ON AUGUST 31, 1957, the Federation of Malaya came of age as an independent member of the British Commonwealth and as a free nation in the world. The negotiations between the British and the elected government, headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, went very smoothly, and this important development was reached with the maximum of good will on both sides. For these reasons the impending changes did not have as much publicity in America as did the more difficult problem of selfgovernment for the separate colony of Singapore. Yet the Federation, small as it is, is a key point in the struggle between Communism and the free world.

Nationalistic politicians sometimes speak as if Malaya had been for centuries under European domination, but in fact only the settlement of Malacca, now a peaceful backwater, has been ruled by Europeans for a long time — since its capture by the Portuguese in 1511. Penang and Singapore were founded as trading posts by the British East India Company in 1786 and 1819 respectively. These three towns until eighty-three years ago were small outposts of British India, cut off from the life of the Malay states by the East India Company’s policy of strict nonintervention in the affairs of the peninsula.

In 1874 Britain began to take under her protection the first of the Malay states: Perak, Selangor, and Negri Sembilan. The process was not completed until 1909, when Siam transferred to Britain her sovereignty over the northern states, and 1914, when Johore accepted a British adviser for her internal affairs. In many parts of Malaya, therefore, British rule has been effective for less than fifty years, yet this half century has seen rapid changes.

Most important of these changes economically was the introduction of rubber planting on a large scale and of the modern tin dredge during the first two decades of the present century. These made Malaya the greatest producer in the world of rubber and tin. With the development of these two industries came the building of railways and roads, which bind the country into one economic unit, and the growth of modern towns.

Organized governments were built up for the states and for the country as a whole. Singapore was separated politically from the mainland after the Second World War, but the other two British settlements, Penang and Malacca, were united with the Malay states in the Malayan Union of 1946 and in its successor, the Federation of 1948. Most important of all have been the growth of the population to more than six million and the change in racial composition. Malacca, Penang, and Singapore always had a cosmopolitan population, but eighty years ago the Malay states were inhabited almost entirely by Malay peasants and fishermen under the rule of sultans and chiefs.

With the establishment of internal peace, the Chinese flocked into the western states to develop the tin mines and to act as petty traders. Rubber planting led to the introduction of large numbers of Indian laborers on the estates, so that today the Malays and closely related immigrants from Indonesia form only about half of the population of the Federation, while the Chinese, Indians, and other races account for the other half.


The British officials who were responsible for the building up of organized governments in the Malay states under British protection were interested primarily in development. They welcomed European and Chinese capital for the financing of new industries. The tin mines and the rubber plantations provided the revenue to establish better communications, thus making further development possible. Tin and rubber also provided a revenue for the establishment of the first schools and medical services, and for the departments of a modern government which had to be set up.

British policy up to the Second World War was steadily pro-Malay. It could hardly have been otherwise in the circumstances in which the British had entered the Malays’ country, and it was strengthened by the sincere friendships which existed between the early administrators and the people.

The young British officer was expected to master the Malay language during his first years in the country and would usually serve for many more years in a district, where he was taught to regard the welfare of the Malays as his primary responsibility. The Malay states were never annexed, and the sovereignty of the sultans as constitutional rulers was respected. Local Malay chiefs were consulted and subsidized in return for the surrender of their rights to collect local taxes and feudal dues.


In the Malay states only Malays were admitted with Europeans to the key administrative ranks of the Malayan Civil Service. A very large part of the money spent on education went to establish and maintain village schools where Malay children received free elementary instruction in their own language. Large areas of the best agricultural land were earmarked as Malay reservations where no non-Malay could hold a title.

The Chinese, by contrast, were left very much on their own. Sir Frank Swettenham, one of the leading early British administrators, once remarked that they were the easiest people in the world to govern, but with the barrier of a difficult language which very few officials were able to find time to learn, no real attempt was made to govern them except when the nefarious activities of their secret societies threatened law and order.

Since the government did not provide schools for their children to be taught in Chinese, they established schools themselves at their own expense. Inevitably these schools were modeled on the schools of China, and the teachers were in the early days nearly all imported from the homeland. A good many Chinese children attended the English medium schools along with other races, but for the majority the education of the China-centered school tended to isolate a majority of the Chinese community from Malayanizing influences.

Certain sections of the Indian community have prospered because of education in English schools. Only the easygoing Malay, with no inherited business experience, has been left behind, following in most cases his traditional life as cultivator and fisherman. In comparison with the other communities he has not raised his standard of living much, nor has he benefited to the same degree from the provision of modern amenities, which tend to be confined to the towns.

