would dislodge
his younger brother from the throne. The Bugis came, installed the
older brother and departed, unlike their behaviour in Johor, where
they stayed. However, the use of outside aid established a precedent for
the resolution of succession disputes in Kedah.
The 18th century was a time of relative peace and consolidation
for Kedah because its northern neighbours were occupied fighting each
other. The Burmese ruler attacked key Siamese centres and, in 1767,
destroyed the capital of Ayutthaya taking thousands of Siamese back
to Burma and devastating the land. This was a traumatic event for the
kingdom of Siam which did not begin to recover until the 1780s when
a new line of kings came to power and moved the capital to the vicinity of modern Bangkok.
In the meantime, centres like Nakhon Si Thammarat (Ligor),
Patani and Kedah developed their own interests, particularly in trade
and commerce. Kedah benefited from the presence of British traders
around the Bay of Bengal, where privately financed British trade was
being carried out by ‘country traders’, whose enterprise often far out-stripped that of their fellow countrymen working for the ‘official’
English East India Company (EIC). The British traders traded opium
and Indian textiles for tin, rice and pepper which they needed for the
markets in China, and Kedah could provide good supplies of these
During the 1770s, there was another serious dispute over the
royal succession, with various factions seeking external support for
their candidate. One faction called on the Bugis from Riau and Selangor, who responded and raided the capital, Alor Star, burning the
settlement. It was also in the interests of the Bugis to do anything they
could to inhibit Kedah’s trade, which at this time was attracting not
only English country traders but also Danish, Swedish and French. The
Bugis forces later returned to Selangor but, as a result of their presence,
another faction in Kedah entered into an agreement with the EIC.
Sultan Muhammad of Kedah was personally involved in the negoti-
ations and although ostensibly he seemed to want British support
against the Bugis of Selangor, he was aware that he was risking retribution from Siam by negotiating with a foreign power without its
knowledge. Anticipating Siamese or Burmese aggression against
Kedah, he may have been trying to protect himself with a British
alliance. In 1772, a contract was signed which gave the EIC full jurisdiction over the port of Kuala Kedah and a monopoly of Kedah’s
exports of tin, black pepper and elephant ivory. In return, the ruler of
Kedah had the right to purchase unlimited amounts of opium from the
EIC at a fixed price, and it was agreed that the company’s warships
would guard the coast of Kedah. Thus, Kedah entered into a defensive
agreement with a non-Malay power while retaining control over its
own affairs, unlike the Malay nobles of Riau-Johor who agreed to
install a Bugis as under king in perpetuity and had to learn to co-exist
with the Bugis.
By the 1780s, it was clear that Siam was recovering from the wars
with Burma prompting the new ruler of Kedah, Sultan Abdullah, to
send the ornamental gold and silver trees as a symbol of his respect.
He also made overtures to the EIC and, like his predecessor, offered
them the lease of Penang in return for East India Company assistance
should Kedah be attacked. As in the earlier negotiations with the EIC,
the British merchant Francis Light served as intermediary. There was
some tension in Kedah about these overtures when it was realised that
if the English leased Penang and developed it as a port, this would
divert trade from Kedah and result in loss of revenue. For several
reasons, therefore, a formal lease was not signed, but the sultan gave
Light permission to occupy Penang on a temporary basis until a proper
agreement was reached. Nevertheless, Light took formal possession of
the island of Penang on 11 August 1786 in the name of King George
III, an action which was legally in breach of international law.
Penang developed rapidly as a trading port. Contemporary
accounts describe how the island’s virgin jungle was cleared by the
marines and lascars of three East India Company ships in July 1786,
almost immediately attracting settlers from the peninsular mainland.
Among the first were Chinese and Indians from Kedah who set up a
small bazaar near the English settlement. Thereafter, a regular series of
small boats came from Kedah with goods and food for sale. Just one
year later, there were 60 Chinese families running shops in the bazaar,
Malabari merchants also permanently settled there and Malay small
traders who came from Kedah with goods to sell. Under the very
capable Francis Light (whose relative, William, was later to design the
city of Adelaide in the colony of South Australia), Penang developed
rapidly as an attractive transit port on the India–China trade route
and, as the merchants of Kedah had predicted, some of their trade was
diverted to the new port. Opium, cloth, steel, gunpowder and iron
from Britain and from India were sold for rice, tin, spices, pepper, golddust, ivory, ebony and rattans, which were still the specialities of the
Malaysian territories.
In 1791, the sultan of Kedah attempted to reoccupy Penang but
failed and was then forced to sign a treaty guaranteeing the East India
Company a lease for as long as it wished. In 1800, a strip of the Peninsula opposite Penang, known as Seberang Perai (renamed Province
Wellesley by the British), was also leased to the company for 10 000
Spanish dollars per annum, an amount which was also to cover the
lease of Penang. Only a few years earlier, the Dutch had signed an
agreement with the sultan of Riau-Johor for a Dutch post in Riau, and
one with the sultan of Selangor for a post in his territory. Adding these
to their settlement at Melaka, the VOC felt it had established a real
presence in the Straits. They had been concerned about the increasing
amount of British activity in the area, including the occupation of
Penang by the EIC. However, it would be events in Europe, not Southeast Asia, which were to have a more immediate impact on the course
of European action in the Straits.
The enduring nature of the Malay sultanate
Many descriptions of Malay world in late 18th century claim that the
traditional forms of government were in disarray and decline. On the
basis of the evidence presented in this chapter, it can be argued that
even though the ‘fall’ of Melaka was followed by a proliferation of
Malay centres, the preferred form of government was one which maintained the sultan as the central authority, with power delegated to
chiefs and local headmen. In fact, the Srivijayan datu/mandala system
of circles of allegiance still underpinned the concept of governance in
the 18th century. The Malay centres remained linked by marriage and
diplomatic ties and when called on, could create small alliances
against a variety of threats. The acceptance of Bugis leaders into the
Johor-Riau royal family did not succeed fully in integrating this non-Malay group into the elite and they remained available as mercenaries
for any Malay leader who could pay them.
Succession disputes in the royal line, a characteristic of the
Melaka sultanate, continued in Johor-Riau and were evident also in
Kedah. As at the Melaka court, contests for leadership seem to have
reflected divisions within the nobility who had much to gain if their
favoured candidate occupied the throne. In 1760, the Bugis faction at
the Johor-Riau court installed a very young Malay prince as sultan, and
he ruled for the next 52 years, eventually bringing stability to the
kingdom by dividing it into two spheres, one ruled by the Bugis under
king and the other (centred on the island of Lingga) ruled by himself
as Malay sultan. This division of spheres of influence resolved the
problem of succession until the late 19th century.

. . . I felt that the period of my lifetime had witnessed so many wonderful changes and new things which our grand-parents had never seen. Such events provided me with much food for meditation.
Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, Abdullah’s Story (Hikayat Abdullah), 18491
From the early 19th century it is as if there was a change in pace in the
region, as if the tempo of events was quickening. In part, this was the
result of the sense of urgency which Europeans expressed in their reports
about the East—the competition for access to items for the trade with
China had increased and more traders were arriving to bid for them.
This commercial competition was linked with European politics and the
rise of Napoleonic France, which had repercussions for how Europeans
viewed the strategic importance of the Malaysian territories.
The change in pace was due also to the increased amount of
documentation in English about the region. A series of major reports
about the Peninsula and Borneo was published in English and received
wide circulation in Britain. Among the best known are the writings of
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British colonial administrator, but
there were many others, and the intellectual climate in Britain, formed
in the Age of Enlightenment, was receptive to and very interested in
descriptions of foreign peoples and their social and economic organisation. Although there were preconceived theories about how
civilisations ‘developed’ from primitive to advanced, there was also an
emphasis on the ‘scientific’ recording of nature and peoples for the
sake of knowledge. This was the age of Royal Societies, whose
members published their findings in learned journals which were
widely read and keenly followed. The collection of information about
the Malaysian territories served a dual purpose: to increase scientific
knowledge and to attract British commercial investment to the region.
Sir Stamford Raffles
The decision of Raffles to publish an English translation of the Malay
Annals illustrates this dual purpose. The first translation into English of
the Malay epic was accomplished in about 1810 by John Leyden, who
died in the following year. He was one of Raffles’ closest friends and,
although Raffles had the manuscript of the translation in his possession,
he did not publish it until 1821. He claimed at the time that he published
it to make better known the history of the Malays, and it was indeed
influential among readers of English. The timing of its publication,
however, reflects Raffles’ need to convince his critics in Britain that his
choice of Singapore, as the site for an international British entrepôt, was
based on evidence that it had been a major port in earlier times. Political
and commercial motives were probably uppermost in his mind.
Raffles tried to learn about the Malays from their own writings.
From his reading of works like the Malay Annals, he believed that
the Malay kingdoms he saw in the early 19th century were poor
representatives of earlier kingdoms, especially Melaka, whose greatness
and influence had been described in such glowing terms in the earlier
texts. His view of the Malay world as being ‘in decline’ and ‘decaying’
coloured the views of many Europeans and even had some influence on
the Malays themselves. Raffles (and other British administrators who
followed after him) assumed that the only pattern for a Malay kingdom
was that of centralised rule under a sultan. So, somewhat ironically, the
British ‘discovery’ of indigenous Malay accounts of the past was taken by
them as a model for what the Malay present should be. On the other
hand, indigenous scholars who came in contact with Europeans and
with travellers and scholars from the Middle East, India, China and
Japan, as well as with Javanese and Sumatrans, realised that the range of
options for methods of administration and education was increasing rapidly.
The previous chapters described how the strategic position of
the Malaysian territories brought them into contact with foreigners in
transit to further destinations. Local people were in constant touch
with prevailing fashions in ideology and religion, as well as responsive
to the latest demands of international traders. Just as in much earlier
times, the survival of centres within the region depended on their flexibility, powers of adaptation and responses to external change.
Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir
From the early 19th century, we are fortunate to have accounts written
by local people themselves, recording their impressions of the world
around them. In several cases, it seems that these individuals were motivated or encouraged to put their impressions in writing by the Europeans
with whom they came in contact. Often it was European interest in the
writings which brought them to prominence and, either in the form of
printed and circulated versions or manuscripts donated to European
libraries, they have survived and are available for us to read.
One of the best known texts from the early 19th century, lithographed in 1849 and written in Malay for the benefit of ordinary
Malays as well as with an eye to European readers, is Abdullah’s Story
(Hikayat Abdullah). When it first appeared, Abdullah’s Story was considered sufficiently important for the English governor of Singapore to
purchase 12 copies immediately, sending half of them to Bengal and
giving the rest as gifts to Malay ‘chieftains’. It was read as a textbook
in schools in the Malay world from the mid-19th century onwards and
is still studied in Malaysia and elsewhere for the views of its author and
the picture it gives of life in his time. Abdullah’s life (1797–1854)
spans the change from Dutch to British influence in the Straits of
Melaka and the founding of the British settlement of Singapore. He
visited also the east coast kingdoms of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan. Abdullah’s Story, with its very personal evaluation of conditions in
the Malaysian territories and efforts to understand European strengths
and weaknesses, makes it a unique account of its times.
Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir was born in Melaka in 1797 into a
family of mixed Arab and south Indian origins. His grandfather came to
Melaka from south India and there married an Indian Muslim woman
who ran a very well-attended school. Their son, Abdullah’s father, was
talented in business, religious teaching and languages. Because he was
proficient in Arabic, Tamil and Malay he was in demand as a professional letter-writer and also taught Malay to foreigners, at a time when
British administrators and merchants, realising the opportunities the
Malay world offered them, began to seriously study the language and
customs of Malays. Abdullah’s mother was of Malay and Indian descent
(her father was an Indian from Kedah who had moved to Melaka) and
thus Abdullah grew up being able to speak several languages and mix
confidently with foreigners, learning from them anything which would
enhance his livelihood. The cosmopolitan and multiethnic milieu of
15th century Melaka was still evident in the late 18th century, when
Abdullah was born, although the population numbers had greatly
Penang, Kedah and Siam: 1790–1842
The activities of the Illanuns, mercenaries, slave raiders and exceptionally skilled seamen, were feared throughout island Southeast Asia.
They operated under the patronage of the sultans of Sulu who had
their base in the southern Philippines. The Sulu rulers worked with
the Illanuns (also known as Iranuns), originally from central Mindanao, paying them to bring in slaves who were used to assemble
products for the international trade. The Illanuns sailed double-decked
ships, over 130 feet (40 metres) long, and used slaves as oarsmen when
extra speed was necessary. There were probably more than 200 such
vessels which set out annually to raid ships and villages. As the
numbers of commercial ships sailing through Southeast Asian waters
to trade with China increased, so too did the number of Illanun raids.
The growth of new centres like Penang and Singapore increased their
opportunities for piracy. It has been pointed out that they were quick
to modernise their fleets and tactics and adopted the technologies and
equipment of their victims including compasses, charts, telescopes and
the latest firearms. The number of people they took in raids on villages
across the region has been estimated at tens of thousands. To effect
their raids, they established land bases within striking distance of the
major ports and thus had centres in the Melaka Straits area and along
the east coast of the Peninsula, as well as on the Borneo coasts,
particularly in the northeast and west.
Some British traders based in India had contact with groups of
Illanuns. They provided them with opium and firearms in return for
information about the activities of the Dutch, or any other competitors
in the archipelago. The Illanuns were thus trading in information as
well as cargoes and slaves and were obliged to no central authority for
the success of their operations. They were feared by everyone because
of their ruthless and violent methods and the efficiency of their raids.
Commercial losses attributed to piracy, mostly (but not all) by Illanuns,
have been estimated at several million pounds sterling a year. Many of
their victims were absorbed into the Muslim sultanate of Sulu where
they were given new roles and eventually assumed new identities.
The sultan of Kedah had used a force of Illanuns in an attempt
to dislodge the English East India Company from Penang in 1791. It
was when this failed that the sultan finally agreed to sign a Treaty of
Peace and Friendship with Francis Light on behalf of the EIC. Several
points in the treaty are relevant in the light of later events. First, the
sultan of Kedah did not cede—but only leased—Penang to the
company. Second, although the company made no direct promise of
protection, the clause ‘Kedah and Penang shall be as one country’
allowed the sultan to think there might be aid in the event of a
Siamese attack.
The nature of the relationship between Siam and the peninsular
Malay states was, and is, complex. The population in the northern
districts of the Peninsula and in what is now the southern provinces of
Thailand is very mixed—Orang Asli, Thais, Mons, Burmese, Chinese,
Indians and Malays—among whom intermarriage has occurred for centuries. Religion (Islam and Buddhism in particular) is one major focus
for allegiance and group identity and, since the late 18th century, this
has largely determined political allegiance: Buddhists looking to
Bangkok and Muslims to the Malay states. However, during the 17th
and 18th centuries the Siamese considered parts of the Malay Peninsula
to be in their sphere of influence and expected that this would be
acknowledged. Malay rulers usually responded by sending regular tokens
of the relationship in the form of the gold and silver trees knowing that
if they did not, there could be active enforcement by the Siamese.
Sultan Abdullah, who had negotiated with the EIC over pro-
tection for Penang, died in 1798 and his death was followed by a
prolonged dispute over the succession. In 1802, Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Shah travelled to Bangkok and was confirmed by Rama I as
ruler of Kedah. The internal disputes among the Kedah nobility continued into the reign of Rama II, with various factions seeking support
from any likely outsiders. The sultan was in contact with the Burmese
at their court in Ava, and this was reported by one of his half-brothers
to the Siamese. The Siamese could not afford to risk losing their access
to the Bay of Bengal via the Isthmus of Kra, if Kedah succumbed to
Burmese influence. In 1821, therefore, Bangkok gave orders to the
Thai governor of Nakhon Si Thammarat, who was responsible for the
supervision of Kedah and Kelantan, to attack Kedah. The sultan was
forced to flee and went into exile in Penang. One of the sons of the
governor of Nakhon was placed in charge of Kedah, which was ruled
as a Siamese province under Nakhon. Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin took
refuge with his tenants, the British at Penang, and spent his time planning how to regain his kingdom.
Meanwhile, the British declared war on the kingdom of Ava in
1824 and in 1825 succeeded in annexing Burmese territory on the
border with Siam. The Siamese were persuaded that it was prudent to
come to an agreement with the British and, in 1826, signed the Burney
Agreement granting the British trading concessions in Bangkok. In
return, the British agreed to recognise Siam’s special relationship with
the northern Malay states and Siamese suzerainty over Kedah, but no
further south. In essence, the British decided to advance their commercial interests in Bangkok and to recognise Siamese occupation of Kedah,
particularly since the Siamese agreed that the British could continue to
purchase food and supplies (for Penang) from Kedah free of duty.
In Penang, Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin organised many unsuccessful
attempts to expel the Siamese from Kedah. In 1838, a large-scale uprising succeeded briefly in expelling the Siamese but they returned with
a vengeance and tens of thousands of Kedah people fled, moving to the
British territories of Province Wellesley and Penang. Contemporary
estimates of the departure of 70 000, leaving only 20 000 people in
Kedah may be exaggerated, but the effect of the mass migrations was
to leave Kedah severely impoverished.
After an exile of over 20 years, the Siamese were persuaded by
the British and by delegations from the sultan’s eldest son to allow
Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin to return to Kedah in 1842. His kingdom
was diminished by the loss of its northernmost districts of Setul,
Langu and Perlis and by the loss of so many of its people. Sultan
Ahmad Tajuddin died soon after his return. He was succeeded by his
son who, in recognition of Siam’s power, travelled to Bangkok for
his installation. The Siamese and the new sultan recognised that
continuing hostilities would weaken both sides and they cooperated
to try and rebuild Kedah.
Melaka, Singapore and Riau-Johor
Francis Light had established a British base for the East India
Company in Penang through direct negotiation with the sultan of
Kedah. The resulting arrangement, an agreement between a reigning
sultan and a foreigner, for the ‘rental’ of Penang (followed by Province
Wellesley), was the first of its kind in the Malaysian territories. The
Portuguese and the Dutch had taken Melaka by force and since 1642
it had been regarded by Europeans, at least, as Dutch. However, this
changed in 1794, shortly before Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir was born.
Britain and France were at war in Europe and when France
attacked the Netherlands in 1794, its ruler, Prince William of Orange,
fled to England. He gave instructions that the Dutch overseas should
allow the British to take over their posts on the understanding that
they would be restored after the war. In 1795 therefore, British forces
from India officially occupied Melaka and lifted many of the excise
taxes enforced by the Dutch. According to Abdullah’s Story, Melaka
became quite prosperous during this period and there was lively trade
with the east coast of Sumatra (as in much earlier times). After 1802,
when Napoleon installed his brother as king of the Netherlands and
had plans for capturing British and Dutch settlements in India and
Southeast Asia, the governor-general of the EIC in Calcutta was persuaded by Raffles to pre-empt French moves by taking Java, then under
Napoleon’s marshal, Daendels. The governor-general entrusted the
planning of the Java campaign to Raffles, and late in 1810 he moved
to Melaka using it as a base to collect intelligence about French and
Dutch activities in Southeast Asia.
When Raffles established his headquarters in Melaka, Abdullah
was 13 or 14 years old, and his recollections of Raffles’ activities at that
time are recorded in his Story. Abdullah joined the group of copyists
and scribes employed by Raffles to transcribe information as it came to
him and to make copies of local manuscripts. During the early months
of 1811, the British expedition for Java assembled at Melaka and
Abdullah watched them training and then the departure of the fleet in
August. By September 1811, the Dutch forces had surrendered and
the governor-general appointed Raffles as lieutenant-governor. One of
Abdullah’s uncles who had accompanied Raffles as a scribe died at
Batavia, probably a victim of malaria.
The young Abdullah stayed in Melaka and as part of his professional work as a letter-writer and teacher, agreed to work as assistant to
a group of Christian missionaries who believed education was one way
to conversion. Abdullah taught the missionaries Malay and helped
them prepare Malay translations of a wide range of material which they
were able to duplicate on a printing press. This was one of many
Western inventions which fascinated Abdullah. He could see its advantages and recommended it to Malays as a more reliable way to produce
texts than handwritten manuscripts which were prone to scribal error.
While Abdullah was working with the missionaries, extending
his knowledge of English and considering the information about
Western civilisation they were bringing to his attention, peace had
been made in Europe. Under the terms of the Congress of Vienna
(1816) Dutch possessions were returned and Raffles, now with the
reputation of a reformer and administrator, departed from Java. The
Congress of Vienna left Penang as the only British base in the Straits
of Melaka. When the Dutch returned, they came in the name of the
Dutch government which had taken over the bankrupt Dutch trading
company, the VOC. Both Raffles and the merchants in Penang
believed the Dutch would again enforce their policy of trade monopolies, shut the British out of many ports and forbid local traders to do
business with the British. Raffles and William Farquhar, British resident of Melaka, were eventually given permission by the directors of
the EIC to negotiate discreetly with local rulers for a site for a second
British base. Strategically it had be in the southern part of the
Straits—the critical region which Srivijaya had once controlled.
Farquhar, whom Abdullah notes was popular among the local
residents of Melaka, sailed from Melaka before the official handing
over to the Dutch, and local rumours had it that he was looking for a
new site for a British settlement. He did, in fact, negotiate with the
Riau nobles to be allowed to establish a post on one of the islands at
the southern end of the Straits, all of which were considered to be
under their jurisdiction. Melaka was handed back to the Dutch in September 1818, with Abdullah watching (and later recording) the sorrow
he witnessed on the faces of the English officers.
What followed is regarded now as a great cloak and dagger
event and a triumph for the tenacity of Raffles and Farquhar. The
story has its British versions but it is also recorded in Raja Ali Haji’s
epic history, The Precious Gift. Raja Ali himself would have been only
nine or ten years old at the time of the events, but his father, who
was also involved in compiling the epic, actively participated in the
drama. The Precious Gift describes Farquhar’s mission to Riau, his discussions with the Bugis under king about the return of the Dutch,
and his negotiations for a settlement on one of the islands under
Riau’s control. The Dutch return to Riau in 1818 is described as well
as the reactions of the Riau nobles, some wanting to side with the
British and others not daring to oppose the Dutch. One of the
nobles, the temenggung, withdrew from Riau to his own domain and
visited one of its islands, Singapore. On learning that he was there,
Raffles and Farquhar who were still sailing in the area to identify a
suitable site came ashore. Recognising its potential as a toll-free port,
they negotiated with him for a lease on the island. Although Riau’s
newly signed treaty with the Dutch specifically precluded any agreements with foreign nations, the temenggung signed a preliminary
agreement in late January 1819. Realising that only a treaty with a
ruling prince had real effect, Raffles and Farquhar exploited a succession dispute in the royal line of the sultanate. The temenggung
agreed to bring the elder and uncrowned royal prince to Singapore
secretly and make every effort to evade the Dutch. Saying that he
was leaving on a fishing expedition, the prince sailed to Singapore
and was taken on board Raffles’ ship. The following day, according to
The Precious Gift, with all the appropriate ceremonies and in the
name of the governor-general of Bengal, Raffles and the temenggung
installed the Malay prince as Sultan Husain Shah, ruler of Singapore
and its surrounding territories, a reference to the southern parts of
the Peninsula which traditionally had been considered part of the
Kingdom of Johor. Raffles was then able to sign a formal treaty with
the sultan and the temenggung. Under its terms, the EIC would pay
$5000 annually to Sultan Husain and $3000 to the temenggung in
return for the cession of Singapore, which would be administered
jointly by Sultan Husain, the temenggung and the English resident.
When the Dutch learned that one of the Riau princes had been
proclaimed sultan of Singapore by the British, they made known
their displeasure. But they had also to look to their own position
because the heir-apparent in Riau, Abdul Rahman, had not been
formally installed as sultan. The Dutch urged the Riau nobles to
install Abdul Rahman and, after his marriage to a Terengganu
princess, this was accomplished.
The details of the founding of Singapore are important for the
later relationship between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The
British decision to declare Singapore a free port bore results and some
estimates place the value of trade at the end of its fourth year at over
two million pounds sterling. Much of this was at the expense of Riau’s
own trade and therefore a loss to the Dutch. They did not recognise
Sultan Husain as the legitimate ruler of Singapore and therefore, in
their eyes, the cession to the British was not legal.
One of the most vivid accounts of the first months of Farquhar
and his men on Singapore comes from Abdullah, who visited the
island during its first year of British settlement and thereafter travelled
regularly between Singapore and Melaka. In his Story he records that
the only inhabitants of the island were Orang Suku Laut, who were so
frightened of the British that they jumped in their boats and fled (possibly thinking they were slave raiders). Only when the temenggung
ordered them to sell fish to the British did they make contact. The
island itself was not well suited to agriculture because it was covered
in dense scrub with soil of mud and clay. According to Abdullah,
the people of Melaka realised the profits to be made from taking food
and supplies to Singapore, despite the Dutch forbidding them to go.
A steady stream of traders, labourers and craftsmen began leaving
Melaka, braving the pirates who were attracted by the increased traffic
and between 1821 and the time of the first census in 1824, Singapore’s
population doubled to 10 000. Abdullah describes the trials and hard-ships endured by the pioneering settlement—rats, fires, robberies and
violence. But the traders were undeterred as Abdullah writes: ‘The
port of Singapore was crammed full of shipping, ketches, sloops,
frigates, two-and-a-half masters, schooners, junks from China, Annam
and Siam and boats from Borneo.’2
The burgeoning growth of Singapore caused considerable tension
with the Dutch who were now faced with a British base almost midway
between Melaka and their port on Riau. Singapore’s status as a free port
attracted more trade than their own ports. Negotiations began in Europe
to try and find a solution to European jurisdiction in the region. In 1824
the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London was signed dividing the land on each
side of the Straits of Melaka between Britain and the Netherlands.
Dutch Melaka became British territory while the British enclave,
Bencoolen (in Sumatra) was transferred to the Dutch. The local rulers
were not consulted. Under the 1824 treaty, the previously homogeneous
cultural and economic region of the Peninsula, Straits of Melaka and
Sumatra was divided artificially and administered by Europeans.
The nobles of Riau and Lingga realised that they would lose
authority over their traditional territories on the Peninsula. The
temenggung, now on Singapore, lost some of his traditional islands
which fell in the Dutch sphere. He compensated for this by resurrecting his ‘rights’ to the southern parts of the Peninsula. Likewise, the
bendahara who had traditional domains in the region of Pahang, began
strengthening his position there. Despite Dutch warnings not to enter
British territory, many of the nobles from Riau and Lingga continued
to move freely (as they still do) between Riau-Lingga, Singapore and
the east coast of the Peninsula. Some established businesses in Singapore and purchased property there.
The 1824 Treaty of London was later criticised by some Europeans. James Low, a colonial administrator of note, published a
stinging rebuke in the late 1840s claiming that the it was ‘an act of
political and mercantile suicide’ to give Sumatra to the Dutch. He also
questioned the morality of the treaty: ‘What right in an era of international justice can any nation possibly have to thus barter away
extensive countries, with their independent populations?’3 But the
treaty endured and became the international boundary which determined the territory of the modern nation states of Singapore, Malaysia
and Indonesia.
On Singapore, Farquhar was succeeded by a second administrator, John Crawfurd, who further strengthened British control of the
island by making a new agreement with the temenggung and the
sultan in 1824. In return for a cash settlement, they ceded their
rights to Singapore and the adjacent islands to the EIC but retained
their land on Singapore—the temenggung and his extensive following
lived at Teluk Belanga, while the sultan maintained his residence
and mosque at Kampong Gelam, where a few of his descendants can
still be found in the 21st century. The EIC was now faced with
having to administer Penang (and Province Wellesley), Melaka and
Singapore. In an attempt to rationalise this, in 1826, they combined
the territories into a new unit called the Straits Settlements, to be
administered from Penang.
The temenggung
Before the British occupation of Singapore, the temenggung had been
one of the inner circle of officials in the Riau-Johor elite but he had
chosen to remain on Singapore (rather than return to Riau) when the
1824 treaty came into effect. Formerly, the domain of the temenggung
was a maritime one and his incomes had been derived from marine
produce and from taxes on shipping. When the temenggung signed the
treaty with Crawfurd he forfeited his rights to Singapore and his
income from commercial shipping was eroded by the British. Unlike
Sultan Husain, however, he did not take this passively but reacted and
devised alternative means for making money. He was receiving some
income from revenues derived from the Chinese growers of gambier
(a resin used as an astringent and in the tanning process) and pepper
who established themselves in Singapore but soon needed more land.
He allowed them to move across the narrow strait to the southern parts
of the Peninsula, also his domain, but almost totally uncleared. It was
here that they discovered they could tap sap from wild-rubber trees and
harvest gutta-percha (a multipurpose gum). In the 1840s this fetched
good prices and the temenggung made his fortune.
The next temenggung, Ibrahim, who assumed the title in 1841
after his father’s death, turned his attention increasingly to the Peninsula territories, known as Johor, and employed a bureacracy to
administer his ‘tenants’, the Chinese cultivators. This more formal
kind of administration had not been necessary for the Orang Suku Laut
who had previously provided the main source of his family’s income.
The change in environment necessitated a new system of administration and new ways of ensuring that the temenggung maintained the
loyalty of the Chinese. Thus the kangchu system was developed in
Johor. The temenggung negotiated with Chinese leaders and granted
monopolies to kangchu, or ‘river lords’, who were contracted to develop
and control certain stretches of territory along the rivers of Johor. The
kangchu were responsible for looking after their workers and for ensuring that the taxes on revenue-earning activities such as plantations,
gambling, opium sales, alcohol and pork were paid. A similar system of
revenue farming was used in Kedah, after the restoration of the sultan
in 1842 so that the British came to regard Johor and Kedah as models
of good practice in income-earning activities.
James Brooke and the Sea Dayaks (Ibans)
of Sarawak
The story of James Brooke and his successors in Sarawak is also a study
in transformation and adaptation, but without the model of Raffles
and Singapore, it may never have happened. In 1839, a young, wealthy
and patriotic Englishman travelled to Singapore. He was inspired by
the achievements of Raffles and determined to find a territory he could
develop (as Raffles had Singapore) for the greater glory of Britain. He
had some experience of the East, being born in India and having
served in the Indian Army during the Anglo-Burmese war when he
was wounded. After extended convalescence in England, he resigned
from the Army and returned to the East intending to pursue his
mission. On hearing that there were considerable stretches of territory
in Borneo as yet unexplored by Europeans, he set sail in July 1839, in
his own vessel, heading eastwards.
When he reached the Borneo coast near the Sarawak River,
intending to take a message from the governor of Singapore to the
Brunei governor at Kuching, he found the latter embattled in a drawn
out conflict with the local chiefs. James Brooke agreed to intervene on
behalf of the Brunei governor in return for the title ‘Rajah’ and permission to govern the area himself. Brooke succeeded in negotiating
a settlement with the chiefs, was granted the governorship and in 1842
paid an official visit to the sultan of Brunei to have his title confirmed.
Under the terms of the 1842 agreement, Brooke was to make annual
payments of $1000 to the sultan of Brunei and the former governor
with lesser amounts to three chiefs. For the British government,
Brooke’s position was troublesome. They feared his territorial ambitions would create tension with the Dutch and although he
persistently requested it, official British recognition of Brookes’s
authority in Sarawak was not forthcoming.
James Brooke assumed his new position with little awareness of
how greatly local conditions in Borneo differed from those in Penang
and Singapore. The territory around the Sarawak River was known to
have deposits of gold and from the mid-18th century Chinese gold
miners had moved into the upper reaches of the Sarawak River, particularly into the region known as Bau (see map 5, page xix). In 1824,
antimony-ore was discovered and in response to interest from merchants
in Singapore, the Brunei nobles had organised the working of antimony
for export, using local people as labourers. This much Brooke knew.
However, the ethnic situation was more diverse than on the Malay
Peninsula. By the early 19th century, the Ibans or, as Brooke called
them, the ‘Sea Dayaks’, were the most aggressive and active of the local
peoples in the southern parts of Sarawak. They seem to have been
centred in the Kapuas Valley (see map 5, page xix), but over several
centuries, perhaps beginning in the mid-16th, they began to spread into
what is now Sarawak, where they encountered pre-existing populations.
Some of those populations inter-married with the Ibans, others moved
towards the coast where, coming into contact with Muslim peoples, they
converted to Islam and were considered to be Malays.
The Iban lifestyle centred round shifting agriculture and temporary outward migration by young men. Iban groups moved regularly to
preserve the fertility of the soil and they were widely feared for their
courage in combat and their practice of taking human heads, necessary
for rituals central to Iban culture. Young men were encouraged to travel
and seek their fortunes as a way of bringing home material wealth and
gaining status. Those who had reached coastal areas of western Borneo
and come in contact with Muslim peoples there, sometimes raided
with them and at other times raided against them. The Ibans of the
Saribas and Skrang Rivers (see map 5, page xix) were particularly
effective sea raiders and caused terror along the Sarawak coasts.
Before James Brooke’s arrival, the Ibans working land around the
middle reaches of rivers had points of exchange with coastal Muslims
along the rivers. Some of the rivers were controlled by Muslim chiefs on
the coast, who claimed the river and its peoples were theirs to administer and control. Some of these Muslim chiefs in their turn were subject
to the sultan of Brunei and delivered part of their revenues to him as
was done in other Malay kingdoms. Other ethnic groups occupying territory in early 19th century Sarawak included the ‘Land Dayaks’, more
correctly known as Bidayuhs. The Bidayuhs kept themselves separate
from the Ibans by maintaining very distinct cultural practices and a
more settled form of agriculture.
The Rejang, north of Kuching, is Sarawak’s longest river and was
sparsely populated at the time of Brooke’s arrival.
The upper headwaters were inhabited by Kayans and Kenyahs, who
constructed massive longhouses and, like the Ibans, practised shifting
agriculture and headhunting. The middle reaches of the Rejang to the
coast, as well as along the Mukah and Oya Rivers slightly northwards,
were the territories of the sago-producing Melanaus. The demand for
sago in Singapore stimulated Brunei contact with these peoples and
some converted to Islam. The Melanaus in this region were particu-
larly vulnerable to attacks by the Skrang and Saribas Iban sea raiders.
When Brooke took up residence at Kuching in 1842, he consid-
ered his most urgent task was to stop the violence and raiding of the
Saribas and Skrang Ibans. Assisted by Henry Keppel, then a captain in
the Royal Navy, he led expeditions against these warriors. The most
serious confrontation was in 1849 near the mouth of the Saribas River
where 500 Ibans were killed and most of their 98 vessels destroyed.
Earlier, in 1846, forces hostile to Brooke at the Brunei court had
threatened his position in Sarawak, but again with the assistance of
the Royal Navy, he survived. As a result, the sultan of Brunei ceded
the territory around Kuching to Brooke and his heirs in perpetuity and
ceded the island of Labuan to Britain. After the major battle of 1849,
Brunei agreed to cede also the Saribas and Skrang districts to Brooke.
By the middle of the 19th century, therefore, the Brunei sultans had
transferred their power over much of the southern reaches of their
territory to James Brooke and his successors. One legal aspect of the
Brunei agreements with Brooke distinguished his position from other
colonial authorities in the Malaysian territories. In the Brunei transfer
of 1846, Brooke was specifically granted not only rights to territory, but
also personal sovereignty over it. This he accepted as the basis of his
rule and that of his successors. Brooke’s heirs remained rulers of
Sarawak until the Japanese occupation of Borneo during World War II.
Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan
Singapore’s status as a free port greatly enlivened its links with the
trading networks of the east coast of the Malay Peninsula. The Singapore merchants relied on the east coast particularly for supplies of gold
dust, tin and pepper, items still in demand for the China trade. In
1838, however, a civil war in Kelantan interrupted the smooth flow of
trade and some vessels sent by Chinese and Jewish merchants in Singapore were detained during the fighting. The hostilities in Kelantan
were just one in a long series of similar incidents in a number of the
Malay states which ‘interfered with’ the smooth operation of businesses centred on Penang and Singapore. The merchants in both
places regularly lobbied the British government to intervene in local
affairs and use force to settle disputes which threatened their trading
operations. In general, however, the British adamantly refused to step
in or become in any way officially embroiled with local politics in the
peninsular states. The Chinese and Jewish merchants took matters
into their own hands and sent a mission to negotiate the return of their
vessels in 1838.
Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir was employed by the Singapore merchants to serve as an interpreter for their mission. He kept a journal
while travelling and later wrote an account of his observations of the
Malay states on the east coast of the Peninsula which was published as
Abdullah’s Voyage (Kesah Pelayaran Abdullah). He formed his impressions of Pahang from his brief visit to the first main port on the Pahang
River, Kampong Cina (‘Settlement of the Chinese’), also known as
Pekan Bharu. It was one of the places of residence of the bendahara of
Pahang, who was recognised by the Riau-Lingga sultanate as having
authority in Pahang. At the time Abdullah’s mission visited, the bendahara was touring the interior regions of the Pahang River and was
reported to be at Jelai. Abdullah was informed
that Jelai was a major centre with tens of thousands of Malays and
Chinese who traded in forest products and gold (from the Jelai and surrounding mines). Abdullah may not have known that the chief of the
Jelai region was regarded by the bendahara as his equal and it would
have been important for the two leaders to be on good terms so that
vessels could go freely up and down the river. Abdullah’s notes,
perhaps unwittingly, reflect the dual nature of Pahang: a very active
and potentially prosperous interior under its own chiefs, populated by
Orang Asli, Chinese and Malays, and a coastal region developing in
tandem with Singapore which looked outwards to passing trade as well
as up the river for its supply of trade items.
Abdullah diligently notes the goods traded: gold, tin, silk
weaving, rare timbers, resin and rattan were exported while opium,
silk, salt, rice and some cloth from Europe were imported. The currency was in the form of tin coins in only one denomination, making
transactions rather difficult. The Chinese, he noticed, had intermarried with Malays and Balinese (perhaps brought to Pahang as slaves by
the Illanuns) and there were many Arabs who had their own mosque.
As an avid reader of the Malay Annals, Abdullah would have
known that the first sultan of Pahang was a Melaka prince who had
committed a crime and was exiled to Pahang by his father, a 15th
century sultan of Melaka. Pahang’s history remained intertwined with
that of Melaka and its relocated kingdom, Johor, so that by the late
17th century the sultans of Johor were known also as sultans of
Pahang. Some time during the 18th century, the Malay rulers of Riau-Johor, perhaps to secure the support of their senior chiefs at a time
when they feared domination by the Bugis under kings, confirmed the
domains of the temenggung as the islands and territory around Johor,
and for the bendahara, the coastal areas of Pahang. The division of the
Johor-Riau kingdom under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 meant
that the bendahara’s domain (as well as that of the temenggung) fell in
the British sphere and was in effect separated from the sultan’s authority. As a direct consequence of that treaty, the independence of both
senior ministers of the old Riau-Johor kingdom was facilitated so that,
by the end of the 19th century, their descendants dropped the title of
temenggung and bendahara respectively and assumed the title of sultan.
When Abdullah visited Pahang in 1838, the bendahara, named Ali,
was maintaining his links with the Riau-Lingga court as well as with
the temenggung of Singapore. Both men had benefited from the British
development of Singapore through increased trade and the desire of
the British to maintain stability in the region.
Abdullah’s mission left Pahang and sailed north for the next
major centre, the port of the kingdom of Terengganu. The town of
Kuala Terengganu, he thought, was not neatly laid out (as he was used
to in Melaka and Singapore) but had winding paths, piles of rubbish,
puddles and uncleared undergrowth. Always an advocate for the orderliness of the British, he made a point of noting what he considered
were signs of disorder. He was pleased, however, that there were ‘occasional places’ where children could study the Qur’an and copyists who
could write Arabic script extremely well and produce beautiful copies
of the Qur’an, for which Terengganu had an excellent reputation.
These comments suggest that during the 19th century, perhaps linked
with the active Muslim scholars of Patani, Terengganu had an established system of pondok (local religious schools) where Muslim students
studied and copied the Qur’an and other Muslim texts.
As in Pahang, Abdullah notes the imports and exports: opium,
linen, undyed cloth and dyed European cloth were imported while
gold, tin, coffee, sugar, rattan resins, pepper, dried betel, silk and cotton
cloth, trousers, jackets, sashes and headcloths, as well as kris, swords and
spears, were exported. The richest merchant was a Chinese who had
converted to Islam, which implies he had married a local Malay woman.
Abdullah was surprised by the size of the fishing boats of Terengganu, each carrying a crew of 30 or 40. His brief visit did not allow him
to learn more, but he had, in fact, identified a particular characteristic
of Terengganu. The coast of Terengganu was (and remains) famous for
its fishing industry, and for the skill of its men at making and sailing
vessels. Terengganu craft traded north to Cambodia and Siam, east to
Sulu, Brunei and Labuan, south to parts of the (now) Indonesian
archipelago, and to all ports of the Peninsula including Penang. The
fishing and trading enterprises became interdependent because the
Terengganu fishing catch had to be preserved for use during the stormy
months when boats could not put to sea. Salt from ports along the Gulf
of Siam was necessary for the preservation of the fish and for making
the special shrimp paste, belacan, which is an essential item in much of
the cuisine of Southeast Asia. Rice was imported in large quantities,
brought to Terengganu in the large local vessels and then redistributed
to other regions of Southeast Asia. Kuala Terengganu was thus the
centre of a varied and profitable local trade as well as an entrepôt for
foreign vessels engaged in the China trade. The skills of the fishermen
as sailors were also undoubtedly used by the Illanun pirates, who must
have made use of their knowledge of local conditions. In Abdullah’s
time, there was at least one settlement of Ibans on the Terengganu
coast (interaction with the west coast of Borneo had been ongoing
since at least the mid-18th century). Later, in Kelantan Abdullah
noted that one of the religious teachers there was from Pontianak
(south of Kuching) who had settled in Terengganu before being
invited to teach in Kelantan. The silk cloth and specialised weapons
described by Abdullah were distinctive products of Terengganu which
is still famous for its decorative arts.
Abdullah records that shortly before his visit, in 1838, the ruler
had died and had been succeeded by a 15-year-old prince known as
Sultan Muhammad. He reigned only three years before being deposed
by a relative who, under the title Baginda Omar, ruled Terengganu
until 1876. Like Pahang, Terengganu is mentioned in the Malay
Annals, but its relationship with Melaka is unclear. Both Patani
(southern Thailand) and Riau-Lingga claim they were responsible for
installing the first sultan of Terengganu in the early 18th century and
these claims reflect their respective influences on the Terengganu
elite. Marriage alliances were made with both Patani and Riau-Johor
and numerous times during the 18th century, when the Malay sultan
of Riau-Johor was under pressure, he withdrew to the haven which
Terengganu provided. The links were renewed in the 19th century as
a result of Raffles’ interference in the succession of Riau-Johor, when
he installed Husain as sultan of Singapore. The prince, who regarded
himself as the rightful heir to the throne, had not been officially
installed by his court and in 1821 he withdrew to Terengganu where
both he, and his son, married Terengganu princesses. The result of his
son’s union was the prince Mahmud. In 1839, the year after Abdullah’s
voyage, Mahmud’s uncle, Baginda Omar, became sultan of Terengganu. Two years later, when Mahmud was only 18 years old, he became
sultan of Riau-Lingga, in the Dutch sphere of influence.
Leaving Terengganu, Abdullah’s group continued up the east coast,
to his final destination, Kelantan. The mission planned to deliver letters
from the governor of Singapore to the Kelantan leaders, requesting the
release of the trading vessels. Abdullah records the continuous exchange
of fire between the stockades of the opposing sides and the damage
which had been done to the settlements as a result. He describes the port
of Kelantan as if it were a frontier town—full of cockfighters, gamblers,
opium smokers and prostitutes. To readers in the 21st century, aware of
Kelantan’s current reputation as the most Islamic of the Malaysian
states, this description of un-Islamic behaviour may be surprising.
Abdullah’s visit, however, came before the reforming zeal of several later
rulers of Kelantan. In his notes, Abdullah makes special mention of the
livestock—cattle, buffaloes, goats and sheep—which abounded, and the
export of gold, coffee, rice and silk garments which attracted ships from
Europe, Madras and China. During the first half of the 19th century,
Kelantan was, in fact, the richest and most populous of the Malay states.
Like Pahang, Kelantan has a vast interior of heavily forested,
upland areas which are the domain of groups of Orang Asli. In that
terrain and environment, boundaries have no significance and the
inland borders between Pahang, Terengganu, Kedah, Kelantan and
southern Siam (now Thailand) are creations of the 20th century. Unlike
Pahang, however, Kelantan has an extensive coastal plain with various
points of access to the sea and is not dominated (like Kedah, for
example) by one major river, up which most traffic had to pass. As a
result, Kelantan is characterised by a number of fairly autonomous
groups with a sultanate centred on the Kelantan river entrance,
members of the royal elite having their own territories in surrounding
areas of the rich coastal plain. Until the early years of the 19th century,
large sections of the interior were in the hands of very powerful chiefs
and only after that time was the ruling sultan able to extend his authority into the surrounding districts. He moved the capital to its present site
of Kota Bharu (see map 5, page xix) and gained the recognition of large
sections of the coastal plain. It was the death of this sultan which gave
rise to the civil war and the detention of the Singapore vessels in 1838.
The new sultan was resisted by two nephews of the former sultan,
one the bendahara and the other the temenggung. Together they forced
the new sultan out and, when Abdullah arrived, they were awaiting
instructions from the king of Siam about who should take over the
kingdom. This underlines another distinctive feature of Kelantan: its
relations with Siam were much closer than all other Malay states
(excepting Kedah) and it had to maintain a working relationship with
its immediate neighbours, the southern Siamese provinces. After
Abdullah’s mission had departed, news came from Siam advising the
bendahara and temenggung to rule together. They each assumed the title
of sultan but it was not long before the former temenggung ousted the
former bendahara who fled to Siam. Thereafter, under the title Sultan
Muhammad II, he began a rule which was to last until 1886. This
sultan is credited with ‘creating the machinery of a central government’.4 He established a central Land Office for the registration of land
titles, a central religious court and, most importantly, a Siamese-based
system of tax collection using village heads, ‘circle’ heads and district
chiefs. Although each of these systems was implemented, they were
not entirely successful in centralising power in the sultanate and, in
effect, the taxation system enhanced the power of the district chiefs.
When Sultan Muhammad died in 1886, there was again major civil
disruption with a renewed struggle for control of the sultanate. The
framework for improved civil and religious administration which he
initiated become the basis for Kelantan’s government in the early
20th century and was a model of its day.
Abdullah’s mission stayed only briefly in Kelantan, unsettled by
the hostilities, and was only partially successful. The trading vessels
were released, but without their cargoes or any compensation for their
Singapore owners. However, the activities of the young Riau-Lingga
sultan, Mahmud, were to have a more lasting impact on the east coast
states and became the subject of questions in the British House of
Commons. Mahmud’s life is a 19th century example of the close
interconnections between sultanates which were typical of the
15th century, when the Melaka royals established marriage alliances
throughout the Malay world.
The activities of Sultan Mahmud of Riau-Lingga
When Mahmud was installed as sultan of Riau-Lingga in 1841, he was
already married to his cousin, the granddaughter of Husain, whom
Raffles had installed as sultan of Singapore. Mahmud’s connections with
Terengganu were strong through his mother, and his uncle Baginda
Omar who, before becoming sultan of Terengganu in 1839, had spent
ten years at the royal court of Riau-Lingga. The close artistic connections between the Lingga court and that of Terengganu are attributed to
the musicians and artists Baginda Omar took back with him. After his
installation as sultan of Riau-Lingga, Mahmud asserted his powers as
ruler and set his own course. He was encouraged to do so by private individuals in Singapore who saw advantages in having a royal client.
Mahmud’s success in Singapore made both the British and Dutch uneasy
about the stability of local politics and, in 1856, the Dutch governorgeneral in Batavia sent him an official warning to discontinue his visits
to Singapore. When Mahmud ignored this, the Dutch deposed him in
1857 and installed his uncle as sultan of Riau-Lingga.
Both the Dutch and the British underestimated the reaction this
would set in train. Mahmud had all the status of a descendant of the
revered Melaka royal family and was related to the ruling lines of
Singapore, Johor, Pahang and Terengganu. Mahmud left the Dutch
sphere and travelled to Pahang in the late 1850s, precisely the time of
a succession dispute over the position of the bendahara. Although
Mutahir, one of the late bendahara’s sons, had been nominated to
succeed his father, another son, Ahmad, opposed him. Mahmud of
Riau-Lingga had his own interests at heart and may have been planning
to assume control of Pahang himself, possibly supported by the great
chief of Jelai. After some initial manoeuvring, Mahmud agreed to
support Ahmad in his bid for the leadership of Pahang and tried to persuade his uncle Baginda Omar of Terengganu to assist. The British in
Singapore were alarmed at the prospect of an escalation of the Pahang
conflict and urged Terengganu not to participate. Dependent on
Singapore for much of his trade, Baginda Omar overtly complied.
Mahmud next made overtures to Bangkok, apparently seeking
aid for Ahmad and for himself. He pledged that in return for Siamese
aid to put himself on the throne of Pahang, he would acknowledge
Siamese overlordship. The official Thai archives have records of these
contacts—as they do for most of their dealings with the Malay states.
King Mongkut, it is recorded, replied that he did not wish to interfere
in the affairs of Pahang, which he regarded as a British Protectorate,
because he was on friendly terms with the British. However, he invited
Mahmud to visit Bangkok, an invitation he accepted in 1861. When
Siamese ships appeared off Terengganu, the British feared an extension
of Siamese influence over the entire east coast and despatched a
warship. The Siamese vessels left, but shortly afterwards, the British
signed treaties with both Pahang and Johor to bring their foreign relations under British control. Mahmud’s activities had resulted in the
British being forced to become more formally involved with Pahang
and Johor than they had anticipated.
In Bangkok, Mahmud presented one of his sisters to King
Mongkut, and her presence among the royal ladies was noted by Anna
Leonowens (whose story became famous in The King and I) when she
was a governess at the court. In 1862, Mahmud returned to Tereng-ganu in the role of Siamese governor of both that state and Kelantan.
He was now able to offer substantial support to Ahmad in Pahang and
the British demanded that Baginda Omar expel his nephew. Omar
refused and, in November 1862, two British gunboats shelled the fort
and palace of Terengganu for four hours, an attack which was later censured in the House of Commons. The Siamese sent a vessel to collect
Mahmud but he stayed only briefly in Siam before returning secretly
to Pahang to share Ahmad’s triumph as victor in the war. Not long
afterwards, Mahmud died in 1864, aged only 41. The British were
extremely relieved because they considered him the main cause of
the disturbances which had been occurring in Pahang, Terengganu
and beyond. Clearly, as a sultan whose lineage commanded respect
throughout the Malay world and as a strongly motivated individual
who was not intimidated by threats from the British or the Dutch,
Mahmud was a force to be reckoned with. He was perhaps the most
tenacious of any of the Malay sultans in pursuing what he considered
were his rights in the face of European opposition.
Naning, Negeri Sembilan, Selangor and Perak
While the states on the east coast of the Peninsula were reaching
accommodation with Bangkok and Singapore, centres on the west
coast were experiencing their own local conflicts. In May 1831,
Abdullah sailed from Singapore to Melaka because he had heard that
there might be a war between the British forces there and the penghulu
(chief) of a nearby region called Naning, and he wanted to protect his
home and family. Abdullah found the inhabitants of Melaka in great
commotion, expecting an attack from Naning (see map 5, page xix).
In response, the British magistrate, W.T. Lewis, left with an armed
force of Indian soldiers but returned after only three days after a humiliating ambush and defeat. This was the prelude to a drawn-out
engagement between the British and the penghulu, which resulted from
a total misunderstanding of the local situation by Mr Lewis and led to
a costly and embarrassing campaign. It is one example of the effect a
conscientious, but under-informed, foreigner can have on local
(Malaysian) affairs.
The penghulu of Naning, also known as Dol Sayid, is celebrated
as an early freedom fighter in the current interpretation of Malaysian
history and Abdullah provides some background to the war in his
Story. The district of Naning lies inland from Melaka and was known
to the Dutch during their period of administration there from 1641. A
productive rice area which had attracted Minangkabau settlers (among
others), the Dutch and the chief of Naning had come to an agreement
that the latter would deliver a portion of the annual crop to Melaka in
recognition of the Dutch presence. There was no question of Dutch
control of Naning and only sporadic contact, but honour on both sides
was satisfied by a token amount of rice being sent annually to Melaka.
When the British occupied Melaka, between 1795 and 1818, little was
changed but, following the transfer of power to Britain in 1824, Mr
Lewis mistakenly believed Naning was subject to Melaka and should
deliver its tithes and acknowledge British authority. The penghulu of
Naning and his people could not accept these terms and the uncertainty by the British about how to handle the situation only added to
the general confusion. Various sections of British officialdom were
divided about whether direct intervention and a show of force should
be made, or whether the policy should be revised and greater accommodation reached with the penghulu. Because Melaka was losing
money, it was decided the payments from Naning were essential and
Lewis’s force was sent to deal with the penghulu. The ignominious
retreat, described above, was the result.
In his Story, Abdullah lists the ‘Genealogy of the Rulers of
Naning’ which acknowledges that Naning was settled by groups of
Minangkabau migrants from Sumatra who intermarried with local
Orang Asli. The uncleared areas of Naning were ideal ground for
guerilla tactics and the punitive forces sent by the British were ill-prepared for the overgrown conditions and for the sporadic fighting
they encountered. The penghulu eventually surrendered when his supplies ran low and some of his allies deserted to the British. He was
allowed to live in Melaka on a small pension. When he died in 1839 he
was known as a successful merchant and doctor and was venerated by
many Malays. The British appointed a series of new district chiefs in
Naning and regarded the incident as closed. It had indicated, however,
that good relations between local groups and the British had to be
negotiated and that both sides needed to know more about the other.
In his Story, Abdullah alludes to the Minangkabau settlers of
Naning but does not go on to explain how they came to dominate
the neighbouring region now known as Negeri Sembilan or the
‘Nine States’ (see map 5, page xix). The activities of Raja Kecil, the
Minangkabau-supported leader who attacked the kingdom of Johor in
the early 18th century, have been described in the previous chapter.
Although Raja Kecil did not succeed in gaining a permanent foothold,
other Minangkabau leaders did establish themselves in the rich river
valleys inland from Melaka and founded settlements. Detailed information about the early history of those settlements is difficult to obtain
but we do know something about Inas, one of the districts, whose
history may reflect a wider pattern.
The Orang Asli of the Inas area were organised under leaders
called batin. When new settlers moved into the area, some of them
were granted the title of penghulu by the local batin. Some Orang Asli
converted to Islam (probably when they married Malay settlers) and
left their batin groups to live under penghulus. In the late 18th century,
the Minangkabau settlers were strengthened by the arrival of a
member of the Minangkabau royal line, Raja Melewar (1773–95), who
is recognised as the first yamtuan, or lord, of the region. He bestowed
Sumatran titles and offices on loyal supporters, thus adding to the array
of positions and offices available to local people.
There are now between 12 to 13 different customary law (adat)
districts in Negeri Sembilan, covering various clan groupings (suku).
Traditional leadership is still held by district chiefs whose succession is
based on a rotation system, with elaborate rules to ensure the correct
order of rotation between a select group of lineages. While this situation provides rich material for anthropological research, in practical
terms the grounds for dispute over territorial and leadership rights are
legion. Until the late 19th century, the various clans and districts
retained a largely autonomous existence, making alliances and link-ages only when it was necessary to achieve a particular end. The land
in the Negeri Sembilan hills is suitable for wet-rice cultivation (and
rice can be grown there without irrigation) while the headwaters of the
rivers have gold and tin deposits. A particular characteristic of the
Minangkabau dominated areas of Negeri Sembilan is the system of
land ownership and inheritance. Following Minangkabau custom,
family lands are in the hands of women and ancestral lands pass down
the female line.
North and west of the river valleys of Negeri Sembilan lie the
territories of Selangor. Within the boundaries of the modern state,
Selangor can be divided into three major river valleys of settlement
which, working from north to south are: the Selangor River, the Klang
and the Langat (see map 5, page xix). Before the 18th century, Selan-
gor was only sparsely populated until the arrival of migrants, during the
1700s, attracted by the tin for which Selangor is still famous. The Bugis
groups who moved there from Riau were instrumental in developing
Selangor’s tin trade. Despite Dutch attempts to prevent them, they
traded with British country traders, receiving opium in return for the
tin which the British needed for the China trade.
The establishment of Penang provided even greater opportunities for trade with the British and the leading Bugis chief in Selangor,
a member of the family of Bugis under kings in Riau, asked the sultan
of Perak to install him as sultan of Selangor in 1766. Thus, Sultan
Sallehuddin, who began the royal house of Selangor with the assistance of the sultan of Perak, consolidated his position from his
lucrative trade in tin and opium. When he died in 1782, he was succeeded by his son Ibrahim (1782–1826), during whose reign a
gigantic tin mine 40 feet (12 metres) deep and with two sluices each
a mile long (1.5 kilometres) was excavated in the upper reaches of
the Selangor River (nowadays Ulu Selangor). It was said to have been
worked not by Chinese but by Malays who were probably immigrants
from Sumatra.
One of the results of the relatively late settlement of Selangor
was the absence of a developed system of administration. The first
sultan instituted the practice of granting rights over districts to
members of his own family. Thus, in addition to the disputes over royal
succession which were, as we have seen, a characteristic of Malay royal
families, there were also disputes over succession rights to territories
especially when the available territory ran out in the mid-19th century.
One dispute over territory was not long lived (1867–73) but it
did have disastrous consequences and opened the way for a permanent
and official British presence in Selangor. At the heart of the dispute
were rights to the tin-rich territory of Klang, which the sultan had not
passed to his grandson as expected, but to another relative. Raja
Mahdi, the grandson, was the popular claimant and was able to raise
forces to pursue his claims. His chief opponent was a Kedah prince
(Tengku Kudin) who had married into the Selangor royal family and
had the backing of leading British figures in Singapore and Penang.
The fighting resulted in the destruction of major tin mines and
the depopulation of agricultural districts. It was complicated by the
involvement of backers in Singapore and Penang, forces from Kedah
and from Pahang, incidents of piracy, and outbreaks of major violence
among Chinese miners around Kuala Lumpur. The supply of tin to the
merchants of Singapore and Penang was disrupted and they lobbied
the British government to intervene and ‘restore order’. Before outlining the results of this pressure, it is important to give a brief survey of
Perak, Selangor’s northern neighbour.
According to a local legend, the kingdom of Perak originated
with the marriage of a Malay trader who settled in the upper reaches
of the Perak River and married the daughter of an Orang Asli chief.
Although they had no children of their own, their adopted daughter
married a prince from Johor (note the links with the Melaka dynasty),
who became the first ruler of Perak. Like Selangor, Perak is an area
with rich deposits of alluvial tin which can be extracted by washing in
trays. These deposits may have been exploited in prehistoric times and
they were definitely being worked in the early 17th century when they
attracted the attention of the very active rulers of Aceh. Perak, like
Johor and Pahang, was raided by the Acehnese and, it is said, 5000 of
the population, including the royal family, were transported to Aceh.
The royal family of Perak intermarried with that of Aceh and a Perak
prince was returned to Aceh as its ruler.
In the mid-17th century, after the Dutch had replaced the Portuguese in Melaka, Perak’s tin was exported through a system of
monopoly agreements with the Dutch. The Dutch failed to exert a
total monopoly, however, and some tin was traded with freelance
merchants via overland routes to Kedah. During the 18th century
Perak, like Kelantan, had a number of territorial chiefs who were
loosely linked with the sultan, but who had considerable autonomy in
their own districts. This was also the period of Bugis activity in the
archipelago and, as already noted, groups of Bugis succeeded in establishing themselves in the tin-rich areas of Selangor. They tried also to
extend their influence to Perak, and for short periods had some
success. However, fearful of losing his influence in his own kingdom,
the Perak sultan of the day negotiated a treaty with the British in
1825, under which he would be guaranteed protection. Essentially,
Perak was trying to ensure its position both against the Siamese in
Kedah and the Bugis in Selangor.
Internal security was a different matter—the sultan was supposed
to have his own domains under control. Like all Malay kingdoms,
Perak was vulnerable to quarrels over succession and disputes over
control of revenue-rich districts. The Chinese, who arrived in increasing numbers during the 19th century to work as miners had their own
disputes and Kinta, the richest tin-producing district at that time, was
one of the worst areas for violence. Any disruption to the extraction of
tin for the British merchants caused them acute concern and for some
time they had been lobbying strongly in London for official British
action on the Peninsula whenever their commercial interests were
threatened. The Colonial Office steadfastly refused to intervene.
The situation changed when senior members of the royal families
in Selangor and Perak, in return for assistance to press their claims
for territory or power, granted prospecting concessions to foreigners
(a British businessman and a Chinese developer respectively). The foreigners, who stood to lose much if their concessions were not honoured,
persuaded their Malay patrons that more active British intervention
would further their own interests. They continued to lobby British officials in London and in 1873, in response to the repeated reports of
‘violence’ and ‘disruption’ as well as the losses caused by piracy, the
Colonial Office authorised Sir Andrew Clarke, the incoming governor
of Singapore and Penang, to look into the situation.
After listening to the local British lobbyists, Clarke was persuaded that the time was right to present a treaty to the chiefs of Perak.
The treaty would endorse a new sultan—who had several competitors—and put an end to the Chinese disputes by stationing a British
official permanently in Perak’s main mining districts. In return, the
sultan had to agree to accept, and pay for, a British administrator,
known as a resident, whose advice he was bound to follow. The new
agreement, known as the Pangkor Treaty because it was signed on a
British vessel anchored off the island of Pangkor, was concluded on
20 January 1874 by the eight senior ministers and several of the chiefs
of Perak and Clarke, governor of the Straits Settlements.
The Pangkor Treaty has assumed a special importance in
Malaysian history because it is regarded as marking the beginning of
official British intervention in Malay affairs. Similar understandings
were reached with Selangor and Sungai Ujong (Negeri Sembilan)
where British residents were also accepted. In Perak, the first resident,
J.W.W. Birch, moved swiftly to introduce a new system of taxation and
revenue collection. His policies and direct manner aroused the hostility of the new sultan and senior chiefs, whose traditional rights were
threatened by Birch’s new regime.
British officials seem to have learned little from earlier clashes with
local chiefs—for example, the Naning incident between Lewis and the
penghulu of Naning in 1831 provided lessons about the importance of
local interests and of extended negotiation rather than aggressive action.
Despite evidence that both the sultan and senior chiefs were extremely
hostile to him, Birch continued with the implementation of the new tax
regulations in Perak. On 2 November 1875, he was assassinated early
one morning while bathing in the river. Official British retribution was
swift and violent. The chiefs implicated in the assassination and the
sultan were exiled and the alleged perpetrators of the murder were
hanged. These actions were designed to serve as an example of British
response to lack of cooperation from local authorities and thereafter, in
Perak at least, there was greater support for British policies. The introduction of new revenue-collecting measures, which struck at the basis of
power and authority for both chiefs and sultans, continued to arouse
hostility elsewhere in the Malaysian territories and lasted well into the
20th century.
Islamic connections
Although Islam had been adopted by some Malays during the period of
the Melaka sultanate, there are few details about its administration and
propagation. From the late 18th century onwards, there is more evidence
about how Islam was being practised. In the 1780s and 1790s, we know
that some Malays were travelling to Mecca to participate in the rituals of
the pilgrimage. The sultan of Selangor, for example, was writing letters
to the East India Company requesting assistance and safe passage on EIC
vessels for several of his subjects who were trying to reach Mecca. The
pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj) is one of the five basic principles enjoined
on all Muslims and its successful completion brings individual Muslims
spiritual benefits, as well as status in their home community.
It is not surprising then, that Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, the
diligent clerk, language teacher, translator and educator, should
himself embark on the pilgrimage. Singapore had become the centre
for a great deal of Muslim activity for the whole of the Indonesian
archipelago as well as the Malaysian territories. Its role as a shipping
centre meant that it was the major port of embarkation for the hajj and
it had also attracted an active group of Hadrami Arabs and Indian
Muslims. Some of them were highly regarded as religious teachers and
they contributed to the publishing industry, which was well established
in Singapore, by printing religious texts and journals and circulating
them to their fellow Muslims.
In February 1854, Abdullah left Singapore in an Arab vessel. He
kept a journal of his voyage in which he recorded his arrival in Mecca
and his deep emotion at being present in the Holy Land. However, he
died suddenly in October 1854 and left the journal incomplete, to be
returned to Malaya by a friend and later published. Always an apologist
for the achievements of the British and their orderly system of government, as he had experienced it in Melaka and Singapore, he would
probably have approved of the British system of residents ushered in
by the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, just 20 years after his
death. However, he may not have approved of the clause which limited
the resident’s advice to secular matters and clearly delineated ‘Malay
Religion and Custom’ as remaining strictly under the sultan’s authority.
Abdullah had been critical of the Malay rulers for what he believed were
old fashioned and autocratic attitudes and he had urged them in his writings to educate their people in the ways of the contemporary world.
Reform of the sultanates, he believed, was necessary and the ‘protection’
provided by the Treaty of Pangkor for the maintenance of royal privileges
was not in the best interests of the future development of the Malays.
By the early 20th century, an articulate and well-educated group
of modern-minded Muslims was also urging Malays to adapt to the
needs of a changing world. This could be achieved, it was argued, if the
Qur’anic injunction, ‘God helps those who help themselves’ was
actively applied by individual Muslims.
Then came to our eastern countries the Europeans from
the north replete with the weapons to win the battle of life
and equipped with knowledge of the ways and means to make
profit . . .
Syed Shaykh al-Hady, 19071
By the early 20th century, it was clear to the majority of the inhabitants of the Malaysian territories that the presence of the British was
not a temporary phenomenon. The Brooke family was entrenched in
Sarawak and the British North Borneo Company was trying to administer Sabah, while on the Peninsula, British businesses, plantations and
a colonial civil service were in embryonic form but growing rapidly.
The responses of several regions in the Malaysian territories to British
colonial rule enable us to gauge the effects a permanent and institutionalised Western presence was having on the local populations.
In recent times, the impact of the colonial period has been reassessed
and it is being recognised that the contact between colonisers and
colonised was very much a two-way interaction: the colonisers were
affected and influenced by the process as much as the local peoples.
The term ‘colonialism’ generally conjures up images of repression, authoritarianism and paternalism. The quotation above reflects
the views of an influential and articulate group of local people within
the Malaysian territories in the early 20th century. During the 19th
century, foreign-dominated rule was a widely spread phenomenon
throughout Asia although the degree of colonial influence, even
within one major region, could vary greatly. Malaysia’s neighbouring
states, the Netherlands Indies, Burma and the Philippines were all
subject to a European power. Thailand remained independent but, in
the early years of the 20th century, traded some of its territory to the
British in return for recognition of its sovereignty over other areas. It
is this concern for control of territory which has led one prominent
writer of Southeast Asian history to identify the creation of national
borders as one of the most important features of the European advance
into the region. As Milton Osborne notes, the colonial powers created
borders ‘that, with minor exceptions, have become those of the
modern states of Southeast Asia’.2 British policies did indeed have a
permanent effect on the Malaysian territories through the fixing of
their international and many of their internal borders, as well as on the
way they were governed.
Making borders: dividing and governing peoples
The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 divided the Malay Peninsula and
island Southeast Asia into British and Dutch spheres and established
the major international boundary between what were to become
Malaysia and Indonesia. When Sultan Mahmud of Riau-Lingga
(Dutch territory) ignored the European-derived boundaries and,
during the 1850s, travelled freely through the Peninsula and to
Bangkok he was deposed by the Dutch and was subjected to gunfire
from British warships off Terengganu. He could be described as one
early victim of the new international boundaries. At the time of his death in 1864, the geographical components of modern Malaysia were beginning to be drawn together.
Siam, the Straits Settlements and Borneo The boundaries between the Anglo-Malay and Siamese spheres of influence were laid down in the 1826 Agreement of Bangkok (the
Burney Agreement). Siamese rule was acknowledged in Kedah, but in
Kelantan and Terengganu, it was agreed that the British would not
interfere in the internal affairs of either kingdom and the Siamese
would not obstruct British trade there. In the same year, 1826, the
EIC decided to combine the administration of Penang, Melaka and
Singapore into one unit, to be known as the Straits Settlements. The
commercial success of Singapore and Penang soon became evident,
as a leading historian of the 19th century noted: ‘By the mid-19th
century the Straits Settlements offered striking justification of the
theories of free trade, light taxation and laissez-faire government.
Abdullah Munshi was convinced that the Straits Settlements were an
example of what could be achieved by planning and control. For him,
and for many of the successful merchants operating there, the Straits
Settlements represented the antithesis of the ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder’ of
the Malay states ruled by Malay sultans. In 1858, after years of lobbying in London, Singapore’s leading businesses directly petitioned the
British Parliament for the Straits Settlements to be separated from
India and the India Office. This was achieved finally in 1867 when
the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony under the Colonial
Office, with an executive council of senior officials and a legislative
council whose members were nominated by the governor.
Meanwhile, some of Brunei’s territories were being transferred
to James Brooke, starting in 1841 with the grant of Kuching and
the mineral-rich territory around it. Brooke’s troubles with the local
peoples (particularly the aggressive Skrang Iban groups) had made him
a vocal supporter of Crown Colony status for the Straits Settlements.
He saw this as opening the way for British protection of Sarawak, possibly even linking Sarawak with Singapore. But this did not eventuate
and Sarawak’s borders remained limited to Borneo, where Brooke’s
influence expanded steadily into Brunei’s territories. By 1906, Sarawak
had assumed its present borders and encircled what was left of Brunei.
The latter kingdom was saved only by a British treaty with the sultan
in 1906, under which the sultan accepted a British Resident as adviser
and Brunei became a Protectorate.
By the 1870s, other European groups were interested in Brunei’s
territories in the region now known as Sabah. The Dent brothers had
a successful private British Trading Company in the Far East and sent
their partner, Baron von Overbeck, an Austrian businessman from
Hong Kong, to negotiate with the sultan of Brunei for the lease of
some of his territory. As in Sarawak, the sultan of Brunei did not have
personal rights to all territories under his influence and many important areas were controlled by individual ministers or other members of
the Bruneian elite. However, he could bring his influence to bear and
so, in late December 1877, the sultan of Brunei and one of his ministers agreed to lease large areas of the west coast of Sabah to the Dents’
syndicate, in return for an annual rent.
The Dent brothers turned next to Sabah’s east coast and negotiated with its nominal overlord, the sultan of Sulu, for further leases
for which they also paid annual sums. In 1881, the British government granted the Dents’ ‘Provisional Association’ a Royal charter to
establish the North Borneo Chartered company. Under the charter,
the company had wide powers to govern ‘North Borneo’ providing the
conditions of the charter were respected. These included protecting
the rights, customs and interests of native peoples; developing the
territory; promoting public works and irrigation; granting land to
investors, free access to British shipping and allowing free trade. In
addition, all issues concerning external relations would be conducted
by Britain. The company’s administration was supervised by a Court
of Directors in London represented in Sabah by a governor and his
officers. The extent of company-controlled territory grew through the
1880s as more Brunei nobles leased portions of their territories in
Sabah directly to the company. A degree of administrative ‘neatness’
was created in 1888, when Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah officially
became British Protectorates. By the early 1900s, the borders of
modern Sabah had been defined but the inland areas, particularly
along the southern border—a region inhabited mostly by Murut
peoples—was almost entirely unknown to outsiders.
