Remembering 500 years of colonialism

— Tommy Thomas
The Malaysian Insider
Oct 05, 2011

OCT 5 — The Malay Peninsula was colonised 500 years ago this year, and its significance in our history should be marked in some way by universities and scholars. We should be having public seminars and academic conferences to remember and discuss this aspect of our history in its 500th anniversary. I am surprised that nearly half a year has passed, and no university has publicly announced any such initiative.

Remembering that the Malay Peninsula was colonised half a millennium ago is one way to remind the post-independence generation of Malaysians to be grateful for Merdeka. It is critical to teach the present generation about the dangers of empire and colonialism so that we can celebrate what independence means and pay tribute to the people who fought for it. Parts of the Malay Peninsula have only experienced 54 years of self-governance since 1511 when the Portuguese invaded and colonised Malacca. Soon after the founding of Malacca by Parameswara in 1403, it rapidly developed into a major entrepot in Southeast Asia, with traders from the Indonesian archipelago, China, India and Arabia crowding its marketplace. Admiral Cheng Ho led the then greatest naval expedition to Malacca and could have easily taken Malacca by force. The Chinese did not do that; instead, they were content to allow Malacca to govern itself through the Malacca Sultanate. Hence, throughout the 15th century, no foreign power colonised Malacca.

Four different colonial powers

Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Calcutta in 1498 after discovering the Cape of Good Hope route saw the first European presence in India, from which the Portuguese launched their violent takeover of Malacca in 1511. The Portuguese were not content to trade in the markets of Malacca like all the other traders. The urge to dominate, combined with their sense of racial superiority, led the Portuguese to use force to conquer Malacca. Control and monopoly of the lucrative spice traded in the markets of Malacca were primary objectives of the Portuguese.

In the 446 years between 1511 and 1957, Malaya was colonised by three European powers and one Asian. The Portuguese colonised Malacca from 1511 to 1641 and the Dutch from 1641 to 1824. The British were in Malaya from 1786 to 1941 when the Japanese invaded and took over until 1945. The British then returned to continue their rule over Malaya until 1957, when the country gained independence. Additionally, for a period of 38 years between 1786 and 1824, two European powers ruled parts of Malaya — the British over Penang and the Dutch over Malacca.

Malaysia’s colonial history was probably unique in the annals of imperialism in that we were colonised by four different foreign powers. Does this suggest that we were a valuable colony? Being wary of different forms of colonialism and standing united against foreign occupation, rather than jingoism that pits the different races against each other in our plural society, is true nationalism. However critical we may be of our government and institutions, at the end of the day, we must be grateful that Malaysia is an independent, sovereign nation which justly has a place in the world community.

Likewise, however critical one is of colonial rule, it must be conceded that colonialism had some redeeming factors. Thus, Malaysia benefited from some colonial legacies such as the civil service and the educational, transportation and legal systems, parliamentary democracy and the English language. How enduring the effect of empire is, is difficult to measure because Malaysians were resilient to foreign influence, having retained our religions, culture, food, dress and other aspects of our identity, despite the presence of various colonial powers and the duration of colonialism.

New forms of imperialism

Since Merdeka, Malaysia enjoys the best of relations with the four colonial powers. Should we seek reparations from each of them or at least a public apology are matters worthy of public debate. There is no threat of Malaysia being colonised again through brutal invasion by any of its four former colonisers. However, it is a terrible regret that colonialism of this nature still exists in the 21st century. The US is the most dangerous colonial power in the 21st century. Since September 11, 2001 the US has invaded and occupied two sovereign states — Iraq and Afghanistan — in the old-fashioned way. Both countries remain colonised, even though Osama bin Laden has been executed and the public justification for invading Afghanistan has disappeared. There was none for Iraq.

Malaysia is fortunate in that we are not deemed to be of strategic importance to the policy-makers in Washington and hence, Malaysia is not likely to be occupied by the US. Malaysians must count their blessings that in the geo-strategic plans of the Pentagon and the CIA, we are low on the radar, particularly since neighbours like Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand are more supportive of US interests.

Over time, new forms of imperialism have developed. Thus, financial, economic and cultural imperialism have emerged. Hollywood films and an obsession with English football are subtle types of contemporary cultural imperialism which Malaysians are addicted to.