So long as the government was controlled by British officials there was little political consciousness, and generally the relations between the races were good. But the Japanese occupation during the Second World War changed all this. Selfgovernment ceased to be a pious hope in the indefinite future and became a problem of practical politics. It posed the question, ‘’If the British cease to govern, who will take their place?” Malays and immigrant peoples gave different answers, and interracial relations grew more difficult. There were ugly incidents between Malays and Chinese during the interval between the Japanese surrender and the return of the British forces.

The official British view had long been that they were governing the country until the Malays — as the indigenous people — were ready to takeover, but even before the Second World War this had become unrealistic. Most of the Chinese and Indians who were born and educated in Malaya regarded themselves as Malayans and could not be excluded forever from political rights in a free Malaya which was their home.

Malay opinion had been alarmed by the flood of immigrants, and under pressure from the rulers the government had restricted immigration by law in the 1930s. Extremists among the Malays to this day want an independent Malaya in which only Malays would enjoy full political rights, with Islam as the established and privileged religion. They look to closer relations with Indonesia and the immigration of Malaysian peoples from the islands to redress the balance between themselves and the Chinese and Indians.

Such a policy, if put into practice, could only lead to civil strife and bloodshed, because the Chinese and Indians are too many and too deeply entrenched to be thrust into permanent political inferiority.

Fortunately, responsible Malay leaders do not hold such extreme views. The Chief Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, has shown real statesmanship in stressing the overriding importance of good racial relations and happiness for all who call Malaya home. He is fully aware that the worst possible fate would be a state of interracial conflict such as developed in Palestine, with Malays and Chinese playing the parts of Arabs and Jews.

In their genuine desire to avoid such a tragedy, the Malay leaders have made many concessions to the Chinese and Indians. It has not been easy for the Tunku to justify these to the more ignorant rank and file of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), of which he is the leader. There is a limit beyond which he cannot go without destroying the basis of his own power.


Chinese opinion is also much divided. At one extreme is the Malayan Communist Party, which, though it maintains a façade of interracialism, has always drawn most of its membership and all of its leaders from the Chinese, especially from the China-born. The number of professed and active party members in Malaya, as elsewhere, is small, but the movement — by underground infiltration and by active terrorism — has penetrated deeply into the Chinese population.

In 1948, under the orders of international Communism, the Party started an armed revolt, using the organization, methods, and arms it had employed during the war against the Japanese. The triumph of Communism in China gave it added prestige and influence. At the height of what is euphemistically called the “Emergency,” in 1951, there were some 7300 terrorists in the jungle and perhaps half a million willing or coerced supporters among the Chinese population. In that year there were 6100 incidents, the most serious being the murder of the High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, in October,

Yet the Communist revolt failed more decisively than in any other Asian country where the Party had taken to arms. The Communists never succeeded in gaining the support of any responsible nationalist leader. The Malays recognized the movement as an attempt to impose foreign rule on their country and rallied to its defense in the police force, the special constabulary, and the Malay regiment. No “liberated areas” under Communist rule were established. The cruelties of the terrorists, from which the Chinese were themselves the main sufferers, alienated public opinion.

Sir Gerald Templer’s real, if drastic, leadership turned the tide, and the Communist cause and morale has steadily declined. Today there are only some 2100 terrorists in the jungle; most are disillusioned and held together by their fear of the hard core of 170 top-ranking Communists. As each month passes, their numbers are slowly whittled down by the pressure of the security forces and by surrenders. In 1956 the number of incidents dropped to 435.

The strongest Chinese organization, embracing most moderate opinion, is the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). Inspired by Sir Cheng Lock Tan, the group was formed by those leaders who rejected Communism, stood for the full identification of the Malayan Chinese with the country, and wished to obtain their ends by coöperating with the Malays. It has enjoyed wide support but has had some trouble with its more conservative supporters, who look to Chiang Kaishek and the Kuomintang in Formosa, and with the China-born and Chinese-educated sections, who are reluctant to make any compromise on the Chinese way of life in the interests of Malayan unity.


The Indians are a minority community and contain within themselves a Tamil-speaking majority and a minority of Punjabis, Telegus, and other groups. As a non-Malay people, their outlook and interests often coincide with those of the Chinese. Their leaders echo the demands for citizenship and for the preservation of their culture made by the larger community. Less organized than the Chinese and divided by personal squabbles between leaders, the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) has not the prestige of the MCA.

Since racial coöperation is the most urgent necessity for Malaya, the formation of the coalition, known as the Alliance, between UMNO, the MCA, and the MIC in 1954 was a most welcome step. It brought together the leaders of all moderate elements.

At the first elections for the Federal Legislative Council in July, 1955, the Alliance won fifty-one of the fifty-two elected seats. Since then it has assumed most of the responsibilities for governing the country and has been the spokesman for Malaya in the negotiations with the British Government for independence. It remains to be seen if the Malayan attitude can prevail over the communal when the new nation has to face those problems which independence will acerbate rather than solve.