Internal borders
The Protected Malay States (1874–95)
On the Peninsula, the 1874 Pangkor Treaty with Perak (the model
for later agreements with other Malay states) did not establish international boundaries. It did, however, become the cornerstone for a
major new administrative alignment of the four regions which had
agreed to accept and support a British resident to work in concert
with the reigning sultan through a State Council. Perak and Selangor, then Negeri Sembilan and, in 1888, Pahang, were administered
under the ‘residential system’ and were known collectively as the
Protected Malay States.
In the late 1880s, after Pahang had also accepted a resident,
several British officials believed that an amalgamation, or loose confederation of the four similarly governed and adjacent states, would
benefit their development as well as rationalise their administrations.
It made sense, they suggested, for common services such as roads,
railways and communications networks to be organised together rather
than separately. The idea was put into effect in 1896.
The Federated Malay States (FMS)
The agreement consenting to a federation was signed by the sultans of
the four kingdoms in 1895 when the arrangement was presented to
them. In reality, the implementation of the agreement resulted in an
amalgamation of the four kingdoms by combining their administration,
services and, above all, their finances. Under the latter arrangements,
richer kingdoms could subsidise the poorer, and Pahang needed to be
bailed out during the 1890s. The head of the federation was a British
resident-general, who was theoretically under the governor of the
Straits Settlements and who was appointed also as high commissioner
for the Malay states. An annual meeting (or durbar) of Malay rulers and
British officials was the only official opportunity for the component
parts of the federation to come together.
Sir Frank Swettenham, a forthright ex-resident with over
20 years’ service in Malaya, was appointed first resident-general
(1896–1900) and established a style of centralised control from the
new administrative centre of Kuala Lumpur. His personality ensured
that the resident-general was not seen as subservient to the governor
and for the four years he held the position he aggressively pursued
major development policies for the federation. The four sultans concerned, especially the articulate Sultan Idris of Perak, resisted the
idea of amalgamation of finances and administrations and the federation was not accomplished as completely as the British government
had envisaged. When the Colonial Office recognised this in 1910,
they supported amendments to the 1895 agreement with the result
that the governor was unambiguously in charge of the FMS. Bifurcation of policy between the Straits Settlements and the FMS was to
be strenuously avoided.
The Unfederated Malay States (UMS)
Only four peninsular kingdoms had agreed to accept British residents
and were thus involved in the federation. By 1910, however, the situation began to change, largely as the result of the new Anglo-Siamese
Treaty of 1909. The negotiations for the treaty seem to have been conducted directly between Siam and Britain, without reference to the
Malay kingdoms involved, a situation which would later be a cause for
dissension. Under the treaty, Siam agreed to transfer its authority over
Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu—but not over Patani—to the
British. The treaty thus established Malaysia’s northern international
border and like the Treaty of London (1824) divided culturally and
ethnically related peoples into different international jurisdictions.
After World War II, unsuccessful attempts were made to reunite the
Malay peoples by pressing for Patani’s incorporation into Malaya.
Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu also agreed to accept
British advisers (who had less authority than British residents) into
their administrations, largely because they needed assistance to pay
large state debts. In 1910, Johor too agreed to allow a British officer
to be stationed in the state but without any official position. British
influence in Borneo was being formalised at this time with Brunei
accepting a resident in 1906 and Labuan, North Borneo and Sarawak
each coming under the authority of the governor of the Straits Settlements. None of these areas, whether in Borneo or on the Peninsula,
would agree to join the FMS. In effect, however, they were ultimately
under the same authority (the governor) and they were very much
influenced by the style of administration in the FMS. In some senses,
the Unfederated States enjoyed the best of both worlds: their sultans
retained more control over domestic affairs than their counterparts in
the FMS and they were able to change some aspects of their internal
administration to incorporate innovations from a number of sources
which included Britain, Siam and Ottoman Turkey.
Cooperation or resistance
Treaties made between Britain and the Netherlands, or Britain and
Siam, or even treaties between local (usually Malay) rulers and foreigners, were agreements unlikely to have been widely known beyond
the circles of officials who negotiated and administered them. In 1910,
European knowledge of inland areas of the Peninsula, let alone Sabah,
was minimal. In Sarawak, the Brooke administrators had made more
forays into the interior than most of their counterparts elsewhere in
the Malaysian territories, yet a map from the period shows how much
land was still unknown to outsiders (see map 4, page xviii).
These regions, although blanks on the map, were populated,
their peoples interacting with others in the Malaysian territories.
However, tracing this interaction through either Malay or European
documents is very difficult. The interactions were not always positive
and in some regions Malays, Minangkabaus, Bataks, Rawas and others
captured non-Malay peoples for slaves. Many of those groups developed elaborate avoidance procedures which allowed them to trade
without direct contact. The effect of increased colonial influence produced very different responses among the indigenous peoples in
different areas.
The Semais
The Semais represent a fairly large population of Orang Asli, who from
at least the late 19th century, have lived (and continue to live) in the
foothills and mountains of southern Perak and in the adjacent areas
of northwestern Pahang. Today, the Semais number about 30 000 and
form the largest group of the Orang Asli.
As shifting cultivators, the Semais were vulnerable to the effects
of colonial ‘development’ policies which demanded increasing areas of
land. Foreign investment in mining increased the numbers of Chinese
and Indonesian workers being brought into the peninsula and efforts to
locate new mineral deposits took them into areas which were tradi-
tional domains of the Semais. As well, the British policy of encouraging
intensification of rice production and the spread of plantation crops
brought Malays and others into competition with the Semais for
agricultural land. The colonial officials wanted to see development
accomplished with the utmost speed so that revenue would flow and
infrastructure (roads, railways) could be established. Negotiation with
the Semais over access to their lands was not part of colonial policy.
The arrival of new peoples into the Malaysian territories has
always been a characteristic feature of its history and degrees of accom-
modation and adaptation have developed over time. One important
example concerns rights to land use. In the region now known as
Negeri Sembilan, and possibly also in parts of Kedah, Kelantan and
Pahang, some Malays and other peoples recognised the traditional
rights of the Orang Asli to particular territories and intermarried with
them so that their descendants participated in local land usage practices. Customary law in Negeri Sembilan included specific recognition
of Orang Asli ‘ownership’ of jungle and interior land and allowed for
compensation if the Orang Asli were displaced. It is more difficult to
learn what Orang Asli themselves thought of these arrangements.
There is some information from the early 20th century which
indicates how relationships between Orang Asli and Perak Malays were
negotiated. The sultan of Perak at that time contacted a group of
Semais through his local Malay chiefs and conveyed to them letters of
appointment as headmen with Malay titles. The Semais thus appointed
responded by implementing some features of Malay political culture:
they organised a headman for each local group of Semais and arranged
for annual meetings of the headmen. At these meetings, produce they
had collected was delivered to the Malay chiefs as a token of mutual
accommodation. These Semais also implemented a dispute resolution
procedure where public meetings were held to hear ‘trials’ of alleged
Orang Asli offenders. This procedure extended an existing Semai tradition of consensus through discussion at public meetings but refined it
for the more specific purpose of dealing with wrongdoers. This degree
of interaction between Semais and Malays provided sufficient latitude
for the Semais to maintain their own integrity and identity, unless they
chose to settle permanently with non-Orang Asli groups (Malay or
Chinese, for example) and adopt their religion and lifestyle.
Unfortunately, relations between the Semais and outsiders were
not always peaceful. There are many European reports about raids on
Orang Asli to capture women and children, who would then be sold to
become labourers or household servants. In these raids, it was not
unusual for male Orang Asli to be murdered. Information on the perpetrators of the raids is less clear—Malays were certainly involved in
the procurement and sale of the Orang Asli but some Orang Asli groups
themselves may have been coerced by Malays to raid others. In the
northern parts of the Peninsula, Thais sometimes captured Orang Asli
for their curiosity value as well as for their labour.
Some groups of Orang Asli negotiated ways of protecting themselves from the raiders by appointing selected Malays as their agents.
The Malays acted as intermediaries between the Semais and outsiders.
The intermediaries inherited their positions and good working relationships of trade and exchange operated in some Semai territories in
Perak and Kelantan up until the late 1940s, when more bureaucratic
links were established. It has been suggested that the present divisions
of the Semais into ‘highland’ and ‘lowland’ Semais is the result of slave
raiding and increasing intensification of settlement by outsiders. Those
groups who retreated in the face of advancing threats to their lifestyle
remained in the more remote and upland areas. One of the long-term
effects of slave raiding has been Orang Asli distrust of dealings with
Malays. In many of their oral traditions, outsiders are depicted as
dangerous, untrustworthy and to be avoided. In Malay stereotypes of
Orang Asli, the image of a less developed, uncivilised, culturally inferi-
or group may well be linked to Malay folk memory of the time when
many of the slaves and dependents in Malay society were Orang Asli.
The rights of Orang Asli to their traditional lands were threatened
not only by colonial development policies but also because the British
negotiated for territory only with the Malays. Although some Malay
chiefs had made agreements with the Orang Asli, the British regarded
the Malay sultans as the sole source of authority over land, and therefore dealt only with them. The implications of this policy are still being
played out in contemporary Malay politics. The Orang Asli, like most of
the world’s other tribal peoples, had the choice of withdrawal into
remote areas or assimilation.
The Bajaus
The largest group of Orang Suku Laut in Sabah waters are the Bajaus
who are widely dispersed around the Sulu archipelago (southern
Philippines), the northeast coast of Sabah, and eastern Indonesia.
From at least the late 18th century (if not much earlier), the Bajaus
served the sultan of Sulu as seamen, pilots, traders and raiders and in
return were awarded titles and positions at court. One of the points in
their network of collection and exchange was an island in the Darvel
Bay region of Sabah’s east coast (see map 5, page xix). This was a collection point for sea products and birds’ nests. During the 1880s, the
settlement attracted neighbouring peoples who did not wish to come
under the influence of the British North Borneo Company, at that
time extending its operations in Sabah.
The expanding community in Darvel Bay which had links with
the Bajaus, whom the British officials regarded as pirates, alarmed the
North Borneo Company. In their view, there was no reason why the
Bajaus should not replace their ‘piracy’ with a ‘settled’ life. Company
officials, therefore, rewarded those Bajaus who started growing
coconuts for the copra trade. The company also devised a system of
boat registration which would enable the British to track boats from
the registration labels attached to their bows. At the same time, the
governor of the British North Borneo Company began replacing chiefs
who had been installed by the sultan of Sulu with men who undertook
to be loyal to the company.
But administration is expensive and revenue was not flowing to
the company so in 1887 the governor also introduced a tax on the
lucrative Bajau trade in birds’ nests. Faced with having to pay to reg-
ister their boats and with a tax on their main trade item, many Bajaus
resisted. On the grounds that he was dealing with a piratical people,
the governor summoned several Royal Navy ships to shell and
destroy Bajau settlements. The local chiefs responded by sailing to
Sulu to seek the sultan’s assistance. In their absence, the governor
decided to establish a new trading centre to attract more passing
trade to the Darvel Bay region. He selected a mainland site not far
from the Bajau island and named it Semporna, appointing a Chinese
trader to represent the company and promote the settlement. Unfortunately for the Bajau chiefs, the Spanish authorities in the
Philippines had been attacking Sulu and their navy chased away the
Bajaus who then decided that settlement in Semporna was not such
a bad option.
Between the late 1880s and 1910, Semporna attracted a large
influx of Bajaus who used it as an alternative to their former Sulu
market. The North Borneo Company also introduced cash (rather
than barter) for transactions in Semporna which enabled local trade
to be linked more effectively into the wider regional markets. The
adoption of a cash economy as a major economic innovation ‘greatly
expanded the value and volume of local trade, in some cases intensified economic specialization, and effectively linked local trade to
global markets well beyond the district’.4 The facilities and opportunities for making money which Semporna represented transformed
the lifestyles of those Bajaus who chose to trade and settle there.
Others maintained their existing lifestyle but the company’s policy
of boat registration and their use of police to enforce it resulted in
fewer Bajaus making extended trips to eastern Indonesia and more
choosing to operate closer to Borneo and the southern Philippines.
The combination of changed circumstances in the Sulu sultanate
(coincidentally caused by another colonial presence) so that it no
longer served as an alternative to the authority of the company, the
initiative of the governor in identifying and appointing key individuals as company agents and the success of the cash economy in
Semporna provided conditions which the Bajaus found favourable
for their own purposes. Unlike many other minority communities
under colonial influence they did not disintegrate. On the contrary,
they adapted to the new conditions and exploited them to their own
The Chinese miners of Bau
The British North Borneo Company, through the policies of an astute
governor, had some success in its interaction with the Bajaus in the
late 19th century. But the company was also criticised for looking too
much to developing maritime relations at the expense of administering the inland and interior people of Sabah. It was proving difficult to
introduce new administrative practices to the region. In Sarawak, 30
years earlier, James Brooke (referred to in Sarawak as the rajah) had
experienced a surprise attack on Kuching which strengthened his ideas
about methods of local administration.
In the late 1840s, James Brooke was occupied with the pacification of the Saribas and Skrang Dayaks and with developing a policy
for administering his territories. In 1852, he appointed his nephew,
Charles Johnson, as his deputy (tuan muda) and Charles began a long
career dedicated to implementing his vision of what Sarawak could
and should be. Charles (who later took his uncle’s name of Brooke)
personally led 50 expeditions against ‘hostile’ Iban groups, using
friendly Ibans as his warriors. One of the objects of the campaigns was
to stop the Iban practice of headhunting but it has been suggested that
the campaigns themselves, during which heads were taken, ‘perhaps
served instead to perpetuate the practice’.5
James Brooke developed a system of administration in which the
few Europeans in Sarawak worked through local chiefs to interfere as
little as possible with traditional practice. He described himself as the
‘governor’ (tuan besar) and personally promulgated the first written
laws in 1842, basing them on existing local laws which he obtained
through discussions with headmen. His aim was to separate abuse from
custom and through free trade and respect for the Dayak, Malay and
Chinese communities to promote local prosperity.
The Chinese were administered through their own leaders. It is
important to differentiate between various Chinese ethnic groups
because each had their own specific customs, occupations and language.
In Sarawak, seven distinct dialect groups were recognised. The first
Chinese mining settlements in Sarawak were established by Chinese
who had already been mining in the Sambas–Pontianak districts of
Dutch West Borneo since at least the 1760s (see map 5, page xix).
These early mining communities were mainly Hakka Chinese from
southern China. In the early 1820s, when the demands of Dutch
administration became burdensome and when the gold began to show
signs of being worked out, many moved north into Sarawak after learn-
ing that antinomy and gold had been discovered.
By the 1840s, considerable numbers of Hakkas from the Sambas
fields had settled at Bau, a rich gold area in the upper reaches of the
Sarawak River. In the same period, Hokkien traders and Cantonese
market gardeners settled in Kuching. By 1857, migrants from the
Dutch territories had swollen the numbers at Bau. The miners were
under the influence of an aggressive secret society and were smuggling
opium, for which some miners were convicted by Brooke’s representatives. The situation was tense but became critical when new taxes
were announced on gambling, opium and the export of gold. Each tax
directly affected the Chinese miners. All kinds of rumours circulated
in this heated context and the angry miners expressed their frustration by mounting a surprise attack on Kuching in February 1857.
Europeans were captured and two children and several British settlers
were murdered. The Malay quarter of Kuching was sacked and totally
destroyed. James Brooke escaped by swimming across the Sarawak
River and the town was saved by the arrival of a European vessel
owned by a mining company. Charles Brooke returned from a tour of
the interior with his Iban force and pursued the Chinese across the
border into Dutch territory where many were captured by the Dutch.
Some estimates put the number of miners killed at about 1000 and the
disruption which the incident caused meant that the gold mining
never regained the former levels of production. Chinese immigration
slowed and it took a further decade before numbers reached the levels
of 1857. Although Hakkas remained the dominant group, they were
closely followed by Foochows (people from Fuzhou in southeastern
China), with increasing numbers of migrants coming directly from
China as well as from the Straits Settlements.
The Bau miners had shown that Kuching was vulnerable to
attack and the Brookes took note. Charles soon embarked on a major
expedition against an influential Iban leader called Rentap, around
whom Iban opposition to the Brooke presence was focused. Rentap
and his followers successfully resisted attempts to capture their long-house headquarters in 1857 and Charles launched another attack in
the following year, again without defeating Rentap. But, from the
Brookes’ point of view, worse was to come.
In 1859, two British officers were murdered in a fort on the
Rejang River in the Third Division. Charles
Brooke led an expedition which resulted in the execution of ten locals
suspected of being implicated in the murders but others remained
uncaptured. The European community in Sarawak, aware of the
success of the Indian Mutiny and hearing also that Europeans had
been massacred in Banjarmasin (south Borneo) in the middle of 1859,
were afraid of a mass uprising by local peoples. Many Europeans were
unnerved by rumours a war was being organised by disaffected
Muslims who were planning to restore the rule of Brunei. Indeed, it
became evident that Brunei nobles were being supported by some
local Malay chiefs in a bid to oust Brooke rule. Using a display of
naval force, James Brooke finally negotiated an agreement with the
leaders of the disaffection and a modus vivendi was established.
During this period in Sarawak history, all contenders for power
relied on being able to persuade Iban warriors to fight for them. Charles
Brooke decided to change this by winning the loyalty of as many as possible. His third expedition against Rentap was more carefully planned
and supplied with special cannon. Although he still did not succeed in
capturing Rentap, who escaped and lived a further few years in remote
jungle, the Ibans of the Saribas and Skrang Rivers were considered
finally to be ‘pacified’ (that is, more tolerant of Brooke rule).
Rentap’s name lives on in Sarawak and in the national history of
Malaysia as one of the first freedom fighters for his people. In 1993,
a special monument was unveiled to commemorate nine Heroes of
Sarawak. Among the nine names were Rentap, Liew Shan Pang,
leader of the Bau uprising, and the leaders of several other movements
to resist Brooke rule. Formerly ‘rebels’, they are now heroes.
In 1863, six years after the attack by the miners of Bau, James
Brooke handed his authority to Charles and retired to England where
he died in 1868. Charles went on to rule Sarawak for 49 years until his
death in 1917. His experience in the country was therefore exceptionally long and his policies, implemented over more than 50 years, have
shaped modern Sarawak. A historian of Sarawak has summed up the
Brooke legacy in this way:
. . . the effect of Brooke rule had been to entrench a European ruling family at the expense of traditional Malay and
Chinese leadership . . . While the Brookes and their
officers railed against ‘vested interests’, their own interest
was to preserve their position by resisting change. They
were not so much opposed to economic development as
to the resulting social and political changes which would
inevitably undermine the basis of their authority and prestige. Nevertheless, for the most part, they carried out their
work for little financial reward and with a sincerity of
purpose seldom found in orthodox colonial systems.
Populating the Malaysian territories
Even though the Hakka miners of Bau had murdered and wrought so
much destruction in Kuching, Charles Brooke still believed the key to
developing Sarawak was to attract large numbers of Chinese settlers.
In 1867, he wrote in his diary: ‘We are going to reduce the price of the
cooked opium in the country and if this report be true will be the
means of bringing many hundreds perhaps thousands of people into
the country. We want population to turn our waste land into shape and
create bustle and industry.’7 But attracting permanent settlers was not
easy even though Charles used Chinese merchants as agents and from
1871 offered land grants. However, from about 1910 groups of Christian Chinese began arriving with their families to settle near Kuching,
Sibu and on the Baram River and cultivate vegetables, pepper, rubber
and some rice. When the Miri oil wells went into production in 1910,
more Chinese came as labourers and as skilled workmen. Further north
in Sabah, Chinese merchants were operating on the coasts and from
the 1880s arrived in greater numbers. At that time, when it was rare
for women to accompany them, many Chinese married local Sabah
people and mixed race children were quite common. By the 1920s,
Chinese women were also migrating and mixed marriages became
comparatively rare.
The pattern of immigration to Penang serves to illustrate how
Chinese migration contributed to the rapid development of new centres.
When Francis Light leased Penang from the sultan of Kedah in the late
18th century, it had few inhabitants but it quickly attracted Malays from
the Peninsula and from Sumatra, and Indians from southern India, particularly Chettiars (moneylenders) from Madras as well as labourers.
However, it was the Chinese who emigrated in the largest numbers and
by the 1850s there were 24 000, compared with 20 000 Malays, and
12 000 Indians. Some of the earliest Chinese migrants to Penang were
already extremely wealthy and later became benefactors and highly
respected community figures. Those who assimilated with local (predominantly Malay) culture were known as Babas (Straits Chinese) and
contrasted themselves with the Chinese who arrived later, usually direct
from China, and who were referred to as sinkeh (newcomers). From
about the 1850s, the pace of Chinese immigration increased due to a
constellation of factors: unrest in China (associated with the Taiping
Rebellion), poverty in the southern provinces of China and a dramatic
increase in demand for tin (for plating containers—‘tins’—for the food
canning industry). This meant that Chinese could be induced to leave
their homeland by promises of employment and a better life. The period
of so-called ‘coolie’ migration began.
Contractors and agents in China located men (or lured them into
gambling debts and then ‘saved’ them) who would leave their villages to
travel overseas. They were shipped to the Malaysian territories where
they would be ‘bought’ by a local employer. Totally at the mercy of this
employer, the coolie had to work for fixed wages until the amount of his
purchase had been covered. Such a system thrived on abuse and it was
common for coolies to have paid off their original ‘debt’ but not be told
they had done so. Furthermore, the employers owned the services which
the coolies needed: foodstores, opium dens, brothels and gambling
houses. Using any one of these increased the coolies’ debt and kept them
tied to the employer. To obtain some kind of protection, the majority of
coolies turned to secret societies either as full members or as sympathisers. These societies originated in China for local political purposes
which, in the Malaysian territories, had little meaning. The particular
features of the societies, such as strict obedience to the leader, comprehensive codes of conduct and secrecy with elaborate rituals, together
with a fierce resolve to protect members from interference by members
of other secret societies, meant that violent clashes and brutal attacks
between rival groups were common.
The disruptions caused by the secret society wars and the shocking conditions under which many coolies lived and worked resulted
finally in British legislation, in 1877, to control immigration and to

monitor the activities of the societies. William Pickering, an extraordinary Englishman who spoke various Chinese dialects fluently and
had worked for many years in China, was appointed the first protector
of Chinese. His newly established department became known as the
Chinese Protectorate. Within two years he had won the respect of
the heads of the secret societies, and he used his department as a source
of advice and redress for any Chinese who brought their grievances
before it. In 1890, when Pickering retired, the secret societies were officially banned and dissolved but Pickering’s legacy, in the form of
the Chinese Protectorate, continued to work with the Chinese until
the Japanese Occupation and World War II.
Although life for an average coolie was arduous, poorly paid and
unrelenting, there are some success stories. Loke Yew is one example.
He was a village boy born in Kwantung Province of southern China in
1845. He left for Singapore when he was 13 to work in a shop until he
had saved enough to set up on his own. He invested his profits in tin
mining ventures in northern Perak. He lost his first mines in one of the
many outbreaks of violence between rival secret societies during the
1860s—the disturbances which had contributed to the negotiation of
the Pangkor Treaty of 1874. Having lost much of his capital, he won a
contract to provision the British troops brought to Perak after Resident
Birch was murdered in 1875. He personally delivered the provisions to
upriver sites and used Orang Asli as guides. After further unsuccessful
ventures in tin mining, he was one of the many to make their fortunes
from the development of the rich deposits at Kinta in the 1880s.
Using some of this capital, he moved to the newly established
Kuala Lumpur and, in partnership with two other Chinese, won the
tender for maintaining a new railway. His contacts with British officials resulted in gaining the licence to impose taxes (known as ‘tax
farming’) on opium, liquor, gambling and pawn shops in Selangor. As
these were items and services which most coolies used, he made large
profits and gained the licence for the same services in Pahang. He
went on to open many tin mines in various districts with the aim of
becoming the richest tin operator in the FMS. His ventures in
Pahang included constructing 21 miles (34 kilometres) of road to
Kuala Lipis through the Genting Highlands which allowed a new
flow of migrants into Pahang.
In partnership with an Indian businessman, Thamboosamy Pillai,
he introduced electricity into some of his mines. In Selangor, he was
granted the lease on 20 000 acres (8100 hectares) of land for agriculture and he imported Chinese workers to clear it and plant pepper,
gambier and rubber. During the first decade of the 20th century, he
invested also in coffee plantations and soon had many estates. He
worked with the British on numerous committees concerned with
developing and running Kuala Lumpur and was elected first chairman
of the Selangor Chamber of Commerce in 1904. He was a philanthropist and because of his own total lack of education (he was illiterate)
he established scholarships for children and donated large sums to educational institutions. When he died in 1917, he left not only mines
and plantations but large investments in major enterprises such as
shipping, trading and collieries.
Another success story, the Khaw family, like Loke Yew, worked
through partnerships with other business groups, were diverse in their
operations and established links with the local ruling elite, in their
case the Thai ruling family as well as the British in Penang. They were
Hokkiens, from Changzhou in China, who emigrated to Penang in the
1820s. The first Khaw made some money as a local trader (possibly
selling vegetables), bought land and raised the capital to begin trading with towns along the peninsular coast north of Penang and into
southern Thailand. He married a Thai woman whose money and connections enabled his enterprises to prosper so that he was able to
purchase a vessel to bring goods to and from Penang. Like Loke Yew,
he used capital to develop tin mines in southern Thailand and was also
a tax farmer. In the 1850, he was appointed by the Thais as the local
governor. He maintained his links with Penang where he also had a
wife and family. Their descendants were extremely successful, highly
regarded Malaysian Chinese and their imposing clan temple may be
visited in Penang.
In Thailand, other members of the family were accepted into the
Thai aristocracy and remained close to the Thai royal family. All the
Khaw marriages established or cemented strategic links with groups
which could extend Khaw business interests. The Khaws differed from
Loke Yew, however, in one important respect. They developed their
extensive family network in Thailand (where they were linked into
local politics and the Thai elite) and in Penang (where they were
connected with the leading commercial families) to establish a
corporate lineage through a carefully thought through family trust.
When individual family members died, the trust continued to manage
the diverse corporate interests of the clan group. Unlike Loke Yew’s
businesses which have not maintained their own identities, the Khaw
enterprises still continue.
Indian immigration
Thamboosamy Pillai, the Indian businessman who became a partner of
Loke Yew, was one of Kuala Lumpur’s leading figures from the 1880s
until his death in 1902. He migrated from India in 1875 to work as
Treasury clerk for the first British Resident of Selangor. After Kuala
Lumpur became the state capital of Selangor in 1880, he moved there
to establish his own businesses. These flourished and in 1889 he personally paid for the building of an elaborate Hindu temple, Sri Maha
Mariamman, which remains a major attraction in Kuala Lumpur.
Most other Indian migrants did not have his success. Small
numbers migrated to the Straits Settlements before the 1880s to work
on sugar and coffee plantations, but the main flow began after then.
Large numbers of Indian railway workers played a vital role in establishing and running the first lines which linked interior production sites
with coastal ports. The British encouraged Indians to come to the
Peninsula because they were accustomed to working with them in colonial India and because many of them understood English. Indian
labourers were recruited using agents who either visited India personally to select workers, or had local subcontractors who assembled men
on their behalf. As with Chinese coolies, wages were fixed for a period
of years making it difficult for the workers to leave their original
employers. Women were also recruited from the turn of the century to
work on the rubber plantations which had just been established as commercial ventures in several places on the Peninsula. When the
indentured system was abolished in 1910, more Indians came as free
labourers but never in the same numbers as the Chinese. Comparative
figures reveal that by 1941 there were 2 300 000 Chinese on the
Peninsula and in Singapore while the number of Indians was 750 000.
Besides labourers, Indian professionals migrated to the Malaysian
territories. Hindu moneylenders from southern India established
branches of their firms in key commercial centres and their influence on
the growth of commerce in their new home is evident not only in the
large numbers who still practise as accountants, lawyers and financiers,
but also in the words of Indian derivation borrowed into Malay to
describe a range of commercial activities. Sikhs were recruited to work
in security positions (especially as night-watchmen) and, from the
1870s, in the police force. One other group of people was transported
from British India to work in the Straits Settlements from the end of the
18th century. It is estimated that 15 000 Indian convicts arrived between
1790 and 1860 and towards the end of that time fewer returned to India
after their release. Convicts worked for the government as snake
and tiger killers, firemen, punkahwallas, canal, well and grave-diggers,
builders’ labourers, tailors, smiths, syces (drivers), gardeners, draughtsmen and printers. It has been said of the Indian convicts that their
history is the history of the Public Works Department and that the major
public colonial buildings, bridges, roads, canals and harbour works in
Penang and Singapore are the result of their hard labour.8
Javanese and Sumatran immigration
Although Chinese and Indians provided the largest numbers of immigrants to Malaya, sizeable numbers of migrants from Java and from
various parts of Sumatra also settled permanently in the Malaysian territories. The majority of Javanese who immigrated in the late 19th
century came as agricultural and plantation labourers to Johor, Perak
and Selangor but in the first decades of the 20th century, they took up
small landholdings of their own. The British North Borneo Company
encouraged Javanese migrants to work the newly established rubber
plantations but when the rubber market slumped in the 1930s, this
migration slowed. The possibility of obtaining grants of land seems to
have been the main attraction for the considerable numbers of Rawa,
Mandailing and Korinci people who migrated from their Sumatran
homeland between the 1850s and the 1880s to work as small-scale cultivators along interior river stretches of the west coast states. Some of
them were also very successful as itinerant pedlars who would accept
rice in lieu of cash for their goods. Numbers varied, but Selangor, in
particular, attracted Sumatrans and Javanese so that by 1886 they were
estimated to number 12 000 out of the total Malaysian population for
that state of 18 000.9
To summarise: the population movements into the Malaysian territories
during the second half of the 19th century were the continuation of an
ongoing process of peopling Malaysia’s underpopulated and underdeveloped regions. The increase in numbers during this time and the specific
occupations which were taken up by the various ethnic groups are linked
with the British colonial presence which encouraged the ‘development’
of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. However, once settled in
their new positions, intermarriage and cultural assimilation (to Malay
culture) was comparatively rare. In part this can be explained by the
geographical spread. The Chinese predominated in urban areas, in tinmining districts and in Johor. The largest number of Indians was found
in rubber areas, which were located mainly in the west coast states of the
Peninsula. Malays were still most numerous in the northern peninsular
states (Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu), and more lived outside towns
than in urban environments. In Sabah and Sarawak, the Chinese settled
in urban and rural areas. In towns, however, where representatives of
many ethnic groups lived, separation between groups became the norm.
Each group tended to have its own district within the town where their
places of worship and social organisations were located and became the
focus for their daily lives. The religious and cultural barriers to inter-
marriage as an accepted practice were upheld and became the basis for
the plural society of modern Malaysia.
Capital development: rubber and tin for the
modern world
The demand for labour in the Malaysian territories increased dramatically in the early 20th century when world markets demanded massive
supplies of tin and rubber for the automobile and other mechanised
industries. Extractive techniques for tin had improved so much that
small-scale investment, even at the levels at which Loke Yew and the
Khaw family operated, was insufficient to develop fully the rich deposits
on the west coast of the Peninsula. The small-scale production of
rubber, which had begun with the collection of sap from wild rubber
trees in Johor under the kangchu system in the 1860s, had developed
into a major plantation economy organised largely by British planters
and required considerable capital to cover establishment costs.
The expansion and intensification of both the rubber and tin
industries were underwritten by foreign capital, usually from British
investors. The largest mines and plantations were foreign owned and
controlled and totally dependent on cheap labour. The tin and rubber
were exported as raw materials to be processed outside the Malay territories and sold at vastly increased prices to the world’s markets. The
profits in large measure were paid as dividends to their foreign sources
of investment, with only minimal amounts being returned to Malaya to
develop the infrastructure needed to facilitate production and export.
Commercial networks, responsive to the specialised needs of
global markets, have long been a feature of the economic life of the
region. However, large-scale foreign investment in the Malaysian
territories produced at least two kinds of long-lasting changes. First,
whereas the earlier networks had circulated profits back into the
region through a variety of mechanisms, the profits derived from
foreign investment flowed largely back to sources outside the region
which developed at the expense of the Malaysian territories. Second,
the earlier networks were characterised by diversity which enabled
them to respond rapidly to changes in global tastes and needs. The
selective nature of large-scale investment in long-term enterprises
(particularly in the plantation sector where time before productivity
is measured in years) made them very vulnerable to natural disaster,
economic depression and changes in demand. The world demand for
rubber and tin in particular had several major slumps during the 20th
century. The most severe occurred in the 1930s and 1980s and precipitated corresponding downturns in the local economy. The
retrenchment of workers during the 1930s in the mining and plantation sectors caused massive unemployment, poverty and squatter
settlements, providing fertile ground for nascent communist and
trade union movements.
In terms of immigration, quite clearly the hundreds of thousands
of Chinese and Indians who were brought in as indentured labourers
or who came to escape catastrophes in their homelands made a major
contribution to the modern economy of Malaysia. Without their
industry and manpower Malaysia could not have become the world’s
largest producer of tin by 1900 and producer of half the world’s rubber by 1924.
Kelantan and Terengganu
Unlike the states on the west coast of the Peninsula and Sabah and
Sarawak, the east coast states did not experience the same degree of
immigration. The coastal plain of Kelantan, for example, supported a
Malay population which in the early 20th century was estimated to be
larger than the combined Malay population of the Federated Malay
States. Lack of population was not an issue. On the contrary, at the
beginning of the 20th century, there was a problem supplying the local
population with sufficient rice and the traditional method of dry rice
cultivation began to be replaced by the more productive irrigated rice
system. The implications of the change were soon apparent: irrigation
required more intensive and more organised labour input and benefited
the landowners (the Kelantan elite) rather than the peasant workers.
These were not the only changes occurring in Kelantan. At the
level of international politics, the governments of Britain and Siam
negotiated a new Anglo-Siamese Treaty in 1909. The sultan of Kelantan lost some territory but apparently found it in his interests to sign
an Anglo-Kelantan Treaty in 1910 under which he agreed to accept
British protection and a British adviser (not a resident). The sultan
and the Kelantan elite were wary about the encroachment of British
authority and, although senior British authorities encouraged it, the
Kelantan establishment resisted suggestions that they join the Federated Malay States.
The sultan’s acceptance of a British adviser and his officials complicated the administration of the state. There was the immediate
challenge of adapting to a new relationship with an adviser who was
responsible to the governor in Singapore and replaced the Siamese
officials with whom the Kelantan court was accustomed to negotiate.
The local leaders and district chiefs were now subjected to the authority of British-appointed district officers (the majority of whom were
not from Kelantan) and forfeited most of their power to levy taxes.
The pressure on local elites spread into the ranks of their patrons and
increased the rivalries which were characteristic of the Kelantan ministers and members of the royal family. Some of the elite found new
opportunities to maintain or develop their influence. One of these was
in the sphere of religious administration which, during the 1890s, was
expanded with more Islamic religious courts, public lectures and the
establishment of religious police who actively encouraged the faithful
to fulfill their religious obligations. Some of the elite played an active
role as muftis and preachers but others felt displaced by the new district officers who worked under the British adviser to collect revenues
and maintain order.
An often quoted example of local reaction to the many changes
occurring in Kelantan is the ‘Tok Janggut rebellion’. ‘Tok Janggut’ (Mr
Long Beard) was the familiar name of Haji Mat Hassan, a charismatic
local personality who was believed to be invulnerable and who, after
making the pilgrimage to Mecca, grew a long white beard. His family
had long been associated with the local elite of a district in southern
Kelantan near the Terengganu border and when a district officer was
appointed to this region in 1905, the traditional chief lost his authority to collect taxes and therefore the source of his power. Tok Janggut
and several others persuaded villagers to boycott the new system and
to withhold their taxes. However, little seems to have happened until
1913 when a Singaporean Malay was appointed district officer and was
extremely diligent in his revenue-collecting activities insisting that
the taxes be paid. The situation was compounded by a further factor:
in 1915 taxation was changed from a produce tax (which was flexible
in the event of poor harvests) to a fixed land rent (which was paid by
land owners who were, in general, the aristocracy). It was the intro-
duction of a new tax by a foreign power, rather than the amount of the
tax per se, which aroused local resentment. When the district officer
learned that 2000 people were willing to follow Tok Janggut and resist
paying the tax, he ordered Tok Janggut to appear before him. However,
one of the police sent with the order was stabbed to death by Tok
Janggut, whose followers then sacked the D.O.’s office and began
burning buildings, including the houses of several European planters.
