Chapter 04 - Sino-Malay Relations: The Japanese Occupation and British Reoccupation | 13 May 1969


Up to the time of the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941, Malaya was still divided for administrative purposes into the Straits Settlements, the four Federated Malay States and the five Unfederated Malay States, and although Britain was the paramount power, the system of government was very cumbersome and unwieldy for a territory about the size of England. There was no political unity in Malaya nor common citizenship.

Persons born in the Straits Settlements, a British colony under direct British rule, were British subjects. On the other hand, the Malay States were protected states, and persons born in them were subjects of the particular Malay ruler. There was no feeling of nationalism or over-riding Malayan loyalty. The Malays owed allegiance to their sultans, and thought of themselves as belonging to Selangor, Pahang, Kelantan, and so on, rather than to Malaya. British policy was, broadly speaking, anti-Chinese and pro-Malay.

Meanwhile, educated Malays were becoming increasingly frustrated with the fact that, despite the pro-Malay policy adopted by the British, the Chinese still dominated Malaya's economic life. They were concerned, too, at the growing numerical strength and power of the Chinese, and the stirrings of Chinese political consciousness as expressed, for instance, in the views of Tan Cheng Lock, the Straits-born Chinese leader, who advocated a 'united self-governing Malayan nation', in which locally-domiciled Chinese would be given equal rights with Malays. Other Chinese leaders were more assertive, and a Chinese legislative councillor addressing a Chinese association in 1931 said, referring to Malaya, 'This is ours, our country'. Clearly, opinions of this nature were, to say the least, untactful and not conducive to placating Malay feelings, and they undoubtedly only helped to increase the growing tension between the two com

The Japanese Occupation and British Reoccupation | 13 May 1969



According to the 1931 Census, 38 per cent of the Chinese in the Straits Settlements and 31 per cent in Malaya were local born. The Chinese were no longer content to be treated as aliens. They looked for citizenship rights and other privileges which went with domicile, and they resented the immigration restrictions of the 1930s which they felt were aimed primarily at themselves. Most of all, they felt uneasy about their position under the 'Malaya for the Malays' policy being followed by the British.

At this juncture, the Japanese invaded Malaya, and a curtain descended on British rule for the next three and a half years. In a lightning campaign which lasted only two and a half months, the Japanese army swept the British before them in their drive down the Malay Peninsula from the north, and Singapore capitulated on 15 February 1942.

From the start, the Japanese recognized that communal differences existed between the main ethnic groups constituting Malaya, that is, the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians, and that there was no united nationalist movement against British rule which could be exploited. Malaya and Sumatra were administered as one unit under the command of the Japanese 25th Army, which seemed to give a more Indonesian-Malay slant to Malaya. Although the Japanese did not recognize the status of the Malay rulers at the onset and intended that they should be made to 'dedicate their land and people to the Japanese', their policy changed in November 1942, and the sultans were recognized in the same way as they had been by the British. Throughout, however, the Japanese were suspicious of the Chinese, especially in view of the stiff Chinese resistance they had encountered in the Sino-Japanese conflict which had started in 1937, and the fierce struggle put up by Chinese communist and other volunteer units used by the British during the closing stages of the battle for Singapore.

The Malays were thrown onto themselves, especially as they were deprived of the protecting power of the British. In some ways, they were not as anti-Japanese as the Chinese, and many of them undoubtedly hoped that the Japanese would be able to deal with the Chinese for them and 'keep them in their place'.

One of the first steps the Japanese took was to release from custody the leaders of the Association of Malay Youths (Kesatuan Melayu Muda) (KMM), who had been detained by the British

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under the wartime Defence Regulations. The KMM's aims embraced independence for Malaya and union with Indonesia. It believed that the two countries shared a common destiny and had common historical, cultural and religious bonds. It was pro-Islam and anti-Chinese in its outlook.

The British had actually intended to fly the KMM leader, Ibrahim bin Ya'acob, who was the top Malay nationalist, to India and to intern him there but he was still under detention in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese. Even though the Japanese banned the KMM, as they probably realized the danger of such undercover movements, they soon released Ibrahim and appointed him to command a Japanese-sponsored Malay army referred to as Defenders of the Motherland (Pembela Tanah Ayer) (PETA) (Giyugun in Japanese), with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Under the Japanese, the way was clear, now that the British had gone, for Malays to occupy senior posts in government service, which they would not have had the chance of doing under British rule, thus enabling them to gain valuable experience in administering the country. These Malay elitists became more politically oriented and provided the leadership for postwar Malay political activities.

