TO DRIVE from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur is to enjoy a rare experience in Southeast Asia. Singapore itself is the least corrupt, best governed, and fastest growing city in the region. The road north across and beyond the causeway and linking it with the peninsula is a shining ribbon of asphalt which runs out of Singapore’s industrial areas into Malaya’s spick-and-span plantations of healthy and high-yielding young rubber trees.
Even the jungle here seems orderly. The largely Chinese villages and towns by the wayside are prosperous and cheerful; and although the Malays in this region are a minority in their own land, tending to stay apart from the mainstream of community activity, the separation appears amiable and based on culture and religion, not on any obvious racial hostility. The dark-skinned Indian Tamils, who tap the rubber, stand out in the communal scene. Were it not for the anklelength bright-blue dresses and white blouses of the modest Malay girls, hurrying home from school, and the black Muslim caps of the men, however, a stranger might have difficulty in telling the lighter-skinned Malays apart from the Chinese.
Despite the background threat of Indonesia’s confrontation, all seems very well indeed with the Federation of Malaysia. In many ways, all is truly well; but under the surface there are differences and bitternesses and troubles that threaten the young federation from within more grievously than does all the posturing in Djakarta or the Indonesian guerrilla bands that infest the jungles of the Malaysian Borneo territories and that have even landed by air and sea in substantial numbers in Malaya itself.
Malaysia seemed a splendid idea when Tenku Abdul Rahman, the genial Malayan Prime Minister, proposed it four years ago. To the British, the idea of surrendering their responsibilities in North Borneo, Brunei, and Sarawak to the moderate, responsible pro-Western leaders in Kuala Lumpur was a sensible way to decolonization. To Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the left-wing but anti-Communist People’s Action Party government in Singapore, merger with Malaya on these terms was the one real chance of providing an outlet for the skills and energy of the city’s exploding, and explosive, Chinese population. Always in the past, Rahman had rejected the idea of merger. The indigenous Malays outnumbered the Chinese in Malaya itself by slightly less than a million; in Singapore the Chinese outnumbered the Malays by slightly more than a million. Rahman had no wish to alter the balance; having led Malaya to success against a Chinese Communist insurgency, the Tenku was afraid of the Chinese and especially of Chinese Communists.
Persuaded now by the argument that Singapore alone was not economically viable and the prospect that mass unemployment there might prove even more dangerous than the inclusion of the city-state in a Wider federation which would embrace the backward, little-developed British Borneo territories and in which the Chinese might be diluted by the addition of other races, the Tenku conceived the idea of Malaysia.
Terms of merger
Long before it was due to come into being, the federation ran into trouble. The Philippines dug out an old and all but forgotten claim to North Borneo, and an Indonesian-inspired group led a revolt in the little protectorate of Brunei, which is long in oil and money, and — with a population of only 85,000 — short of people. The British broke the revolt promptly, but Brunei decided not to join the proposed federation and, in further confusion of the Southeast Asian muddle, to pursue its own more leisurely course toward independence. The other states were not without their misgivings: most politically conscious people in Sarawak, which had been the feudal fief of the crown colony, and in North Borneo, which had been the property of the British North Borneo Chartered Company until 1946, when it also formally became a colony, felt that it would be better to achieve self-government first, and by more gradual stages to create some sort of Borneo union.
Among the diverse inhabitants of North Borneo — the animistic Dusun peasantry, the upland and primitive Muruts, the seafaring, and sometimes piratical, Bajaus, Suluks, Binandans, and Illanuns, the Muslim Malays, and the omnipresent Chinese shopkeepers — there were no political parties. In Sarawak, home of the headhunting Dayaks, there were two, the Communistinfiltrated, primarily Chinese Sarawak United People’s Party, with links to a subversive underground movement, the clandestine Communist organization, and the strongly anti-Chinese Party Negara, made up mostly of Malays and Dayaks.
The Chinese in both Borneo territories generally opposed Malaysia, and in Singapore the extreme left, represented overtly by the Barisan Sosialis Party, campaigned vigorously against it. Intense political activity there, plus an explosion of political activity and party formation in the Borneo territories and hard lobbying by Tenku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew, helped to swing Borneo opinion in favor of Malaysia. Presented with a dubiously phrased plebiscite and the persuasive eloquence of Lee Kuan Yew, the people of Singapore also decided to come in, and a long round of negotiations began to settle the terms of the merger. These were accompanied by angry Indonesian accusations that Malaysia was a neocolonialist creation of British imperialism and therefore a threat to Indonesian sovereignty.
With a determination that seemed to some to be heavy-handed and calculated to offend Indonesian sensitivities, Britain encouraged Tenku Abdul Rahman to proceed with the creation of Malaysia with a minimum of delay. On September 16, 1963, the federation came into being. It was celebrated by the burning of the British Embassy in Djakarta and the beginning of a small undeclared war by Indonesia against Malaysia, which has gone on, with intermittent and fruitless peace negotiations, ever since.