It was said later that many Kelantanese were emboldened by the belief
that Britain was losing the war against the Germans (World War I)
and might soon be defeated.
Attempts by the sultan to negotiate were unsuccessful and it was
three weeks before a force of 200 armed men from Singapore reached
the district. Tok Janggut led his followers against the force but was shot
and killed. Some of his followers escaped to Terengganu and Siam and
others melted away. During this period there were several other small
incidents of armed Kelantanese gathering in Kota Bharu and up river,
but none developed into major confrontations.
While the causes of the movement led by Tok Janggut can be
associated with the displacement of the traditional elite and the
implementation of new forms of taxation, there was also resentment
about ‘foreigners’ (non-Kelantanese, both Europeans and Malays
from elsewhere) being appointed to administrative positions over
Kelantanese. Tok Janggut was said to have announced he would
drive out all Europeans and all foreigners. Associated with this was
the suspicion that the British were trying to force Kelantan to join
the FMS and be more closely administered through the residential
system. Possibly as a result of the Tok Janggut movement and the
other incidents of armed Kelantanese confronting representatives of
British administration, the British were very cautious about appearing to coerce Kelantan (and later Terengganu) into joining the
federated system and, as it eventuated, they never became members.
The aversion to foreigners in Kelantan had the significant outcome
of ultimately enabling Kelantanese to fill positions in their own
administration, which the British ran with the minimum of outside
One further event of long-term significance for Kelantan was
associated also with the Tok Janggut affair. The sultan of Kelantan had
tried to negotiate with Tok Janggut but had failed to reach a settlement.
However, during this period one of the palace officials impressed the
sultan, who promoted him and in time he became chief minister. More
immediately, this official (Haji Nik Mahmud) persuaded the sultan to
allow him and his brother-in-law to establish a new body to administer
Islam on behalf of the ruler. The organisation, known as the Kelantan
Council of Islam and Malay Custom (Majlis Ugama Islam dan Istiadat
Melayu) took over the existing administration of religion and centralised the collection of religious taxes, giving a proportion to the
sultan, returning some to individual mosques, but also retaining a considerable amount for its own purposes. The council established a
printing press and several schools in Kota Bharu, one of which was an
English school where sons of the Kelantan aristocracy could be educated to work in the British administration. This had the dual purpose
of increasing the status of the traditional elite by preparing them for
positions in the administration organised by a colonial authority and at
the same time maintaining their links with the Council of Islam.
However, for the displaced former administrators of Islam (the local
mosque leaders and local religious scholars) and for non-elite Kelantanese, the Council of Islam was regarded as a tool of the aristocracy
and an enclave of conservatism. They, and other non-elite Malays else-where in the Malay territories, sought different avenues to express their
views on the role of Islam in Malay life in the early 20th century.
Terengganu, like Kelantan, had a large Malay population. In 1912,
the British estimated there were 154 000 Malays in Terengganu. The
main centre, Kuala Terengganu, described as the largest in the Unfederated Malay States, had a population of 25 000. Despite its population
size, in 1909 (following the signing of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty) when
the British informed the sultan of Terengganu that his kingdom was now
under their influence, they judged it not sufficiently advanced to receive
an adviser, and sent instead an agent.
The crown prince of Terengganu maintained the close connections which had long been established between his family and the
royal family of Riau-Lingga as well as with relatives in Johor and
Singapore. He was fully aware of the independent stance the
Johor sultan had adopted in his dealings with the British. In 1911,
supported by a group of the Terengganu elite, he introduced a
Constitution, closely modelled on that of Johor, which proclaimed
Terengganu’s sovereignty and laid the way for administrative reform.
In 1912 and 1913, a cabinet and state council consisting of the ruler
and his senior advisers was established and the crown prince instituted a system of government departments staffed by permanent
officials to take over the details of state administration. A secular
school had been set up in 1908 under a Johor-trained teacher, which
educated the sons of chiefs in reading and writing and prepared them
for administrative work.
The crown prince continued the restructuring of Terengganu’s
administration by replacing the hereditary chiefs with district officers
under the direct control of his officials in Kuala Terengganu. The chiefs
were promised compensation for their lost revenues but the kingdom’s
resources were not adequate and when the money was not forthcoming
the chiefs felt not only displaced but also cheated. The crown prince
needed more funds and the British agreed, but on their terms. In 1914,
a loan was arranged between the crown prince and the government of
the Straits Settlements on condition that the crown prince reform his
fiscal administration. The British were also concerned that foreign-run
(Chinese and European) mining ventures in Terengganu were being
obstructed by Terengganu officials. The munitions being manufactured
in Britain for World War I needed supplies of wolfram (from which
tungsten, an essential item in steel alloys, is extracted) and there were
rich deposits in Terengganu but the Chinese mine owner was being
controlled by the Terengganu officials. These difficulties increased
Britain’s desire to have greater authority and this was achieved through
a special commission sent to Terengganu to examine various aspects of
its administration. The report recommended an extension of British
influence to improve efficiency and it was decided to negotiate a new
treaty under which Terengganu would have to accept an adviser.
Before this could be done, the sultan died and was succeeded by
the crown prince. After initial resistance, he unwillingly agreed and
in 1919 signed and agreed to the placement of a British adviser. The
newly installed sultan felt humiliated by the adviser’s behaviour and
took the unexpected step of abdicating. He was replaced by a
younger brother, Suleiman, who was sultan from 1920 until the
Japanese Occupation in 1942. He ruled in a context of increasing
readjustment in response to British policies. The former crown
prince had installed Terengganu Malays, members of the elite, to
positions in the bureaucracy but during the 1920s the adviser
replaced some of the heads of key ministries with Europeans. The
adviser tightened the administration of outlying districts and created
a new adminsitrative unit in Ulu Terengganu, the most remote and
independent region in the kingdom. The adviser failed to recognise
the local authority of the influential al-Idrus family, long established
Muslim leaders in the region and pressed on with opening the district
through roads, police, schools and new land regulations. However,
the local people who were cultivators of hill rice and not accustomed
to a cash economy, could not pay the new land taxes. They were
encouraged by a charismatic religious leader, Haji Drahman, who had
studied with a famous scholar from the al-Idrus family. His work as an
entrepreneur, travelling to all the east coast ports, as well as to Siam
and Borneo, meant that he was attuned to the most recent trends of
the times and he criticised the new British administration as being
contrary to Islamic law (shari’ah). He urged people not to follow the
laws of the infidels and successfully defended three people arrested by
the British for breaking their laws. Although major incidents seem to
have been avoided for a few years, later evidence showed that from
1925, at least 800 individuals across a widespread area of the east
coast joined a secret Muslim movement (Sharikat al-Islam) and that
Haji Drahman and other religious leaders were involved.
In 1926, a major flood destroyed the crops and livestock of many
peasants and in 1927 the Ulu Terengganu rice growers again resisted
paying their land tax. Although the sultan tried to pacify them, in
May 1928 a large number of Malays gathered at Kuala Brang and,
chanting prayers and carrying banners, began to travel down the river
towards the capital. Meeting a police party sent to stop them, a clash
occurred and 11 were killed. The similarities with the Tok Janggut
movement in Kelantan are revealing: unwelcome change associated
with a foreign presence; the introduction of a new tax system and
charismatic leaders who acted in the name of Islam against non-Muslims. One of the results of the Terengganu ‘rising’ was the sultan’s
decision to establish closer contact with the people and after 1928 he
undertook more ceremonial tours. He, and other members of the traditional elite, seemed anxious to ensure that they, rather than popular,
non-elite Malays, remained leaders of Terengganu.
Modernising through administration and reform
As we have seen, rulers drew on a variety of sources (Johor, Singapore,
the Middle East and Turkey) to find new models for their administrations. Kedah, like Kelantan and Terengganu, remained outside the
system of Federated States. Its rulers had also instituted changes to the
older style of Malay rule by adopting features of Siamese administration.
The sultan maintained control of all revenues and avoided being
dependent on his chiefs for their collection. From the late 19th century,
the royal family was at pains to maintain very close relations with the
Thai royal family and some of the Kedah princes were educated in
Bangkok. However, the sultan began to amass considerable debts and,
in 1905, was forced to negotiate a loan from the Siamese government.
Under its terms, he agreed to accept an adviser appointed by the
Siamese to assist with financial management and to establish a State
Council. Under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, already referred to
in the context of Kelantan and Terengganu, Siamese ‘rights’ over
Kedah were transferred to Britain. Like its fellow Unfederated States,
Kedah accepted a British adviser and, like Kelantan, the sultan insisted
that local Malays be trained for administrative positions. In 1923,
Kedah signed a Treaty of Friendship with Britain under which the
British adviser remained but it was spelled out that no major decisions
concerning Kedah’s sovereignty or future could be made without the
sultan’s agreement. By this time, British officials seem to have come to
a realisation that not one of the Unfederated States would join the
federated system without being coerced to do so.
The kingdom of Johor provided the British administration in
Singapore with a dilemma—by keeping abreast of British ‘reforms’ in
the nearby Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States and adopting an ordered administration, the rulers of Johor provided no excuses
for British intervention. Johor was the last kingdom to accept any
form of official British presence. The temenggung of the Riau-Lingga
kingdom chose to settle in Singapore and then to work with officials
and businesses in Singapore to extend his own influence. He was so
successful that in 1855, having made a fortune by granting leases to
Chinese groups to work land along the rivers of Johor, he paid a
monthly allowance to the sultan of Singapore in return for full rights
to the territory of Johor, excluding the small district of Muar. In the
1860s, he moved his establishment from Singapore to Johor and
established a new capital, taking with him a strong team of advisers
and assistants, both Malay and European.
The temenggung was succeeded by his son Abu Bakar (born 1833,
ruled 1862–95). He was educated in Singapore at the school run by
Benjamin Keasberry, a Protestant missionary, and dealt confidently and
firmly with representatives of all races. The British could not complain
about his attention to his administrative duties and he implemented an
efficient system of bureaucracy, earning him the reputation of an
exemplary ruler. Moreover, most of this was achieved without official
British advice. One of Abu Bakar’s innovations was his Johor Advisory
Board which he established in London to represent the interests of
Johor without reliance on the British officials (including the high
commissioner) in Singapore. He found ways to bypass British officialdom in Malaya if it suited him and employed a range of agents, lawyers
and advisers. It was possibly on their advice that he dealt directly with
London in 1885 and signed an alliance with the Colonial Office. Under
its terms, he was recognised as sultan of Johor, the kingdom’s sovereignty
was respected and its external security guaranteed. The sultan felt at
home in England, visited Queen Victoria and her family at various times
and was a seasoned traveller to Europe, the Middle East, Turkey, Greece,
China and Japan. Although he was regarded by his fellow sultans in the
Malay territories as an upstart, he was recognised overseas, being decorated by Queen Victoria, the royal courts of Europe and the emperor of
China. In 1894, the sultan instituted a Constitution for his kingdom,
which set out the powers of the ruler, the duties of a Council of Ministers and a Council of State (a legislative body).
When Abu Bakar died, it was discovered that his extravagant
lifestyle had severely drained the kingdom’s revenues but his heir,
Ibrahim, managed to maintain the hospitals, schools and police force
and law courts introduced by Abu Bakar and sent his sons to England for
their education. He was unable, however, to maintain economic
momentum and, in 1914, was forced to agree to accept a British adviser.
Ibrahim had a long reign, and lived to see Malaya’s Independence before
dying two years later in 1959.
Syed Shaykh al-Hady
Sultan Abu Bakar had been exposed to an eclectic range of ‘modern’
thought during his period at Benjamin Keasberry’s school in the 1850s.
One of the textbooks he studied there was Abdullah’s Story, whose
didactic passages criticised Malay rulers who neglected their subjects
and praised the advantages of learning and modern science. When he
became ruler, Abu Bakar did respect learned people and on his visits to
Cairo and Constantinople, the centres of Muslim intellectual life, he
was impressed by the achievements of modern-minded Muslims. He did
not live to see the full effect of these two centres on the Malay world.
The life and work of Syed Shaykh al-Hady, one of the most
famous Arab–Malay Muslim scholars and teachers, illustrates the
renewed energy flowing into Islamic thinking in the early 20th
century. Born in 1867 to a Malay mother and a father descended from
an Arab family which migrated to Melaka in the late 18th century, he
was educated in a religious school in Terengganu and later worked and
studied with the Bugis-Malay literati of Riau. The Riau elite, like their
counterparts in Johor and Terengganu, were travellers and kept in
regular contact with events in the Middle East and Egypt. On these
visits, Syed Shaykh came in contact with the writings and teachings of
the energetic and innovative grand mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Muhammad Abduh. Since 1882, Egypt, like Malaya, had been dominated by
the British, and Muhammad Abduh urged his fellow Muslims to select
what was of value from European thought and use it to further the
glory of Islam. He also chided those Muslims who were held back by
conservative views and superstitious practices, which were not part of
Islam as taught by the Prophet Muhammad (Blessings and Peace be
Upon Him). These views attracted idealists like Syed Shaykh and
during the early 1900s a group of modern-minded Malays centred in
Singapore founded a journal called al-Imam (The Leader) which
included Malay translations of some of Muhammad Abduh’s works and
also carried strongly worded articles by local writers.
The spirit of the journal, which had 31 issues over its life of two
years, was in line with Muhammad Abduh’s teachings that all Islamic
peoples (including Malays) were being overtaken by advances in the
West. Muhammad Abduh warned that Muslims were not following
God’s holy laws (shari’ah) particularly His injunction to use the gift of
reason and intelligence to implement the true teachings of Islam, a
guide to life in this world and the next. Al-Imam carried news from the
two most advanced Eastern nations of the day, Turkey and Japan, to
prove to its readers what could be accomplished by non-European cultures. In the same vein as Abdullah Munshi, more than half a century
earlier, the journal urged parents to attend to the education of their
children and funds were raised to start a progressive school in Singapore which taught Arabic, English, Islam and a range of secular
subjects such as mathematics, geography and history. Al-Imam was
extremely influential, with a readership throughout the Malaysian
territories, into southern Thailand and throughout the Indonesian
archipelago but it aroused criticism from conservative Muslims who
did not agree with its ‘modernist’ views.
Syed Shaykh al-Hady was one of the regular contributors to
al-Imam but when it folded, due to lack of funds, he moved to Johor in
about 1909 and worked as a shari’ah lawyer. From about 1916, he lived
in Penang where he was active as an educator, writer and publisher
until his death in 1934. He left lasting legacies in the form of the well-known progressive school, Madrasah al-Mashhur (which extended the
ideals of the Singapore school and educated girls as well as boys) and
his writings, which he published from his own publishing house. He
used a range of genres to convey his message of modern Islam—detective stories, erotic love stories, didactic texts, pamphlets about the
rights of women according to the Qur’an, and a booklet on Islam and
rationalism. The erotic love stories, which were actually cleverly
composed didactic texts, were bestsellers and went into a number of
reprintings, enabling Syed Shaykh to finance further publications.
One of these, Saudara (Brother), outlived him, appearing between 1928
and 1941. Its aim was ‘to seek brotherhood or friendship in many
Muslim communities’ and, like al-Imam, its readership spread beyond
the Malaysian territories into southern Thailand and Indonesia. It was
proof of the effectiveness of publications in bringing together likeminded individuals and it provided a means of communication for
those who believed Islam could raise the status of colonised peoples
and lead them into better ways of life. This was the beginning of a
more general interest in advancing the cause of colonised nations and
led many of ‘the colonised’ to believe Islam was not the only way
forward, but that secular nationalism might be more effective in
displacing the colonial powers.
Today one hears ‘Merdeka’ shouted by men, women and
children of all races in every nook and cranny of Malaya. Let
their call be answered.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, 19551
A period of just less than 30 years separates the Independence of
Malaya (Merdeka) from the 1928 Terengganu ‘rebellion’ , a relatively
small people’s movement against an alien presence and a new taxation system. In that brief period, the peoples of the Malaysian
territories experienced the effects of the Great Depression, the
Japanese Occupation, a communist insurgency movement which led
to a state of emergency being declared, and the formation of a broad
range of new political, religious and nationalist organisations. The
leaders of the new movements had to convince the diverse peoples of
the Malaysian territories that their future interests would be served
best by a new federation of all the Peninsula states—in other words,
they had to create a sense of national unity which would transcend
Transition to Independence
district and state loyalties. Merger with the Borneo territories was to come later.
A major factor in the rapid transformation of Malaysian society at this
time was the availability of education and the explosion of reading
material—newspapers, journals, booklets—which accompanied the
growth of schools and colleges. Education created bonds between
individuals who otherwise might have little in common and newspapers and journals brought readers into contact with international
events and, through letters to the editors’ columns, into contact with
one another.
As well as the journal al-Imam and the new-style Anglo-Islamic
schools (madrasah) which modern-minded Muslims like Syed Shaykh
al-Hady supported, there were two other important streams of education for Malays: Malay vernacular schools organised by the British
for ‘ordinary’ Malays, and an elite Malay College established to
provide the children of the Malay aristocracy with sufficient English
education to enable them to participate in the administration of
colonial Malaya. Clearly, pupils in each of the three streams would
have very different educational experiences and could expect very
different career paths. Only the madrasah and pondok (village religious schools run by local Muslim teachers) were outside the colonial
system and drew their inspiration from the Middle East, Egypt and
Turkey. Graduates from the madrasah became religious teachers or
leaders of modernist Muslim organisations. Those from the pondok
were usually more conservative in their thinking and maintained the
institutions of Islam in Malay villages.
The Malay vernacular schools were under a colonial Department
of Education whose policy was to teach basic literacy and skills, such
as handicrafts and gardening which, most colonial officials argued,
would not disrupt the traditional lifestyle of the Malays nor lead to
changes which might result in ‘social unrest’. However, despite these
intentions ‘unrest’ was fostered by the lively atmosphere of the Sultan
Idris Training College, established in Perak in 1922 to train teachers
for the Malay schools. Its graduates believed Malays were not keeping
up with the changes of the modern world and needed to work hard to
catch up with the progress they believed was happening around them.
In touch with anti-colonial and nationalist student movements in
Indonesia, they went out into their communities determined to inspire
change through their teaching and through their writings.
The elite Malay College at Kuala Kangsar was attractive to those
members of the Malay aristocracy who saw the advantages of an
English education for the future advancement of their sons under
colonial rule. The aim of the college was to Anglicise and modernise
the Malay upper class so as to consolidate their position as leaders. Although most of the pupils were from the traditional elite families
of the Malaysian territories, some scholarships were offered to exceptional commoners. Many graduates were able to go on to tertiary
education in Britain and returned to work as civil servants, lawyers,
doctors, business people and later, as politicians. Many became so
Anglicised that they lost contact with much of their own traditional
culture and would rarely, if ever, read the Malay booklets and journals
published by their fellow Malays who had attended the Sultan Idris
Training College. This split between English and Malay-educated
Malays reflected differences in attitude to British authority and would
later be expressed in strong differences about the way Independence
should be achieved.
In the major towns of the Peninsula and therefore beyond the
reach of all but the most exceptional village children, there were a few
English schools, some run by missionaries and others by the government. They were attended by Chinese, Eurasians and, to a lesser
extent, Indians but only very rarely by Malays who, even if they could
travel to the schools, feared they might be pressured to convert to
Christianity. Tamil children of rubber estate workers were provided
with some Tamil schooling on the estates, but the standards were
apparently not good.
After the government-run vernacular Malay schools, the most
numerous schools were Chinese vernacular schools organised and
financed by Chinese communities themselves. There were no schools
provided for any of the Orang Asli groups who remained outside all
formal educational institutions and were therefore untouched by
these changes.
The educational opportunities available to each ethnic group
were therefore determined by the pupils’ gender (there were some
schools in each system for girls but the emphasis was on educating
boys), ethnic background, religion and class. The sons of the Malay
elite were trained for senior administrative posts, English-educated
Chinese and Indians staffed the lower ranks of the colonial administration, and those with a vernacular education (in Malay, Tamil or Chinese) were limited to working within their own communities.
Many of the Chinese schools used textbooks from China, celebrated
Chinese national days and, because of their lack of status in Malaya,
considered themselves as belonging to China and dedicated to serving
it. These feelings intensified when Japan invaded Shanghai in 1932
and the progress of the war was closely followed by all pupils. These
educationally-based social and economic divisions continued in broad
terms until the 1970s.
Anxiety about the position of the Malays
In the mid-19th century, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir had compared the
position of the Malay peoples with that of the Europeans he encountered in Melaka and Singapore. He was so disturbed that he wrote at
length urging Malays to educate themselves and their children so they
could participate in the developments around them. The journal al-Imam, inspired by modernist Islam, also admonished those who neg-
lected education and the application of God’s laws to improve their lot
on earth. The same concerns are evident in the Malay booklets, newspaper articles, editorials, letters to the editor and short stories and novels
which appeared from the 1920s onwards. By that time, Malays believed
British policies had contributed to the poverty and backwardness of the
Malays and they blamed the large-scale immigration of Chinese and
Indian workers into the country for taking jobs from the local population. They did not note a further fact which became obvious only
much later—that by encouraging Malays to cultivate rice as a livelihood, the British were restricting them to the least lucrative of pursuits
and one which tied them to a rural and restricted economic existence.
The demographic evidence added to the anxiety of those who
were worried about the position of the Malays. The census figures for
1921 revealed that together, Chinese and Indians outnumbered
Malays. The official figures were: Malays 1 627 108, Chinese 1 173 354
and Indians 472 628. The original British assumption that Chinese
and Indian workers would return to their place of origin was undercut
by the fact that increasing numbers were changing their occupations
as labourers to become shopkeepers, clerks and small-scale financiers,
with assets that were not readily portable. It became evident that they
were making their homes in the towns of the Peninsula and their
children were being absorbed into the lower levels of the colonial
administration. Educated Malays from a non-elite background, particularly those who had been trained as teachers, were deeply worried
by the condition of rural Malays whom they saw as backward and
oppressed. They were concerned also that the Malay elite, the traditional aristocracy whom the British had maintained as rulers of the
peninsular states and were educating at the elite Malay College to continue to rule the Malays, seemed closer to the British than to their own
people. They spoke English, dressed like Europeans, enjoyed English
sports (including horse racing and gambling) and sent their sons to
England for higher education.
Haji Abdul Majid (1887–1943)
A few Malays from non-elite backgrounds did enjoy an English education and used its benefits to assist their fellows. Two interesting
examples of their times are Abdul Majid, who worked with the British
to provide support for other Malays, and Ishak Haji Muhammad, who
worked against the British and believed colonialism was destroying the
moral fibre of all the peoples native to the Malaysian territories.
Born in 1887, Abdul Majid was the son of a Sumatran trader who
owned a shop in a suburb of the rapidly expanding centre of Kuala
Lumpur. In 1895, he was one of only ten Malay boys who joined the
201 pupils at the new English language Victoria Institution. After
completing his schooling, he worked for two years as a clerk. He must
have been a confident and ambitious person because in 1905 he succeeded in being accepted at another English institution, the newly
opened Malay Residential School (later renamed the Malay College)
in Perak. After graduating at the top of his class, he stayed on for 11
years as the Malay master and in this capacity met many of the leading
colonial officials and members of the Malay aristocracy of the day. He
was appointed as the first Malay assistant inspector of schools but in
1924, left the education service to accept the important new position
of Malay pilgrimage officer. His responsibilities included performing
social welfare work for the increasing numbers of Malay pilgrims who
took advantage of the improved shipping services to travel to the Holy
Land as well as also reporting any anti-colonial political activity to the
British. He held the office for the next 16 years working in Jeddah for
half the year and returning for the remainder to Malaya. He retired due
to ill health in 1939 but in 1941 started a journal in English called The
Modern Light, to help Malayan Muslims understand their religion and
aspects of modern life, such as banking. He died in 1943 during the
Japanese Occupation. His role as a mediator between cultures—he
wrote dictionaries for Malays explaining the meaning of key English
terms for government, science and technology, and Teach Yourself
Malay books for English speakers—played an important but underestimated role in improving relations during the colonial era. He could
not have done this without his access to an English education and
without his high standing in the Malay community.
Ishak Haji Muhammad (1909–91)
Ishak Haji Muhammad was born in Pahang in 1909 and attended the
local Malay vernacular school before winning a place in the English
school system and being sent to English schools at the bigger centres
of Kuala Lipis and Raub (see map 5, page xix). In 1930, he was
selected as one of the most promising of his generation and sent to the
Malay College in Perak to be prepared for the Malay Administrative
Service. Although he moved rapidly through several promotions
in the service, he resigned in 1935 to travel widely through the
Malaysian territories working as a freelance journalist and mixing
with Malayans of all occupations. As a result of what he saw, he
became active in nationalist organisations and journalism in the late
1930s and also published two political satires. Together with two
other young activists, Ibrahim Yaakob and Ahmad Boestamam (both
to become leading Malay nationalists) he established the Union of
Malay Youth (Kesatuan Melayu Muda or KMM). Ishak’s anti-British
and explicitly radical activities angered colonial officials and he was
imprisoned. Under the Japanese Occupation he was released and
continued his work as a journalist writing for the Japanese-sponsored
Malay newsagency Malai Shinbun Sha. After the surrender of the
Japanese, he continued his work to end colonial rule and was active
in a range of radical Malay nationalist organisations. When the Communist Emergency was declared in 1948, he was imprisoned by the
British for five years. After his release in 1953, he worked as a writer
and journalist and led two socialist movements. He continued his
critical commentary of Malayan society after Independence and,
under the pen-name ‘Pak Sako’, became one of Malaysia’s most
popular columnists.
Ishak Haji Muhammad was one of a group of intelligent, idealistic young Malays who were in contact with the nationalist movements
in the Netherlands East Indies and were critical not only of British
colonial policies but also of those Malay aristocrats, whom they considered were cooperating with the British and were thus betraying their
own people. The members of the KMM believed in a union of Malay
peoples which would bring together all the Malay peoples of the
Malaysian territories and the Netherlands East Indies in a Greater
Malay nation state. Although the Japanese disbanded the KMM they
supported another radical youth group (Defenders of the Homeland
Pembela Tanah Air or PTA) which after the war fed into a new and very
determined movement called ‘Generation of Aware Youth’ whose
acronym in Malay meant ‘Fire’. By the late 1940s, these radical groups
had been active for over a decade with little to show for their struggle
but an increasing sense of frustration.
Ishak Haji Muhammad’s two satires in novelette form, published in
1938 and 1941, present his ideology through engaging fictional stories.
His characters show how indigenous skills and experience, which
pre-date Western influence, are not only more appropriate for modern
Malaya but also more effective because they are in harmony with the
culture and with the natural environment. While many Malays, his
stories argue, have lost touch with their own culture, the Orang Asli have
not and can teach Malays how to regain many of the skills they used to
know. Ishak’s attitudes were radical in their day—he was suggesting that
indigenous knowledge was superior to that of the West and, even more
daringly, he proposed that Malays turn to Orang Asli to revive the skills
they themselves had lost. In the 1930s, as in the 1990s, the majority of
Malays believed Orang Asli to be undeveloped and uncivilised, so that
the idea that they could hold the key to the future was incredible. Ishak
was far ahead of his time by promoting conservation of indigenous
knowledge, the environment and the indigenous peoples of Malaya.
Ishak’s resignation from his colonial service position occurred during the
period of severe economic downturn in the 1930s which is now referred
to as the Great Depression. His decision to leave a well-paid job and to
rely on freelance journalism for his livelihood reflects his deep commitment to working for better conditions for his fellows.
Concern about the position of the Chinese
While Ishak Haji Muhammad was concerned primarily with the
condition of Orang Asli and Malays under colonial rule, the Chinese
Malayan Tan Cheng Lock was concerned about the lack of recognition
given to the locally born Chinese in the Malaysian territories and he
dedicated much of life to redressing this. Like Ishak Haji Muhammad,
he had an English education which he used to challenge many British
policies. He became one of the best-known members of the Chinese
community in Malaya.
Tan Cheng Lock
Tan Cheng Lock was born in Melaka in 1883, the fifth generation of
a Chinese family who had settled in Melaka in the late 18th century
(perhaps a decade or so earlier than Abdullah Munshi’s grandfather)
and built up a regional network of trading junks. By the time Cheng
Lock was born, his family was integrated into the Melaka community
of locally born Chinese, known as Babas. Cheng Lock grew up speaking the local Malay dialect, not Chinese. The Babas (and their wives,
known as Nyonyas) saw themselves as distinct from two other groups
of Chinese: first, those Chinese born in China who moved to Malaya
and settled but maintained their Chinese customs, and second, those
who were born in China and would probably return there. In general,
it can be said that only members of the Baba community were interested in being involved in local politics, the other groups being more
committed to their homeland.
Tan Cheng Lock was educated at the English school in Melaka
and the Raffles Institution in Singapore, staying on as a teacher from
1902–08. He left, however, to work with Chinese rubber enterprises
in Melaka and did well. During the period of World War I, he used his
money strategically to win favour with the British: he raised money
for the British war effort and revived the Straits Chinese British
Association. His reward came in 1923 with an offer from the governor of the Straits Settlements to become an unofficial member of the
Straits Settlements Legislative Assembly, representing the residents of
Melaka. For the next 12 years he pressed hard for reforms in the areas
of education, medical services and the civil service. While he was
prepared to work initially within the framework of a colonial government, he believed steps should be taken towards elections and
self-government. The final aim, in his view, should be a federation of
all of British Malaya which would become a member of the British
Empire and Commonwealth. He was insistent that locally born
Chinese be recognised for their contribution and commitment to
Malaya and treated more equally. He pressed for better education for
all peoples in Malaya and for an education in English for all who
desired it. He believed also that Chinese language instruction should
be available for Chinese children in English schools so they could preserve their own customs and heritage.
Tan Cheng Lock was outspoken in his criticism of British dis-
crimination towards the different groups in Malaya. He called for more
local people to be included in the civil service and warned that society
would be divided into a hierarchy of British, Malays and others unless
there was more equal treatment of all peoples in Malaya. He moved his
family to India before the Japanese occupied the Peninsula and was
impressed with Gandhi’s moves for independence. By the time he
returned to Malaya in June 1946 he was ready to push even more energetically for self-rule.
The Great Depression
The crash in the New York stock market in 1929 had repercussions for
most world economies and those which were based on raw materials
were particularly hard hit. When America’s automobile industry
collapsed, Malaya lost a major buyer of its rubber and tin. The unemployment of Chinese, Indians and Malays which followed ‘affected
race relations; it led to serious labour unrest and it damaged the confidence of the Malaysian population in the British government’.
The Malaysian territories were more affected by the slump in
world trade than the neighbouring regions of the Netherlands East
Indies and the Philippines because the latter two had developed food
crops in tandem with export crops and thus did not suffer the food
shortages which were to engulf Malaya. The British had encouraged an
expansion of the rubber industry so that by 1929, almost half of all cultivated land was planted with rubber. The foreign exchange generated
from rubber sales was used to import food, including rice. Only the
northern Unfederated States of Kedah and Kelantan were able to
support their populations with food.
Tin prices also plummeted and mines were closed or employed only
a skeleton staff. In 1930, it was estimated that in Perak alone there were
10 000 unemployed miners, the majority of whom were Chinese. By
1931, there were grounds to support a claim that almost half a million
Chinese were unable to work because of the slump. Many of these
migrated to the cities, especially to Singapore, seeking food and any kind
of work. Others stayed in the mining districts and grew their own food
on any land they could occupy and use, sometimes selling the excess in
what became productive market gardens. The land, however, was not
theirs and under the law they were illegal occupiers or ‘squatters’. Following World War II, during the Communist Emergency period, most of
the squatters would be moved into protected villages in one of the
largest resettlement programs ever organised by a colonial government.
Indian labourers, particularly those on rubber plantations, were
also retrenched and some returned to India. But the majority stayed
and lived in extreme poverty and misery. During the 1930s, major
cuts were made in government departments so that unemployment
was felt also by white collar workers. Under these conditions, crime
gangs flourished and robberies, extortion and kidnapping were
common as desperate people tried to survive. The Kuomintang
(KMT) flourished during the 1930s and established reading clubs and
night schools becoming the largest Chinese organisation in Malaya.
It was in this period that young Chinese, like Chin Peng, later
secretary-general of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), joined
underground movements and read Chinese books smuggled into
Malaya, with Mao Tse-tung’s Protected War being very influential.
The Malayan General Labour Union, with its offshoot the MCP,
began to flex its muscles. Major strikes occurred in 1936 and 1937
and labour unrest combined with fears about an impending war
alarmed the British.
The Japanese Occupation 1942–45
Just after midnight on 8 December 1941, in a well-planned campaign,
Japanese forces landed on beaches in Kelantan and southern Thailand.
The landings were synchronised with the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor, very shortly afterwards. The Pacific War had begun.
Although the British had been making preparations from the
late 1930s to counter a Japanese attack, when it came the generals
were simply insufficiently prepared and the strength of their forces
too weak to withstand the highly organised and effective strategies of
the Imperial Japanese Army. When it was finally realised that Singapore could not be defended against the Japanese advance, British
Special Branch accepted the offer of the MCP to fight behind the
lines in return for official recognition of the party. Over 200 MCP
men were trained and became the nucleus of eight regiments which
were known collectively as the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese
Army (MPAJA). Throughout the Occupation they waged an effective guerrilla war and in some areas worked with members of Force
136, an elite group of special agents landed by the British in 1943 to
collect intelligence and assist the MPAJA with training and supplies.
They were not the only guerrilla fighters who took to the jungles to
harass the Japanese. It is now known that there were numerous small
groups who engaged in anti-Japanese activities as well as smuggling,
extortion and intelligence-gathering.
The three and a half year Japanese Occupation of the
Malaysian territories is remembered by those who survived it as a
period of hardship and anxiety during which everything changed—
one Chinese writer referred to it as the ‘Malaya Upside Down’ time
when ‘even the atmosphere stank of carrion and rot’.3 It dominated
the lives of everyone in the Malaysian territories between 1942 and
1945 and ‘shattered the pattern of seventy years of colonial rule’.
Physical devastation was widespread—Singapore had been heavily
bombed and was in chaos; the population of Kuala Lumpur deserted
the main parts of the city and buildings were looted and burned.
The Japanese immediately reorganised the administrative framework for the region to bring Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula
together. In Borneo, which had been attacked on 16 December 1941,
Brunei, North Borneo and Sarawak were administered together in a
unit known as Boruneo Kita (Northern Borneo) and then, in 1943,
the four northern states of the Malay Peninsula were given to Japan’s ally, Siam.
The Japanese military presence affected daily life at every level.
First to be singled out for attention was the Chinese community in
retaliation for the anti-Japanese activities which had been organised by
the Malayan Chinese when Japan invaded China in 1937. In a special
operation, Chinese were identified and executed, with conservative
estimates of the number killed being 40 000. Others were ordered to pay
a special tax to repay their support for the British or for the Kuomintang. Any activities perceived as anti-Japanese, carried out by any
member of the population whatever their ethnicity, were immediately
dealt with, mostly with extreme violence.
A Japanese general was to say after the war that the Japanese had
missed an opportunity ‘to show Asians that as an Asian power, she was
a kind liberator who would treat them better than the European
powers’.5 Instead, the brutality and hardship experienced by the majority of the population made them fearful of the Japanese and those who
did not join the guerrilla and resistance movements collaborated, not
necessarily because they supported the Japanese but because they had
to survive. The most dreaded Japanese organisation was the Kempeitai
(secret military police) whose horrific methods of torture and decapitation were applied especially to the Chinese and to suspected British
sympathisers. An efficient neighbourhood vigilante system was set up
to identify anti-Japanese activists and informers took the opportunity
to settle personal grudges, creating a climate of suspicion and mistrust
which would remain after the Japanese had surrendered.
