1946, when it all went wrong for us


Wong Chin Huat
The Malaysian Insider
2 July 2014

Where Malaysia is heading, with sensational news from Muslim-only Allah, Hudud for all, body-snatching, wedding gate-crashing, police defying the Common Law Courts, to now Muslims buying only from Muslims?

The common question asked by many Malaysians is either “what have gone wrong?” or “Where have we gone wrong?” The relevant question, to my mind, is neither of these but “when have we gone wrong?”

Yes, not what and where, but when. And my answer is 1946.

The ultimate question

What happened in 1946? The British who returned to Malaya after the war started their preparation for her decolonisation.

An utmost pertinent question emerged: can multiculturalism and common citizenship co-exist?

Put it bluntly, can the minorities ask for citizenship with equal rights if they refused to be assimilated?

The expectation of assimilation had its grounds, both globally and locally.

Then, the homogenous nation-state model – one nation, one state, one language, one culture — laid down by the French since their Revolution in the 18th century was the norm. Countries with diverse populations were anomalies.

Such a view was even shared by many liberals. Liberal thinker John Stuart Mill said, “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.”

In other words, cultural homogeneity or homogenisation is a pre-requisite for democracy.

Locally, thanks to the spread of both the Malay language and Islam in Nusantara by 17th-18th century, and later by the British colonial policy to back and consolidate the Malay kingdoms to facilitate their indirect colonial rule, Malays became a composite ethno-religious category.

If you embraced Islam and you spoke Malay, you could be absorbed as Malays. This was not limited to Minangkabaus, Bugis, Acehnese, Mendalings, Banjarese or later Javanese, but also the Arabs and Indian Muslims.

In early 20th Century, the last two groups were once called Darah Keturuan Arab (DKA) and Darah Keturunan Keling (DKK) and greatly resented by Nusantaran Malays for taking up economic shares as Malays.

The resentment against the Arab- and Indian-Malays subsided when the non-Muslim and non-Malay-speaking Chinese and Indians were seen as the real threat to the Malays.

Hence, by 1946, Malays – not withstanding their parochial loyalty to their states and cultures – had become a culturally defined “melting pot” ethnic group, not unlike America, France or even China.

The 1946 question, reframed in this lens, would be: should the Chinese and Indians be given equal rights if they refused to be “melted”?

The Yes and No struggles

Offering a liberal naturalisation scheme to the Chinese and Indians, the Malayan Union proposed by the British was a “Yes”.

Years later, “the Malaysian Malaysia” idea espoused by People’s Action Party (PAP) and later Democratic Action Party (DAP) is a “Yes”.

The Malays in 1946 answered the question with a loud “No”, which was embodied in the formation of Umno.

And the replacement of the Malayan Union by Persekutuan Tanah Melayu (Federation of Malaya) indicated the victory of the “No” camp.

It did not only establish Umno’s hegemony, but also dictated why we have a centralised and rigid federal system when most federations elsewhere exist to accommodate and manage differences between rival groups.

If accommodation was the goal, the Malayan Union – a multi-ethnic unitary state – should have been kept as the Federation of Malaya was really a federation of Malay ethnocracies.

The 1957 compromises

The “No” victory was however soon cut short by the eruption of the Communist insurgency. Malay nationalists were forced by the British to recognise the reality of the de facto civil war at home and cold war at the global level.

This led to Umno founder-president Dato Onn’s championing of the radical idea of opening up Umno to the non-Malays and his eventual departure from the party.

The electoral challenge posed by Dato Onn’s Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) then forced Umno to cooperate with MCA at the local level for the 1952 Kuala Lumpur Municipal Election.

The success of this ad-hoc experiment sealed the rule of the game for multi-ethnic politics. By 1955, when the Alliance swept 51 out of 52 seats contested in Malaya, it was already a tripartite coalition speaking the language of moderation and accommodation.

The ethnocratic aspiration of Umno was diluted but not completely abandoned. The outcome of pragmatism of all sides was the Merdeka Compromises with three important quid-pro-quo deals.

The first was on citizenship. In exchange for the jus soli principle which would allow most non-Malays to obtain citizenship, special status was granted for the Malays.

Interestingly and perfectly consistent with the historical evolution of the Malayan Malays, Malays are defined not by biological lineage, but by religion, language, custom and the geographical origin of Malaya or Singapore. In other words, this is an open melting pot that one can opt in.

The second was on religion. Religious freedom was guaranteed on two counter-conditions: first, Islam – already the official religion for the Malay states – was made the religion of the Federation; and second, written as a proviso to the constitutional provision itself, religious conversion can only be one-way, from non-Muslims to Muslims.

The third was on language. Linguistic freedom was guaranteed with the establishment of Bahasa Melayu as the national language as the corresponding parallel. At the policy level, the Chinese- and Tamil-medium schools would stay but the ultimate goal would be unifying all schools with the Malay language.

