‘Malaysia’: What’s in a name?

by Clive S. Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
Mar 10, 2011

MARCH 10 — “What’s in a name?” asks Shakespeare’s Juliet. “That which we call a rose,” she avers, “by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Likewise, “Malaysia.”

So what is in a name, and behind this one?

In a recent blog post (Semenanjung Tanah Melayu (http://chedet.co.cc/chedetblog/2011/03/semenanjung-tanah-melayu.html) , March 3, 2011) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has repeated the claim — now almost a commonplace in the thinking of many Malaysian citizens — that it was only when the Tunku consented to the blandishments and machinations of retreating British power in the region that the name “Malaysia” was suggested for the newly proposed federation of the pensinsular Malay states, Sarawak, North Borneo (Sabah) and Singapore.

With that, Tun Dr Mahathir asserts, the Federation of Malaya (understood as the Malay Lands or States) or Persekutuan Tanah Melayu came to an untimely and underserved “official” end.

In effect, this claim holds, that older name or identity was throttled by an entirely new coinage, a hitherto unprecedented idea, a crude and ungainly neologism, and then buried under its weight.

The name and idea of “Malaysia”, this view holds, came into currency together with the new political entity that it was devised to designate. After a precarious pregnancy over the preceding two years, it was born in September 1963.

Of course, in the late 1930s the great United States scholar of regional, especially Malayan, affairs Rupert Emerson had used this same name as the tile of his great and very perceptive book about what its colonial masters saw and dubbed as “British Malaya”: Malaysia: A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule (Macmillan, New York, 1937).

So in 1961 it was hardly a brand new coinage.

But there is more to the story than that.

More challenging is what is to be learned from the voluminous documentary evidence published by the British Government in a massive archive about the worldwide post-World War Two decolonisation process.

Those published documents inform us that, among all the other questions that had to be resolved as part of the “Merdeka Process” — including notably the question of citizenship and the timing of independence — there was also considerable discussion, and some basic difference, even between the various Alliance Party partners about what the name of the new independent political entity should be.

The main non-Malay partner parties, the MCA and MIC, favoured the simple, unadorned and declarative name of “Malaya”.

For them it acknowledged the country’s Malay background and history but spoke of an entity, like “British Malaya”, that by now was not exclusively Malay. This was the meaning that the term “Malaya” had popularly acquired during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Umno had other ideas. It put a different proposal. Surprisingly, we may now think, they favoured a bold, new forward-looking name. Perhaps echoing Emerson, in the course of the Merdeka negotiations they proposed the name “Malaysia”.

This innovation won little support or enthusiasm from anyone, not from the Umno’s allies or from the retreating English.

In the end a compromise was reached, one of minimal disruption, of maximum continuity. Following the collapse of the 1946 Malayan Union proposals, the Federation of Malaya or “Persekutuan Tanah Melayu” was created in 1948.

As the country inched, and then sped, towards independence in the mid-1950s under Umno impetus, a compromise proposal was put and accepted. In the interests of a reassuring continuity, a line of minimal disturbance, or of least resistance, was ultimately favoured.

To minimise the possibility of contentious differences erupting among the Alliance partners, and also to evident British satisfaction, the continuity between the new independent sovereign nation and the political arrangements from which it was to emerge would be emphasised.

All parties accordingly agreed simply to preserve and extend the use of the current name.

A new nation, perhaps, this was. But it was a familiar name, a known country in the otherwise often bewildering post-colonial kaleidoscope.

So “The Federation of Malaya” or “Persekutuan Tanah Melayu” it was to be.

The compromise was accepted by all. But things might well have been otherwise. History could so easily have been different — if only Umno had got its way.

Had the Umno had its initial way, the new sovereign independent nation would have been named and known from the start in 1957 as “Malaysia”.

“These,” if I may quote a far greater man than myself, “are the facts of history”.

* Clive S. Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

  1. #1 by dagen on Thursday, 10 March 2011 - 4:37 pm

    Dr mamak as usual writes history books based on his remarkable knowledge and famously good memories.

  2. #2 by yangturk on Thursday, 10 March 2011 - 5:54 pm

    “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” – Dr Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany and … Dr Mamak

  3. #3 by waterfrontcoolie on Thursday, 10 March 2011 - 11:13 pm

    someone wanted to present his book to me for reading, i told him to punch a hole so that I can’t put a string through it and hang it in my bathroom for my reading and can use it if I decided not to read it!

  4. #4 by Not spoon fed on Thursday, 10 March 2011 - 11:45 pm

    How come Mahathir could remember this? Thought he now often absent-minded as he often replied “I don’t know”.

  5. #5 by tak tahan on Thursday, 10 March 2011 - 11:54 pm

    Aiyoh Te..ruk.This remind me of 70ties where people hang ‘pang sai chua’ in jamban with a string hooked on the wall’s nail.Ya!after used it,don’t forget to paste it on Tokku’s face,our new bitter rambutan’s member.Wow!the captcha is getting more fanciful as the days passed.Tolong la be more lenient.

  6. #6 by nic on Friday, 11 March 2011 - 10:54 am

    The Methodist Mission came to this region in the 19th century. One of their major work was education & the establishment of the Methodist Schools. In 1891, they had a monthly publication called the “Malaysia Message”. The word “Malaysia” was used even at that time. (Their history can be read at their website). Looks like the word “Malaysia” was not coined in the 20th century.

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