1965 – Not Quite Keeping it Together

The first time I visited Malaysia I stepped off a Qantas flight from New Delhi with my wife and children, and half an hour later we were whisked away from Kuala Lumpur to visit an oil palm plantation outside Teluk Intan.  In 1975 it was called Teluk Anson, named after the last lieutenant governor of Penang in 1882, the local government officer who’d drawn up a map to develop the township (it reverted back to Teluk Intan in 1982).  We stayed in the magnificent home of the Sime Darby plantation manager, John.  Apart from servants, he lived there alone, his family back in the UK:  we were treated like royalty, and enjoyed the grounds, the pool, and the bar (drinks after 4 pm).  After ten days, we went down to Kuala Lumpur, there overnight before flying on to Australia.  The visit marked the beginning of my strange fascination with Malaysia, a country I appreciate through a mixture of admiration, amazement, despair and frustration.

John didn’t waste much time on history.  Rather, he wanted to show off his plantation, as he was one of the first to convert from rubber trees to oil palms.  I watched latex being tapped from trees, and palm nuts being pulverized to extract their oil.  We were taken through the plantation, accompanied at times by monkeys running around us, watched birds and looked for crocodiles in the Perak River  He treated us to the tourist delights.  We were taken up into the Cameron Highlands, staying at the magnificent 1930s colonial style Cameron Highlands Resort Hotel, chased and caught Raja Brooke butterflies, and visited the Boh Tea plantation.  We ate a magnificent Chinese banquet in Teluk Anson, courtesy of the local millionaire (next morning, John played golf with the town’s Malay prince, keeping a necessary balance ).  Just briefly one day John took me aside to reassure me:  he showed me a revolver, some sealed papers, a short wave radio, and a boat kept by the Perak River.  “Just a precaution.  All arranged since 1965, in case the communists come.  We’ll be fine.  Don’t worry:  I keep the Chinese and the Malays on side.”  I hadn’t been worrying, except over the children falling in the river, but now I wondered.

Once in Australia, work took over, and Malaysia disappeared from my attention.  I didn’t return there for thirteen years.  When I did, I was taking part in a regional meeting of management organisations in Kuala Lumpur, and when I arrived I couldn’t recognise the city.  Before it had seemed rather like an overlarge town, and the hotel we’d stayed in stood out:  I think it was 15 stories high.  Now KL was a major city, with huge buildings, stores and busy roads, and the old Parkroyal Hotel looked like a dowdy remnant from another era.  It was hot and humid, with people, scooters and motorbikes everywhere, and yet it was curiously laid back:  it wasn’t just the weather, but rather that the Malay attitude appeared to be centred around the belief that things would get done, but not just now, and not in a rush!  This was the beginning of over 20 years of visits, sometimes as many as 5 or 6 a year, and from the start I wanted to know more, about the culture, the people I saw, the politics, and even about John and his revolver.  As it turned out, once more in my life I was to discover history matters!

The recent history of Malaysia takes us back to the days of the British East India Company, and its attempts to control access to resources, especially spices, gemstones, types of timber, and various fruits.  The first four settlements were in Penang, Singapore, Malacca and Dinding (now the southwestern part of Perak, an area that included Pangkor Island). These were the trading post locations the company had set up in 1826, soon to become part of the British Empire.  The Crown Colony of the Straits Settlements was established in 1858, adding in Christmas Island, the Cocos Islands and Labuan (off the cost of Borneo).

Of course, things didn’t stop there, as the British continued their takeover of the area.  By 1896, it had established the Federated Malay States, comprising Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang.  These four states, together with the Straits Settlements, were administered by a Governor, leaving only some minor discretionary powers to the local sultans, whose ambit was limited to matters “touching Malay Religion and Customs”.  To add to the confusion, there were the Unfederated Malay States, Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu, each a separate ‘protectorate’ of the British, all but Johor having been transferred to Britain in the Treaty of Bangkok, which had been signed with Siam in 1909.  Yes, Siam was the earlier name for Thailand!  This whole muddled set of colonies became known as ‘British Malaya’, and remained so until the Second World War.  In 1941, the Japanese invaded the peninsula, eventually occupying the whole area, once Singapore fell in February 1942.

