For those in Malaya, it meant the primacy of Malay nationalism

By Janadas Devan, Senior Writer
The Straits Times

TODAY is actually the 50th anniversary of Malayan, not Malaysian, independence. Malaysia as such is six years younger, having come into existence on Sept 16, 1963. But it is perfectly natural that Malaysians should forget Sept 16 and celebrate instead Aug 31 as their founding moment.

Aug 31 was the day that Malaysia's centre of gravity - peninsula Malaya - became independent. For Malayans, as opposed to Malaysians, Sept 16 was but a way-station. Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak merged with Malaya that day; Malaya did not merge with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak.

It took Singaporeans a while to realise the implications of that historical and constitutional trajectory. Only in retrospect did it become clear that Aug 31, 1957 had rendered Sept 16, 1963 a secondary event in Malaysia's history - and Aug 9, 1965 an inevitability. Aug 31 instituted the first separation, though nobody in Singapore saw it that way in 1957; and Aug 9, the actual Separation, had its roots in the political calculations that led to the first, though nobody realised that till eight years later.

British territories in South-east Asia were a constitutional patchwork before World War II. While Singapore, Penang and Malacca - the Straits Settlements - were under direct colonial rule, the nine Malay States of peninsula Malaya were under indirect rule. The Straits Settlements had a British Governor, resident in Singapore, but the Malay States had a British High Commissioner. They were one and the same person, but wearing two distinct hats.

The Malay States were each headed by a Sultan. They were sovereign rulers with a treaty relationship with Britain. Constitutionally, the British High Commissioner had an advisory relationship with each. In Singapore, wearing the Governor's topi (hat), he had near-absolute powers; in Kuala Lumpur, wearing the High Commissioner's topi, he was legally on foreign soil.

The British considered changing this arrangement during the war, after the Japanese had booted them out of the territories. Ensconced in London, Sir Edward Gent, an official in the Colonial Office, dreamt of a Malayan Union that would encompass both the Malay States as well as the Straits Settlements - and at a latter date, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei too. But the British soon dropped Singapore from their plan. Demography forced their hand.

There were about 1.9 million Chinese living in peninsula Malaya at the end of the war in 1945, of whom 1.2 million were local-born. Including the 600,000 Indians, the non-Malay population exceeded the Malay population of 2.1 million. To have included Chinese-majority Singapore in the Malayan Union, the British decided, would have further alarmed Malays. Singapore was thus hived off as a separate crown colony.

Hiving it off though did not help the British gain Malay approval for the Malayan Union. Non-Malays generally liked the Union proposal, for it offered citizenship rights to all, regardless of race and creed. For the same reason, Malays objected, for the Union threatened their primacy. The abortive Union gave rise to divergent strains of Malayan nationalism.

Among Malays, it fostered Malay nationalism. The United Malays National Organisation (Umno) was founded in May 1946 to oppose the Union. Led by Datuk Onn Jaffar, then chief minister of Johor, the party mobilised Malays across the peninsula. Surprised by the ferocity of their opposition, the British jettisoned the Union and promulgated instead the Federation of Malaya in February 1948.

The Federation upheld the sovereignty of the Sultans and Malay special rights, and imposed tough citizenship requirements on non-Malays.

Only one-fifth of Chinese and Indians were given Malayan citizenship, though three-fifths of the Chinese and half the Indians resident then in Malaya were local-born. As one history of Malaysia observed, 'the term 'Malayan' was not recognised in the final Federation document, while Melayu was clearly reserved for those individuals who habitually spoke Malay, who professed Islam, and conformed to Malay custom.' Umno had triumphed - and it had triumphed by insisting on Malay, as opposed to Malayan, nationalism.

Malaya's constitutional development over the next 10 years, leading to Merdeka in August 1957, conformed to the pattern that Umno had established in opposing the Malayan Union. It agreed to more liberal citizenship provisions for non-Malays in independent Malaya than was provided for in the pre-independence federation, but only in return for constitutional guarantees of special Malay rights. Islam was declared the official religion and the primacy of Malay as the national language was emphasised.

The leading Malayan figures of the time - including Tunku Abdul Rahman - were sincere in their commitment to creating a Malayan identity that would transcend race. But they saw that ideal as a distant prospect. In the meantime, they established the new state on the basis of a modus vivendi between the three races, each led by a different political party. In practice, Malayan nationalism became predicated on the acceptance by everyone of the primacy of Malay nationalism.

Malayan nationalism remained strong, of course, an article of faith for many - and ironically, especially among Singaporeans. Though they had been excluded from the federation since 1945, most Singaporeans then thought of themselves as Malayan.

When the People's Action Party was founded in November 1954, for instance, it declared itself as 'interested in the problems of our fellow Malayans in the Federation as we are in those of Singapore'. And in 1958, after Malaya became independent, the party reiterated its determination to demonstrate to the 'three million Malays in the Federation that the one million Chinese in Singapore are ready, willing and able to be absorbed as one Malayan people, all able to speak Malay'.

It took eight years for Singaporeans to realise that Malayan nationalism, as they had conceived it, did not coincide with Malayan nationalism, as it was practised in Malaya. It took eight years for them to realise that their own Merdeka had to be achieved through Separation, not Merger.

The bilateral Singapore-Malaysia relationship over the past 50 years is rooted in this history. The leading figures in both countries - Mr Lee Kuan Yew and others in Singapore; the Tunku, Tun Abdul Razak and others in Malaysia - began with divergent conceptions of Malayan nationalism. They discovered they could not achieve their respective ideal polities without going their separate ways. Many in Malaysia today find it difficult to view Singapore other than through the prism of their own domestic racial arrangements.

The judgment of history can be ruthless in its dismissal of past sentiments, but it is inescapable. Fifty years after Aug 31, 44 years after Sept 16 and 42 years after Aug 9, Singaporeans sincerely wish Malaysians well - as a separate people.

Happy birthday, Malaysia.