The Japanese encouraged the concept of Indonesia Raya (Greater Indonesia), which envisaged the amalgamation of Indonesia and Malaya as one political unit, and while they were not keen on granting Malaya independence itself, the impression was given that when Indonesia was granted independence (the Japanese considered it to be more politically advanced than Malaya), Malaya would become independent too.

Once the Japanese collapse seemed imminent, the Japanese decided, in July 1945, only a few weeks before surrendering, to accelerate their plans to grant Indonesia independence. At a meeting attended by the Secretary-Generals of the Military Administration of Java, Sumatra, the Celebes and Malaya towards the end of that month, a new party known as Kesatuan Ra'ayat Indonesia Semenanjong (People's Association of the Indonesian Peninsula) (KRIS), emerged under the leadership of Ibrahim Ya'acob, with the aim of encouraging the idea of Indonesia Raya, and generally promoting the concept of Malay nationalism. The acronym KRIS chosen for this party was particularly apt as it formed the Malay word for the traditional dagger with a wavy

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blade which is common to both the Malay and Indonesian languages.

On 12 August, Ibrahim Ya'acob had an unscheduled meeting with Sukarno and Dr Hatta, the Indonesian leaders, at Taiping airport, at a brief stopover the latter two leaders made on their return to Jakarta from a meeting with Field Marshal Count Terauchi, the Japanese Regional Commander for Southeast Asia, at Dalat in Indo-China, and it is reliably reported that Ibrahim discussed the Indonesia Raya plan with them.

However, the programme for the joint independence of Indonesia and Malaya, and the formation of Indonesia Raya, was thrown out of gear by the sudden Japanese surrender two days later on 14 August 1945. When Sukarno proclaimed Indonesia's independence on 17 August, he made no mention of Malaya, although it is known that he himself and several other Indonesian nationalists, such as Mohammad Yamin, were in favour of the inclusion of Malaya and the former British territories of Borneo, within the boundaries of the Republic of Indonesia. It seems likely that this was because Dr Hatta counselled a more cautious approach, but in any case Sukarno may have felt that he had quite enough on his hands in dealing with the problems of Indonesian independence without compounding them by taking over Malaya's as well.

Meanwhile, KRIS went ahead with its scheduled Congress in Kuala Lumpur on 16 and 17 August. In passing, it is interesting to note that one of the original members of KRIS, and a participant at the Congress, was Dato Onn bin Ja'afar, the father of Datuk Hussein Onn, who later became prime minister of Malaysia. Dato Onn subsequently founded the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which will figure prominently in this account in due course.

The plan for Malaya's independence and union with Indonesia had obviously misfired, but it was resolved at the KRIS Congress to continue with the nationalist struggle in Malaya. Ibrahim himself did not attend the meeting, but flew to Jakarta from Singapore on 19 August, where he assumed another name and passed from history.

When the British occupation forces arrived in Malaya in late September 1945, the KMM, PETA and KRIS leaders were arrested but they were later released. Although KRIS was dissolved, its mantle was assumed by the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP),

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which became active in the political arena early on after the British return, with its central aim a Malaya-Indonesia union. The British authorities banned the MNP and all other left-wing Malay political parties soon after 1948, when the Emergency Regulations were announced.

By the time the British returned to Malaya in September 1945, the Japanese occupation of Malaya had lasted three and a half years, and the entire population had suffered grievously during this period, particularly because the cessation of rice imports led to widespread malnutrition. The Chinese, in particular, had been treated terribly. Thousands were killed in purges carried out by the Japanese during the first days of the occupation, and many more fled to the interior of Malaya where they became squatters on the jungle fringes. By the time British rule was re-established, the country had been brought to the verge of an economic breakdown, and the policy of divide and rule which the Japanese had followed, favouring the Malays against the Chinese, only had the effect of intensifying underlying racial animosities.

