MALAYSIA, BRITISH, 1874-1957 (Western Colonialism)

Following the British founding of Singapore in 1819, Chinese and British economic involvement on the Malay Peninsula expanded because of the lure of profits from tin mines and plantation agriculture. In the west coast states, increased investment by merchants in the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang, and Melaka) coincided with ongoing succession disputes within several Malay ruling families. Contending Malay factions negotiated alliances with Chinese secret societies, which had mushroomed as thousands of men arrived from China in search of work. In addition, Straits Settlements investors backed different Malay contenders, hoping for commercial advantages. When the conflicts showed no signs of abating, they pressed for British intervention so that order would be restored and their capital would be safe. Their arguments were influential not only because industrializing Britain needed access to tin and forest products, but because London was concerned that some other European power would expand into the peninsula.

THE CREATION OF COLONIAL MALAYA In 1873, when Sultan Abdullah of Perak asked for British help against his rivals, the Straits Settlements governor, Andrew Clarke (1824-1902), seized the chance to advance British interests. By the Pangkor Treaty of January 20, 1874, Abdullah gained British support in return for accepting a resident whose advice he was required to accept on all matters except religion and custom.

The Pangkor Treaty is significant not merely because it created new openings for economic expansion, but because it laid the groundwork for the extension of British rule across the entire peninsula. As a result of the murder of the first resident, most Perak chiefs were removed and a new Sultan installed, allowing the British to maintain the shell of the traditional Malay administrative structure while placing all effective power in colonial hands. This system of indirect control was extended to the other west coast states of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and eventually to Pahang. In 1896 they jointly became the Federated Malay States with the capital at Kuala Lumpur.

Britain’s ambitions to acquire Siam’s Malay vassals (Patani, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu) resulted in the Anglo-Siamese treaty of 1909, by which Bangkok relinquished authority over all the northern Malay states except Patani in return for diplomatic privileges. Johor remained independent until 1914, but its incorporation into British Malaya was simply a matter of time because its economy was so closely tied to financial interests in Singapore. In 1919, when Terengganu finally accepted a British adviser, the entire peninsula, consisting of the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States, and the Unfederated Malay States, came under colonial control.


The west coast of the Malay Peninsula experienced profound economic changes as a result of colonial expansion. Ports were developed, existing towns grew larger, roads were built to the mining centers and plantation areas, and by 1910 railways stretched from Johor to Penang. Malays were outnumbered in many areas because so many Chinese and Indian laborers had arrived to work in the tin mines, rubber estates and other plantations, and to staff the civil service. These foreign Asians were concentrated in cities and on plantations. Economic development generally bypassed rural Malay communities.

Federation of Malaya Constitutional Conference, London, 1956. The Federation of Malaya gained complete independence from Britain in 1957 and later became part of the nation of Malaysia. Malayan delegates met with British officials in London in 1956 to discuss their country's future relationship with Britain.

Federation of Malaya Constitutional Conference, London, 1956. The Federation of Malaya gained complete independence from Britain in 1957 and later became part of the nation of Malaysia. Malayan delegates met with British officials in London in 1956 to discuss their country’s future relationship with Britain.

The colonial presence was less evident along the east coast, which was never as important in colonial planning. It attracted fewer Chinese migrants and thus remained more “Malay” in character. Ironically, however, British expansion here met considerable resistance from Malay nobles and their peasant followers. In Pahang a major rebellion occurred in 1891, led by district chiefs alienated by a lessening of their former privileges. Local uprisings also occurred in Kelantan and Terengganu.

The extension of British control and expansion of a colonial economy was even slower in Borneo. In 1841 the Sultan of Brunei granted part of Sarawak to James Brooke (1803-1868), the first “white rajah,” but both Brooke and his successor relied heavily on native chiefs. Development like that on the peninsula was not seen as appropriate. Although a special place was given to the Ibans, ethnic divisions were less pronounced because many of the Chinese lived in rural areas. In Sabah the British North Borneo Company was anxious to operate profitably, but, apart from timber, most commercial ventures were unsuccessful. The administrations of both Sarawak and Sabah were theoretically autonomous, but the British government was always anxious to forestall the advance of some other European power and in 1888 Sabah, Sarawak, and Brunei all became British protectorates. Brunei accepted a resident in 1906.