For those parts of the Peninsula like Kelantan which were physically isolated and for Sarawak and Sabah, ruled by self-contained
systems, the Japanese Occupation (somewhat ironically) afforded them
more direct contact with the outside world. The Japanese organised
schools where Japanese was taught combined with vigorous physical
exercise routines. Leadership training was given to those whom the
Japanese identified as likely material for administrators (some were sent
to Japan for advanced courses) and special women’s and youth groups
were established. The Japanese propaganda machine absorbed writers
and journalists and printed material which could contribute to their
war aims.
Thousands of Malayans were taken to other parts of Southeast
Asia to provide labour for Japanese projects. When insufficient
Malayans volunteered for labour service (to work on the Siam–Burma
railway, airfields and defences), people were forcibly rounded up or
kidnapped, and even children were sent to the railway project. The
mortality rate was probably higher than the official figure of over
51 per cent. In Sarawak, as in many other places, local militias and
volunteer armies were formed, with each elite family in Sarawak being
required to supply one son.
The Allied successes in the Pacific, especially the capture of
Morotai (in Halmahera Islands) in September 1944, enabled Australian and American forces to reach Borneo and, despite strong
Japanese resistance, to make landings at Tarakan, Labuan and Balikpapan between May and July 1945 (see map 5, page xix). Allied
bombing of Tawau, Balikpapan, Sandakan, Jesselton (later named
Kota Kinabalu), Brunei town and Labuan caused massive destruction. The Japanese had plans to remove the inmates from their
prisoner of war camps and force them to march, or kill those too
weak to travel, and some were executed. Further loss of life in the
Malaysian territories was avoided when the Japanese emperor
surrendered after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki in August 1945. Australian forces liberated Labuan,
Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo and made arrangements for the
future government of the Borneo territories.
Early in 1945, Allied planes were bombing Penang, Kuala
Lumpur and Singapore and, unknown to the civilians on the Peninsula and in Singapore, the Allies were planning landings for early
September. The emperor’s announcement forestalled them and on
20 August Japan’s surrender was reported in Malaya. British forces
landed in Selangor in September and organised a military administration until April 1946, when civilian government was restored.
Post-war reconstruction
The British forces which landed in September 1944 had been prepared
for anti-Japanese warfare rather than the conditions of surrender
which they in fact encountered. They were faced with massive civil
disorder as wartime vendettas were played out, collaborators identified
and often killed, and mounting tension between members of the MCP
and Malays. In late August, when it became known that the Japanese
had lost the war, members of the MPAJA came out of the jungle to
take control of local government in many towns and villages and the
British had to admit that they were dependent on them to instil order
and organise civilian life.
Members of the MPAJA particularly sought out Malays who had
participated in the militia and other organisations set up by the Japanese and took violent action against them. In response, many Malays,
especially those in rural areas, formed armed vigilante groups and
attacked Chinese farmers and MPAJA members, causing bloodshed
and hundreds of fatalities. The expression of hostility along ethnic
lines fed the suspicion and mistrust which had thrived during the
hardship of the Occupation and caused ill-feeling which many believe
lasted well into the 1960s and 70s.
Besides the vendettas and violence, severe social dislocation had
occurred as a result of Japanese labour drives which had separated
family members and population movements from the countryside to
the major cities, especially Singapore, in search of work. For several
years after the war, many people were still trying to locate lost family
members, including those who had been executed by the Japanese. As
one British administrator described the immediate post-war situation:
There was a food shortage, a worthless currency, a thriving black market, and the threat of a smallpox epidemic.
On the plus side was the generally excellent quality of
what remained of the pre-war public service. In Seremban, for example, the Indian street cleaning gangs began
to clean up the mess, reckoning that something better
would now be required.
This was the context in which the people of the Peninsula tried
to return to ‘normal’ life.
From Malayan Union to federal Constitution
The British Military Administration (September 1945 to the end of
March 1946) saw itself as responsible for restoring essential services to
the population of Malaya but longer term policy was the responsibility of the Colonial Office. During the war, the Colonial Office had
been developing new and very different policies for Malaya. The
administration would be rationalised to create a unitary state in
which all races would be entitled to citizenship. To achieve this, the
British had to make new treaties with the Malay sultans under which
they would surrender some of their authority and jurisdiction but they
would be compensated by being able to participate in a wider grouping (the Malayan Union) which extended beyond their own states.
In the context of regional politics the mood was anti-colonial.
In 1945 Indonesian nationalists under Sukarno and Hatta declared Independence while in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh seized power for the
Indochina Communist Party, initiating the Vietnamese Revolution.
In India, the Independence movement was both violent and unstoppable. It was therefore seen as pressing that plans for the Malayan Union
be implemented without delay. There were essentially three changes
which the Union would achieve: the sovereignty of the rulers would be
transferred to the British Crown, the autonomy of individual Malay
states would be absorbed into the Union and the privileges which had
previously been reserved for Malays would be available to members of
other communities. In this way, it was argued in the Colonial Office, a
strong central government could be created and Malaya’s peoples could
be persuaded to give their loyalty to it.
In October 1945, only one month after British forces returned to
Malaya, Sir Harold MacMichael was sent to persuade the Malay rulers
to sign the pre-prepared new treaties. It has been said that the speed
with which the MacMichael mission acted caught the rulers off-guard
and all signed. Later they were to say they had not realised the full
implications of the treaties and that they did not believe the British
would have asked them to sign anything which was not in the interests of the Malays. In January 1946, the White Paper outlining the
proposals for the Malayan Union was released and public reaction was
almost immediate. The Colonial Office had completely misjudged the
strength of opposition to the concept of the Union and the reaction to
the loss of status for both rulers and Malays which it represented. In
one stroke, the proposals captured the attention of the numerous and
varied Malay organisations which had been formed all over the Peninsula and in the Straits Settlements since the 1930s and aroused an
outburst of anti-colonial feeling.
The Malay press reported and amplified the concern which was
growing among these groups and suggested that Dato Onn Jaafar, a
district officer in Johor who had gained a reputation for leadership,
should organise a general conference of all associations to respond to
the proposal of a Malayan Union. On 1 March 1946, representatives
of 41 associations attended the first Pan-Malayan Malay Congress.
One of its first resolutions was the establishment of a new organisation
of national unity, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)
with Dato Onn as president. As a result of the congress, Dato Onn was
able to lead a vigorous campaign against the implementation of the
Union and to persuade the sultans to boycott the inauguration ceremony scheduled for 1 April 1946. In the face of such determined
opposition in Malaya and from influential retired British administrators who had served in Malaya, the Colonial Office was forced to
abandon the scheme. In July 1946, Malay leaders agreed to work with
the British on the drafting of a constitution for a federation of all the
Malay States and the Straits Settlements, excluding Singapore, which
would remain a British colony.
After six months of heated debate and negotiation, a new feder-
ation known as the Persatuan Tanah Melayu (Federation of Malaya)
was inaugurated on 1 February 1948. The British had succeeded in
their aim to establish a unitary state which included the previously
Unfederated Malay States (which many regarded as tantamount to
annexation), but they had failed to gain equal rights for all the federation’s citizens. The British also declined to be drawn into a strong
attempt by Malay groups in Kelantan and southern Thailand to have
Patani included in the Malay states which were returned to British
jurisdiction after the war. The dissatisfaction of the Malays in southern
Thailand with their position under Thai Buddhist rule was expressed
in continuing attempts to gain independence from Bangkok and lies at
the heart of a Muslim separatist movement which has never entirely
Political organisations
The campaign which Dato Onn was able to mount against the
Malayan Union scheme indicated just how far Malay political organisation and confidence had developed since the 1930s. In the
intervening period, Malays had seen the British defeated by an Asian
force, they had been encouraged in their nationalist aspirations by the
Japanese, particularly in the closing stages of the war, and they had
direct experience of leadership in military and semi-military organisations where effort and achievement were rewarded with promotion.
This concept of promotion based on effort was particularly attractive
for people who had been excluded from colonial networks of advancement and for whom status was based on birth and connections with
the traditional Malay aristocracy. The Japanese model offered an alternative model to that of the colonial and the traditional Malay system.
There were also some harsh verdicts about the reactions of the
rulers to the Union scheme. The sultans were perceived by many educated Malays as having failed to protect the interests of their people.
The champions of the Malay cause were seen as the individuals who
had spoken out at the Pan-Malayan Malay Congress, and in particular, Dato Onn. However, once the Malayan Union crisis had been
resolved, the longer-term issues remained: the place of non-Malays
(referred to as Malayans) in Malaya, poverty and underdevelopment,
the relationship with the nationalist movement in Indonesia and
competing ideologies.
In the turbulence of the post-war period, a number of political
coalitions came into being but because of the complexities of rapidly
changing contexts and conditions (including British security laws),
the shifting of alliances and jockeying for supporters and patronage,
only a small number of political parties actually survived into the mid-1950s. After the Malayan Union scheme failed, political allegiances
generally fell into one of five groups.
United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)
The UMNO’s supporters included conservative-minded Malay nationalists who supported moves towards self-government but wanted also
to conserve the main features of the existing Malay power structure
(including the position of the sultans). Those attracted to the UMNO
ranged from Malays who held administrative positions under the
British, to holders of traditional office, such as district chiefs and local
headmen. Malay school teachers were particularly effective advocates,
urging village parents to back the UMNO. If Abdul Majid had still
lived at the time of the UMNO’s founding, this would probably have
been the party which he supported.
Malay Nationalist Party (MNP)
The UMNO was not the party for more aggressively nationalist
Malays, people like Ishak Haji Muhammad. Malays like Ishak were
highly critical of the policies of elitism which characterised much of
British colonial practice in Malaya, particularly in areas such as education and the civil service. They regarded British economic policies,
especially in the mining and plantation sectors, as exploitation of the
local populations. For the radical nationalists, socialist ideals were very
attractive. Many of them, especially Ishak’s colleague Ibrahim Yaakob,
were in contact with Indonesian nationalists who were working for a
coalition of Malay peoples which would encompass both the
Malaysian territories and Indonesia.
For these Malays, the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP), formed in
October 1945, had adopted ideals they could support. The leaders of
the MNP included Ishak Haji Muhammad, Ahmad Boestamam and
Dr Burhanuddin each of whom had been detained by the British in
the pre-war period for his anti-colonial attitudes and each of whom
had used the period of the Japanese Occupation to further his nationalist aims. They argued that the concept of ‘Malay’ should be linked
with culture rather than descent (race) and that all who adopted
Malay culture could be viewed as ‘Malay’. Because many of the Malay
journalists working for leading Malay newspapers sympathised with
the attitudes of the MNP leaders, they wrote in support of the party
and were able to boost membership. In terms of numbers of members,
the MNP and the UMNO were probably very similar. The MNP
worked with the UMNO to overturn the Malayan Union scheme,
but then withdrew from the association, accusing the UMNO of
being too close to the British and not sufficiently concerned to further
the interests of ordinary Malays. Thereafter, the UMNO negotiated
with the British concerning moves towards self-government and the
MNP was sidelined and accused by its detractors of being too proIndonesian and too close to various socialist and communist groups.
Independence of Malaya Party (IMP)
Both the UMNO and the MNP were predominantly Malay organisations primarily concerned with the future of Malaya as a Malay
nation. Non-Malay residents of Malaya, of whom Tan Cheng Lock is
one example, also had strong views about Malaya’s future. Tan’s friend,
Dato Onn, tried to persuade the UMNO to allow non-Malays to join
and to change its name from United Malays to United Malayan
(a term which embraced all who lived in Malaya) but he was unsuccessful and left the UMNO. With Tan and the leaders of other ethnic
communities, Dato Onn founded the Independence of Malaya Party
(IMP) in 1951. The very different aspirations and views of the various
ethnic communities proved unable to be accommodated within this
type of ‘Malayan’ coalition and it was not successful as a political force.
Islamic movements
For some Muslims, each of the above three options was too secular and
not sufficiently focused on the values and beliefs of Islam. Within this
group were many degrees of commitment to Islam, ranging from those
who believed in total devotion to the injunctions of Islamic law, to
those who considered that Malay identity could best be expressed
through some form of Islamic organisation. There was considerable
debate about the forms Islamic political activity could take and a
number of different parties were founded. The only one which survived to the time of Independence (and beyond) was PAS (Persatuan
Islam SaTanah Melayu, the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party).
Malayan Communist Party (MCP)
The Malayan Communist Party had been active since the 1930s and
had strengthened during the Japanese Occupation by operating effectively against the Japanese in the jungle. When peace was declared,
arms and supplies were stored in the well-developed jungle hideouts
established during the Occupation and training was maintained. The
post-war social dislocation, inflation and poor labour conditions were
fertile ground for the party to recruit new members and MCP cadres
appealed to Chinese and Indian workers to resist colonial exploitation.
The cadres also infiltrated other organisations, including the MNP, to
recruit sympathisers.
When the British organised the first elections to the Federal Legislative Council in 1955, the parties represented four of the broad strands
listed here: radical nationalists (including socialists), conservative
Malay nationalists, communal interest groups (Chinese and Indian)
and specifically Muslim groups. One group was no longer represented
officially. The MCP had been banned since July 1948 because of its
terrorist activities and armed resistance to colonial authority in the
civil war which became known as ‘the Emergency’.
The war for hearts and minds
The decline in the social and economic conditions of many inhabitants
of Malaya, evident during the years of the Great Depression and exacerbated by the war and Japanese Occupation, had reached a critical
stage by 1946 and 1947. By that time, the MCP had gained effective
control of 200 of Malaya’s 277 registered trade unions and was effectively pursuing a campaign of strikes. Although the radical Malay
nationalists were also mobilising and attracting the scrutiny of the
British Security Service, it was the Malayan Communist Party which
was the best prepared and best organised group to exploit the socioeconomic conditions for political purposes. The MCP operated parallel
lines of civilian and military branches, both controlled by a Central
Executive Committee and having a descending chain of command
through state, district, branch and sub-branch levels. By the late 1940s,
it had a membership of about 12 500. The labour strikes attracted considerable publicity and in some cases the British responded with force
and fatalities ensued. There were also stronger attempts by the Department of Labour to negotiate between workers and managers to achieve
peaceful settlements, thus frustrating some of the militant party
members. The MCP reviewed their tactics and, while maintaining
some public activity, decided they would go underground and prepare
for armed resistance.
Malaya’s strategic position in the region, commanding the vital sea
lanes of the South China Sea and the Straits of Melaka, and having a
land link through Thailand into Indo-China, meant that the Peninsula
was perceived by the British and Americans as a vital bastion against the
spread of communism into Southeast Asia. It was believed that links
between China and the overseas Chinese made Malaya vulnerable to
communist infiltration. When outbreaks of terrorism and violence
began in mid-1948, including the murder of three European estate managers in Perak, there was strong public reaction. Economic interests were
also at stake because British enterprises in the mining, plantation and
timber sectors were deliberately targeted by the terrorists. Of all Britain’s
colonies at that time, British investments in Malaya earned the most in
terms of American dollars, which were vitally important for Britain’s
post-war balance of payments. To safeguard its economic and strategic
interests, a State of Emergency was declared in June 1948, giving the
government the power to detain without trial and to ban political
parties. The MCP was declared illegal and there was an immediate
crackdown by British Security on all known Leftist activists and sympathisers, including radical Malay nationalists. The leaders of the MNP,
Ishak Haji Muhammad and Ahmad Boestamam, were arrested in 1948
and detained for five and seven years respectively, while Burhanuddin
was detained in 1950. The MNP denied any official connection with the
MCP but under the Emergency conditions it did not survive and voluntarily dissolved in 1949.
The Chinese
In the fear and violence of the early years of the Emergency, when
ambushes, assassinations, kidnappings and extortion were happening
on a daily basis, many non-Chinese in Malaya found it hard to distinguish between those Chinese who were members or sympathisers with
the MCP and those who were not. In the minds of some, all Chinese
were communists. The main victims of this confusion were the rural
Chinese squatters, who were not terrorists, but many of them were
being used by the guerrillas as sources of food and support.
The small group of Chinese-speaking British administrators in the
Malayan Civil Service, which included John Davis, Richard Broome
and Oliver Wolters, worked with British military units teaching them
how to distinguish between terrorists and squatters. These administrators believed that the chronic lack of contact (and thus severe
under-government) between colonial officials and the communities of
rural Chinese, together with their isolation which was increased during
the Emergency, lay at the heart of the insurgency problem. The rural
Chinese had lived in self-contained communities with minimal or no
contact with non-Chinese since the late 1930s. Many of the young men
in those communities had been attracted to the clandestine life of anti-Japanese warfare during the Occupation and when the Emergency
came into force, they maintained contact with their families in the
rural communities receiving voluntary support or, when necessary,
coercing it. The solution, the British administrators argued, was to deny
those in the jungle contact with the isolated communities and to move
the Chinese squatters from near the jungle and resettle them in protected villages. A report to this effect was prepared in 1948 but it was
not adopted until 1950 when the policy of massive resettlement was
implemented and named the ‘Briggs Plan’ after the British director of
operations at the time.
Perhaps the most difficult years of the Emergency for the civilian population were 1950 and 1951. These were the years when the
highest numbers of civilians were killed (646 and 533 respectively).
When the new high commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, was ambushed
and assassinated in October 1951, morale plummeted. Gurney’s
successor, General Sir Gerald Templer, formerly director of military
intelligence in London, arrived early in 1952 with the dual appointment of high commissioner and director of operations. He was armed
with exceptional powers of authority and announced that Malaya was
being prepared for self-government. He stressed, however, that it
would not occur until the Emergency was over and until there was
harmony between the ethnic groups in Malaya. Templer brought new
vigour and organisation to the anti-terrorist campaign and although
he was a highly controversial figure, his strength of personality and
single-mindedness lifted morale.
The resettlement program for rural Chinese communities was
a bold and risky strategy. The uprooting and relocation of over half a
million people in 480 settlements in just a few years was a triumph
of logistics even though the new villages were crude in design and
construction and fortified against infiltration with barbed wire and
spotlights. Individual families experienced enormous anxiety
and resentment. Follow-up programs were implemented to educate
and train the younger settlers for employment and there were specially designed courses in Civics, to introduce Chinese leaders to the
workings of government and administration. Although the older
generation may not have been impressed, the programs were aimed
at the younger Chinese whose loyalties were crucial to the future
of Malaya.
The British developed a number of psychological warfare techniques using anti-communist propaganda (distributed in leaflets, via
the radio and through films) and a special interrogation centre. The
mastermind behind the strategies was a brilliant Malayan Chinese,
C.C. Too, who advised the British and the UMNO leader, Tunku
Abdul Rahman, during the Emergency and remained in charge of the
government’s Psychological Warfare Section until 1983.
The British had brought in military support from the beginning
of the Emergency and by 1953 there were 23 infantry battalions
stationed in Singapore and Malaya, including forces sent by Commonwealth countries. The Royal Malay Regiment, consisting of
seven battalions, saw heavy fighting but it was the Malayan police
force which had the highest casualties because it bore the brunt of
dangerous duties, including jungle patrols and manning the permanent forts which were established as outposts deep in the jungle.
In 1953, there were almost 37 000 in the regular police and 44 000 in
the Malay Special Constabulary, a force which protected key installations and implemented the food-control regulations which operated
in the New Villages. More and more of the civilian population was
drawn into village patrols, civil defence and special operations and
intelligence work.
It is now known that from late 1951, the MCP Central Executive
Committee decided to change its tactics. Although it had succeeded in
causing death and disruption throughout Malaya and in Singapore, it
had not always been able to capitalise on its successes and many of
the young Chinese recruits lost morale under jungle conditions. The
general population had been hard-hit by the violence and destruction
and the MCP realised they had antagonised many of the ‘exploitable
medium bourgeoisie’.7 The Central Executive Committee decided to
move gradually from their main concentration in Pahang to the
Malay–Thai border region and increase their propaganda strategies
through educational movements in schools and youth organisations.
By 1957, the official casualties as the result of MCP actions were
2 890 police, 3 253 civilians and 518 military, emphasising the ‘success’
of British policy to manage the conflict as a police, rather than mili-
tary action. An autobiographical novel, Scattered Bones (Tulang-Tulang
Berserakan), by Usman Awang, one of Malaya’s leading writers, written
in 1962 but only published in 1966, is a graphic and convincing
account of the lives of a group of Malay policemen during the Emergency. Drawing on his own experiences as a young policeman, Usman
describes the jungle patrols of the Malay police, their poor conditions
and their low pay. He convincingly describes their dawning realisation
that many of the terrorists they kill are ordinary human beings like
themselves and that the conflict is a colonial problem rather than a
struggle of liberation from colonial rule. A major theme of the novel is
the terrible social dislocation caused by the Emergency and the tragic
losses suffered by ordinary Malayans.
The MCP had an estimated 8000 members involved in subversion activities in 1951. By 1958, only 868 remained actively involved
and just over half of those had moved with Chin Peng over the border
into southern Thailand. The strategies of resettlement, psychological
warfare and the judicious use of amnesties had weakened the MCP to
the point of powerlessness.
The Orang Asli
Before the Japanese Occupation, the heavily forested interior areas of
the Peninsula (the jungle) were the domains of the Orang Asli almost
exclusively. Non-Orang Asli peoples lacked the experience and knowledge to survive in the uplands of the interior and Malays, in particular,
were terrified of the spirits they believed inhabited the jungle. During
the period of the Occupation, however, members of the MCP and
others serving in the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, were
forced to live in the jungle. They established camps and were, in many
cases, assisted by local Orang Asli groups. A number of the individuals
who survived the war later used their jungle skills to continue guerrilla
warfare on behalf of the MCP.
During 1952, when the MCP implemented their revised policy
of retreating to the deep jungle, their relationship with the Orang
Asli groups with whom they came in contact intensified. In some
cases, Orang Asli served as guides, porters, intelligence gatherers and
food providers in return for help to grow crops and medical assistance. The Orang Asli groups in the interior of Kelantan attracted
the attention of zealous administrators in that state who believed
the best way to control them was by removing them from the jungle
and resettling them closer to ‘civilisation’. The effect of the policy
was deadly. Totally adapted to life in the jungle, the Orang Asli felt
imprisoned in the new settlements, could not adapt to the hotter
climate of the lower altitudes, were unused to the diet supplied to
them and had no gainful means of employment. As a result, ‘Hundreds died because of the mental and physiological shock to their
systems; hundreds more just ceased to have the will to live, and died
also.’8 As well, when British reconnaissance flights located food plots
in the jungle they destroyed them by aerial bombing to scatter MCP
guerrillas and to deprive them of food resources. The bombing and
resettlement policies were both so counterproductive that they were
stopped by 1954.
British policy-makers then decided that rather than trying to
thwart the MCP by bringing the Orang Asli out of the jungle, it would
be more effective to send help in to them. This was to be done through
a series of fortified jungle posts which would be supplied by air with
medicines and food. By late 1953, seven jungle forts (as they were
known) were operating and were deemed more successful as a strategy
to win the trust of the Orang Asli. The competition between the MCP
and the government for the loyalty of the Orang Asli led to even
greater intrusions into their traditional lifestyles and proved to be the
beginning of their bureaucratisation.
By late 1953, the government decided to centralise the administration of Orang Asli by removing them from the control of individual
states to the sphere of the federal government. Two ‘protectors’ were
appointed to oversee their welfare and the jungle forts became the
distribution points for various kinds of aid, as well as propaganda,
designed to persuade the Orang Asli that they should no longer support
the guerrillas and that the government would protect them. By 1958,
very few Orang Asli were actively supporting the MCP. The government was so confident of their loyalty that in the late 1950s they
initiated a new anti-guerrilla force called the Senoi Praak (‘Fighting
Aborigines’). The force was specially trained in modern warfare in a
jungle context and was so successful that it has remained a permanent
part of the Police Field Force.
When the Emergency ended, government contact with the orig-
inal peoples continued and had long-lasting implications. The pressure
on the Orang Asli to leave their traditional habitats and move to settlements closer to towns intensified. Even the Orang Suku Laut groups
who fished around the coastlines of the southern Peninsula and the
islands near Singapore, were affected by the regulations imposed
during the Emergency. The curfew restrictions imposed during the
Emergency made it difficult for them to fish at night and they began
sleeping on shore in small houses rather than living permanently in
their boats. Some groups were assisted by the government to build new
settlements on land and, like the original peoples of the interior, began
to be permanently monitored by government.
The Intellectual Left and Singapore politics
Tan Cheng Lock, it will be remembered, had sought greater recognition for the contribution of the Chinese to the development of
Malaya and the elimination of ‘racial or communal feeling’ so that a
United Malaya could be achieved. In 1943, he had warned that unless
the interests and concerns of non-Malay communities were addressed,
communism and subversion would find willing followers. He worked
for a Malaya in which all citizens would have equal rights with laws
which would protect those rights and ensure that no community
gained dominance over the others. When the Emergency was
declared, he worked to unite the non-communist Chinese and in
August 1949 was seriously injured in an assassination attempt organised by the MCP. Dato Onn lost his support in the UMNO for
promoting the ideal of citizenship rights for all in Malaya, but when
he joined with Tan in establishing a new political party, their
‘Malayan’ (multiracial) platform still did not attract the votes of
Malays and they were badly defeated.
Another group, led by people younger than Dato Onn and Tan
Cheng Lock, was beginning to organise its members to work for a
similar multiracial ideal but their criticism of the existing conditions
in Malaya was more trenchant and their willingness to cooperate with
the British much less. They became known as ‘the Intellectual Left’
and their aim was ‘not only to oust the colonial power, but to win the
hearts and minds of a generation to build a new nation that would rise
above colonial politics’.9 One individual who exemplified the ideals
and experiences of this group was James Puthucheary.
James Puthucheary (1923–2000)
Puthucheary was born in Johor Bahru in 1923 into a well-educated
Indian family and, in 1943 when Subash Chandra Bose called for volunteers to fight for Indian Independence, he enlisted in the Indian
National Army. Posted to a guerrilla regiment, he fought in the
Burmese jungle and survived the disastrous Battle of Imphal. He later
went to Calcutta where he witnessed the excitement of Indian
Independence and returned to Malaya determined to continue the
struggle there. In 1948, he enrolled for tertiary training at Raffles
College (later to become the University of Malaya) in Singapore. With
other nationalist students, he formed the Malayan Students’ Party and
called for ‘the development of a Malayan consciousness, a Malayan
culture, and a Malayan nation’.10 The party argued that for the sake of
national unity Malayans should abandon their narrow racial identities
and embrace a larger Malayan identity, in the interests of the future of
the nation.
In January 1951, Puthucheary and a number of other students,
the journalist A. Samad Ismail, young lawyers, doctors and teachers
were arrested by members of Singapore Special Branch. The arrests
were front page news in Singapore (and caused questions to be asked
in the House of Commons). They were the first large group of English-speaking intellectuals to be arrested under the Emergency regulations
of the Internal Security Act and several of those arrested were very
well-known. James was detained without trial for one and a half years.
A Special Branch report referred to the group as the ESI (English
Speaking Intellectuals), ‘who undoubtedly have provided a most effective team of open-front leaders, able to argue with the best and to
present their case to the world press’.11
Released in 1952, Puthucheary returned to university and a year
later established the Socialist Club. Members included students like
Wang Gungwu and Abdullah Majid who were later to become promi-
nent public figures in Malaysia. The group became known for their
dedication to improving the position of the Malay peasantry and the
underprivileged in society, and some of them argued that only Malay
should be spoken (rather than English or Chinese). When he graduated in 1954 with an honours degree in Economics, Puthucheary
worked with other members of the Left to help establish the People’s
Action Party (PAP). From 1955, he became an official in one of Singapore’s largest workers’ unions, and became a close friend of Ahmad
Boestamam who, after his release from detention in 1955, had founded
the socialist People’s Party (Partai Rakyat).
In the 1956 party elections of the PAP, the Left faction within
PAP received more votes than the faction led by Lee Kuan Yew. Aware
of the growing influence of the Left within the PAP, Singapore’s chief
minister, Lim Yew Hock, organised the arrest and detention of the
leading Leftists in the PAP. James was detained for three years and the
PAP was allowed to develop under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew
without the influence of the Left.
While in detention, Puthucheary wrote an analysis of the
country’s political economy which he called Ownership and Control of
the Malayan Economy. He had long been interested in the link between
the economy and the various races in Malaya and the constraints this
posed for political cohesion. Just as he believed a unified nation could
not be achieved if children were separated from each other in schools
organised on communal lines, so he believed that the way labour had
been organised under colonial rule also inhibited racial cooperation.
He also argued against the notion that the Chinese controlled most of
Malaya’s wealth and, with prophetic insight, warned that creating a
group of capitalists does not automatically alleviate the poverty of the
majority of the population. He sought answers to the question of why
the majority of ordinary Malayans remained poor despite living in a
resource-rich country. Although published in 1960, the book is still
read by students of the Malaysian economy.
In 1959, Puthucheary was released and held various senior
positions on government committees and boards but found himself
increasingly at odds with the policies of the PAP. He resigned from
his positions and from active political life to study Law. He was
arrested in February 1963 by Singapore Special Branch in the notorious raids against suspected subversives in press, labour and youth
organisations known as ‘Operation Cold Store’. After six months in
solitary confinement he was released but banned from Singapore. By
this time, Singapore had left the Federation of Malaysia and was an
independent nation. Puthucheary moved to Kuala Lumpur and was
only allowed to return to Singapore in 1990.
Independence achieved (1955–57)
General Templer had been explicit about British conditions for independence for the federation: racial harmony and control of communist
terrorism. Most colonial officials did not expect these conditions to be
met for at least a decade, allowing time to negotiate the future of
British commercial interests in Malaya. The British began planning for
a handover by selecting some Malayans for senior administrative training. In 1951, for example, the high commissioner appointed five
Malayans to head key ministries.
Malayan nationalists were keen to prove that Templer’s conditions could be met in a short term, rather than a longer-term
timeframe. By the mid-1950s, the majority of the radical Malay
nationalists who had been in detention were released, on the grounds,
it has been said, that the violent methods of the MCP made even the
radical Malay nationalists appear a preferable alternative. However,
when British negotiations increasingly favoured the English-educated
Malay elite who had secured the top positions in the UMNO, it
became clear that British influence on the shape of Malayan politics
was considerable and that their preferred successors were the conservative Malay nationalists.
In August 1951, the UMNO replaced its founding leader, Dato
Onn, with an English-educated member of the Kedah royal family,
Tunku Abdul Rahman. The new deputy leader was Abdul Razak bin
Hussein from Pahang, who, like the Tunku, had studied Law in
England. They were to make a formidable team for the next 20 years.
During his first years in office, Tunku Abdul Rahman made a number
of public statements, possibly to distinguish himself from the multiracial position of Dato Onn, in which he claimed that ‘Malaya is for
the Malays and should not be governed by a mixture of races’.12 In
1952, however, the Tunku made the surprising announcement that the
UMNO and the MCA would form an alliance and contest the forth-coming municipal elections in Kuala Lumpur as a united front.
Although the alliance was a hastily arranged and almost impulsive
tactic by the leaders of the UMNO and the MCA to unite against the
threat posed by a new party (the IMP) led by Dato Onn, it was to
become the cornerstone of Malaya/Malaysia’s party political system.
The success of the tactic in the elections ensured the permanence of
the alliance. In 1954, the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) joined the
UMNO and the MCA, the new grouping becoming known officially
as the Alliance. Each of the three parties looked after the interests of
their own communities and cooperated at elections, pooling the seats
they won to overwhelm their opponents.
In its early years, the UMNO underwent a number of changes in
ideological emphasis. The most often noted was the decision to become
a Malay communal party, representing the interests of Malays exclusively. Another, not so often noted, was the breakaway of the UMNO’s
Department of Religious Affairs in 1951 and the formation of PAS, a
separate Islamic party. The leaders of the new group seem to have been
inspired by the ideals of modern-minded Muslims such as Syed Shaykh
al-Hady and his followers, and to have wanted a party which was based
on the traditional sources of Islam. It took several years to settle organisation and structure but by the mid-1950s its aims were formulated as
the attainment of Independence, followed by the implementation of
Islamic principles in society and government. It attracted both modernminded and more traditionally oriented Muslims, the latter having
been uncomfortable with the UMNO’s links with non-Muslims. The
new party was not welcomed by the Malay sultans, who saw it as
encroaching on their (British-given) domain of responsibility for Islam
and they openly favoured the UMNO which had been diligent in
upholding their interests.
One day before the important Legislative Council elections of
1955, the elections for which the main issue was independence, PAS
was registered as a political party and went to the polls as an opponent
of the Alliance. It was the only party to win a seat from the Alliance,
which took 51 of the 52 seats and 79.6 per cent of the vote and the only
non-Alliance party to survive from this pre-Independence period. In
1956, to widen its appeal and attract Malays who had earlier been drawn
to the MNP, PAS elected Dr Burhanuddin as its president, a move
which did succeed in lifting the party’s profile. But the fact remained
that the Alliance had won an overwhelming victory at the polls.
The Alliance leaders were adamant that their election win
proved they had established a basis for racial harmony in Malaya, the
first of Templer’s pre-conditions for Independence. They then set
about meeting the second condition. By 1956, it was clear that the
anti-subversion tactics were lessening the effectiveness of the MCP’s
strategies and restrictions were lifted on increasing numbers of the
New Villages. The MCP moved to negotiate for peace but the British
would discuss only terms of surrender. A December meeting between
Tunku Abdul Rahman and a small team (including Sir Tan Cheng
Lock) with Chin Peng (secretary-general of the MCP) at Baling,
northern Perak, was arranged. The British regarded this as a test for the
Tunku and his team: could they resist making deals with the MCP
and maintain a position of non-cooperation? In the event, the team
held firm, Chin Peng could make no deal and the talks were aborted.
Chin Peng returned to the jungle and remained in the region bordering southern Thailand until 2 December 1989. The majority of
MCP fighters, however, melted away long before that time, and the
Emergency was declared officially to have ended on 31 July, 1960.
Early in 1956, the Alliance leaders held talks in London to
determine a date for Independence. The discussions included the establishment of a constitutional commission to draft a constitution and
arrangements for Malaya’s defence. The British finally agreed to
31 August 1957 as the official handover date. Because of its special
position, strategically and ethnically, Singapore was not included in the
arrangements and was to remain a British colony for a further year.
The independent constitutional commission, known after its
chair as the Reid Commission, drafted recommendations for the new
nation. These included citizenship rights for all who lived in Malaya
(if certain conditions were met), a ceremonial and symbolic (rather
than functional) role for the rulers, a limit of 15 years for special privileges for Malays and that, although Malay was the national language,
for the following decade, Chinese, Tamil and English could continue
to be used as working languages with the position to be reviewed thereafter. The Reid Commission also delineated the jurisdictions of federal
and state governments, allocating to the central, federal government
responsibility for such matters as defence and foreign relations, civil
and criminal law education, health, labour and social security and the
welfare of aborigines. The last represents one of the rare specific references to Orang Asli in the Constitution.
A Constitutional Working Committee was established to respond
to the recommendations which had been received critically by many
who believed their community’s interests were being undermined. As a
result, the 15 year limit to Malay special privileges was dropped, and the
sultans were named as the special guardians of Malay interests. In
the light of events in Malaysia’s later history, it is noteworthy that the
Reid Commission recommended direct access to the courts for appeals
concerning civil liberties but the Constitutional Working Committee
insisted that Parliament should be the arbiter. Critics of this decision
opposed it on the grounds that ‘the fundamental rights of the individual
would be better safeguarded by the judiciary than by a political party in
power’.13 The responses of the committee were included in revisions to
the draft Constitution and after final negotiations in London between
representatives of the Alliance, the sultans and the Colonial Office, the
Constitution as adopted by the new nation in 1957 was completed.
