The Peaceful Path We Chose Towards Independence

M. Bakri Musa
13th October 2015

The third defining moment in Malay culture was the peaceful path we chose towards independence. The Malay world was turned upside down with colonization; it altered the physical as well as social landscape. The latter was even more profound and threatening.

Despite that, and defying the trend of the time, we opted for this peaceful path through negotiations and collaborations in pursuit of our independence.

If one were to stroll along the countryside of pre-colonial Malaysia, there would of course be no paved roads. One would have to literally cut a swath through the thick jungle. The only practical route for travel was by rivers and waterways.

The British built roads and replaced the thick jungle with neat rows of identical, boring but highly productive rubber trees. As for the rivers, once teeming with fish, they were now like kopi susu (cafe au lait) from the contamination of brown sediments from the ubiquitous tin mines.

Those earlier mines were of the cheap, primitive and labor-intensive hydraulic variety. Water under high pressure was blasted onto the hillside to get to the heavier tin ore underneath the surface. The thin but rich topsoil would be washed away, polluting streams and rivers.

The rubber estates on the other hand presented a serene scene. However, behind that cool green scenery, the rubber industry too was (and still is) highly polluting. If you happen to be anywhere near a rubber factory where those sheets are being dried, if the offensive stench does not get you then the acrid smoke certainly will. Processing the seemingly pure white latex is also extremely toxic, requiring corrosive formic acid and vast quantities of water that then also pollute the streams and water tables.

To colonial economists, that pollution is merely an externality; remediation efforts would only reduce profits. Besides, the victims were Malay villagers anyway. For them however, the streams that previously provided much-needed proteins through their fish were now barren. Worse, with the silting came frequent devastating floods.

The degradations of the environment offended not just the esthetics but also physical senses. Yet what really affected Malay sensibilities were the equally dramatic, fast moving, and very unsettling changes to the social landscape. Malays felt an existential threat by the presence of the massive hordes of foreigners brought in to work the tin mines and rubber estates.

This monumental change to the social landscape would have remained hidden and subtle had it not been for the tumultous changes in the mining industry. Those primitive, labor-intensive hydraulic mines soon gave way to the efficient, mechanized, floating dredges. Suddenly thousands of coolies were no longer needed and forced to leave the mines. They settled on Malay lands.

Soon hitherto Malay towns like Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur changed character in dramatic ways. Instead of Azzan you would hear gongs; instead of the fragrance of the lady-of-the-night flowers we had the eye-searing smoke from burning joss sticks.

With English schools being built in towns and non-Malays eagerly enrolling their children, no doubt influenced by the successes of the Queen’s Chinese, it did not take long for non-Malays to control the modern sectors of Malaysian life, especially the economy.

It was this social change that Malays found threatening and motivated our leaders to seek independence as soon as possible so our destiny would be under our control. This nationalistic zeal was further emboldened when we saw the ease with which the British were routed during World War II.

Malaysia’s peak struggle for independence was fortuitously timed with the period of worldwide de-colonization. The shame of colonization finally struck the conscience of the Western world, mocking their very concept of being civilized. Colonization betrayed the hollowness of their supposedly humanitarian Christian principles.

That realization alone was not enough for the British to give up their resource-rich colony. The country now was no longer exclusively Malay; it had a substantial immigrant population. The British had just gone through the harrowing experience with the Indian independence and the ensuing horrific human tragedies. The stain and stench of that epic human-made catastrophe was still heavy on British hands. They were not about to let that happen again to any of their other colonies.

Fortunately Malay leaders at the time, at least the more thoughtful and enlightened ones, were aware of the British dilemma. The only way the country could achieve independence was to convince the colonials that those non-Malays would not be massacred once the civilizing presence of the British was gone, and that Malays could live side by side with non-Malays, or at least tolerate their presence. In short, our leaders assured the British that the Indian horror would not be repeated on the Malay Peninsula.

Wise Malay leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak sought formal workable relationships with like-minded leaders from the Chinese and Indian communities. The Tunku and Tun Razak sought those leaders who were not among the recent immigrants who tended to be chauvinistic and thus unacceptable to Malays. Rather they chose those who had been in Malaysia for generations and were in tune with Malay sensitivities – the Straits Chinese and old established Indian leaders. Thus was born the Alliance Party, comprising the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).

Alliance’s resounding success in the first general elections of 1955 in which its only manifesto was the country’s independence convinced the British that this group of leaders would not turn the country into a miniature Indian nightmare.

To be sure, they were not the first to aspire leading Malaysia towards independence. For Malays, there were the traditional village leaders who scored high on the nationalism zeal but were pathetically inept in their strategic thinking. They were also woefully ignorant in the art of modern statecraft.

If those were not already significant weaknesses, they were also ignorant of British ways. How could they when they had never left their kampong or could hardly speak English? The key to winning a war is to know your adversary, as Lao Tze put it in his The Art of War. Those village Malay leaders were severely handicapped in that regard.

Their other weakness, and a very significant one, was that while they were committed to getting rid of colonial rule, their goal was not the country’s independence but its subsequent union with neighboring Indonesia in a grand Melayu Raya (Malay Union). Knowing how dysfunctional that young republic was (still is, half a century later) that strategy did not strike a chord even with Malays. Had Indonesia been successful, things would have been different.

Similarly there were leaders in the Chinese community agitating for Malaysia’s independence. Like the Malay nationalists, those leaders, principally in the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), were not interested in the country’s independence but its incorporation in a Greater China, as supposedly claimed in some moldy documents of ancient Emperors. As for leaders of the Indian community, they were consumed with affairs in the subcontinent.

In the end, the path chosen by Alliance leaders proved successful. Their overwhelming electoral victory was a powerful but not the only factor to their success in gaining independence. Those leaders also knew the ways of the English and exploited that insight. Instead of relying exclusively on the goodwill of colonial bureaucrats, those leaders also cultivated Members of Parliament, especially those from the Labor Party who were sympathetic to the Malaysian cause.

The other Malay nationalists were kampong-bred and not savvy enough to negotiate the tricky path towards independence. As for Chin Peng, leader of the MCP, while he was familiar with the ways of the British having fought with them against the Japanese and proven himself sufficiently worthy of a British royal award, the OBE, nevertheless Britain was not about to let one of her richest colonies be turned over to a communist even if the Labor Party had been in power.

The Alliance prevailed because of its leaders’ political suaveness and familiarity with the British. Those leaders’ commitment to capitalism and democracy, as well as their proven track record of working across racial lines, convinced the British that Malaysia would be in good hands. Those colonialists were right.

Today with the waning popularity of Barisan Nasional, successor to the old Alliance, revisionist historians would like us to believe that it was all those leftist rabble rousers and terrorists who should get the credit for the nation’s independence.

I do not intend to demean or dismiss the huge contributions of such towering nationalists on the left as Ahmad Boestaman and on the right as Dr. Burhanuddin Al Helmy by my remarks. They were among the first to dare imagine a world of freedom, to ignite the passion for merdeka. More importantly, they kept that fire burning.

Consider Datuk Onn; he more than anyone else was responsible for galvanizing the Malay masses. It was he who frontally took on the British and his own sultan in aborting the Malayan Union Treaty that would have made Malaysia a permanent British dominion.

In the end as with everything else, it is the result that counts. UMNO leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Razak Hussein in their wisdom sought the cooperation of the other communities, and using their political skills and personal talents captured the ultimate prize. If both were alive today, I am certain that they would generously share the credit with the other nationalists. I just wish that their successors in the current UMNO would be just a wee bit charitable and not hog all the glory.

Next: Lessons From The Past

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

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