Comments on “Colonial rule (1): British played favourites with the various races”

By batsman 

Writing of history needs plenty of interpretative skills. After all, what is known are the actions and policies. What went into the thinking and motives behind these actions are often unknown and have to be interpreted.

Dr. Azly seems to propose that a similar effort be made in the Malaysian context with regard to Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the USA”. I fully support this and it is with this in mind that I make the following comments with slightly differing interpretations. 

The history with regards to the period 1920 – 1940 seems to be written from a Chinese perspective (after all, the writer is Chinese). The Chinese are characterized as immigrants and passive victims tragically manipulated at every turn by the British who had a policy of favouring the Malays because of their unalienable birthright. In a way this is a double tragedy because it plays into the hands of the British divide and rule policies which the writer himself seems to be critical of. 

The sad part of such an interpretation is that there is no lesson to be learnt for future generations. For lessons to be gleaned, it is necessary to investigate the active participation of the various races in the designs of the British colonial government. 

The British found fertile soil for their divide and rule policies. Even as we criticize these policies, we need to take cognizance of the role played by our ancestors in furthering and aiding these policies. 

While there are plenty of everyday examples of mutual cooperation between the races with regard to commercial and profit making activities (e.g. ali baba enterprises), almost all rebellions against colonial rule were single race affairs. 

The rebellions of Tok Janggut and Mat Kilau of the early 20th century did not involve Chinese or Indians and neither did the Naning Wars. Similarly the communist rebels who came onto the scene only much later found it difficult to get Malays and Indians involved even though some marginal effort was made. 

If Malaysia is to reach true nationhood it is necessary for the races not only to share prosperity but to share adversity. Malaysian history must offer such lessons to new generations. 

The British favoured the Malays because they were fearful of them and in the same way, the British were anti-Chinese because the British dismissed the Chinese as immigrants and triad gangsters. I think this makes for a better people’s history of Malaysia. 

Malay society was better politically organized and the sultans still commanded the loyalty of the Malay masses even if they were split among various Malay states. This represented a more serious threat to British rule if ever the Malays were to rise in rebellion. The excuse that the British saw Malaya as Malay birthright is nonsense. The British saw themselves as the lords and masters of Malaya and only respected power. 

In contrast, the Chinese were much less politically organized and without any political demands whatsoever. The most powerful organizations among the Chinese were the clans and triads. These, the British could dismiss as criminal elements and they were handled as such in British policies. 

It is therefore no accident that the British designed policies that placated the Malays to keep them loyal and placid and suppressed the Chinese as criminal elements. 

When the communists started to organize, mainly among the Chinese community in response to Chinese indignation at the carving up of China by western powers, the British just promoted the Chinese from being gangsters and triad members to terrorists and communist party members. 

It was only when the communists became a national force to be reckoned with that the British took their new found power into account and proposed the Malayan Union with broad citizenship rights. Unfortunately this did not sit well with the Malay nationalists, and with waning power of socialists at the military defeats of the communists and rising Malay nationalism, the political manipulations of the British changed again according to circumstances. 

The lesson to be learnt here is that as long as the various races do not act in concert or alienate each other with self-interested race or religious oriented demands, the people of Malaysia will always be victims of divide and rule tactics. 

Granted Dr. Cheah Boon Kheng is not a left leaning activist like Howard Zinn, but the minimum any history of Malaysia should contribute is to allow for lessons to be gleaned for future generations, not for UMNO to use to justify their divide and rule tactics.