Chapter 02 - The Special Position of the Malays: Historical Background | 13 May 1969

After the initial forward movement of the British in Malaya which resulted in the acquisition of Penang in 1786, Singapore in 1819 and Malacca in 1824, it was not until the 1870s that further large-scale advances were made.

Although the British government was opposed to the idea of interfering in the internal affairs of the Malay states, the energetic Sir Andrew Clarke, who arrived as governor of the Straits Settlements in 1873, had nevertheless been instructed by the Secretary of State to look into the affairs of the Malay Peninsula 'to consider whether it would be advisable to appoint a British officer to reside in any of the States____.

Within a short time of his arrival, Clarke seemed to have decided that intervention was the best policy. The first point of penetration was the state of Perak, where serious fighting had been going on between rival secret society factions, to which the Chinese tin miners belonged, to gain control of the lucrative tin mines. Warring factions among the Malays were also drawn in. As the governor was quite convinced that the Malay chiefs were incapable of dealing with the situation, he invited them and the Chinese secret society leaders to attend a conference at Pangkor Island in 1874. The main purpose of this meeting was to ask the rival Chinese groups to accept British arbitration to bring the fighting to an end and to decide on the succession to the throne of Perak.

As a result of this conference, the Pangkor Engagement was drawn up, which served as a model for agreements covering further British expansion in the Malay Peninsula. The terms of this agreement provided for the accrediting of a British Resident to the sultan's court 'whose advice must be asked and acted upon on all questions other than those touching Malay religion and custom' although the sultan's powers and functions in other respects were not meant to be curtailed.

The Special Position of the Malays | 13 May 1969


Within a few months, Clarke had made similar agreements with Selangor and Sungei Ujong, a small state in Negri Sembilan just south of the Selangor border, by which both states agreed to accept British Residents.

The Residential system first established in Perak, Selangor and the small state of Sungei Ujong, was later extended to Negri Sembilan and Pahang, and in 1896, these west coast states were joined together as the Federated Malay States (FMS). This grouping has been described as neither a real federation nor a union but as being closer to a union in spirit, and the British Residents came under the supervision of a British Resident-General in Kuala Lumpur, who in turn was responsible to the Governor of the Straits Settlements in Singapore wearing his other hat as High Commissioner of the FMS. The more important government departments in each state reported back to federal departmental heads in the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur. In other words, the British hold on the administration of the states was tightened, although the interests of the Malay rulers were respected and, at least ostensibly, decisions continued to be made in their names.

At this point it might be useful to cite an opinion regarding the position of the Malay sultans which was given by Resident-General Sir William Treacher in 1903. Long before the date of federalization he wrote, 'the Sultan had ceased to ask and take the advice of the Resident on all questions other than those touching Mahomedan (sic) religion and Malay custom, but that on the contrary it has become the practice for the Resident with the sanction of the Governor of the Straits Settlements (now the High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States) to frame annual estimates of revenue and expenditure, to make official appointments and to do a hundred and one other things, not touching Mahomedan (sic) religion or Malay custom, without reference to the Sultan; and this is a correct statement. The position has in fact been reversed: instead of the Sultan carrying on the Government with the advice of the Resident (Mahomedan (sic) religion and custom excepted), the Resident carried on the administration with the reference when he considers it necessary for the advice of the Sultan. Whether that is right or wrong I need not now inquire, but it is an incontestable fact'.

Not long afterwards, the five remaining states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Trengganu and Johore were induced to accept British Advisers (not 'Residents', so as to emphasize, as it were, that they

The Special Position of the Malays | 13 May 1969


were what the title implied and not 'executive officers'), and these states became known as the Unfederated Malay States (UMS). Their Malay rulers tended to retain more independence than their counterparts in the FMS, and their relations with Britain were carried on by direct contact with the Governor in Singapore, and not through the Resident-General in Kuala Lumpur. They had no special inner ties among themselves but the UMS, the FMS, and the Straits Settlements of Penang, Singapore and Malacca made up what was known as British Malaya.

The British administrators in Malaya generally tended to be pro-Malay rather than pro-Chinese. The reason for this is not difficult to understand. The British were impressed by the inherent good manners and courtesy of the Malays especially when compared with the rather more brusque attitude of the immigrant Chinese labourers, although the British may sometimes have incorrectly interpreted Malay deference and politeness as evidence of weakness and lack of resolution.

Moreover, the Malay language or at least a working knowledge of it sufficient for everyday use, is not difficult to acquire and some of the British administrators, such as Frank Swettenham (afterwards Sir Frank Swettenham), Hugh Clifford (afterwards Sir Hugh Clifford), and William Maxwell (afterwards Sir William Maxwell), not to mention, in more recent times, Richard Winstedt (afterwards Sir Richard Winstedt), went far beyond this, and were among a select band of civil servants who acquired an excellent command of the language and were acknowledged to be Malay scholars.