The ill-feeling which had been generated in this way resulted in the outbreak of serious Sino-Malay riots in the inter-regnum period of about a month between the surrender of the Japanese and the return of the British.

During the war, anti-Japanese guerilla activities had been carried out by the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which was almost entirely Chinese and under the control of the Malayan Communist Party, while the civilian supporters of the MPAJA, again almost entirely Chinese, were organized as the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Union (MPAJU). In general, the Malays tended to be cooperative with, or at least obedient to, Japanese rule, although there were a few Malay anti-Japanese guerilla groups, such as the Wataniah in Pahang.

During this twilight period, the MPAJA took the law into its own hands in meting out summary justice to those people (mostly Malays) who were suspected of collaborating with the Japanese. The Malays reacted to this by attacking Chinese. In the interior of Negri Sembilan, for instance, Malays set upon and slaughtered forty Chinese villagers, mostly women and children. In retaliation, Chinese assailed Malays living along the Perak River.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the return of the British to Malaya, the Eastern Department of the British Colonial Officl had been active in drawing up plans for a radically different

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Malayan constitution, which was the Malayan Union, to rationalize, streamline and unify the administration of Malaya, and to introduce a common citizenship to satisfy the claims of non-Malays for a share of responsibility in the government of the country. However, before dealing with this development, we should glance at what had been taking place outside Malaya during the Japanese occupation, which has a bearing on the theme of Sino-Malay relations.

Tan Cheng Lock and his family succeeded in obtaining passages on a ship leaving Singapore for India about a month before the fall of Singapore, and they remained in India during the war, together with a large number of other refugees from Malaya. In December 1942, a Malayan Association of India was formed, with Tunku Abu Bakar, a prince of the Johore royal house, as patron, and a committee consisting mostly of Europeans with some prominent Singapore Jews and Straits Chinese. More than two-thirds of the Malayan refugees joined this Association, which submitted a memorandum to the Colonial Office in London offering its help in the post-war reconstruction of Malaya. The Chinese members were not happy that the Association was dominated by Europeans, and they broke away in November 1943 to establish the Overseas-Chinese Association in Bombay, with Tan Cheng Lock as chairman.

Tunku Abu Bakar described this as 'Chinese preparing to dabble in Malayan politics'.

In November 1943, Tan Cheng Lock wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies to request that the Chinese community of Malaya should be represented on any committee formed for the reconstruction and reoccupation of Malaya, and to offer his Association's assistance and cooperation.

Tan Cheng Lock forwarded with his letter a 'Memorandum on the Future of Malaya', which is a very interesting document as it indicates the way in which the Malayan-Chinese were thinking about Malaya. After pointing out that in 1940, the Chinese (2,400,000) and the Indians (750,000) combined outnumbered the Malays (2,300,000), Tan Cheng Lock went on to say that not more than one half of the Malay population was indigenous and the rest was made up of immigrant 'Malaysians' from the Netherlands East Indies, who were not actually Malays. The Malayan government, he continued, 'should make it its fundamental policy and aim to foster amity and harmony among the

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principal races ... which make up its composite population, to all racial elements in which equal rights, political, economic and otherwise should be accorded, so as to build up a Malayan community with Malayan consciousness and inspired by Malayan patriotism ....'"

He advocated self-government and the framing of a new postwar constitution for Malaya with rights of representation in the Legislative Assembly and the Government of Malaya to be apportioned between Malays, Chinese and other races in the ratio of 3, 2 and 1 respectively, which accorded with the population figures of the various communities concerned. Even this representation did not concede, he continued, the measure of representation to the Chinese to which they were entitled by their economic importance and the amount of public revenue contributed by them. He emphasized the heroic stand made by Chinese communists and the Chinese volunteers, largely recruited from the China-born Chinese community, in the defence of Singapore, as evidence of their potential loyalty as citizens, and recommended that the best way to treat the Chinese was to trust them and to give those who had become domiciled for a sufficiently long period the opportunity to acquire Malayan citizenship by naturalization. In postwar Malaya, the imposing of immigration restrictions on Chinese for political reasons should cease. Irrespective of race, every community domiciled in Malaya should be encouraged to regard itself as Malayan. Dealing with the economic aspect, and the special position of the Malays, Tan Cheng Lock said: 'While it is necessary that the Malays, [who are more backward (sic) than the other races], should be protected against unfair competition and exploitation, especially in relation to their tenure of lands for agricultural purposes and in their home villages, and should be assisted by the Government in every way to accelerate their economic and educational advancement and progress in other respects, the interests and rights of the other races should not thereby be affected to their detriment and in such a way as to hamper their development and advancement.'

