Malay Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism

Bakri Musa
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Oct 28 2015

Malays actively shunned and refused to participate in the various colonial endeavors even those that could potentially benefit us. Instead we undertook a form of passive resistance, utilizing what John C Scott refers to as “weapons of the weak.”

While these everyday forms of passive resistance may not grab headlines, nonetheless they are akin to the cumulative accumulation of the coral reefs. In the aggregate and over time they exert a profound impact. When the ship of state runs aground on such reefs, attention is directed to the shipwreck and not to the aggregations of petty acts that made those treacherous reefs possible.

So was the Malayan Union initiative shipwrecked upon a reef of resentment and resistance that had quietly been building up and concretized over time.

Of course the weapon of the weak had its price. As those brave little acts of defiance did not fit the colonials’ narrative of us as being “nature’s gentlemen,” they had to invent new ones. Thus was born the myth of the lazy native that later became the colonialists’ convenient justification for bringing in those indentured laborers.

Those tribulations notwithstanding, we should realize that even in the most evil system there are slivers of good and of individuals with goodwill within it. In our rightful condemnation of colonization we must also be aware of the good colonization had brought to our society, whether those were intentional or merely unintended consequences.

Then there were those enlightened colonial officers who were sympathetic to our cause. There was for example, R J Wilkinson who was instrumental in setting up Malay College in 1905, and Richard Winstedt, the Sultan Idris Training College in 1922.

The British also outlawed some of the more odious aspects of our culture, like slavery and indentured labor (orang hamba). They also brought in modern education and the rubber industry. Yes, they also burdened our land with a race problem that we are still grappling with.

Seeing that we could not possibly prevail if we were to frontally confront the colonials, nonetheless we could have through our leaders arranged a workable accommodation instead of shunning the colonials entirely. Then they would not have to import those cheap foreign labors. More importantly, the colonials then would not have to concoct those ugly myths about us.

With our leaders’ encouragement we could have participated in those colonial ventures and learned something from them, much like Munshi Abdullah did. Likewise, had we not projected wholly evil motives on the part of the colonials we could have encouraged our children to attend the much superior English schools. Had we done so, our community would not have been left so far behind come time of independence.

After all, our leaders (including and especially the sultans) readily corroborated with the colonials. They unabashedly absorbed the ways of the English and lapped up any scrap of British title bestowed upon them. The sultans and aristocrats did not hesitate in sending their children to English schools, even their daughters to those “convents.”

Our leaders should have likewise encouraged the rakyats to do the same and not have double standards – one for them and another for the rest. Our leaders were hypocrites in being shameless anglophiles while condemning the colonials in front of the rakyats.

This was in stark contrast with the way we dealt with the coming of Islam. Both leaders and rakyats were honest with each other; we were all on the same wavelength, each supporting the other in their collective and united response to this new force.

Another reason I did not give top marks to our encounter with colonization was this. We failed to differentiate the significant differences between the various colonizers. They may all be Europeans, but there were vast differences between the Dutch and Portuguese on one hand, and the British on the other. For the Dutch, look what they did to Indonesia; for the Portuguese, Angola and East Timor.

As far as colonials go, the British were slightly on the benign side; their Anglo Saxon ethics and sense of fairness are worthy of our emulation. Besides, being the nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution they had something to teach the world, and that included Malays.

Had we embraced the technological modernization that the British had to offer just as enthusiastically as we did the spiritual values of Islam, we could have had the best of both worlds; the British for our material and worldly needs; Islam our spiritual and “other worldly” yearnings.

That we did not embrace the modernization brought in by the British reflected our own insecurity with Islam. We feared that the infidel colonials would “contaminate” our Islamic values. By not partaking in the educational and other opportunities afforded by the British (scarce as they were), we put ourselves at a significant disadvantage vis a vis the other communities in Malaysia that harbored no such reservations.

Imagine had we enthusiastically utilized the British influence to enhance our literature and language, or learn trading skills from the nation of shopkeepers. Our national language would by now be fully developed and we would be accomplished entrepreneurs. Instead, we were obsessed with maintaining the “purity” of our language to the extent of avoiding obvious words like “radio” preferring instead our very own native and “pure” tetuang udara (lit. pouring out air), no matter how awkward that sounded.

Ironically, Malay language expanded exponentially only after independence when we, without reservations adopted wholesale English words even when there were perfectly adequate Malay ones!

As for trading skills, we missed out on the Arabs and again with the English. No wonder today we have only the pseudo variety of entrepreneurs in our midst.

Next: Imagining Otherwise

Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

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  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 3 November 2015 - 8:58 am

    The truth is the Malays WANTED to be like their Colonial Masters and in fact that is what they have ended trying to do as evidence by what they have done to minorities and Sabah in particular..

    THIS is in contrast to what Lee Kuan Yew and his co-horts thought. Lee Kuan Yew thought HE COULD DO A BETTER JOB THAN THE BRITISH after the experience with Japanese occupation, Singapore set out to DO BETTER than the British and did so, UMNO set out TO BE LIKE THE BRITISH and did no better than them..

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