Malay households were open and friendly towards guests, and the Malays did not despise foreigners or, at least, display the xenophobia of the Chinese. Westerners were referred to by the harmless nickname of 'Mat Salleh' by Malays when they were talking among themselves, which somehow has a much more affectionate and tolerant ring about it than the ruder and more vulgar ang mao (Hokkien) or hung mo kwai (Cantonese), meaning 'red-haired devil', which was the equivalent Chinese expression.

It is true, too, that the British found the Chinese much more difficult to administer. They were tough, industrious, clever and independent, with little respect for westerners, especially as they were not impressed by the conduct of the latter in China, where , they were regarded as 'pirates' and 'barbarians'. Nevertheless, the

The Special Position of the Malays | 13 May 1969


British did obtain the cooperation of the Chinese headmen or capitans in Malaya in dealing with their own people, and usually this system of 'like governing like" worked to the mutual advantage of both sides.

From 1877 onwards, when the Chinese Protectorate was established in Singapore under William Pickering, a British official who was fluent in several Chinese dialects, the British government, for the first time, was able to exercise a much more direct control over the Chinese. Before that, the Chinese had been left largely to their own devices, and virtually allowed to govern themselves as an imperium in imperio through their own social, economic and political groupings, in which their secret societies played a very significant part. By and large, although it may not have been realized at the time, the Chinese capitans, through whom the British dealt with the Chinese, were in fact the secret society leaders.

It was the official British policy to preserve the use of the indigenous forms and institutions of the Malays, and to be solicitous of their views, in keeping with the philosophy that colonial rule was a form of trusteeship for the Malays, with the British acting as an 'umpire' mainly to keep the alien Chinese at bay and to look after the special interests of the Malays. When the British entered into treaties with the Malay rulers, they recognized the principle that the 'special rights' of the sultans and their Malay subjects must be protected. Looking ahead, it was these rights which were also recognized in the Federation of Malaya Agreement of 1948, and became the 'legal' basis for the New Economic Policy (NEP) incorporated in the Second and Third Malaysia Plans, which will be touched upon later in this narrative.

The 'special position' of the Malay rulers and their Malay subjects was adverted to time and time again by the British administrators, and in an important speech delivered before the Federal Council in 1927, Sir Hugh Clifford, High Commissioner of the FMS, described the position of the rulers as sacrosanct and said there could be no yielding to the demands of aliens for democracy even though they had a majority, as this would represent a betrayal of the Malays.

'These States were, when the British Government was invited by their Rulers and Chiefs to set their troubled houses in order, Muhammadan monarchies,' Clifford said. 'Such they are today, and such they must continue to be. No mandate has ever been ex-

The Special Position of the Malays | 13 May 1969


tended to us by Rajas, Chiefs, or people to vary the system of government which has existed in these territories from time immemorial... The adoption of any kind of government by majority would forthwith entail the complete submersion of the indigenous population, who would find themselves hopelessly outnumbered by the folk of other races; and this would produce a situation which would amount to a betrayal of trust which the Malays of these States, from the highest to the lowest, have been taught to repose in his Majesty's Government.'

In the following year, W.G.A. Ormsby Gore, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Colonies, in a report covering his visit to Malaya in 1928, echoed Clifford's comments and said, 'Our position in every state rests on solemn treaty obligations ... [the States] were, are and must remain "Malay" States and the primary object of our share in the administration of these countries must always be the progress of the indigenous Malay inhabitants .... To me the maintenance of the position, authority and prestige of the Malay rulers is a cardinal point of policy.'

At 'field level', a similar, if less elegantly worded view, had already been expressed exactly one hundred years earlier by the British Resident in Malacca, to the following effect:

'The improvement of their [i.e. Malay] condition and the progressive amelioration of the habits of the indigenous population must at all times be considered the great end of British Administration, and whatever may be the supposed advantages resulting from the introduction of Chinese or other foreign adventurers, the Governor in Council is satisfied that they are so dearly purchased by the exclusion, depression and degradation of the Original Malay Inhabitants of the Peninsula, who are in the first instance entitled to our protection and encouragement.'

To revert to the main thread of our narrative, in 1909, Sir John Anderson, the then High Commissioner, expressed concern over the problem of 'over-centralization' under the federal system, that is, the pushing aside of both the sultans and the state councils, and admitted that the Malay rulers had been largely ignored and had lost considerably more of their power and authority than they had bargained for. 'They are confident,' he said, referring to the sultans, 'that we will never forget that our powers are derived wholly from their gift and that we are here in a Malay country as the advisers and counsellors of its Malay sovereigns'. As a result of these considerations, an Agreement for the Constitution of a

The Special Position of the Malays | 13 May 1969


Federal Council was drawn up in 1909 and signed by the Malay rulers. It was hoped that the Federal Council would, in principle, by bringing the Malay sultans into the inner machinery of the federation and giving them seats on the council, increase their authority, but in fact it did not prove to be a success as the power of the Resident-General in Kuala Lumpur remained undiminished.