Independence was thus attained on 31 August 1957, now cele-
brated as Malaysia’s national day. In a relatively brief period, the
administratively untidy grouping of Straits Settlements, Federated and
Unfederated Malay States and the diverse communities therein, had
come together in a moment of nationhood. The new nation’s leaders
had close links with the old Malay aristocratic elites, or had been nurtured by the British for leadership roles. The arrangements they made
between themselves were designed to fulfill the British demand for
racial harmony and took the form of enterprise agreements for power-sharing in the new Parliament. Later commentators have emphasised
that true multiracialism, as represented by popular acceptance of the
term ‘Malayan’ (to cover all non-Malay races living in Malaya), was
not achieved and the term was not embraced. There was a further
failure. None of the Alliance partners consistently represented the
interests of their weaker constituents. The peasants, coolies, tappers
and labourers still did not have adequate representation in Alliance
policy-making. There was also the question of Malaya’s relationship
with its sister territories, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah.
By ties of sentiment as well as of business, we in Singapore
have always been closest to the Federation of Malaya. If
merger and independence could come sooner and easier
through the Borneo sister territories coming in together with
us into political integration with the Federation of Malaya,
then we support it for it would also mean that we would have
a larger and more powerful economic base for our new nation.
Lee Kuan Yew, June 19611
The merger of the Borneo territories with Singapore to form the
Federation of Malaysia provoked conflict inside and outside the
nation and provided the excuse for armed attacks from Indonesia
during the period known as Confrontation. Turbulent events
followed, including Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia and interethnic violence on the Peninsula. During the 1970s, under their
second and third prime ministers, Malaysians experienced new
economic development policies and rapid social change. Among
the main issues of the 1970s and early 1980s were special policies
for indigenous people (with considerable debate surrounding who
was included in that category), the relationship between Islam and
politics, the development of natural resources and the sharing of
revenues, and strengthening support for political parties in Sabah,
Sarawak and on the east coast of the Peninsula which were not
members of the National Front. Sarawak and British North Borneo
were taken over by the Colonial Office, making them among the last
colonies in the history of the British Empire.
Sarawak: the end of Brooke rule
The second Brooke ruler of Sarawak, Charles, died in 1917 leaving a
well-organised system of internal administration to his elder son and
heir, Vyner Brooke, who presided over European residents assisted by
both European and local subordinates. Because Vyner had three
daughters and no sons, he was to be succeeded by his younger
brother, Bertram and then Bertram’s son, Anthony. In the late 1930s,
Vyner began to have doubts about Anthony’s suitability to rule
Sarawak as he wished it to be ruled. When it became clear that
Bertram’s health would not allow him to succeed as ruler, Vyner
considered various options, including the cession of his kingdom to
Britain so that he could seek retirement from active administrative
Early in 1941, before moving on the cession option, Vyner
made it known that he was preparing a written Constitution for
Sarawak which would ‘replace Our Absolute Rule by a Form of
Government on a Broader Basis and Facilitate the Gradual Development of Representative Government on Democratic Principles’.
The rajah (Vyner) made it clear that he was pursuing James Brooke’s
plan for Sarawak: that its white rajahs were ruling only as custodians
of the native peoples until such time as they could govern themselves, principles which were repeated in the Constitution’s
preamble. Under the new Constitution, adopted in late 1941, the
rajah ruled in consultation with a Supreme Council and a Council
Negeri (State Council). A special agreement between Sarawak and
the British government was signed by Vyner in November 1941, in
which he agreed to receive a British representative, thus placing
Sarawak in a position very similar to that of the Unfederated Malay
States in the 1920s. In reality, the Constitution laid the way for
major changes in the way Sarawak was administered, including
more representation for members of the civil service and in its
legal relationship with Britain. The invasion of the Japanese suspended Brooke rule (Vyner took up residence in Australia and
Anthony returned to Britain where he joined the army) and provided opportunities for consideration of even more options for
Sarawak’s future.
As was their policy in peninsular Malaya, the Japanese allowed
some scope for local organisations to function under Japanese rule, and
several small groups representing Malays, Chinese and a Dayak Cooperative Society were able to develop in ways that had not been
possible under Brooke supervision. Malays, Ibans and Chinese living
near towns were eager to educate their children. They had the options
of Malay-run schools (for Muslims) or schools staffed by missionaries,
which were increasingly in demand by Chinese and Ibans. Many of
these educated Sarawakians became leaders and people of influence in
post-war Sarawak. For those who lived in the interior, isolated from
the coastal centres and following more traditional lifestyles, there were
still opportunities to participate in Sarawak’s future. Tun Jugah, the
last paramount chief of the Ibans who worked with the Brookes and
the British, lived to see the Federation of Malaysia as one of the greatest leaders of his people.
Tun Jugah: an Iban experience of cession
and federation
Tun Jugah was born in approximately 1903, in a traditional Iban longhouse on the Kapit River, to a family famous and respected as warriors
and pioneers. Although he did not have the opportunity for any formal
Western education, his abilities were noticed by Brooke officials and
in 1928 he was appointed as a penghulu which, in the system created by
Charles Brooke, indicated the rank of sub-district leader and came
with a salary. Within a decade he was regarded as an exceptional leader
who had a flair for administration and a keen knowledge of customary
law. During the Japanese Occupation he managed a subsistence life
with his family and when the Australians liberated Kuching, worked
with them to retake the Japanese post at Kapit, later being awarded the
King George V Medal for Bravery.
During the course of the war, Bertram Brooke had officially relinquished his title as successor to Vyner and, in November 1944,
Bertram’s son, Anthony, was officially nominated as the next rajah
after Vyner. However, the Labour government which was elected in
post-war Britain was no more keen to see Brooke rule restored to
Sarawak than Vyner was to have his nephew in charge. The case was
put to Vyner that the cost of rehabilitating Sarawak after the Occupation was more than he could finance. In October 1945, Vyner signed
a preliminary agreement with the Colonial Office as a first step in the
Cession of Sarawak to Britain. The Cession was announced formally
in February 1946 and immediately resisted by Anthony Brooke.
In Sarawak, news that Vyner had handed Sarawak to the British
met a mixed reception. The issues surrounding the announcement of
Cession to the people of Sarawak are clouded by the fact that a number
of misrepresentations were made at the time, particularly by a senior
assistant to Vyner who claimed that the cession had the agreement of
Bertram and Anthony.
Strong opposition came from Malay leaders in the main towns
who had held high positions under the Brookes and feared for their
futures under outside rule. The Malay leaders believed that an influx
of immigrants (such as had occurred in Malaya under the British)
would totally undermine their culture as well as their influence. Some
of these leaders lobbied prominent Ibans, including Tun Jugah, for
their support. The protests took the form of letters to the Colonial
Office and to the British press, so that the opposition to the scheme
became an issue in Britain, coinciding with reactions there to the
Malayan Union scheme.
Within Sarawak itself, very few ordinary Sarawakians understood
the meaning, or implications, of cession. When the British Parliament
sent representatives to gauge local reactions they found mixed
responses but believed the populace could be persuaded to accept
cession. By this time, Lord Louis Mountbatten, British Supreme
Commander in Southeast Asia, and his policy advisers believed it was
imperative for their strategic interests in Southeast Asia, particularly
in view of the revolutionary struggle in Indonesia against the Dutch,
that Britain be in full control of British North Borneo and Sarawak. In
May 1946, the document of cession was passed by the Council Negeri.
The British commissioner-general for Southeast Asia, Malcolm
MacDonald, began making frequent visits between Singapore and
Sarawak, usually including weekend stays with Ibans in the
Balleh/Kapit region during which he is said to have persuaded Tun
Jugah and others of the benefits of British rule.
During the final quarter of 1946, Sarawakians learned that the
proposals for the Malayan Union had not been accepted by peninsular
Malays, and anti-Cession sentiments were strengthened. The installation of the first British governor was a tense event, with no Iban
representatives present. Anti-cession feeling became so strong that,
when Anthony Brooke proposed a visit in November 1946, he was
refused permission by the British lest he rally even greater support
against the handover. Some disaffected Malays moved to Singapore to
be with Anthony, who established headquarters of the anti-Cession
movement there. Some of these anti-cessionists are said to have sided
later with Indonesia during the period of Confrontation in the early to
late 1960s.
In December 1949, a tragic incident occurred. A group of young
Malay nationalists assassinated the second British governor, Duncan
Stewart. The governor was stabbed by Rosly bin Dhobie, a trainee
schoolteacher, whose fellow conspirators believed he would not be
hanged because of his youth. Rosly’s trial was probably attended by Tun
Jugah, who came with other Iban leaders to witness the results of what
they regarded as an act of treason. Rosly and three others were hanged
and seven Malays were given substantial prison terms. The assassination
and its aftermath effectively ended the anti-cession movement within
Sarawak, although the split between pro- and anti-cession groups was
reflected in Sarawak politics a decade later. Rosly bin Dhobie is celebrated in Malaysia’s national history as a nationalist hero, lifting him
above the local and very specific causes for which he struggled.
In taking over Sarawak, the British emphasised that they were
preparing its peoples for self-government and would achieve this by
training them for participation in local administration. Tun Jugah was
one of the local leaders who became an essential figure in this process
and he introduced his people to the workings of the local council. For
personal reasons, in 1949, together with a group of Iban leaders, Jugah
converted to Christianity and was baptised as a Methodist. He worked
with missionaries to improve the education, health and agriculture
of the people in his district. In 1953 he was selected by the governor
to represent the indigenous peoples of Sarawak at the coronation of
Queen Elizabeth, the first Iban ever to visit England. In 1958, just over
a decade after cession, the governor of Sarawak introduced the
concept of an independent federation which would be composed of
North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei. Tun Jugah, like many in Sarawak,
felt his people did not understand the implications and that of the trio,
Sarawak was the least economically developed and might suffer as a
consequence. Shortly afterwards, in 1959, Sarawakians became more
interested in using political parties to express their views and one of
the first to be formed was the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP),
to represent all races and to emphasise loyalty to Sarawak. Other
parties were formed over the next few years, including Party Pesaka
Anak Sarawak (PESAKA) which Tun Jugah agreed to lead in order to
represent Iban interests.
While Sarawakians had been introduced officially to the concept
of a federation of Borneo states only in 1958, there had been informal
working parties of senior administrators from the three states since
1953. Brunei’s lack of interest in a Bornean federation had stalled
progress. In 1961, however, Tunku Abdul Rahman made the first public
statements about the advantages of a much bigger union between
Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo territories. In Sarawak there was
considerable skepticism about this proposal. Borneo leaders had been
working towards the independence of their own states and their first
reaction was that a merger would deprive them of their independent
status. Many also thought things were moving too quickly, particularly
in view of the very recent practice of formal politics in Sabah and
Sarawak. Tun Jugah and others felt that the Borneo territories should
move closer to each other before entering a bigger federation.
Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman agreed in August 1961
that Malaya and Singapore should merge. They held talks in London
to try and determine how the concept of the wider federation with the
Borneo territories should be pursued. In November 1961, Sir Harold
Macmillan and Tunku Abdul Rahman agreed to set up an independent commission whose terms of reference were to assess the opinions
of the peoples of North Borneo and Sarawak about the merger with
Malaysia. Known as the ‘Cobbold Commission’ (after its chair, Lord
Cobbold), it came to the conclusion that the people they had interviewed represented one of three positions: pro federation, anti
federation and pro if certain guarantees could be met. One political
scientist has described the situation as follows: ‘By and large the
Islamic communities were enthusiastic in their support for Malaysia
and the Chinese opposed to it. The Dayaks as a whole were illequipped to assess the merits of the scheme; the minority Kenyahs and
Kayans were quite hostile to it.’3 It was the eventual support of the
Ibans which ensured that federation would go ahead and Tun Jugah
was a key figure in winning that support.
The Cobbold Commission encouraged the case for federation: it
permitted the official spread of British-inspired propaganda which
emphasised the dangers of communism as a threat in Borneo (from
Indonesia) and which portrayed the future of the Borneo territories
separated from Malaysia as economically untenable. Local leaders,
such as Tun Jugah, were influenced by these arguments but put forward
a number of conditions they wanted met in the terms under which
Sarawak would enter the federation. As was later pointed out, ‘the
Cobbold Commission can be said to have functioned as an important
“cover” to legitimise the British decision to withdraw from Sarawak
without having first granted self-government, as promised at the time
of Cession. . .’.
In the formal consultations between Kuala Lumpur and the
constituent states of the proposed federation, Tun Jugah was one of the
representatives from Sarawak. He is credited with achieving the inclusion of a special clause in the new federal Constitution: that the
indigenous customs of the native peoples of Sarawak should be protected. In July 1963, Jugah was one of four Sarawakians to fly to London
and sign the Malaysia Agreement to legally establish the Federation of
Malaysia, which celebrates its anniversary as 31 August 1963.
It had been understood that the most senior appointments in the
new government of Sarawak would reflect the ethnic composition of
the state and represent power-sharing between Malays and Dayaks.
The first chief minister was an Iban, Stephen Kalong Ningkan and so
a Malay, a respected magistrate and head of the Majlis Islam Sarawak
(Islamic Council), Tun Abang Haji Openg, was appointed as first governor. Tun Jugah was given the newly created post of federal minister
for Sarawak Affairs and, because he was not literate, appointed an Iban
assistant who summarised documents for him. At the regular ministerial meetings in Kuala Lumpur, he was regarded as a passionate advocate for Sarawak’s interests.
North Borneo becomes Sabah
The British North Borneo Chartered Company, which had ruled
since the late 19th century, officially transferred and ceded all its
rights and powers to Britain on 15 July 1946. Although no record of
the negotiations between the company directors and the Colonial
Office is available, it is understood that the directors worked hard to
obtain the best possible financial settlement for their shareholders
and that the full sum received in compensation was 1.4 million
pounds sterling.
Restoring the enormous damage which war had inflicted on
North Borneo had been beyond the company’s resources and it now
fell to the Colonial Office to devise plans for massive reconstruction
work. A development loan was organised to centralise the administration, rebuild towns destroyed by bombing (after the Japanese invasion
of 1942 Jesselton had been flattened), extend meagre communications
infrastructure and expand education and health services. The
improved road and rail services were to be used for developing the
state’s natural resources, particularly timber.
While Tun Jugah was working with the Ibans during the 1950s in
Sarawak, another local leader was making his mark in North Borneo.
Donald Stephens, born and educated in North Borneo (then under
company rule), spent the war years in Singapore and returned in 1945
to work as a contractor in the Public Works Department. In 1949, he
began work as a journalist and in 1953 was able to start his own paper,
the Sabah Times. During the 1950s, he was a member of the Legislative
and Executive Councils of North Borneo. A leading member of the
Kadazan community, he founded the United National Kadazan Organisation in 1961. In the lead-up to federation, as Tun Jugah had for
Sarawak, he played a prominent role in representing North Borneo’s
interests to Kuala Lumpur and with Tun Jugah went to London for the
signing of the Malaysia Agreement.
Donald Stephens was appointed North Borneo’s first chief minister and to mark the independence of his state renamed it Sabah and
insisted that the term ‘Kadazan’ replace the less correct term ‘Dusun’,
which foreigners had been using to describe Sabah’s main ethnic group.
When he pressed for special concessions for Sabah and more autonomy
from the central government in Kuala Lumpur, he was pressured to
resign as chief minister (a pattern repeated later in Sabah’s relations
with the centre) and demoted to another ministry. He left politics a
year or so later to become Malaysia’s high commissioner to Australia.
Unlike Tun Jugah, he was away from Malaysia during most of the period
of Confrontation with Indonesia. Donald Stephens was replaced as
chief minister by Mustapha bin Harun, a Muslim descended from the
Sulu peoples of the southern Philippines, with whom the Kadazans and
other local Sabah groups had long and uneasy relations.
Confrontation: reactions to the Federation
of Malaysia
The formation of Malaysia, despite Brunei’s failure to join, signalled
the first and arguably most successful merger of post-colonial entities
in Southeast Asia. In the context of the early 1960s, however, the
realignments necessary to create the Federation of Malaysia were
opposed by the Philippines and Indonesia. This set in train a series of
(largely fruitless) diplomatic meetings to find a framework for mutual
cooperation which were held, on and off, through the early 1960s.
Indonesia’s position
In 1961, when Tunku Abdul Rahman announced a possible federation
of former British possessions, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)
denounced the idea as a British neo-colonialist plot and by early 1963
President Sukarno himself was using the same terms to describe
Malaysia. Later that year, when the signing of the Malaysia Agreement
looked inevitable, the PKI used the slogan ‘Crush Malaysia’ (Ganyang
Malaysia), which Sukarno also took up and popularised as the phrase
which became recognised internationally as signifying Indonesia’s
determination to break up the federation.
Although armed forces from Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan)
probably began infiltrating Sabah and Sarawak as early as April 1963,
it was only after the formal declaration of the new political entity of
Malaysia on 16 September 1963 that Indonesia called for volunteers to
enlist and fight to liberate their fellows across the border. In December, a serious attack by a force of 100 regular Indonesian army troops
on the remote timber settlement of Kalabakan in southeast Sabah
killed eight members of the Royal Malay Regiment as well as one civilian and wounded 19 army personnel and five civilians. Incursions by
the Indonesian air force into Malaysian airspace were so serious that in
February 1964, Kuala Lumpur placed a ban on all aircraft entering
Sabah and Sarawak.
Attempts to reach a cease-fire failed and when Indonesia
announced it was training millions of volunteers to crush Malaysia,
Australia and New Zealand sent forces to assist their fellow member
of the Commonwealth. The numbers of British personnel already
operating in Malaysia (especially Gurkha battalions) were increased.
There was at least one positive spin-off from the Commonwealth
presence. It has been said that the military personnel greatly
improved the roads and bridges in Sabah during their tour of duty.
In November 1964, small groups of armed Indonesians landed at a
number of sites in Johor and it became clear that the Indonesian
navy was targeting the Peninsula and Singapore while the army was
fighting in Sabah and Sarawak.
Within Malaysia there were a variety of responses. Well-known
leaders of Malay radical nationalist movements, such as Ishak Haji
Muhammad and Ahmad Boestamam (both of whom had spent lengthy
periods in gaol during the Emergency), were detained again. Although
there was no evidence, they were accused of plotting with Indonesia to
bring down Malaysia and introduce their pre-World War II dream of a
region of united Malay peoples stretching from the Philippines and
southern Thailand to the Indonesian archipelago. The president of
PAS, Dr Burhanuddin, was also detained on the same (and equally
unproven) charge but, unlike his colleagues was not held as long
because of his deteriorating health. He died in 1969.
In Sabah and Sarawak, local people enlisted for service (including
Donald Stephens), or joined vigilante and civil defence units. As federal
minister for Sarawak Affairs, Tun Jugah flew between Kuala Lumpur and
Sarawak and regularly visited all the jungle hot spots, encouraging the
forces and raising morale. In one brutal action in mid-1965, seven civilians and two police, one of them the brother of the chief minister, were
killed only 18 miles (29 kilometres) south of Kuching. In Sarawak, there
was evidence that the banned Sarawak Communist Organisation
(SCO) was in contact with and cooperating with cells of the Indonesian
Communist Party (PKI) across the border. The almost impenetrable
conditions of the deep jungle required total dependence on the local
knowledge of the interior Dayak tribes and, just as the Orang Asli had
assisted as trackers and guides in the Emergency on the Peninsula, so the
local people assisted during the period of Confrontation.
In October 1965, Sukarno was toppled in Indonesia and the
‘New Order’ was begun under General Soeharto. In late May of the
following year, his foreign minister, Adam Malik, met Tun Abdul
Razak, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, for peace talks in Bangkok. A
Peace Agreement was signed on 11 August 1966, with one of its provisions stating that Malaysia had agreed to allow the people of Sabah
and Sarawak to hold general elections to reaffirm their decision to be
part of Malaysia. The general elections in 1970, in both states, were
won decisively by pro-Malaysia parties.
When the hostilities were declared officially to have ended in
August 1966, it is estimated that over the three and three-quarter years
of fighting, 114 people had been killed fighting for Malaysia and 600
lost their lives fighting against it.
The Philippines’ claim
The Philippines’ objections to the formation of Malaysia were both
ideological and territorial. The territorial claims concerned parts of
Sabah which had been the subject of agreements between the sultan
of Sulu and the Dent brothers, through their agent Baron von Overbeck.
President Macapagal claimed that the 19th century treaties were for the
rental and not cession of Sulu-controlled territory in Sabah and that
ownership still lay with the heirs to the Sulu sultanate, incorporated into
the Philippines. When Macapagal took the claim to the International
Court of Justice in The Hague, Malaysia refused to participate on the
grounds that this could compromise its claims to have sovereignty over
the territory of Sabah. In 1966, Marcos replaced Macapagal and diplo-
matic relations with Kuala Lumpur were resumed. However, two years
later it was alleged that Sulu forces were being trained to infiltrate and
attack Sabah and in September 1968 Marcos signed a Bill defining
Sabah as part of the Philippines and relations were again suspended.
However, they were resumed in December 1969.
Malaysia without Singapore
Singapore experienced great social turbulence during the 1950s, the
period when James Puthucheary and others with radical socialist
beliefs were active in the various trade union movements of the time.
The turmoil of the period is captured graphically in an impressive
three-dimensional film of Singapore’s history which is screened for
visitors to the Singapore History Museum. Puthucheary was just one of
the Leftist group (in some accounts referred to as ‘pro-Communists’)
within the People’s Action Party (PAP) which was receiving increasing support within the party. To forestall any threat to the group
around Lee Kuan Yew, in August 1957, Puthucheary and others of
similar mind were detained for nearly three years. During that time,
Lee Kuan Yew led the PAP to power in the 1959 elections and became
chief minister then, after Independence, prime minister, a position
he held until 1990. Puthucheary and seven others were released on
condition they supported PAP’s anti-communist position.
Prime Minister Lee’s new government was faced with substantial public debt and active trade unions which were fed by
considerable unemployment. When Tunku Abdul Rahman took up
the idea of a Malaysia federation which would include Singapore as
well as the Borneo territories, Lee already knew the advantages to
Singapore of access to the Peninsula’s raw materials and the potential for solving his government’s unemployment problems. He
indicated this in the speech he made only one week after the Tunku’s
statement on federation (see opening quote at beginning of this
chapter). The Tunku saw the advantages of linking the Peninsula
economy to that of export-oriented Singapore, but realised that
demographically, the Chinese of Singapore, when added to the
Chinese domiciled on the Peninsula, would outnumber the Malay
population. This was a situation he knew would unsettle the Malays
and lead to serious inter-ethnic tensions. However, if the Malay and
non-Chinese populations of Sabah and Sarawak were added to the
number of peninsular Malays, they balanced the Singapore Chinese
numbers. It was therefore more important, in the Tunku’s estimation,
that the Borneo territories join the federation than Singapore. The
terms of entry reflect this concern: Sabah and Sarawak were given
generous development loans while Singapore would concede 40 per
cent of its revenues to Kuala Lumpur. In return, however, Singapore
was granted three large parcels of British Crown Land, now in the
heart of Singapore’s central district. The distribution of seats in the
new federal government (House of Representatives) was also not in
Singapore’s favour: 40 seats to Sabah and Sarawak and 15 to Singapore. At the 1962 referendum on the proposal to merge, the PAP
proposition of joining Malaysia was supported and Singapore became
part of Malaysia on 16 September 1963.
Singapore’s entry to Malaysia was not wholeheartedly welcomed
by Chinese and Malays on the Peninsula. Some members of the
Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) viewed their colleagues in the
PAP as potential rivals for Chinese votes and feared Singapore competition in the Chinese business world of the Peninsula. The very
conservative members of the United Malays National Organisation
(UMNO), who jealously guarded the special position of the Malays,
were suspicious of the multiracial platform of the PAP. It has been said
that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was insufficiently sensitive to these
concerns and, disregarding them, fielded PAP candidates in seats in
peninsular states in the 1964 general elections. This was followed by
rallies in Singapore organised by the UMNO in support of Malays in
Singapore. The Malay rallies heightened ethnic feeling and led,
directly or indirectly, to riots in which 21 were killed and 460 injured.
More riots followed.
In the following year, May 1965, a period when Indonesian
attacks in Sabah and Sarawak were increasing, the PAP announced it
would form a coalition of five of the opposition parties in Malaysia, to
be named the Malaysian Solidarity Convention. Despite the fact that
the Solidarity Convention presented a platform of abolishing poverty
wherever it existed, the ultra-conservatives in the UMNO saw this as a
threat to the special position of the Malays and reacted very strongly
against the new grouping. The position of the Solidarity Convention
will be outlined here, because it represents a continuing theme in
Malaysian political history. Similar platforms have been tried a number
of times by various groups opposed to the UMNO’s policies but, at the
time of writing, not one has succeeded in winning government.
The Solidarity Convention deliberately used the slogan
‘Malaysian Malaysia’ to represent their platform of a nation for all
Malaysia’s citizens rather than a nation dominated by the interests of
one group (the Malays). They openly argued that special privileges
for the Malays were not the solution to improving their social and
economic condition. What was needed, in their view, were specific
economic policies which would benefit the poor and disadvantaged
wherever they were and from whatever community they come from.
They went further and attacked the attitudes of those in the UMNO
who maintained what they termed as ‘feudal’ attitudes which ‘protected’ one group of Malaysians at the expense of others.
The position and statements of the Malaysian Solidarity
Convention were unacceptable to many in the UMNO who, on the
grounds that the policies were anti-Malay and threatening to racial
harmony, urged Tunku Abdul Rahman to deal with the PAP and Lee
Kuan Yew. Tactics to split the PAP failed and Tun Abdul Razak tried
but failed to reach a compromise with the Convention. Whatever the
public statements of the Convention, its strong PAP component
meant that Malays viewed it as a Chinese construction and believed,
therefore, that it was unable to represent Malay interests. The racial,
or communal divide, proved stronger than the rational force of policies
and platforms, even when they were presented in terms of helping all
After secret meetings with his cabinet, the Tunku publicly
announced the expulsion of Singapore from the federation on
9 August 1965. This was followed by a television appearance by
Prime Minister Lee. Genuinely distressed, he explained that
although he had worked all his life for a merger of Singapore and
the Federation of Malaya, he had become convinced that disagreements were now so serious that to avoid future conflict and violence
he believed separation was inevitable.
Singapore became, and remains, an independent republic with
whom Malaysia still has altercations. These become exacerbated in
times of regional economic downturn when Singapore’s advanced
economy appears able to weather even global downturns and to solve
its internal problems more effectively than Kuala Lumpur. After his
retirement as prime minister in 1990, Lee Kuan Yew was granted the title of senior minister. He has remained a strong influence on domestic as well as regional affairs.
Development and the concept of the
The manner of the Tunku’s expulsion of Singapore, without consultation with the leaders of his Borneo states, aroused their severe
criticism. The departure of Donald Stephens as chief minister of
Sabah indicated the Tunku’s attitude to dissension in his ranks. The
chief minister of Sarawak, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, met a similar
fate when he clashed with the Tunku while defending Sarawak’s
interests in the federation. As one analyst has written: ‘East
Malaysian leaders are aware that no one who is confrontational to
Kuala Lumpur will last long and this has led to symbiotic relation-ships between the Federal Government and the East Malaysian state
One of the causes of the tension between the federal and Borneo
state governments has been the lower level of economic development
and the late practice of formal, Western-style politics in Sabah and
Sarawak. Kuala Lumpur recognised that the central government had
to inject funds into the new states in east Malaysia and when the
threat of armed attacks from Indonesia ended in 1966, the First
Malaysia Plan (1966–70) was implemented. Its stated aim was ‘the
integration of the peoples and states of Malaysia by promoting the
welfare of all’. The poor economic condition of rural Malays led to
the formation of a special Bank Bumiputera in 1965.
The definition of a Bumiputera (‘son of the soil’ or indigene)
varies according to context. Following federation, Article 153 of the
federal Constitution was amended to extend the special privileges
reserved for Malays (but not Orang Asli) to the ‘natives’ of Sabah and
Sarawak. Together with Malays throughout the federation, they
became known as ‘Bumiputera’. When referring exclusively to peoples
of peninsular Malaysia, the term sometimes includes Orang Asli and
sometimes does not. In reality, the special benefits available to Bumi-putera in peninsular Malaysia rarely reach Orang Asli. The indigenous
peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, however, are unambiguously covered by
the term.
The development projects for Sabah and Sarawak required huge
investment to provide basic infrastructure (roads, railways, public
buildings) so that raw materials (particularly timber) could be transported out for export. The situation in the Borneo states during the
late 1960s has been described as ‘largely a matter of frontier resource
development in which the extraction of timber resources led to the
opening of new land for agriculture . . . and the expansion of industries
closely related to the primary sector’.
The situation on the Peninsula was different. Development programs had been in place since the early 1950s, when 56 per cent of
the employed work force was in agriculture. The best known of these
is the rural resettlement scheme organised by FELDA (Federal Land
Development Authority), established in 1956 as a statutory body to
assist in the eradication of rural poverty. Poor families (and over
95 per cent of those selected have been Malay) were settled on small
grants of agricultural land which they brought into production and,
over 15 years, repaid their government loans. After repayment of the
loan, they received the title to the land. Between 1960 and 1981,
71 000 families were resettled on 308 schemes and their incomes initially improved. However, the amount of land granted was sufficient
for only one family and was usually unable to provide a livelihood for
adult children as well. The rate of population increase outstrips
the provision of land—although 71 000 families were settled over a
20-year period. During that same period, the population increased by
more than 2.5 million.
The FELDA scheme has been better than no scheme at all, but
its deficiencies have been analysed. The most serious are that, first, in
cost benefit terms, FELDA has made very little impact on the condi-
tion of the majority of the rural poor and second, that a large
proportion of the settlers were selected in return for political or other
support. It must be noted also that the clearing of land for some of the
schemes encroached on the traditional lands of the Orang Asli and
reduced the land on which they depended for their livelihood.
Kelantan: Islam and the peasantry
The northern peninsular states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu have a high percentage of Malaysia’s rural poor (peasants) yet,
compared with the southern states, only 17.4 per cent of the total
number of FELDA settlers have been drawn from there. While there
may be several factors involved in this apparent inequality of land distribution, one which is cited often concerns political affiliation. The
peasants of Kelantan and Terengganu were attracted to the policies of
the Islamic Party, PAS and many supported it rather than the UMNO.
This was in strong contrast to the southern peninsular states where
Malays voted overwhelmingly for the UMNO and also received most
of the FELDA land grants. The link between politics and development
grants was spelled out in a speech by Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak
at a Kelantan by-election in 1968:
It is said that we of the Alliance Party harbour ill-will
against the people of Kelantan, and that we refuse to help
this state progress from its backward condition. This is not
true . . . I shall be completely frank and sincere with you.
We cannot help you until you turn PAS out of power in
this state and elect an Alliance Party government in its
place . . . We can provide projects only for those who vote
for us.
A detailed analysis of the relationship between local politics, class
interests and Islam in Kelantan during the 1950s and 60s has been
done by sociologist Clive Kessler. His classic study shows that Kelantan’s long history of tension between the Malay aristocracy of Kota
Bharu and the peasant settlers of the coastal plains and beyond found
expression in voting choices. During the general elections of 1959,
the first post-independence elections, PAS won a landslide vistory in
Kelantan which shocked the UMNO, who expected to gain the majority of Malay votes. The Malay elite, nurtured by the British and
transformed into leaders of the UMNO, failed to address the concerns
of the Kelantan peasantry. The young leaders of PAS, although not
necessarily peasants themselves, presented PAS as an Islamic grouping
which stood for the ideals of Islam and offered an alternative to the
leadership of the traditional Malay aristocratic elite.
The broader implications of the success of PAS among the
peasant voters of Kelantan caused concern to the UMNO tacticians.
As Kessler points out, the UMNO’s domination of Malaysian politics
depended on gaining most of the Malay vote and the support of the
Malay, Chinese and Indian voters for the parties which constituted the
ruling Alliance formed the basis of their success. The support of Kelantan Malays for PAS revealed that the Malay community could be split
and that, although expressed in religious terms (Islam), actually
reflected a class divide between elite and non-elite Malays. This was
confirmed after the 1959 general elections, when some of the wealth-
ier peasants (many with substantial landholdings) left PAS and gave
their allegiance to the UMNO.
Race Riots in Kuala Lumpur: 13 May 1969
A consistent challenge for all Malaysian political parties, a challenge
which the British had failed to solve before their colonial administration ended, was how to persuade Malays that sharing political power
with non-Malays would not threaten their interests. When Lee Kuan
Yew and others used the Solidarity Convention to try and unite
Malaysians on grounds of common allegiance rather than race, the
ultra-conservative members of the UMNO reacted so negatively that
Singapore had to be expelled from the federation. Yet, even within its
own ranks, as shown by the degree of support for the Islamic party PAS
in Kelantan, the UMNO was failing to answer the needs of its poorest
The two other members of the Alliance, the MCA (Malayan
Chinese Association) and the MIC (Malayan Indian Congress), were
also perceived by their poorer constituents, such as Chinese and
Indian workers who had come to the cities in search of employment,
as failing to address their needs. In a strategy to meet those needs and
provide an alternative to the MCA and the MIC, two new parties were
formed: the Democratic Action Party (DAP-a direct descendant of the
PAP) in 1966 and the Gerakan (Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia or Malaysian
People’s Movement) in 1968. Both new parties upheld the concept of
equal rights and forged an electoral pact for the 1969 elections to avoid
splitting any votes not directed to the Alliance. Astute observers
recognised that the weakened support for the Alliance carried the
potential for serious trouble.
At the general elections held on 10 May 1969, the UMNO and
the MIC lost some of their urban seats but the MCA lost very heavily,
due to a loss in support from urban Chinese voters. As a result, the
non-Malay opposition parties gained more than two-thirds of the
urban vote and began to celebrate enthusiastically especially when it
seemed they would have victory in several states. The loss of support
for the MCA, a crucial member of the ruling Alliance, threatened to
undermine the inter-communal basis on which the Alliance was built.
The exuberance of the DAP and Gerakan supporters was
expressed in motor cavalcades and marches through the streets of
Kuala Lumpur on 11 and 12 May and prompted the UMNO to organise a counter celebration on 13 May. While the Malay marchers were
assembling, a report was received that several Malays trying to join the
main group had been attacked by Chinese and Indians. This inflamed
the main group of Malays who armed themselves with a variety of
home-made weapons and missiles and set out to hunt down non-Malays in Kuala Lumpur, focusing particularly on areas of Chinese
settlement in Kuala Lumpur. The Malay groups were met by equally
determined and well-armed non-Malays and extreme violence broke
out causing loss of life, serious injuries and destruction of property.
Through the night, 2000 military and 3600 police were rushed to the
capital. The violence continued through to Thursday 15 May when a
State of Emergency was declared and a National Operations Council
(NOC) of eight prominent figures under the leadership of Deputy
Prime Minister Tun Razak was established to direct the restoration of
order. Elections in progress in Sabah and Sarawak were suspended, as
was federal Parliament. The Internal Security Act (ISA) was invoked to
detain without trial anyone considered a threat to order.
Kuala Lumpur was flooded with anxious people seeking safety
and over 15 000 refugees crowded into the city’s stadiums. It was a
week before a sense of order was restored and isolated outbreaks of
violence continued to be reported until the end of May when the worst
of the rioting had passed. Official figures at the end of May were
177 killed, 340 injured and 5750 arrested, but unofficial figures were
higher. Although it was announced that the Alliance had won the
elections at the federal level, and although it was known that in
several states the Alliance had done quite poorly, in the public’s mind
the need to restore order and public safety assumed top priority and far
overshadowed electoral matters.