Further memoranda were submitted by other bodies indicating their views on the post-war reconstruction of Malaya, but Tan Cheng Lock's is the only one giving such a concise picture of Malayan-Chinese views.

Mention should be made, however, of detailed proposals sent " to Britain in February 1943 by Tunku Mahmud Mahydeen, a

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prince of the Kelantan royal house, who had been Director of Education in Kelantan at the time of the Japanese invasion and who had escaped to India, as these proposals are indicative of a Malay point of view. Mahydeen recommended the unification of Malaya and the abolition of the Malay rulers. He was prepared to accept domiciled immigrants as citizens but he proposed that further Chinese and Indian immigration to Malaya should be stopped and that Javanese should be encouraged to immigrate instead, as it would be much easier to assimilate them into Malay society. He regarded a knowledge of Malay as a sine qua non for the acquisition of Malayan citizenship, and he indicated that he was in favour of increased educational facilities for Malays to enable them to improve their position in society.

The Colonial Office welcomed Mahydeen's views for a united Malaya with common citizenship as they fitted in with its own plans, and it wished to weaken the power of the rulers, but it did not accept his suggestions dealing with immigration, the promotion of the Malay language, and the extension of educational privileges to the Malays.

The Malayan Union Scheme, drafted in Britain during the war by the Colonial Office, was established barely six months after the British reoccupation of Malaya. Sir Harold MacMichael, who was entrusted with the task of negotiating it with the rulers, arrived in October 1945. By December 1945, he had met all nine Malay rulers and had obtained their agreement to the new proposals. The Malayan Union was not a federal association, but a highly centralized union, which was a complete reversal of British policy before the Japanese occupation. It was made up of all the Malay states, together with Penang and Malacca. Singapore was excluded on account of its strategic importance to Britain, and because its inclusion would have tilted the racial balance in favour of the Chinese.

The Malayan Union was probably seen by the British as the first step in the long journey leading to Malayan independence. It represented a virtual annexation of the Malay states, and the reduction of the status of the Malay rulers to that of mere religious figureheads, which the Malays regarded as a tremendous blow to their esteem and self-respect. There were to be no state governments but only a central government in Kuala Lumpur under a British governor. There was to be a Pan-Malayan education department in Kuala Lumpur, and English was to be used as

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a common language to foster inter-racial harmony. Primary education was to be in the vernacular, but the medium of instruction in all secondary schools was to be English. The assets of the nine Malay states and the Settlements of Penang and Malacca were to be transferred to the central government. The greatest threat to the Malay position was posed, however, by the new citizenship proposals, as non-Malays were to be eligible for Malayan Union citizenship if they had been born in Malaya or had resided there for ten out of the preceding fifteen years. It was estimated that on this basis, 83 per cent of the Chinese and 75 per cent of the Indians in Malaya would qualify for citizenship. It was intended to open the civil service in the Malay states to non-Malays and thus change what had previously been the preserve of the Malays and the British. 

Malay reaction to the scheme was unexpectedly serious and widespread, and it led to the Menteri Besar of Johore Dato Onn bin Ja'afar's forming the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in March 1946 to lead the massive Malay opposition to the scheme. UMNO relied on the power structure of traditional Malay society, and former high commissioners and other senior Malayan civil servants, such as Sir Frank Swettenham, Sir Cecil Clementi, Sir George Maxwell, and Sir Richard Winstedt, living in retirement in Britain, gave their support to its cause. Curiously, non-Malays initially remained apathetic although the Malayan Union proposals improved their position and gave them political rights which they had been denied previously, and there was every reason why they should resist opposition to them.