In 1925, Sir Lawrence Guillemard, High Commissioner 1920-7, reverted to the invidious position of the Malay sultans, and mooted the idea of a policy of 'decentralization' which would preserve the individuality of the Malay states, and devolve more power to the Malay rulers. This was vigorously opposed by Chinese and British unofficial members of the Federal Council, and by planters, who were in favour of retaining central control. The real crux of the matter was that they did not have confidence in the ability of the Malay states to provide an efficient administration without the continuing control and guidance of the British colonial power.

The decentralization debates of 1925-7 exposed a fundamental dilemma for Malaya. The issues were whether to build a modern unified state or to bolster the existing small Malay states, and it was eventually decided to follow the latter course.

The Chinese point of view was different and it was put very succinctly by Tan Cheng Lock, a wealthy baba Chinese leader, whose family had been settled in Malacca for the past two hundred years, when he proposed in the Straits Settlements Legislative Council in 1926, that the aim should be a 'united self-governing British Malaya'. In a memorandum touching on decentralization which he submitted to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Colonies in 1936, he expressed the view that under decentralization, the FMS would be placed on very much the same constitutional basis as the UMS, and a small representation would be given on the various state councils to Chinese, European and Indian members, who would be 'decidedly and effectually outnumbered and overwhelmed by the British Resident and the Malay Sultan and his Chiefs who will constitute the bulk of the Council'. He was disturbed by the idea that a powerful state council dominated by Malays and a pro-Malay British Resident would be in a position to shape the land, education and other policies to the disadvantage of the non-Malays. He expressed his disquiet, too, over 'discrimination against non-Malays', in

The Special Position of the Malays | 13 May 1969


that preference was given to Malays for employment in the government service. With regard to the government's education policy, he pointed out that free education was only given in the Malay vernacular while the government contributed hardly anything towards the maintenance of Chinese vernacular schools. More will be said on these two points later.

Although Guillemard expressed satisfaction shortly before he retired in 1927 at the progress which had been made towards decentralization, in actuality very little had been accomplished, and as Emerson aptly put it, after Guillemard's departure, the latter's decentralization policy was 'tucked away in a cubbyhole'. His successor, Clifford, was content to let 'sleeping dogs lie', although he made it quite clear that he favoured a pro-Malay policy. However, when Sir Cecil Clementi arrived in 1930 from Hong Kong, where he had been governor, to take over from Clifford as high commissioner, the whole issue of decentralization was revived on a broader basis. Clementi had built up a considerable reputation as an experienced and knowledgeable administrator of Chinese, but paradoxically the policies he adopted in Malaya did not endear him to the Chinese. Essentially, his proposals were to make the FMS as similar as possible to the UMS, so that the latter would have no objection to a closer association. He wanted to streamline the administration of the country into a Malayan Union, to be made up of the FMS and the UMS, which he hoped the Straits Settlements and British Borneo would join later.

It was intended that some services such as Agriculture, Education, Health, Mining and Public Works, Co-operatives, and Forestry should be transferred to state control, while some central services such as Railways, Customs, Posts and Telegraphs should be retained under federal control. The FMS were to receive two-fifths of the available revenue, and the post of Chief Secretary in Kuala Lumpur (which more or less corresponded to the former office of Resident-General, although it had been downgraded) should be redesignated Federal Secretary and made subordinate to the British Residents of the FMS who, in turn, it was envisaged, would become more like the Advisers in the UMS.

However, the plan ran into considerable and widespread opposition from Chinese and western commercial interests, as had Guillemard's previously. The Malays, on the other hand, welcomed it as offering greater scope for Malay rule and weakening the centralized British control from Kuala Lumpur. Ironically, the

The Special Position of the Malays | 13 May 1969


sultans in the UMS were hostile because they were suspicious of British motives and they envisaged decentralization as leading to greater control from Singapore."

The Malay point of view, however, was quite uncompromising, and it was crystallized in an article in a Malay journal, a translation of which appeared in the Malay Mail dated 12 November 1931, which said inter alia "... The Malay Peninsula belongs to the Malays. Our right is indisputable. It will remain so as long as we are fit to guard, control, and manage it.'

In 1932, Brigadier-General Sir Samuel Wilson, Under Secretary for the Colonies, came out to Malaya to investigate the situation for himself. His official report was very comprehensive and diplomatic, and his finding was that from a purely economic viewpoint it was desirable to have a central government but from a political viewpoint, decentralization was the answer." Nevertheless, the process of decentralization was to be gradual and at a much slower pace than had been visualized by Clementi."

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