Fundamental to the development of colonial government was the view that Malays were essentially farmers and fishermen, rather than laborers. The perception of the Chinese and Indians as being more economically astute locked Malays out of the colony’s export sector. Occupational divisions were widened by religious differences because Malays were virtually all Muslim. The British also assumed that the Chinese and Indians were itinerants, and that there was no need to provide a common school system for all. A small number of upper-class Malays, Chinese, and

Indians did receive an English education because this was the path to advancement, but the majority acquired only basic schooling in the vernacular. Malaya thus became the classic example of a “plural society” where different ethnic groups met in the marketplace, but otherwise lived apart.

By the 1920s, however, a new generation of Malays was gaining access to educational training in teachers’ colleges, and leaders of this group began to voice opposition to the economic dominance of the Chinese and Indians. Ethnic divisions were fueled by developments in China and India. Enthused by the revolutionary mood in their homeland, many Chinese joined either the Kuomintang or the Malayan Communist Party (MCP, formed in 1930). Indians took similar pride in the Indian independence movement, while Malays were caught up by the call for Islamic reform that urged Muslims to modernize education to compete with the West. Largely concerned with developing a unified economy and administration, the British gave little thought to the possibility of Malayan independence and how a new nation would deal with deepening ethnic distinctions. In the Borneo states education in any language proceeded much more slowly. Ethnic tensions were muted here because so many communities were only marginally affected by economic change.


Malaya’s independence was precipitated by the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945). Japan attacked the peninsula in late 1941, and by February 1942 Malaya and Singapore were in Japanese hands. All British officials were imprisoned, and toward the end of the war there were hints that Japan might grant Malaya independence. Anxious to win local support, the Japanese generally treated Malays and Indians leniently, but the Chinese met systematic discrimination because of Japan’s continuing military campaigns in China. It was, therefore, the Chinese groups, dominated by the MCP, which initiated wartime resistance against the Japanese. When the war ended, many British thought the Chinese should be rewarded with full citizenship, but it was difficult to eradicate suspicions resulting from years of separate ethnic and economic development. The British government’s proposal for a “Malayan Union” that would make the Chinese and Indians citizens aroused unprecedented opposition among the Malays.

In 1946 a group of leading Malays formed the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Basic to the UMNO’s platform was retaining the status of Malay sultans and “special privileges” for Malays as the original occupants of the land. The Malayan Union was revoked in February 1948 and replaced by the Federation of Malaya, which united the peninsula under one government. Singapore was not included because the Chinese would then have outnumbered the Malays.

The Federation was seen as a victory for Malays, and many Chinese became sympathetic toward the MCP’s aim of establishing a Malayan republic. The so-called Malayan emergency began in mid-1948 when the MCP embarked on a systematic campaign of violence against European interests. Since the communists were mainly Chinese, they received substantial help from rural Chinese settlements. From 1950 onward, the British forces began to resettle these communities into “new villages” and thus denied the MCP access to supplies. This strategy was successful, although the Emergency was not officially ended until 1960.

Two reasons for the ultimate failure of the communist insurrection were a new political alliance between Malay and Chinese leaders, and Britain’s commitment to Malaya’s independence. The formation of the Alliance, consisting of the UMNO, the Malayan Chinese Party (MCA), and later the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) gave hope for multicultural politics. By 1955 the Alliance and its call for independence had overwhelming support. A constitution was developed for the new nation that created a federation of states with a strong central government, retaining certain privileges for Malays. On August 15, 1957, under its first Prime Minister Tuanku Abdul Rahman (1895-1960), Malaya was declared independent. However, the colonial division of Malayan society into three ethnic groups was complicated by the creation of Malaysia in 1963 and the incorporation of Sabah and Sarawak (and Singapore briefly, 1963-1965) because now non-Muslim and non-Malay groups in Borneo could also claim indigenous privileges.

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