It is vital for public discussion to take place on the effects of empire and imperialism. It is not healthy to pretend that we were never under colonial yoke, and that our history only began with Merdeka in 1957. Can the debate begin? —

  1. #1 by k1980 on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 9:28 am

    Will the Prof Zainal Keling now resign or forced to resign for asserting that the country was never colonised?

  2. #2 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 10:01 am

    Colonised 500 years ago?

    You forget that 1,500 years or more ago we were colonised by Hindus, Thais and Javanese etc under Majapahit, Srivijaya, Sailendras, Fu Nan, Gangga Negara, Kalinga, Langkasuka, Sukhotai and other Thais.

    Dont forget the many Turks, Yemenis, Arabs, Sumatrans, Bugis etc etc who came and stayed on and ‘colonised’ us here.

    All these people came over and settled here, hence ‘colonised’ us even then.

    The mat sallehs however left so where is their ‘colony’? They did not stay on except for a few strays.

    So look back, waaaaaay back to early history and get things right.

  3. #3 by Godfather on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 12:12 pm

    What about the idiotic lecturer who said that we were never colonised ? And some bigwigs in UMNO who agreed with him ? Is this lecturer going to apologise or, as with most things in Bolehland, he is going to get promoted and get to be his university’s vice chancellor one day ?

  4. #4 by boh-liao on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 1:33 pm

    Sure or not aah, we kena colonised 4 so long? Who r U, Tommy, 2 write so? U got PhD or Prof title or not 1? Got power 2 challenge d kangkong kangkong prof meh?

  5. #5 by dagen on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 1:37 pm

    We were never colonised? So what was the “merdeka merdeka merdeka” thingy all about? Ah how stupid of me. Orgy. Thats what it is. Shiok sendiri. See umno started this orgy habit right from the begining. And what did they say about old habits?

  6. #6 by monsterball on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 3:35 pm

    Suddenly…Myhuddin recall we were colonized by the British.
    Yip..shouts of “Merdeka…..Merdeka…..Merdeka” are meaningless if we are not colonized by the British.
    It takes him so long to think and understand that.

  7. #7 by monsterball on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 3:38 pm

    The fun starts now…who is Chin Peng …fighting the British.
    As there are millions considers by Najib as traitors…nothing surprises any smart Malaysians anymore.

  8. #8 by on cheng on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 3:54 pm

    Yes, the USA is the most devilish colonizer of the 21st century !! and also of that the world had ever seen for the last 120 years !!

  9. #9 by on cheng on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 3:57 pm

    bloody USA had colonized many countries since 1945

  10. #10 by Loh on Thursday, 6 October 2011 - 4:00 pm

    The land, the territory bound by the shores of Malaysia might have been colonized at different time by different powers, the people now are not colonized by external power, but by UMNO Bahru. UMNO Bahru creates its own history either to claim that Malaysia had never been colonized, based on its interpretation of whether the British Advisors were persons with technical knowledge or absolute power. UMNO Bahru only chooses the period which suits its interest for propaganda. They could also choose 1969 after May 13 to claim that this land belongs to only one race. But then Sabah and Sarawak were British colonies before they joined Project Malaysia. They can’t belong to Malays. In fact in the 1960 Census conducted in Sabah, there were only 6,000 inhabitants classified as Malays. Also Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah and Perak were part of Thailand handed over to the British as British colonies in 1918.

    Malaysia was only formed in 1963, and there is a written constitution for this country. The rights of the people are protected by the constitution. Whatever happened in the past are of interest to historians and others to learn about causes and consequences. History should not change the character of the nation. It is true that with two-thirds majority, the people in power have the full authority to change provisions in the constitution. What had been changed in the past can be undone, and there should be no violent reactions, and people should not organize acts of violence. If the spirit of democracy is recognized, and if the people are not brainwashed into believing that they have no responsibilities in life, and that their leaders owe them a living so long as they vote once every four years to perpetuate tyranny of democracy so that they get a share of effortless dividends, they will not be condemned to low-quality living. Much less would they talk about dignity as Najib made a passing reference recently still harping on manipulating quota among races, which should have been removed 21 years ago.

  11. #11 by asia on Sunday, 9 October 2011 - 9:18 am

    All are immigrants

    except Orang Asli and native people of East Malaysia

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