The New Economic Policy
Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s immediate response to the
violence and rioting was the establishment of the NOC, under Tun
Razak. In effect, this meant that the country was being led by the
deputy prime minister. In early June, when some calm had been
restored, there was public discussion about the future role of the MCA
in the Alliance in the light of its poor electoral performance. Dr
Mahathir Mohammad, a young UMNO member who had lost his seat
in Kedah (to a PAS candidate), accused the prime minister of favouring the MCA at the expense of the UMNO and Malay interests. In a
letter to Tunku Abdul Rahman he blamed the prime minister for
losing the confidence of all the Malays and called on him to resign.
Copies of the letter were circulated and many Malay teachers and students took up the call, believing that the Tunku had not pushed the
adoption of Malay as the official language of the nation as he could
have done. Other Malaysians spoke out against any moves to further
protect Malays and insisted that Malaysia must adopt a policy of
equality for all its citizens. Musa Hitam, then an assistant minister,
was one of the few UMNO members who publicly supported Dr
Mahathir and was removed from his post. Dr Mahathir himself was
expelled from the UMNO’s Central Committee and then expelled
from the UMNO.
Tunku Abdul Rahman, who had been recovering from eye surgery,
headed a National Good Will Committee to build interracial tolerance
and embarked on a national tour to restore public confidence in the
stability of the federation. Parliament was not recalled but the NOC
established a National Consultative Council (NCC) in October 1969,
to which representatives of a wide range of Malaysian groups—politi-
cal, religious, social and economic—were appointed. The NCC was to
discuss all issues which might effect the future peace and unity of
Malaysia and a new Department of National Unity was set up to focus
specifically on race relations. The NCC promoted a national ideology,
the Rukunegara—which has much in common with Indonesia’s
Pancasila—as the basis for new programs in civics and citizenship.
Tun Razak
The individual at the centre of this strategic reorganisation of the federation after the 1969 elections was Tun Abdul Razak. Born in Pahang
in 1921, his primary schooling was in Malay and then his father, one of
Pahang’s four great chiefs, sent him to Malay College, Kuala Kangsar,
where he did exceptionally well. During the war he was an interpreter
for the Japanese as well as working with the special Allied guerilla Force
136. He studied Law in London (where he met Tunku Abdul Rahman)
and returned to work in the civil service, becoming state secretary for
Pahang in 1952. He joined the UMNO in 1950 and the following year,
when the Tunku succeeded Dato Onn as president, Razak became his
deputy. In the lead-up to Independence, he prepared the multiracial
education policy which was maintained into the 1970s. After Independence, he was appointed deputy prime minister, defence minister and
minister of rural development. He thus came to the task of restoring
stability with experience in crucial portfolios and with intimate
knowledge of the Malaysian political system. In 1970, the Tunku
resigned as prime minister and Tun Razak replaced him and remained
prime minister until his widely mourned death from leukemia in 1976.
When the National Consultative Council reviewed the factors
which had contributed to the interracial violence after the 1969
elections, they were faced with the fact that the rural development
schemes had not reached the people and areas where they were most
needed—rural industries, fisheries, cooperatives, agricultural education
and extension work, and rural credit and marketing schemes. The
ethnic group overwhelmingly involved in those areas was Malay. It also
emerged that the Malays (closely followed by Indians) had the highest
unemployment rates. In the investment sector the figures were perhaps
even worse: Malays held only 1 per cent of investment in registered
businesses. Although the most senior positions in the civil service were
held by Malays, they were not well represented in lower divisions. The
NCC did not mention that even though UMNO politicians held the
majority of seats in Parliament they had failed to successfully represent
the interests of the majority of their constituents.
As well as his official advisers, Tun Razak had gathered around
him a special team of able people who believed the Tunku’s policies
would not deliver the changes needed to improve economic performance. Among them was James Puthucheary who, after his banning
from Singapore in 1963, was living in Kuala Lumpur. Following
Puthucheary’s ideas on the benefits of state intervention, they argued
that the most efficient way of transforming the Malaysian economy
and improving the participation of the Malays was through public
corporations funded by the government. Also following Puthucheary,
they suggested that foreign-owned corporations in Malaysia could be
restructured to benefit the Malays and raise their meagre share of participation in the investment sector. Tun Razak appointed Puthucheary
to the NCC and his theories were incorporated into a new development plan which became known as the NEP (New Economic Policy).
Tun Razak chose to reform both the economy and the political
system. He did so against a background of censorship suggested by the
NOC. To avoid any further outbreaks of violence provoked by interracial conflict, the NOC embargoed public discussion of the following
issues, claiming they were too sensitive and could be inflammatory:
citizenship, special privileges for Malays and the native peoples of
Sabah and Sarawak, the position of the Malay rulers and the role
of Malay as the sole national language. The NEP, scheduled to remain
in operation until 1990, aimed to reduce and eventually eradicate
poverty as well as to restructure Malaysian society so that race was no
longer identified with economic function. To meet these twin goals,
economic strategies formulated as ‘Malaysia Plans’ were designed so
that by the Fifth Malaysia Plan (1986–90) all the objectives of the
NEP would have been achieved and by 1990, Bumiputeras would own
and manage at least 30 per cent of the corporate sector.
Criticism of the NEP emphasised that economic efficiency was
not always the outcome when state enterprises were in charge of
businesses and that senior bureaucrats were not necessarily the best
managers. Critics also predicted that plans to reduce regional disparities in economic development (as between the west and east coasts of
the Peninsula and between the Peninsula and the Borneo territories)
would probably not assist the distribution of income among the ethnic
groups of the federation. It was the intention of the planners that
national unity would result from a more equitable distribution of
income and wealth across Malaysia’s social and economic groups.
However, economic research from elsewhere, as well as later events in
Malaysia, indicates that national unity does not necessarily flow from
improved economic circumstances.
A key body established to oversee the creation of a Malay industrial and commercial community leading to a greater share of the
business sector was PERNAS (Pertubuhan Nasional or National Development Corporation). Incorporated as a public company in 1969,
PERNAS moved swiftly to form seven subsidiaries in the key areas of
securities, engineering, construction, trading, property and insurance.
It had joint ventures in other areas such as mining, and hotels and in
all of its activities the aims were to expand opportunities for the
employment of Malays and other indigenous peoples (although Orang
Asli did not benefit), to assist in the formation of businesses by Malays,
and to hold in trust share capital in companies until Malays and other
indigenous peoples had the capital to acquire them.
Under the NEP, the development of export-oriented industries
became a national priority. There was remarkable growth during the
1970s in electrical and electronic items, textiles, manufactured rubber
products, chemicals and metal products. The development of offshore
oil and gas deposits discovered off the coast of Terengganu and
Sarawak brought rich revenues to the state-owned Petronas Corporation, especially following the rise in world oil prices in 1973 and
1979. Foreign investment was encouraged through incentives such as
Free Trade Zones, offering special industrial sites, the first of which was
established in Penang in 1971. Labour for the new factories attracted
young women and, by the mid-1980s, women made up just over 95 per
cent of the manufacturing industry’s workforce on the Peninsula. The
industrialisation of Sabah and Sarawak lagged badly behind the Peninsula and when it did come was focused on the processing of natural
resources, such as wood products and a natural gas plant.
Building stability: the National Front
While the NEP was designed to respond to the economic grievances of
the Malays, Tun Razak also addressed the system of political parties
which, in the UMNO’s view, had contributed to the violent outbursts of
13 May. The electoral results at the state level had been particularly
worrying for the Alliance and had shown clearly the loss of support for
the MCA and the consequent gains by parties outside the Alliance.
Many analysts have seen this period as the beginning of increased federal
intervention in state level politics, particularly in the Borneo states.
Tun Razak believed that political campaigning based on claims
which involved racial differences inflamed voters and provoked com-
petition which might then be expressed in violent demonstrations.
This could be overcome, he reasoned, by including opposition parties
within the ruling coalition where they would be given representation
in the cabinet, state assemblies and Parliament and would have the
opportunity to fight for their interests in the party room rather than in public.
The National Front (Barisan Nasional) was formally registered as a
new confederation of parties in June 1974, two months before a national
election. By that time it included the UMNO as dominant member, the
MCA and the Gerakan, both representing Chinese interests, the Islamic
party PAS, the People’s Progressive Party (a small party from Perak), the
MIC, the Sabah alliance in Sabah and a state coalition in Sarawak. The
National Front was successful in the 1974 elections and has won every
national election up to the time of writing. It has been described as a
coalition between a central core party, the UMNO and smaller parties
who joined on the UMNO’s terms: ‘It was certainly not a coalition
between equals.’8 A successful coalition, however, involves compromise
and falls apart if cooperation and accommodation are not practised.
Although the UMNO is the dominant partner, it occasionally has to
adapt its position if pressured sufficiently by the other partners.
The legacy of Tun Razak
When Parliament resumed in 1971 after the period of Emergency rule
following May 13 1969, Tun Razak held the positions of prime minister, minister of defence and minister of foreign affairs. His policies as
minister of foreign affairs have often been overshadowed, at least in
the appraisals of Western commentators, by his economic policies but
they deserve greater recognition for their lasting influence on the
orientation of Malaysia’s foreign policy. It was his strong support for
the concept of ASEAN which ensured that it became a meaningful
regional alliance during the mid-1970s and he promoted the concept of
Southeast Asia as a non-aligned or neutral region. Among his other initiatives were the promotion of trade with communist nations in eastern
Europe and with Russia, and the establishment of closer relations with
the People’s Republic of China. In 1974, he hosted the Fifth Islamic
Conference of Foreign Ministers and urged the oil-rich Islamic
states to direct some of their profits to assisting the poorer Islamic
nations. His recognition of the importance of international Islam
remained a component of Malaysia’s foreign policy after his death.
Another lasting legacy of Tun Razak’s period as prime minister
was the national language policy. Beginning with primary level one in
English medium schools in 1970, Bahasa Melayu (Malay) became
the language of instruction for primary and secondary schools in the
Peninsula, with Sabah joining the conversion in 1971 and Sarawak in
1977. Chinese and Tamil primary schools were not affected by this
policy and this was to arouse later criticism from some Malays. As well,
a new national university was established, Universiti Kebangsaan
Malaysia, teaching exclusively in the national language, a policy which
required a massive effort to translate text books into Malay, with the
assistance of the National Language and Literature Council (Dewan
Bahasa dan Pustaka). A policy of positive discrimination in favour of
Malay students was also intensified (a policy still in operation and
regarded as unfair by non-Malay students) with large numbers of
overseas scholarships for tertiary study awarded to Malays.
Less positively, Tun Razak’s term coincided with the implementation of a number of repressive measures which were invoked in the
aftermath of the violence of May 1969 but which have remained in
force. The federal government actively used its powers to suspend state
constitutions, to allocate federal revenues to states, and to invoke the
Internal Security Act (ISA) to detain without trial any person ‘with a
view to preventing him from acting in a manner prejudicial to the
security of Malaysia’.9 Even a cursory examination of the list of those
arrested under the ISA indicates that it has been used to silence political opposition, as much as to maintain peace and order.
By 1974, the increasing numbers of tertiary students generated a
campus culture of political involvement in social issues. Students took
up the cause of rural Malays and demonstrated in mass rallies against the
government. The then education minister, Dr Mahathir, was stern in his
condemnation and the ISA was used against some of the leaders of the
protests, who included Anwar Ibrahim, a founder of the Islamic Youth
Movement of Malaysia (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia or ABIM). In
1975, the government passed a Bill strengthening prohibitions against
student demonstrations and involvement in national politics.
Leadership changes
After Tun Razak’s death, his deputy prime minister (and brother-in-law), Hussein Onn, succeeded him as prime minister. Hussein Onn
was son of the first leader of the UMNO, Dato Onn Jaafar, and had left
the party in 1951, when his father did. He returned only in 1969 and
Tun Razak’s unexpected death, in January 1976, came before he had
demonstrated his own qualities and built up his own group of supporters. At this time factionalism within the UMNO was strong—as it was
during most periods of its turbulent history. Tunku Abdul Rahman was
an influence within the party until his death in 1990. He remained in
the public eye in many positions, but particularly through his acerbic
weekly columns in the popular daily, The Star. Tun Razak had promoted his own group while he was in power and those not close to him
saw the opportunity to gain influence under a new prime minister.
They were disappointed when Hussein Onn chose Dr Mahathir
Mohamad as his deputy prime minister.
The supporters of Tunku Abdul Rahman, remembering Mahathir’s
criticisms of his policies and style, were dismayed at his promotion. In
their minds, Mahathir, Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh (a Kelantan
aristocrat), all supporters of Razak, were a threat to their powers and
spheres of influence. Their strategy to discredit those formerly close to
Tun Razak, including Hussein Onn, was a clever smear campaign.
Rumours were spread that advisers close to the ruling group were secret
agents of the Malayan Communist Party. Although the MCP was no
longer a force in Malaysian politics, there was sufficient paranoia still
evident in the mid-1970s to give credibility to the rumours. The fact
that members of the so-called ‘Intellectual Left’, such as James Puthucheary, had contributed to some of Razak’s policies, was used as a further
means of discrediting some of his close colleagues.
In this context of personal rivalry within the UMNO, the minister
of home affairs, Ghazalie Shafie, who harboured his own disappointment
at losing the post of deputy prime minister to Mahathir, invoked the ISA
to arrest two leading journalists for subversive activities linked with
communism. When they made ‘confessions’ implicating leading figures
of the UMNO, many ordinary Malays believed there had indeed been
communist influence on figures close to Tun Razak.
In July 1981, citing ill-health, Dato Hussein Onn retired. The
UMNO General Assembly unanimously elected Dr Mahathir as its
new leader which made him automatically the prime minister. The
UMNO’s selection of the deputy prime minister was not as clear-cut,
the candidates being the minister of education, Musa Hitam—a long-time supporter of Mahathir—and the minister of finance, Tengku
Razaleigh. Musa was elected narrowly, leaving Tengku Razaleigh
defeated but determined to pursue his ambitions and move higher.

We Orang Asli are often taken for granted; not taken seriously. We are left without many rights although we have given
much service.
We must seek rights not only for ourselves, but also for all Orang Asli, all suku-kaum (ethnic groups), all kampungs (villages). Or else we will have no land later.
Members of Orang Asli communities at a public meeting, Perak 19931
Under Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, one of the longest
serving political leaders in Asia, Malaysia’s society and urban landscape were transformed. Economic growth was sustained until the
mid-1980s when it faltered but was resumed in the late 1980s at annual
growth rates of at least 7 per cent until 1997. In that year, all Asian
nations were affected by an economic crisis whose global implications
were substantial and ongoing. Before the crisis, however, Malaysia had
already implemented restrictions on foreign borrowing and banking
regulations, thus avoiding the catastrophic banking collapses which
occurred in neighbouring countries. These measures contributed to
Malaysia’s ability to withstand the crisis better than many analysts had
predicted. The Malaysian and international press chose to highlight
Dr Mahathir’s unorthodox policies of foreign currency and capital controls as the major factors in successfully quarantining the Malaysian
economy from some of the global impacts. While economists have
continued to debate the reasons behind Malaysia’s upswing, the figures
indicate that from mid-1999 onwards Malaysia’s economy has shown
signs of recovery.
Malaysia’s economic management policies have created debate
for some years. The New Economic Policy of the early 1970s with its
positive discrimination in favour of Bumiputeras did result in greater
numbers from that group becoming employed in white collar jobs.
Many of them entered the professions or rose to become managers and
supervisors, creating a substantial urban middle class. Many in this
new, comfortable class believed they owed their rise to the generosity
of the UMNO and responded with increased support for Dr Mahathir.
Closer analysis of the distribution of income as a result of the NEP
reveals that although the number of people on the poverty line
decreased (there were fewer living in absolute poverty) the gap
between rich and poor remained and was, in fact, widening.
The divide was most marked between very rich and very poor
Malays, so that the possibility of serious divisions within the Malay community was very strong. The UMNO tacticians realised that any split in
the Malay vote could spell disaster for the UMNO and therefore for the
ruling coalition, the National Front. In the mid-1970s, when students
and others demonstrated against the policies of the National Front on
behalf of the very poor, their leaders were detained without trial under
the Internal Security Act (some for up to seven years). One of the
detainees was Anwar Ibrahim, the fiery leader of the Islamic youth
movement, ABIM. Malay authors and poets composed works which, in
quite dramatic terms, conveyed the tensions they perceived between the
haves and have-nots from the mid-1970s onwards. As a barometer of
tensions in Malay society, the best of Malay fiction is a remarkably
reliable guide.
The success of the NEP was based on state intervention in the
corporate business sector. The implementation of this strategy was
accomplished by government ministers and senior bureaucrats in a way
which made them central to the process and gave them privileged
access to sources of funding. As a result, patronage and factionalism
flourished. Two groups of Malaysians who felt disaffected towards the
National Front’s social and economic policies were the Orang Asli,
who remained on the margins of Malaysian society, and the Kadazans
and other native peoples of Sabah, who, for a brief period in the 1980s,
succeeded in asserting Sabah’s interests over those of the federal
government in Kuala Lumpur.
The Orang Asli
The majority of Malaysians find it difficult to acknowledge that their
‘Original Peoples’ (the Orang Asli) are also their true indigenous people
who occupied the Malay Peninsula long before other peoples. When
Prime Minister Mahathir, for example, uses the phrase ‘the indigenous
people’ in his speeches he is referring to the Malays rather than the
Orang Asli. Theoretically, and according to the Constitution, the
Malays, the Orang Asli and the native inhabitants of Sabah and Sarawak
are all equally ‘indigenous’. However, in practice, it is the Malays and
some of the native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak who benefit from the
special economic advantages which the NEP provides for Bumiputeras.
It was the need to win their support during the period of the Emergency which led to more sustained bureaucratic contact with various
Orang Asli peoples. The Department of Aborigines was set up in 1950
and after Independence became known by its Malay name of JHEOA
(Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli: Department of Orang Asli Affairs). The
low status officially accorded the JHEOA is indicated by the fact that it
is not a full ministry, but a department whose affiliation has changed
nine times since 1955. Its director-general has always been a Malay.
Since 1961, the JHEOA has had almost total control over all
matters concerning the Orang Asli groups who live in peninsular
Malaysia. It has been responsible for matters as diverse as bureaucratic
procedures (the appointment of headmen, for example), health and
education services, and having the legal right to represent the Orang
Asli and determine their interests. As might be expected, it is the
JHEOA which represents the Orang Asli in the majority of legal cases
involving claims to traditional territories, claims which are most often
made by ‘developers’. Most of the cases are decided without reference
to the Orang Asli and in favour of the outside parties. The attitude of
the JHEOA has united the Orang Asli in their criticism of its policies
and practices and has led to the establishment of the Peninsular
Malaysia Orang Asli Association (Persatuan Orang Asli Semenanjung
Malaysia or POASM). By the year 2000, POASM’s membership had
grown to over 17 000 and membership was not restricted to Orang Asli
but open to all Bumiputeras interested in supporting the Orang Asli.
In broad terms, POASM concerns centre round two broad issues:
attempts to assimilate the Orang Asli and land rights.
In 1997, it was estimated that the peninsular Orang Asli population
was 106 131 or only 0.5 per cent of the national population of
Malaysia. Recent surveys of all Orang Asli groups indicate that many
now live near towns and settlements with less than half of their total
population living near or in forested land. This reflects also the fact
that Malaysia’s jungle areas are diminishing.
The government’s attitude to integration affects all Orang Asli
because of the economic and social implications for them. For the sake
of their own well-being, the government argues, the Orang Asli must
be drawn into the economic network of the modern state. In response
to this, the Orang Asli emphasise that they have been integrated into
regional commercial networks since pre-modern times. Most Orang
Asli living in contemporary Malaysia want to be part of modern economic life but on their own terms. They take particular exception to
the official policy of social integration. The government believes that
social integration is best achieved by Orang Asli adopting a ‘Malay’
lifestyle of settled living (in government-built housing) with conversion to Islam being an essential element. If this path is chosen, the
government urges, the Orang Asli would enjoy all the benefits and
privileges available to Malays. In 1990, the then director-general of
the JHEOA considered the best future for the Orang Asli would be as
an Islamised subgroup of the Malays. Some Orang Asli have converted
to Islam but the majority have not and resent the persistent attempts
(some performed by well-meaning Malays, others by political groups
with less honourable motives) to convert them to Islam.
The increasing membership of the POASM has added strength
and confidence to those Orang Asli who feel motivated to challenge
government policies which affect them. As the quotations at the
beginning of this chapter show, there is an emerging sense of cohesion
among not only various groups of the Orang Asli, but also with any
group disadvantaged by government land programs.
Land rights
The link between the Orang Asli and their traditional use of land is an
essential part of their identity. Their traditional environment meets
most of their economic needs and is the source of their spiritual life.
Many supporters of the Orang Asli argue that the Malaysian government’s policies for the Orang Asli are aimed at removing them from
their traditional environments through resettlement schemes and
denying them control over their traditional territories. The aim of
these policies is to integrate the Orang Asli into mainstream Malay
culture by severing their connection with their land.
Control over land in Malaysia rests with the individual member
states of the Federation of Malaysia. Each has the power to designate
land for the exclusive use of traditional peoples but they are not compelled to do this. The states also have the power to resume and sell
land so-declared and compensate the traditional users only for any
planted trees (for example, fruit and rubber). The Orang Asli have no
rights to the title of their lands and thus no sense of security. In the
past, the state governments have resumed traditional lands for a
number of ‘development’ purposes: land schemes (for Malays), roads,
plantation industries, logging, public buildings, airports, mines, golf-courses and dams. A recent judicial decision, in favour of traditional
land use, has created an encouraging precedent for land rights claims
made on behalf of Orang Asli groups.
In 1993, the Johor state government made an agreement with
Singapore to build a dam to supply water to both Johor and Singapore.
The Johor section of the JHEOA argued that this would not affect the
Jakun people of the area because they did not depend on access to the
land for their livelihood. The Jakuns (who numbered 225) complained
that they were being denied access to their lands which they used as
sources of income. They claimed compensation for loss of traditional
rights and were offered US$147 300. The amount which Singapore
paid to the Johor state government for the dam was US$84.2 million
and, after learning this, the Jakuns refused the initial compensation
offer and took the matter to court. A judgement was given in the High
Court of Johor in late 1996 in favour of the Jakuns and granting them
US$7 million in compensation for loss of income over 25 years. The
judgement was appealed at both the state and federal levels, but the
decision was upheld. Since the Jakuns’ success, the High Court in
Sabah and Sarawak has upheld the principle established in the Johor
judgement, that customary rights over land are recognised by common
law. It remains to be seen how the compensation payment to the
Jakuns will be made and whether this will encourage further claims
which may challenge the federal government’s development policies
and its attitude to indigenous people’s land rights.
The politics of survival
Many Orang Asli leaders believe that full participation in Malaysian
life would improve the position of their people. This is not possible,
they argue, while they are administered by the JHEOA which treats
them as a special category in Malaysian society and cannot provide the
standard of housing, health and education services which other
Malaysians enjoy. After Prime Minister Mahathir’s ‘Vision 2020’
policy was announced in 1990, they responded with their own plan for
Orang Asli development within that Vision. Their first concern was
that the Constitution be amended so that the special privileges
accorded Malays and native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak be given
also to the Orang Asli. If this were done, if the rights to their lands were
recognised and their traditional customs included as part of the
national culture (as is done for the indigenous peoples of Sabah and
Sarawak), many Orang Asli believe their people would be empowered
to take their place as a respected group in the nation.
On the other hand, the government has argued that if the Orang
Asli claims were to be recognised it would impede the ‘development’
of some of Malaysia’s natural resources and curtail the economic benefits which have flowed to private hands from plantation, logging,
mining and building on traditional lands. The contest, as the Orang
Asli and their supporters argue, is not only for control of land and
natural resources, but for the right of the Orang Asli to be recognised
as a group of peoples whose culture and identity is indigenous to
Malaysia but distinct from that of the Malays.
Politics on the edge: Sabah’s Kadazans
In Sabah and Sarawak, unlike peninsular Malaysia, native peoples are
in the majority and numerically large populations, like the Ibans, have
the right to own land. Minority native peoples, such as the Rungus of
Sabah and the Penans of Sarawak, have more difficulty maintaining
their rights in the face of pressure from multinational logging companies. The complexities which can arise when local, national and
international interests are at stake are illustrated in the political
upheavals which Sabah experienced during the 1970s and 80s.
During the 1950s, Donald Stephens and others tried to promote
a sense of Kadazan identity among the non-Muslim peoples of Sabah.
The Kadazans are the largest indigenous group in Sabah, are mostly
Christian, and represent about 28 per cent of the total population.
At the time of federation in 1963, the Kadazans insisted that Islam,
the religion of Malaysia, would not apply to Sabah. When Stephens
was forced to resign as first chief minister because of his frequent
clashes with the federal government, he was replaced by Mustapha
bin Harun. Mustapha, a Muslim descended from the Sulus of the
southern Philippines, began his working life as a house boy for officers of the British North Borneo Company but during the war joined
Filipino guerilla forces to resist the Japanese. During the 1950s, he
was a member of the Sabah Legislative Council and, in 1961, became
founder and leader of the United Sabah National Organisation
(USNO). When he became chief minister he governed with a Sabah
Chinese–Muslim alliance.
Mustapha’s Sabah alliance was initially supported by the federal
government which, following the race riots of 1969, was promoting
national unity through inter-ethnic cooperation. However, Mustapha’s
style of government—using revenues and concessions to reward his supporters, conducting an aggressive campaign of Islamising Sabah’s native
peoples and declaring Islam the official religion of Sabah in 1973—
resulted in attempts to force him out of office. These were stepped up
when Mustapha not only gave open support to the Muslim separatists
in the southern Philippines but also threatened to take Sabah out of the
federation. Tun Razak, then prime minister, encouraged the formation
of a new, multiethnic political party under Stephens, known as Berjaya
(Bersatu Rakyat Jelata Sabah, Sabah United People’s Party) which had
Kadazan, Malay and Chinese support. The first of Sabah’s changes of
government was poised to occur.
At the 1976 elections, Berjaya swept to office but Stephens and
some of his cabinet were killed only three months later in a plane
crash. Stephens was succeeded as chief minister by Harris Salleh, a
Malay-Pakistani, who resumed many of Mustapha’s policies—Islamisation and political patronage through access to revenues from natural
resources. Harris’s period in office coincided with the first fruits of the
NEP in the form of greater participation by Bumiputeras in businesses,
banks and development projects. In 1982, however, a world recession
affected revenues derived from natural resources and Sabah’s rural
population, particularly the Kadazans and other native groups, were
hard-hit. Their feeling of dissatisfaction with the corruption evident in
Berjaya was exacerbated by Harris’s pro-Muslim (pro-Malay) policies.
From the early 1980s there had been a Kadazan cultural revival,
with educated, mainly urban Kadazans wanting to know more about
their traditional culture. As part of this, they revived older ceremonies
such as the annual Kadazan harvest festival. Linked with this was
renewed interest in a position known as ‘paramount chief of the
Kadazan’ and in 1984, a Catholic lawyer called Joseph Pairin Kitingan,
who had entered politics to join Berjaya in the 1970s, was installed as
chief. Just before the 1985 elections, a new Kadazan-based party was
formed led by Kitingan. Named the PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah, United
Sabah Party) it attracted not only a Kadazan (Christian) following but
also many Chinese and it defeated the Berjaya party.
Prime Minister Mahathir had not welcomed the formation of
PBS and did not invite it to join the ruling National Front. Former
Chief Minister Mustapha had not disappeared from the political scene
and after the PBS victory used his vast reserves of wealth to encourage
opposition to Kitingan, even assisting the entry to Sabah of thousands
of Muslim migrants from the southern Philippines to boost the Muslim
vote. However, when PBS was again successful in the 1986 elections,
Mahathir relented and PBS was admitted to the National Front. The
arrangement did not last and, in 1990, when an alternative alliance at
the federal level appeared, at the eleventh hour Kitingan took PBS
into an opposition coalition with an UMNO dissident, Tengku
Razaleigh of Kelantan. The prime minister retaliated by withholding
federal development funding from Sabah, charging Kitingan with corruption, and using the ISA to arrest his brother and several other close
colleagues. Dr Mahathir also encouraged the establishment of a branch
of the UMNO in Sabah, thus entering into direct competition with
the existing pro-Muslim party for the Malay–Muslim vote.
During the early 1990s, tension within Sabah increased as federal
pressure against Kitingan mounted. The rapid increase in migrants
from the Philippines was resented by large numbers of indigenous
Sabahans who regarded them as a drain on the state’s welfare
resources. When their numbers swelled to half a million, they were
seen as a threat to the position of Sabahans in their own land. During
the same period, Indonesians, particularly from eastern Indonesia,
began working in Sabah as temporary migrants but most did not settle
permanently with their families as the Muslims from the Philippines
had done. The influx of immigrants, the majority of whom were
Muslim, presented a challenge to the Sino-Kadazan National Front. In
1994, PBS won the elections narrowly but failed to govern when some
of its members defected to join an UMNO-led coalition. Kitingan lost
his position as chief minister and since 1994 Sabah has been ruled by
an UMNO-backed alliance.
Political activity in Sabah during the 1980s highlights the special context of the Borneo territories. In Sabah and Sarawak the indigenous (Bumiputera) population contrasts with the Bumiputeras of the Peninsula because the former are not all Muslims. They may not, therefore, be attracted to the Malay-dominated policies of the UMNO. For the federal government to maintain influence in Sabah and Sarawak, it has to work with local parties to convince voters (by favourable policies or by patronage) that they should support the National Front. The federal government holds the winning card of oil and gas revenues. Although Sabah and Sarawak produce about one third of Malaysia’s oil and gas, they receive back only 5 per cent of the royalties derived from those resources. Petronas, the federal government’s corporation to develop and exploit oil and gas in Malaysia, takes the lion’s share of profits from east Malaysia’s oil and gas resources and this income has been used to finance massive projects on the Peninsula.
Religion and social change: Islamic renewal In peninsular Malaysia the administration of Islam was conducted through a religious bureaucracy which had close links with the sultan of each Malay kingdom. By the early 20th century, British colonial policy had succeeded in restricting the sultan’s official activities to those matters concerned with religion and traditional custom so that Islam became rather disconnected from mainstream political activity.
This changed in the 1950s with the formation of the Islamic party PAS. The heartlands of PAS support were the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu where it enjoyed considerable success in the late 1960s and 70s. However, when PAS agreed to join the ruling National Front in the mid 1970s, it lost much of its earlier momentum. Coincidentally, it was at this time that new energy was being injected into Islam by young Malays who, benefitting from the policies of the NEP, were entering senior secondary and tertiary education in far larger numbers. As well, the industrialising policies of the NEP needed thousands of workers to operate machines and to assemble components for the foreign-owned industries being encouraged by the government to establish off-shore branches in Malaysia in specially developed Free Trade Zones. Young men and women left their villages to work and study in urban centres. Some left for study outside Malaysia (in the Middle East, Europe, Australia and America), and small groups of these overseas Malay students established organisations for mutual help and support.
In global terms, the 1970s was a period of intensified Islamic activity, the rise of the Middle East in world politics (linked with the Arab–Israeli conflict and the rise in oil prices) and the revolution in Iran, which brought an exiled Muslim scholar, the Ayatollah Khomeini, to political power. Malay students, at home and abroad, became aware of the international profile of Islam and aware that Islam could play a much greater role in their own personal and national lives. This stimulated what became known in Malaysia as the dakwah movement.
The Arabic word dakwah means ‘to call’ or ‘invite’. In Malaysia, it became the term to describe two kinds of Muslim activity—first, encouraging individual Muslims to intensify their devotion to Islam and second, persuading non-Muslims to convert to Islam.
There has been a tendency by non-Muslims to gloss all dakwah activities with the term ‘Islamic resurgence’ or, more inaccurately as ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. It is important to understand that dakwah activities in Malaysia were (and remain) various, not restricted to PAS, are rarely extreme in their aims and behaviour, and are usually motivated by the desire to implement Islamic ideals in daily life. A somewhat unusual example of a dakwah program is the JHEOA-sponsored efforts to induce Orang Asli to convert to Islam. The aim of these efforts had several purposes: to offer the spiritual benefits of a ‘true’ religion, to integrate Orang Asli into a Malay way of life and to bring them into the political orbit of the UMNO. Those who converted to Islam were rewarded with improved living conditions and/or cash payments. In Kelantan and Terengganu, PAS was also active in dakwah programs for Orang Asli in those states.
One of the groups best known for its efforts to expand Islamic activities is ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement), established by students of the University of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur) in 1971. The group’s motto was ‘toward building a society that is based on the principles of Islam’ and it provided support for graduates to implement Islamic principles in the community after they left the university. It also supported a school to help educate those who could not afford to further their education and it coordinated the dakwah activities of a number of Muslim youth groups. One of the founders of ABIM, Anwar Ibrahim, was destined to become an international name in the 1990s.
Anwar Ibrahim Born in 1947, Anwar studied at Malay College, Kuala Kangsar between 1960 and 1966 where he was school captain. He was studying at the University of Malaya at the time of the 1969 riots and supported the formation of ABIM because he believed in vapplying Islamic principles to everyday life. The members of ABIM urged Malays to see Islam as guide for life, not limited to the observance of its prescribed rituals.
Despite being urged by Prime Minister Tun Razak and others to enter politics, Anwar spent the 1970s as principal of the private school ABIM had founded and as an activist for Muslim and other youth organisations. During his period as president of ABIM he was an articulate critic of government policies and in 1974 he was arrested under the ISA and detained for two years without trial. In 1981, when Dr Mahathir became prime minister, he urged Anwar to join the UMNO and stand for election. To the surprise of many of his followers, Anwar agreed and campaigned for a seat in his home region of Penang. He was successful and entered Parliament in 1982 as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (for Islamic affairs) to be followed by rapid promotions through several ministries until, in 1993, he was both minister for finance and deputy prime minister. Many who had followed Anwar because he was a trenchant critic of the National Front were shocked when he seemed to change sides.
Some believed Dr Mahathir had wooed Anwar so that the constituency of ardent young Muslims who supported him would also join the UMNO. From the beginning of his prime ministership, Dr Mahathir had pursued a policy of identifying ‘moderate’ elements in he dakwah movement and incorporating them into government programs. In this way, the government contributed funding towards the establishment of an Islamic bank, an International Islamic University and an Islamic insurance company, supported the establishment of Islamic think-tanks and introduced compulsory courses on Islamic civilisation into university degrees. Anwar’s supporters claimed that he had been instrumental in increasing the government’s attention to Islam. Both Anwar and Dr Mahathir claimed that they were seeking to apply the universal values of Islam such as social justice, self-discipline, humanitarianism and ethics to all areas of government.
Anwar believed that Muslims should be contributing to the shaping of a new world by reasserting the universalism of Islam, ‘its values of justice, compassion and tolerance’.2 This understanding of Islam has been termed ‘moderate Islam’ and is understood by both Malaysians and non-Malaysians to mean the promotion of Islamic principles which support modernisation and humanistic values, and which are tolerant of diversity and of other religions. ‘Moderate Islam’ has an established history in Malaysia through the writings and work of innovators such as Syed Shaykh al-Hady, in the early 20th century.
Dr Mahathir has contrasted ‘moderate Islam’ with ‘radical Islam’, that is, the expression of Islam which is more literal in its interpretation of the Qur’an and more aggressive in its desire to persuade others to its views. During the 1980s, several Muslim organisations in Malaysia tried to implement as literally as possible the injunctions of Islam (including Islamic law). They attracted considerable public attention because of their Middle-Eastern style of dress, their practice of polygamy and the fact that many of their adherents were highly educated Malays, employed in important positions. The best known of these organisations was the Darul Arqam movement founded in 1968 as a study group for Muslims wanting to deepen their knowledge of Islam. Taking its name from one of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, it then developed into an attempt to recreate Muslim life as it had been during his lifetime. Darul Arqam established its own villages, cooperative business ventures and independent education system, so that it, in fact, offered a real alternative to both the government and to PAS. By the early 1990s, it claimed to have over 10 000 members and business assets worth over MR$300 million. With an educated, committed, highly organised and successful membership, Darul Arqam was thriving and gaining an increasingly high profile. Dr Mahathir responded by accusing it of deviating from the fundamental principles of Islam (a very serious allegation) and in 1994 the movement was officially banned and declared an illegal organisation.