Towards the end of the war, the British began planning for the future of the region.  Once Japan was defeated, they commenced discussions with the rulers of the various states, and the Sultans, agreed to the formation of a Malayan Union, a colony under the jurisdiction of a British Governor.  Why the Sultans agreed is still debated, but it’s been suggested one issue was that they were concerned they might be charged with collaboration during the Japanese  period of occupation, and might even be ‘dethroned’.  Whatever the reason, the Malayan Union was established in 1946, bringing together the states in the Federated Malay States, the Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlements, except for Singapore, which remained a separate Crown Colony.  However, Labuan was soon transferred to the newly formed British North Borneo; much later the Cocos or Keeling Islands were transferred to Australian, in 1955, and Christmas island in 1958. Kuala Lumpur was established as the capital of the Union.

After all that, you might have expected things would settle down.  No way!  From Day 1, the Malays were unhappy.  They wanted the role and powers of the Sultans re-established, and the separate states given more power.  A pressure group was formed, the United Malays National Organisation, UMNO, which rapidly became a powerful coalition, remaining so through to the present day.  Learning from others, UMNO practiced civil disobedience, refused to take part in government meetings and processes, often bringing the operations of the Union to a virtual standstill.  Facing trouble at a distant outpost, the British found it easy to cave in, and after a period of consultation the Union was dissolved and replaced by the Federation of Malaya in 1948, with the Sultans almost fully restored to their former roles.  How bizarre, or how British, was the fact that the new Federation did not include Penang or Malacca, nor Singapore:  all three remained Crown Colonies.  The Federation continued for the next nine years.

While all this was going on, communist rebels, mainly Chinese living in the peninsula, carried out a continuing series of guerilla operations, determined to force the British, and hence the West, out.  The ‘Malayan Emergency’ ran from 1948 to 1960, and saw troops from the UK and from the Gurkha regiments (the Gurkhas were Nepalese) supporting the Malaysian military in fending off attacks, along with troops from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Kenya, and Rhodesia.  In 1957, Malaya became an independent member of the British Commonwealth.

In yet another twist, a plan was put in place to add the crown colonies of North Borneo (renamed as Sabah), Sarawak, and Singapore.  Sabah and Sarawak are generally referred to as Eastern Malaya (Eastern Malaysia after 1965).  The new country was established as the Federation of Malaysia, and consistent with all the twists and turns of its 20th Century life, its political system is described as a ‘Federal Constitutional Elective Monarchy’!  The monarchy part comes from the Sultans, who convene every five years to elect from their membership the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king), who would serve for five years before the position moved to another Sultan.  That explains the  elective monarchy part.  Otherwise the government is a system not unlike Australia or the US, with a House of Representatives and a Senate.  Australian style, the party (or parties) with a majority in the House form government, while nearly half the Senators are elected by the states.  Confused?  At least you can see why I found the country fascinating, and there’s more!

By 1963, all that messy history ensured a number of major tensions.  Sabah and Sarawak had an uncomfortable relationship with peninsula Malaya.  Four of the five Unfederated Malay Sates, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu, saw themselves as unlike the rest, a definition resting to some degree on their being more orthodox followers of Islam, making them suspicious of the looser practices down south.  If communist rebels within Malaysia had been largely defeated, there was a residual fear that they would infiltrate from the north.  This was a fear inflated by US concerns over the communists moving south through Asia, the so-called ‘domino theory’, a view which was gaining greater credence as communist aggression in Vietnam kept growing.  All this was the background to meeting John a few years later in his Perak plantation, evacuation papers in his safe, his gun and boat ready.  Yes, in 1975 there was an atmosphere of fear.

Of all the states, Singapore felt least loved.  Its relationship to the rest of the peninsula had been like a yo-yo:  one minute it was closely allied with the other states, and then the next it was being treated independently.  Back in in 1963, the ruling People’s Action Party (the PAP) was enthusiastic over being part of Malaya.  It saw real economic prospects, and a path to growth with reduced unemployment.  UMNO was less confident.  They knew PAP was divided over the communist threat from the north, but also knew stronger resistance would be ideal.  The British were keen, believing Singapore in Malaya would stop it becoming a haven for communists, despite a wing of PAP that supported communist rule.  However, UMNO was concerned that the relatively high percentage of ethnic Chinese in Singapore might threated the balance of power, diminishing the effective control of the Malays.  Into this confusing mix, Singapore joined Malaya, but managed to acquire more independence than the other states within the country.