Reading together the three exchanges of the Merdeka Compromise and the constitutional definition of the Malays, Malaya was a gentle and gradual nation-building project to eventually make everyone a Malay.

The project had two tools: first, the differential in citizenship right as an inducement; second, the protectionist environment that prevents the minority faiths and languages from flourishing fully and competing with Islam and Bahasa Melayu.

The phrasing out of Malaya by the larger federation of Malaysia did not change this project. Rather, the project of building a Malay nation-state just became the de facto Malaysia.

East Malaysian leaders who stood in the way of the Malayanisation process were either ousted (Stephen Kalong Ningkan) or ousted then tamed (Donald Stephens and Pairin Joseph Kitingan).

The de-legitimation of plural society

The ultimate goal of building a mono-ethnic nation-state is well entrenched in the officialdom and indoctrinated through historical textbook. By secondary school, Malaysians are taught that the plural society is basically a threat or challenge to national unity.

And its emergence is reduced to two simple factors, both tied to the colonial history: first, the importation of the Chinese and the Indians as mining and agricultural workers; second, the failure of the Colonial Government to have them assimilated, primary by allowing the development of separate education systems.

This anti-diversity discourse in simplified anti-colonial language – using convenient short-hands like “divide and rule” – ignores two important facts.

First and foremost, if there was any ground of such discourse for Malaya, Malaya has been replaced by the larger Malaysia and the Bornean Malaysia was never Malay countries.

Sabah and Sarawak did have plural societies and melting-pot-style amalgamation by a single dominant faith or language never happened, as it did in Malaya.

Second, even in Malaya, the story was never thorough. Chinese miners in Perak and Selangor were much brought in by rivalling Malay chieftains, with whom they later took sides in the Malay civil wars. Most tellingly, Chinese immigrants in Johor were mainly brought in by Temenggung Ibrahim and his son Sultan Abu Bakar, who had not a single drop of English blood.

In other words, the immigrant communities were really more the natural consequence of capitalist development, much like why we have millions of foreign workers today, rather than some colonial conspiracy.

The crime of honesty

Lacking a nuanced and honest analysis of our colonial history de-legitimises our multiethnic society, making it something needs to be tolerated and contained rather than celebrated or advanced.

It also de-legitimises secularism and democracy, which are seen as part of the post-colonial order.

The 1957 order was shifted in 1969 to be more pro-Malay in the aftermath of the May 13 riot.

The 2008 political tsunami marked the beginning of a counter-shift towards centre, against the excesses of the 1969 shift.

The controversies staged by Perkasa, Isma and Utusan are but efforts to stop or reverse this counter shift. From their standpoints, these are rational moves that should not surprise anyone really.

After all, if the 1957 model of gentle and gradual assimilation is the unquestioned premise, then really the measure of moderation would be just really about gentleness and gradualness, much like how much heat you apply to a slow cooker so that a live frog in it would believe it is having a spa treatment.

Then, Perkasa, Isma and Utusan of course are gravely guilty of honesty. – July 2, 2014.

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  1. #1 by winstony on Thursday, 3 July 2014 - 7:49 am

    I think that even a society as diverse as ours can be a progressive one.
    All it takes is just one good man at the helm of the country.
    What it takes is a leader with capability, integrity, sincerity, conscientiousness and inclusivity to succeed.
    But just look at what the ruling party has been doing.
    It has gone all out to create chasms among the various races and religions.
    That’s what President Maliki of Iraqi has been doing since taking over power.
    And look at what Iraqi is today!
    A total irrevocable mess.

    • #2 by cemerlang on Thursday, 3 July 2014 - 10:24 pm

      Just one good man is weak. You need a whole lot of good men to support that one good man in order to make the good work. You need the wisdom to know how to make the good work. You need to know how to make the evil work for the good.

  2. #3 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 3 July 2014 - 10:24 am

    Its a good thesis. But the fact of the matter is the west has won the pluralism debate. Technology won the pluralism debate. In the US, an NFL player kissed a guy on national TV. The debate on pluralism is over..

    Wong Chin Huat fail to argue the stark reality. The “No” people are just wrong, falling behind, fueled by the delusion of UMNO’s political narcotic. Also, as pointed out, the whole trend is allowed simply because conditions permits, compromised made just as much along the way by bigger factors then their abilities. The same will happen when luck runs out for their flawed systems.

  3. #4 by good coolie on Thursday, 3 July 2014 - 4:05 pm

    Don’t worry, we will be united as we were when the Japanese, Communists, and Indonesians were attacking us. We will be united when the Boko Harams and ISILs and Abu- this and Abu- that attack us. When everyone stands to lose, it would make sense to the nation to unite.
    The horrible part is that people don’t realise that the country is already half-occupied by foreigners, and I don’t mean the old Pendatangs.

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