The UMNO case was based on what it referred to as an illegal transfer by force majeure of sovereign rights from the Malay rulers to the British Crown. The Malays said that MacMichael had forced the rulers to sign the new agreements by threatening to depose them, if they refused to do so, for 'collaborating' with the Japanese. UMNO sought the reaffirmation of the authority and prestige of the rulers and the acceptance of the fundamental principle that Malaya was a Malay country (tanah Melayu), and that the non-Malays were guests in it. Therefore, any concessions granted to non-Malays would be at the sole discretion of the Malays, who held the political power.

As far as Chinese claims for equal political rights were concerned, the UMNO view was that they could be given consideration only when the Malays had attained economic parity with the

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Chinese. The Malays felt it was absolutely necessary for them to keep political power in their hands in order to protect themselves from being swamped by the non-Malays. They were still suspicious, too, of the interest being shown by the Chinese Nationalist government in China in the Malayan Chinese. Under the 1929 Nationality Law based on the principle of jus sanguinis, the Chinese Nationalist government took the view that all Malayan Chinese were Chinese nationals, and this was used by the Malays to cast doubt on the sincerity of the Chinese in Malaya in desiring Malayan citizenship.

Another factor which undoubtedly increased the suspicion of the Malays was the increased activity of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), most of whose members were Chinese.

As a result of the UMNO-led opposition to the Malayan Union, in July 1946 the British agreed to form a Working Committee composed of six government and two UMNO representatives and four representatives of the Malay rulers, which was presided over by Malcolm MacDonald, British Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia, to draft an alternative constitution.

This committee eventually agreed to a new constitution, which was then passed to non-Malay representatives for comment, and after its adoption, the short-lived Malayan Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya on 1st February 1948. It is interesting to note that the constitution of the Federation of Malaya is the basis of Malaysia's constitution today. The Malays had won their case. The Federation of Malaya Agreement stated that the high commissioner would be responsible for safeguarding the 'special position' of the Malays and the 'legitimate interests' of the non-Malays. Meanwhile, important issues that were to dominate Malayan politics up to the present, such as the special rights and privileges of the Malays, the position of the Malay rulers, and the place of the Chinese in Malaya, had been aired and brought out into the open.

In essence, the Federal Agreement was an Anglo-Malay compromise, as the Chinese were excluded from the Working Committee, although their views were sought before the Agreement became law. The MacMichael Treaties were cancelled. The Malay rulers were recognized as sovereign monarchs, which meant that constitutionally the Persekutuan Tanah Melayu (Federation of Malaya) was a Malay state. It will be remembered that UMNO sought the recognition of Malaya as a Malay country

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(tanah Melayu) (see p. 32), and the inclusion of this term in the official Malay version of the name of the Federation was, therefore, significant.

The nine states and their rulers were to retain certain definite powers, that is, 'the prerogatives, power and jurisdiction which they enjoyed prior to the Japanese occupation'. The British postwar policy of preparing Malaya for eventual self-government was continued and, under the scheme, a British high commissioner would govern the country with full powers.

The Malays accepted (as a concession on their part) a Federal citizenship which would be offered to those who owed undivided loyalty and allegiance to the Federation. But the qualifications for eligibility were considerably tightened up. For local-born applicants whose parents were immigrants, the residential period required was eight out of the preceding twelve years, and for foreign-born applicants, fifteen of the preceding twenty-five. It was necessary to demonstrate an adequate knowledge of Malay or English. Subjects of the Malay rulers were automatically Federal citizens, so under these arrangements virtually all Malays and Indonesian settlers qualified for Federal citizenship.

In 1950, there were 3,275,000 Federal citizens, of which 2,500,000 or 76.33 per cent were Malays and only about 500,000 or 15.26 per cent Chinese. The stringent birth qualification, the language test and the lengthy residential terms barred most of the non-Malays from becoming citizens.

The majority of Malays were satisfied with the new constitution but the Chinese did not think much of it, especially the exclusion of Singapore, which was predominantly a Chinese city, and the restrictive citizenship laws. The Chinese protested and launched a hartal, and threatened to walk out of the various councils. They were supported by some political parties, forming a united front known as the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA), which represented a rather belated non-Malay opposition to Malay nationalism.

The president of the AMCJA was Tan Cheng Lock but as the AMCJA coalition did not have the cohesion of UMNO, it was unable to play a commanding role in the course of events, and it failed to achieve its purpose.

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