Over the years of his term in office, Dr Mahathir has labelled as ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ Muslim groups which oppose the policies of his government. He has argued that ‘radical Islam’ is hostile to technological development, discriminates against non-Muslims and is a threat to Malaysia’s racial harmony and the stability of the nation. On those grounds he has used the ISA to detain Muslim leaders and activists.
He has specifically accused PAS of promoting ‘radical Islam’, of being hostile to non-Muslims and against rapid modernisation as promoted by his government.
Dr Mahathir’s criticisms of PAS grew in direct proportion to its electoral successes. After the riots of 1969, PAS agreed to join the National Front to assist national unity but with the increasing profile of international Islam from the mid-1970s, some of the younger members of PAS became dissatisfied with the party’s politics of accommodation. As a result, in 1978, PAS withdrew from the National Front which responded by declaring a State of Emergency in Kelantan, dismissing the elected government and calling a snap election.
Employing tactics such as draconian censorship measures (including a ban on public rallies), the National Front roundly defeated PAS in its traditional heartlands and a group of PAS’s younger members, most of whom had degrees from Middle Eastern universities, took over leadership positions. The best known of these ‘young Turks’ (as they were called) became long-term leaders of PAS: Haji Fadzil Noor, Haji Nik Abdul Aziz (Kelantan) and Haji Abdul Hadi Awang (Terengganu).
In the mid-1980s, they began a campaign to present PAS as the party which fought to protect the poor and oppressed and uphold justice.
In this way, PAS aligned itself with social justice and criticised the NEP as being racially oriented and against the teachings of Islam that all are equal. Viewed by many as an attempt to win Chinese support for PAS, any gains from this policy have to be set against the criticism that PAS supports the implementation of Islamic law and the establishment of an Islamic state.
Dr Mahathir has exploited the feeling of ‘threat’ which many Malaysians (particularly non-Muslims but also middle-class ‘moderate’ Malays) feel a PAS-dominated government would pose if it were elected to take power at the federal level. In the general elections of 1999, PAS won an overwhelming majority in Kelantan and Terengganu and formed government in those states. An analysis of voting support for the UMNO revealed that it had lost half the Malay vote and, for the first time in its history, had had to rely heavily on support from Chinese and Indian voters. While commentators in Malaysia believe that the Malay desertion of the UMNO was a protest against the treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Mahathir presented the swing against him as a move towards support for ‘Islamic radicalism’. He stressed that the UMNO would not embrace a more extreme form of Islam to recapture electorates lost to PAS.
The acts of terrorism conducted by extremists in the United States in September 2001 are alleged to have been perpetrated by Muslims in the name of Islam. Dr Mahathir used this as an opportunity to step-up government pressure on Muslim activists in PAS and other Malaysian organisations and to detain them under the ISA. He continued to present the UMNO’s programs for Islam as the only way to foster development and prosperity in Malaysia. The leaders of PAS continued to negotiate their political agenda with various groups within the party, which range from hardliners (who insist on a literal and narrow interpretation of the Qur’an) to pious, ‘ordinary’ Malays, and younger, tertiary-educated and IT-literate middle-class professionals. To gain increased support, PAS would need to convince all Malaysians that their rights and beliefs would be protected and respected under a PAS-led federal government. They are far from securing that credibility and many Malaysians fear that if PAS insisted on the implementation of Islamic law it would seriously inhibit their established lifestyles.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad
Dr Mahathir’s exceptionally long period in office must be ascribed in large measure to his control of power and his personal style which he has developed as a composite image of closeness to ordinary Malaysians, to high flying business entrepreneurs and to Malay nationalists. He has achieved this through a rhetoric which emphasises Malaysia’s achievements and aspirations in both national and international contexts, and by projecting a public image of charm and charisma. This image gained him the respect of many Malaysians and even gave him the status to challenge the traditional authority of the Malay sultans. Dr Mahathir, it can be argued, has taken key elements from traditional ideas about ‘power’ in Malay society and used them in a contemporary context to maintain power for himself and the UMNO.
Mahathir Mohamad was born in Kedah in 1925, where his father was a teacher in the first government English school in 1908. His father remained with the school which later became the Sultan Hamid
College, as its first headmaster. Mahathir’s own schooling was interrupted by the Japanese Occupation, during which he helped run a small market stall. After the war, he completed his schooling, joined the UMNO early in its life, and moved to Singapore in the late 1940s to study Medicine. Unlike Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn, he did not go to Britain for his tertiary education, nor was he from the traditional Malay ruling class.
By 1953, he had returned to Kedah and in 1957 established the first private medical clinic to be run by a Malay doctor. Here, he gained a reputation for his kindness and concern for poorer Malay patients and when elected to Parliament in 1964, championed the rights of Malays. Mahathir was defeated in the 1969 general elections by a PAS candidate, the well-known Muslim scholar Haji Yusof Rawa.
Mahathir’s criticism of Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman led to his expulsion from the UMNO but, undeterred, Mahathir developed his ideas about the social and economic condition of the Malays and in 1970, published them in a book entitled The Malay Dilemma.
Under Tun Razak’s leadership of the UMNO, Mahathir was restored to the party and in 1974 was appointed minister of education, followed in 1976 by promotion to deputy prime minister when Hussein Onn succeeded Tun Razak. In 1978, Mahathir took over the ministry of trade and industry and initiated his policies for increasing the pace and quality of Malaysia’s industrialisation (as he would later promote high technology). His determination that Malaysia would have its own car, the Proton Saga, is a telling example of his philosophy. What mattered to him was not so much the vehicle but rather the technology and know-how it would bring to Malaysia and the role that would play in enriching the knowledge and experience of those involved in its production. He was also well aware of the boost to morale which a ‘national car’ would provide for all Malaysians.
In 1981, Mahathir succeeded Hussein Onn as prime minister and leader of the UMNO, a position he still holds at the time of writing (2002). The early years of Mahathir’s national leadership were characterised by his clash with the sultans, the symbols of Malay traditional authority and a series of serious financial scandals involving key figures in his government. It was largely his personal political skills which resulted in impressive Malay support for the UMNO in the general elections of 1986 although a substantial number of Chinese voters deserted the MCA, UMNO’s alliance partner, and supported the opposition parties, Gerakan and DAP.
Despite the UMNO’s electoral success under Mahathir, the Kelantan politician Tengku Razaleigh, together with Musa Hitam, decided to mount leadership challenge at the UMNO General Assembly of 1987. Although supported by members of the UMNO who were dismayed by the preceding years of scandals, cronyism and mismanagement, they lost narrowly to Dr Mahathir and all UMNO members who had been aligned with Razaleigh and Musa were excluded from positions in the next Mahathir cabinet. Malay concepts of loyalty demanded absolute support for the leader and Mahathir indicated he would not tolerate criticism or opposition in his ranks.
The internal divisions within the UMNO reflected a wider dissatisfaction with the government’s performance and when social rights campaigners voiced their concerns, and Chinese protests about government interference in Chinese schools became stronger, Dr Mahathir responded by invoking the Internal Security Act. In a widespread campaign known as Operation Lalang (the name of a hardy grass species which, if unchecked, becomes difficult to eradicate) people were detained, among them leading opposition politicians, academics, conservationists and Chandra Muzaffar, leader of a prominent social justice movement. While most of those arrested were released after several months’ detention, some were held for well over one year.
Dr Mahathir’s use of the ISA was seen by critics of the government as an abuse of its powers and prompted some members of the judiciary to question the propriety of using the law in this way. Dr Mahathir responded by limiting the role of the judiciary.
Mahathir’s vision for Malaysia Dr Mahathir’s political philosophy was developed in his first decade in politics (although he had begun formulating it while a medical student in the late 1940s). Two decades later, he stated that he still held to that philosophy, as set out in his two books, The Malay Dilemma (1970) and The Challenge (1976). In The Malay Dilemma, he claims that the Malay sense of being overtaken by non-Malays (especially in the areas of education and commerce) in ‘their own land’ was the root cause of their ‘dilemma’. He believed that only a policy of ‘constructive protection’ through special state-sponsored programs would succeed in ‘rehabilitating’ the Malays. In The Challenge he is critical of those traditional values in Malay culture which discourage competition and material success and urges the strengthening of values, such as self-discipline and a thirst for knowledge, which foster economic advancement. He notes that many of those values are also promoted by Islam and these, he says, should be practised by the Malays.
In 1991, the final phase of Dr Mahathir’s vision for Malaysia’s future was announced in a speech to the newly-established Malaysian Business Council entitled ‘Malaysia: The Way Forward’. The program he outlined became known as ‘Vision 2020’, a 30-year plan to replace the NEP and designed to make Malaysia a fully developed nation by the year 2020. In Vision 2020, the NEP emphasis on advancing the Bumiputeras was broadened to encompass all Malaysians. The aim was to create a united Malaysia with a ‘Malaysian race’ living in prosperity and harmony under a system of Malaysian democracy in a society which valued knowledge, economic success and dynamism, and which was inspired by values of tolerance and compassion.
Although Vision 2020 is a vision for all Malaysians, Dr Mahathir maintained his long-standing concern for the Malays as the definitive people of Malaysia and promoted the term ‘the New Malay’ (Melayu Baru) to describe the kind of Malay who would implement the new program. Skilled in high technology, the New Malay would be creative in business, confident in the international world and capable of leading Malaysia successfully into the 21st century. He did not describe Chinese or Indians in these terms nor did he make any reference to the Orang Asli.
Dr Mahathir’s Vision 2020 also reaffirmed his views on Malaysia’s place in world affairs which he expressed in terms which would appeal to his domestic constituency. During his early years as prime minister, he continued Tun Razak’s policy of non-alignment (although Malaysia remained a member of the Commonwealth) and also continued the links established by Tun Razak with the Middle East and the Organisation of Islamic Conference, as well as with ASEAN. However, his special contribution to Malaysia’s global orientation was an open admiration for the achievements of Japan and South Korea which he expressed in his ‘Look East’ policy of 1981. He was strident in his criticism of Britain and other developed nations for their exploitation of their former colonies and their post-colonial demands that underdeveloped nations should comply with policies such as environmental conservation which, he argued, hindered Third World development.
Dr Mahathir’s articulate and confident speeches to international audiences raised Malaysia’s profile and he established a reputation as a
leading spokesperson for issues concerning the Third World, not only
in the ASEAN region but also for many African nations.
The limits of power: the sultans and the judiciary In 1983, Malaysia faced a constitutional crisis which resulted from the National Front’s attempts to define more strictly the limits to royal authority. In the view of Dr Mahathir’s government, the concept of royal power in traditional Malay society (a supernatural force which gives the sultan unique personal powers) was not appropriate for the workings of a constitutional democracy. As well, each of the state sultans was very wealthy, maintained extravagant lifestyles and, by using their patronage, gained controlling interests in businesses and state corporations. To ensure that the power of the king of Malaysia (Yang Dipertuan Agong, one of the hereditary state sultans chosen every five years by his fellow sultans) would not over-ride that of the Parliament, legislation was introduced to amend the Constitution. The amendment, to have effect at both federal and state levels, stated that if the king’s assent to Bills were not forthcoming the Bills would automatically become law. After consultation with his fellow rulers, whose powers at the state level were also under threat, the king refused his assent. As a result, between October and December 1983 there was a legal impasse between the king and the government and large-scale public rallies were organised in support of each side. A compromise was reached in December which saved face for all involved but Dr Mahathir’s warning to the sultans was clear. The issue re-emerged in 1993, when an act of assault by one of the sultans prompted the passing of a constitutional amendment to limit legal immunity for the sultans and their power to grant pardons.
Dr Mahathir’s views on the outmoded nature of feudal authority in Malay society had been expressed clearly in The Malay Dilemma and the legislation to curb the powers of the sultans was designed to recognise that power resided with Parliament (and the people) rather than with hereditary rulers. These actions suggested that Dr Mahathir and the National Front respected and supported the constitutional framework of the state and its mechanisms for protecting due process.
In 1988, however, Dr Mahathir advised the king to suspend the head of the judiciary, who, together with two Supreme Court judges, was later dismissed. The dismissals came after several legal judgements in 1986 and 1987 which had not pleased the government. There had been earlier indications of Dr Mahathir’s displeasure with the judiciary: several lawyers had been detained under Operation Lalang and in a parliamentary speech in December 1987, he had claimed that the judiciary was interpreting the law in a way which undermined the authority of Parliament.
Closely linked with Dr Mahathir’s attitude to the judiciary was a challenge to the legality of the UMNO as a political party. In 1987, Dr Mahathir had been challenged as leader of the UMNO by Tengku Razaleigh. When Dr Mahathir narrowly won the leadership ballot, Tengku Razaleigh brought the legality of the election before the courts and, in February 1988, they ruled that because of certain irregularities in its structure, the UMNO was an illegal organisation which had to be dissolved. This precipitated what became known as ‘the UMNO crisis’. Dr Mahathir reacted quickly and formed a new party, the New UMNO (UMNO Baru) and initiated a major publicity strategy known as the SEMARAK (Setia Bersama Rakyat, Loyalty with the People) campaign, to attract members to the party and consolidate his position as its leader.
The ruling declaring the UMNO an ‘illegal’ organisation (because some of its branches were not registered) was cited by the UMNO as proof of the judiciary’s independence. It was also precisely the outcome needed by Dr Mahathir to prevent Tengku Razaleigh’s supporters increasing their position within the old UMNO. However, there were signs that future rulings would not always be in the UMNO’s interests and shortly afterwards, in March 1988, constitutional amendments were passed so that judicial power was restricted by executive control. It was the concern and the protests by individual judges which led to their eventual dismissal. The treatment of these judges was strongly criticised by the international legal community.
International bodies of jurists continue to monitor the treatment of the judiciary in Malaysia. Since the dismissals there has also been international concern expressed about some judicial appointments and controversial judgements.
Patronage under pressure: the 1997 financial crisis The SEMARAK campaign, to publicise and attract members to Dr Mahathir’s New UMNO party, was executed through a series of
mass public rallies, each addressed by Dr Mahathir, lavishly funded by federal and state money and symbolised by the 76-metre Semarak Tower (costing MR$1.5 million, paid for by the federal government).
Civil servants were involved in organising the rallies to ensure there was a huge turn-out of admiring Malays. In his speeches, Dr Mahathir continually stressed the need for Malay unity and support for his government so that it could continue to work for the prosperity and welfare of all. As well, Dr Mahathir ensured that the press and public media gave little or no coverage to his opponents, who were refused permission to hold public rallies.
Opposition groups, including those supporting Tengku Razaleigh, could not match the huge funding which the prime minister was able to call on to run his campaign. The execution of the SEMARAK campaign could be compared with the tactics of the Malay sultans from the Srivijaya and Melaka periods. Traditional rulers relied on attracting loyal followers and needed access to resources to reward and maintain them. Similar concepts of patronage and reward lay at the heart of the UMNO (and New UMNO) system which relied on the fruits of the NEP for access to sources of wealth. As a leading political scientist has noted:
The rapid expansion of the state’s role in business also placed vastly enhanced patronage resources in the hands of the government leaders who were able to consolidate their political power through the distribution of business opportunities to political supporters . . . Established non-Malay businesspeople became increasingly dependent on government patronage while a new class of dependent Malay businesspeople was created.
The National Front had ensured that the government controlled the key areas of the economy and within the cabinet different ministers had access to different state corporations and enterprises and so built their own networks of patronage. When the government was forced to curtail spending in the economic downturn of the early to mid-1980s, the slow-down flowed through to its dependent clients and some were faced with bankruptcy. The competition for linkages with successful ministers contributed to the leadership struggle within the UMNO and fuelled the UMNO crisis of 1987–88. The lavish spending of the SEMARAK campaign may have had the dual purpose of attracting mass support for the New UMNO as well as restoring confidence in the prime minister’s ability to tap into major funding resources.
A decade after the UMNO crisis, the economic collapse of 1997 which began in Asia but spread globally, again placed the UMNO networks of patronage under pressure. The fall of prominent Malay tycoons and rumours about the safety of state trust funds (especially the all-important civil service pension fund) increased public concern about corruption and mismanagement by senior members of the UMNO.
Competition within the UMNO for access to resources and for control of the party developed in a way which was reminiscent of 1987. Both Dr Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, as his deputy prime minister, announced that corruption would not be countenanced. During 1997, Anwar stood in for Dr Mahathir on several occasions and, when he called for cutbacks in government spending, it became clear that his handling of Malaysia’s response to the regional economic crisis and his views on who should be rescued contrasted with those of the prime minister. Anwar was also quoted as speaking out strongly in support of human rights and his views on democracy, civil society, ethics, Islam (as a religion of tolerance) and synergies between East and West, became widely available in 1996 when his book The Asian Renaissance was published.
At the UMNO General Assembly in June 1998, supporters of Anwar openly criticised the corruption and nepotism they claimed existed within the UMNO and their comments were perceived as an attack against the prime minister. Soon afterwards, a campaign against Anwar was revived through poison pen letters and accusations about his morals. On the basis of these allegations, on 2 September 1998, Dr Mahathir dismissed Anwar as deputy prime minister and finance minister and he was later expelled also from the UMNO. With the Commonwealth Games opening in Kuala Lumpur, further public action against Anwar was restrained and for a few weeks he was able to travel and address mass rallies of his supporters who were angry and stunned by his treatment. In response to the increasing signs of public hostility towards Dr Mahathir, Anwar was arrested, together with a number of his leading supporters, under the ISA on 20 September and taken into detention from which he has not been released at the time of writing (2002). The Malaysian Bar Council later issued statements about their concern over the manner of Anwar’s arrest, his subsequent assault while in police custody and the conduct of his trial. Many Malaysians described Anwar’s treatment in terms of the traditional epic, the Malay Annals. They referred to the social contract between the first Malay ruler and his chief in which the chief swore loyalty to the ruler who on his part agreed never to publicly humiliate the chief or his descendants. Dr Mahathir’s behaviour was seen as arbitrary and cruel and not worthy of a leader.
Many within Malaysia saw Anwar’s detention under the ISA as just one in a series of repressive measures taken by the government to silence influential critics. They predicted that the wave of mass demonstrations which occurred immediately after Anwar’s arrest would lead to a new public interest in the actions of the National Front and greater scrutiny of its policies and attitudes. They anticipated that the movement for reform (Reformasi) in Indonesia which was working for greater government transparency and accountability might be duplicated in Malaysia.
In an interview for the international weekly the Far Eastern Economic Review (October 24 1996) two years before the detention of Anwar, Dr Mahathir defended his use of the ISA. He is quoted as saying that the ‘multiracial, multireligious, multicultural and multilingual’ differences among Malaysians make open debate dangerous. He believes, ‘The threat is from the inside. So we’ve to be armed, so to speak. Not with guns but with the necessary laws to make sure the country remains stable.’ Political stability, he argued, is essential if Malaysia is to achieve the 7 per cent annual growth rate which will bring it to developed nation status by 2020. In his view, and in the view of many influential Malaysians, it is only an UMNO-led coalition which can guarantee the necessary degree of political stability for continued economic growth.
Alternative visions: Dr Wan Azizah Ismail After the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim, his wife, Dr Wan Azizah, became a symbol of the fight for reform in Malaysian politics. Many educated Malaysians were able to identify with her because she embodied the best of the modern world and the values Malays admired such as modesty and gentleness, combined with being the mother of six children. Dr Wan Azizah, in fact, represented all the qualities the NEP had been designed to foster in Malays and her successful career as a doctor, specialising in opthalmology, made her an excellent example of Dr Mahathir’s ‘New Malay’ (Melayu Baru). Since the 1980s, Malaysian women have held senior positions in the business world, civil service and the professions. Several have held cabinet rank but Wan Azizah was the first to head a political party.
Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was born in Singapore in 1952, the daughter of Dato Wan Ismail (originally from Palembang and of Arab descent) and Datin Mariah (of Korean descent). Wan Azizah’s father was a clinical psychologist who had worked during the later years of the Emergency as director of psychological warfare, and while he was studying in London, sent his daughter to stay with relatives in Kedah.
Wan Azizah was educated at St Nicholas Convent in Alor Setar and an elite college in Seremban before entering the University of Malaya to study Medicine. Almost immediately she was awarded a government scholarship (as part of the NEP) to study at the Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin. After six years in Dublin, Wan Azizah completed her medical degree and was awarded the MacNaughton-Jones gold medal for Obstetrics and Gynaecology by the Royal College. She returned to Kuala Lumpur in 1978 to complete her internship at the General Hospital before joining the University Hospital in Petaling Jaya in 1980, the year she married Anwar Ibrahim. In 1984, she qualified as a specialist in Opthalmology in Dublin and worked also as a lecturer in Opthalmology at the University of Malaya. When her husband was appointed deputy prime minister in 1994, Wan Azizah retired from her professional career and, besides raising her family, played an active role as patron for a wide range of medical and humanitarian organisations.
None of her training prepared Dr Wan Azizah for the role she would play after her husband’s detention. Anwar was arrested at home on 20 September 1998 by a large number of masked security officials.
Exactly one week later, two new opposition coalitions, the National Front for People’s Democracy (Gagasan Demokrasi Rakyat) led by Chua Tian Chang, and the Malaysian People’s Justice Movement (Gerakan Keadilan Rakyat Malaysia) led by PAS President Datuk Fadzil Noor, were formed to work for reform and justice. On 10 December 1998, a third coalition, the Movement for Social Justice (Pergerakan Keadilan Sosial) was announced, with Dr Wan Azizah as its president. The appearance of the three new social justice coalitions, prompted by the dismissal and arrest of Anwar, represented renewed efforts to work across the ethnic divide for social and political reform. Membership of the coalitions covered a broad spectrum of middle class Malaysians and included a wide range of nongovernment organisations and human rights groups.
In November 1998, Anwar Ibrahim was brought to trial on four charges of obstructing the course of justice. As the trial proceeded, the judge’s rulings raised grave concerns over his procedure and practice (for example, 25 days of evidence was ruled irrelevant and ten defence witnesses were excluded). In April 1999, Anwar was found guilty of all four charges and sentenced to six years imprisonment on each charge, to be served concurrently. In the same month, the Movement for Social Justice was registered as a political party called the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional or keADILan), led by Dr Wan Azizah and with Chandra Muzaffar as Deputy.
The tenth general elections of November 1999 provided opposition parties with their first chance to challenge the UMNO-led National Front. Calling itself the Alternative Front (Barisan Alternatif), four parties—PAS, the Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), the
socialist Malaysian People’s Party (PRM) and the National Justice Party—joined together to campaign for ‘a just and democratic Malaysia’. Dr Mahathir’s response was to play on nonMuslims’ fears of the spectre of an extremist Muslim government if PAS and its partners were voted in. Dr Mahathir warned voters repeatedly that support for the Alternative Front would be votes against religious freedom. This was countered by a strong statement from Anwar in prison, read by Dr Wan Azizah, that there would be no threats of violence or religious extremism if Dr Mahathir were voted out of office.
The results of the November 1999 general elections were the worst ever for the UMNO. It lost 22 seats, nine of which had been held by ministers or deputy ministers. According to some UMNO leaders, the party may have won less than 40 per cent of the vote. The National Front only retained office because non-Malay voters remained loyal to the government. For the first time in Malaysia’s history, Malay voters deserted the UMNO in large numbers and supported PAS and, to a lesser extent, the National Justice Party of Dr Wan Azizah. PAS more than doubled its number of federal seats and won a huge majority at the state level in both Kelantan and Terengganu. Dr Wan Azizah won a seat in Penang and four other members of her party were elected.
In August 2000, the verdict of Anwar’s second trial, for sodomy, was delivered and he was sentenced to a further nine years in gaol, making his term a total of 15 years. International and regional legal organisations expressed criticism of Malaysia’s judicial system. Within Malaysia, the government’s handling of Anwar’s trial and its treatment of alleged Muslim extremists lowered its credibility in the eyes of many of its citizens. Aware that the government controlled the public media, Malaysians turned to alternative sources for information on contemporary events. The official publication of PAS (Harakah) increased its circulation to 300 000, attracting government attention and restrictions on its publication. To avoid official censorship and restrictions, Malaysians developed hundreds of new websites, email networks and online sources of news and commentary, the most successful of which is which has attracted a huge response from Internet users. With at least two million Malaysians having access to the Internet, it is no longer possible for the government to control information or criticism of its policies. Alternative visions are available. Justice for all The ongoing movement for Reformasi which followed the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim proved that tens of thousands of Malaysians have
strong views about how their future could and should be shaped.
What is lacking are channels and networks to integrate the opinions of representatives of all Malaysia’s communities. Parliament under Dr Mahathir has not always fulfilled that role. The Orang Asli are just one group of Malaysians who feel they are not heard there. Although
each of the major political factions in Malaysia, the UMNO, PAS and keADILan, include the concept of ‘justice’ in their political platforms, they have not succeeded in achieving social justice for all their followers.
The results of the 1999 elections revealed deep fissures in the Malay community, reflected in the shift in Malay support from the UMNO to PAS and keADILan, and increased pressure for the UMNO to respond positively to its critics. The choices for the UMNO are not easy. If it tries to replace its networks of patronage with a merit-based and more inclusive system, it jeopardises its current base of support with Malay tycoons and the Malay upper class elite. If it continues to demonise PAS as a party of Muslim extremists, it may lose more credibility and more Malay votes. A major consequence for the UMNO of losing Malay support would be the loss of its dominant position in the ruling National Front and consequently its access to the national revenues which pay its backers and clients. It is this fear which has been behind the implementation of repressive and authoritarian measures against critics of the UMNO’s policies, including Anwar, leading members of PAS, journalists and academics.
The opposition parties face their own dilemmas. The coalition which came together as the Alternative Front to fight the 1999 elections has been seriously weakened by internal dissension and the loss of many of its key keADILan figures who were detained under the ISA in 2001. The diverse groups meeting under the umbrella of keADILan remain in the process of establishing their priorities, negotiating common ground and gaining experience in the tough world of Malaysian politics. They also face difficulties accepting the views of some of the more hardline members of PAS.
The major issues being debated in Malaysia as it enters the new millennium include affirmative action policies for Malays, reform of business and government practices, liberal democracy, conservative (literalist) Islam, militant (radical) Islam and moderate (tolerant) Islam. In the early 21st century each has persuasive and well-educated advocates, and even if they are subject to censorship and detention their followers can still maintain contact through various forms of information technology.
Like its regional neighbours, Malaysia is in a period of transition from a system of patronage politics to something else. Any future system will have to include at least a recognition of the values and ethics of the dominant religion, Islam, and this will have to be balanced by a more inclusive form of representation for all Malaysians.
In 1996, in an article for Time magazine, Anwar Ibrahim wrote: A plural, multi-religious society is living perpetually on the brink of catastrophe. Relations between Muslims and nonMuslims must be governed by moral and ethical considerations. The seeds of militancy are everywhere and each community must ensure that they will not germinate and multiply through discontent and alienation. So, participation and social justice is fundamental in Southeast Asia in the age of the nation-state . . . The challenge to Muslims and the people of other confessions is to effectively articulate their moral vision and intensify the search for common ethical ground.Anwar’s vision suggests a move from the traditional Malay concept of power (residing in one charismatic leader) to a position where deliberation, debate and consensus are used to find solutions and resolve disputes. This is the method traditionally used by Malaysia’s original peoples, the Orang Asli. Sadly, however, in the early 21st century their vision for their own future and that of Malaysia is rarely heard.
A sustainable future?
The policies of Dr Mahathir, in office for longer than the combined terms of his three predecessors, have committed Malaysia to an economic and social future which it will be difficult for his successors to change. His success in achieving consistently strong levels of growth has raised the expectations of the majority of Malaysians about the standard of living they can aspire to, even if that level is beyond the reach of some. As a Malaysian commentator has noted, ‘One of Mahathir’s signal triumphs was to have persuaded Malaysian society that “less politics” and “more economics”, “less democracy” and “greater stability” were the guarantees of continued prosperity.’5 The promised prosperity, however, has often been at the expense of the environment, sound financial practices and, last but not least, the land rights of the weakest groups in Malaysian society. The development of Sarawak provides examples of the some of the long-term effects of Dr Mahathir’s emphasis on growth at all costs. It indicates also the complex links between politics and economic practices, federal–state relations and environmental degradation.
Sarawak and Sabah joined the Federation of Malaysia on the understanding that the federal government would allocate special funding to develop these two states which were behind the Peninsula in services and basic infrastructure. What happened was the reverse. In the early 1970s, both states surrendered their rights to finds of oil and gas to the federal government (through Petronas) in return for 5 per cent of the revenues derived from those resources. Since then, the revenues derived by the federal government from oil and gas have far outstripped the flow of funding from the centre to Sarawak. One of the few state-based sources of income left to Sarawak was control over land, particularly for logging and development of plantation enterprises. To achieve this, the state government amended the Sarawak Land Code in 1996 so that it became possible to convert native customary rights to land to private ownership for plantation purposes.
The new Land Code contains provisions for traditional owners to contest the conversion of title, to be granted a 30 per cent interest in a plantation company if the deal proceeds successfully, and for the land to revert to native title after 60 years, but only after complex conditions are met. In fact, it became clear that ‘Most farmers had little knowledge of or control over the process followed by the companies, even though they would be substantive owners of a joint venture concern responsible for repayment of all loans and up-front expenses’.6 Although in the short term the Sarawak state government will receive some increase in revenues, the long-term costs may be irreversible. Land clearing necessary for plantation development not only increases erosion, leading to siltation of rivers, but also destroys the bio-diversity and delicate ecosystems for which Borneo has long been famous. In the context of global markets, the monoculture which characterises plantations (especially vast plantings of oil palm) precludes the diversity which can respond to changes in world demand. The plantations may be trapped into huge investments in products for which there is declining market interest. But, like the threat to the environment, the social costs for the traditional land owners may have the most serious repercussions. Unable to use their lands for their own purposes, the majority of the traditional owners have to seek employment elsewhere and almost inevitably move to towns and cities where they are forced to adopt a totally different way of life and often this is, in every sense, on the margins.
One alternative to this pattern would be for a new federal–state agreement over the distribution of the oil and gas revenues so that a greater percentage of profits were returned to states. Militating against this possibility is the fact that the UMNO and the Office of the Prime Minister are heavily dependent on oil and gas profits flowing to them through Petronas. The patronage politics of the major political parties, especially the UMNO, have become so entrenched that loss of revenue to the central government might cause its collapse. In addition, the Bumiputera corporations supported under the NEP remain over-dependent on government support. The extent of their dependence was revealed in the wake of the 1997 regional financial crisis when some failed and others survived only because they were subsidised by the government. In 1998, when the combination of poor financial management and economic crisis drove major Bumiputera enterprises to the wall, Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim reportedly thought that some of the weaker companies should be allowed to sink but was over-ruled by Dr Mahathir. Petronas falls under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister and thus it was Petronas funds which he drew on to rescue the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (a deal which involved a major purchase of tankers from a firm controlled by one of his sons), the Heavy Industries Corporation of Malaysia and the national automobile company, Proton. Petronas funds were also invested in Dr Mahathir’s prestige projects of the Petronas Twin Towers and Putrajaya, the new ‘smart city’ and centre of government. Political life as the UMNO knows it would not be
possible without income from Petronas.
During the early 1990s, Malaysia joined the ASEAN campaign to boost significantly the tourism industry in Southeast Asia. With the orang-utan as its symbol and with strong emphasis on its ‘unspoilt’ national parks and primal jungle, Malaysia’s Tourism Promotion Board has recorded annual rates of well over seven million visitors and tourism has become the third biggest foreign exchange earner. Charter flights and special packages bring large groups to Sabah and Sarawak for ‘ecotourism’ and to experience the famed animals of Borneo at first hand. Some tourists are content to view indigenous crafts in ‘cultural villages’ close to the major cities but others want safari experiences into the interior to observe rare wildlife, their favourite creature undoubtedly being the orang-utan. The ‘natural jungle’ of the interior, especially areas accessible by river, has been diminished by logging, plantations and other development projects. The dilemma of developmentalism versus tourism places extra burdens of choice on the Sarawak state government and demands a rapid solution or the ‘eco’ part of tourism will become meaningless and the mascot of the Tourism Board, the orang-utan, will be lost.
Since Independence, two events have dominated the conduct of politics and the social fabric of Malaysia and neither is featured in the Museum of National History. The race riots of 1969 produced the New Economic Policy whose emphasis on the privileged treatment of Bumiputeras remains a dangerously emotive political issue. It has served as the excuse for harsh authoritarian action in the name of maintaining national stability. The second event was the dismissal and then public disgracing of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, almost 30 years after the race riots.
The treatment of Anwar, coming after the emasculation of the judiciary, a number of political scandals and the use of public monies to bail out enterprises close to the UMNO, mobilised the greatest mass demonstrations against the government since Independence and fuelled the growing calls for reform of the political system. Dr Mahathir, as he had in 1987, used the ISA and a number of other authoritarian Ordinances and Acts to silence critics and dissidents, especially leaders of the Alternative Front parties. Since 2001, it has been increasingly difficult (although not impossible) for alternative views to be publicly aired. Malaysia faces threats not only to the future of its environment but also to the practice of Westminster-style democracy which it had claimed previously to uphold.
One of many Internet responses to the restricted opportunities for public debate is a monthly webzine for the under-35s,
Supported by the Institute for Policy Research, a think-tank established by Anwar Ibrahim in the 1990s, it invites contributions from young Malaysians who believe in change and a diversity of views. This diversity, the site urges, should be accepted in ‘the spirit of openness tolerance and freedom’. Poems, short stories, sports features and social commentaries are posted on the site. The views they express all suggest that the challenges of a sustainable future are being taken seriously by the newly emerging generation. Writing in Malay, one contributor argues that Muslim religious teachers and intellectuals must struggle to develop a progressive Islam which looks at fundamental issues with openness and tolerance and that an Islamic framework need not reject ideas and concepts from other civilisations. The repetition of the words ‘openness’ and ‘tolerance’ throughout the article and the call for Muslim intellectuals to work harder to achieve these ideals suggests that many young Malaysians are disillusioned with both secular and religious leadership.
For the next generation of Malaysians, the prosperity and growth which characterised the Mahathir era may not be accepted as sufficient reason to ban peacefully expressed dissent. Alternative visions concerned with good governance, environmental conservation, human rights and ‘Islamic democracy’ have been formulated for some time but have had to be debated in covert rather than public ways. As the under-35s webzine shows, the unstoppable process of generational change is underway and the attitudes of contributors to the site express a greater inclusiveness and tolerance than previous generations of Malaysians. The history of Malaysia suggests that its peoples, past masters of diplomacy, alliances and adaptation will continue to participate actively in the flows of international trade and culture. And, as in the past, they will express their membership of the wider world in ways that are characteristically Malaysian. Independence came to Malaya only in 1957 and the federation with Sabah and Sarawak was achieved in 1963. This is a very young nation-state. There has been time for a mere two generations of leaders and they have presided over immense social, political and economic change. The successors to the current leadership wait in the wings and behind them are their replacements.
The younger generations have had the opportunity to recognise both the benefits and the pitfalls of the New Economic Policy. Their views of Malaysia are more critical and their access to information is wider than any previous group. As the current leaders emphasise, there are great challenges ahead, but as the leadership patterns take shape for the 21st century, there are grounds for optimism that many of the mistakes of the older leaders will not be repeated.

1 commentaire:

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Thank you for this "A Short History of Malaysia. It was good reading.

Would you kindly extend the name of the writer who has put the effort in the labor. And if one needs to refer it to another, one would need to credit the author.

Kindly please extend the name of the author.

I would appreciate that a lot. Thank you!