From Day 1, it seemed likely the yo-yo relationship might start another reaction.  Disagreements began almost immediately.  Initial plans for a common market between all the member states broke down, and Singapore found itself facing trading restrictions with the rest of the federation.  It decided to reduce financial support for Sabah and Sarawak, desperately in need of economic development.  However, all this had an underpinning issue:  UMNO and PAP had very different views about the place of the Malays in the country.  The PAP, led by Lee Kuan Yew, promoted equality regardless of race or religion.  UMNO had what it called an affirmative action policy, promoting special right and privileges for indigenous Malays, the ‘bumiputeras’.  Within a year, UMNO was fielding candidates in Singapore elections, and PAP was doing the same in various states, despite prior promises to keep out of each other’s political arenas.  After months of propaganda and rallies, inevitably the tension led to violence, and a series of race riots in 1964.

The events of nearly sixty years ago remain unclear.  Malay accounts suggest some 20,000 ethnic Chinese began attacking Malays during a procession celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.  Others have argued the riots were the result of leaflets circulated to Malays, arguing the Chinese were about to destroy their lives and property.  Whatever, the spark, the riots did lead to the destruction of property, and some deaths.  Both Lee Kuan Yew and Malaya’s Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, called for an end to the violence.  However, a second set of riots broke out two months later.  By then it was too late, and the tensions between UMNO and PAP were irreconcilable.  In August 1965, Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to advise the Malaysian Parliament to expel Singapore from the Federation.  Once again, Singapore was independent, with Lee Kuan Yew as its first Prime Minister.

If Tunku Abdul Rahman had failed to keep the new country united, the expulsion of Singapore was one key part in a settling down process in overall political terms.  From 1965, Malaysia was one country, and has remained so … although the stresses and strains of the past have never completely disappeared.  Ethnic affairs have been dominant.  Nearly sixty years of the bumiputra policies have created a strange world.  Two thirds of the population are bumiputras, including the Malays on the peninsula, together with others afforded the same status in Sabah and Sarawak, where the ethnic groups include Dayaks (in the majority) and several others.  The second largest group comprises the Malaysian Chinese, around a quarter of the population, distinctive in the sense they have tended to be more dominant in the business community.  Finally, around 7% are Malaysian Indian, mainly with a Tamil background

For most of the time since 1965, UMNO has been a key political force, as the controlling party in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.  BN held government from 1957, back in the time of the Federation of Malaya, through to 2018, when the famously ‘recalcitrant’ Dr Mahathir Mohammad led the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition to victory, and on the way made him Prime Minister for the seventh time!  Will you be surprised to learn that the political scene remains a mess?  In February of 2020, Mahathir Mohammad resigned.  Apparently this was triggered by his refusal to set the date when Anwar Ibrahim would succeed him.  Malaysia watchers will know those two have had a ‘complicated’ history.  As I write, a new coalition, the Perikatan Nasional is fighting for its life having lost its majority in parliament.  If you’re bored with US or Australian politics, Malaysia offers a technicolor, even a kaleidoscopic alternative!

What all that history doesn’t tell you is about the day-to-day fascination of the area.  Singapore is modern, successful, clean, hi-tech, people work hard, and the political culture has ensured everyday obedience.  In contrast, the Malaysia I saw in 1965 is still there in 2021, stuck with an inheritance of complicated ethnic tensions.  It is far from being an economic powerhouse, often a little chaotic, and a muddled mixture of low-tech, hi-tech and no tech!  While many work hard, Malay culture is pervasive, easy going, relaxed about deadlines, funny, friendly and bordering on feckless.  Carefree and careless, I loved the people and their day-to-day lifestyle when I first went there, and it was still there the last time I visited.  For many years the vision for the country, Wawasan 2020, set the target for Malaysia joining the world’s successful developed economies.  Despite teetering on the edge of overt racial tensions and constantly battling corruption, Malaysia continues to muddle through on its hopeful path to world recognition.  Even if the Federation can’t quite keep it all together, one thing’s clear:  many Malaysians have a lifestyle to be envied.