In exchange for granting it a substantial degree of economic autonomy, Malaya insisted on clipping Singapore’s political wings so close that it seemed unlikely the tempestuous little island could ever become a major force in the federal political scene. With the Malayan franchise already heavily weighted in favor of the indigenous Malays, and with Singapore’s 1.7 million inhabitants restricted to 1 5 members in the federal House of Representatives compared with 104 from Malaya (opulation 7.6 million), 24 from Sarawak (population 750,000), and 16 from Sabah (population 450,000), as North Borneo is now known, the reins of political control seemed likely to remain firmly in Kuala Lumpur’s Malay grasp.
Tensions between races
In practice, the federation has not worked out quite as Kuala Lumpur had hoped, or planned. The federation government, under the genial leadership of Tenku Abdul Rahman, is highly conservative, or‚ as a friendly critic once described it, almost Edwardian. The Tenku, now sixty-two, an advanced age for a Malay, is agreeable, fumbling, and well liked. Lee Kuan Yew, who became Chief Minister of Singapore six years ago at the age of thirty-four, is unlovable, enormously efficient, and in Singapore widely respected. He is also detested by senior members of the federal government, Chinese and Malay alike.
Lee has no patience with the Tenku’s conservative Malay-Chinese-Indian Alliance Party that brings three purely communal organizations together as a political machine. He sees the future of Malaysia as dependent not on the preservation of communal organizations, even in friendly alliance, but on the creation of a multiracial party in which the identity of social, economic, and political interests will prevail over consideration of race.
Lee’s decision to take the People’s Action Party across the causeway and into the Malayan elections in April last year outraged Kuala Lumpur, where Malay fears of the Singapore “threat” had been exacerbated by the success of the People’s Action Party in winning three of the four predominantly Malay seats in the 1963 Singapore elections against the strong opposition of the United Malays National Organization and their Alliance candidates. The long-range political dangers to the feudal UMNO Malays and the Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs of the Malayan Chinese Association and the Malayan Indian Congress, the two junior members of the Alliance, from the socialistic People’s Action Party seemed horrendous. That Lee’s team won only one Malayan seat out of the 11 it contested, while the Alliance increased its hold on t He federal parliament from 74 to 89, failed to assuage Kuala Lumpur.
Into Singapore, to rally the Malays there to the Alliance cause, came UMNO’s secretary-general, Dato Syed Ja’afar Albar, who in his eagerness to win Singapore’s Malays away from the People’s Action Party succeeded only in inflaming violent racial animosities, which culminated in July and September last year in two of the worst riots in Singapore’s riot-filled history. Throughout Malaysia, as well as in Singapore, the relationship between the races remains tense. What was originally a federal fear of Lee Kuan Yew as a leader has developed not only dangerous federal-state but also communal undertones. Kuala Lumpur and Singapore snipe at each other in cold-war terms that go far beyond the political and deep into issues that could bring the federation down in ruins.
The Chinese have begun to accuse the Malays of wanting Malaysia for the Malays. They resent the haste with which Kuala Lumpur is pressing Malay as the national language and the fact that almost all top jobs in the civil service are a closed Malay preserve. The Malays, for their part, are no less resentful of Chinese economic dominance. They fear that if they ever lose political supremacy, they wail become slaves to the domineering Chinese, who already control most of the capital and the commerce in a land that the Malays regard as their own.
Although the Malays in Malaya proper outnumber the Chinese in the proportion roughly of 4 to 3, the Chinese earn about three fifths of the total income and Malays only a little more than one fifth. The discrepancy has always existed, but it mattered less when Malaya was a British protectorate and the races were more concerned with their relationships to the British than they were with each other.
Nationalism through fear
Kuala Lumpur resented and rejected British suggestions that it would be wise policy in the face of Indonesian confrontation and the dangers of communal trouble to include Lee Kuan Yew in a coalition government. Lee himself has not helped the situation by suggesting in interviews abroad that it might be desirable to keep a Malay Prime Minister in Kuala Lumpur for the next two or three years, with the implication that a Chinese preferably Lee himself— should then have a chance.
While the moderating influence of Tenku Abdul Rahman and the common threat of the Indonesian confrontation have helped to prevent the cold war of racial suspicion from becoming hot, nothing is beingdone to remove the basic cause of distrust; and there is little that is soft about the Tenku’s heir apparent, Tun Abdul Razak‚ the Deputy Prime Minister, who is only a year older than Lee Kuan Yew.
Against this background the Indonesian confrontation has not been entirely without benefit to the young federation. The Indonesians recruited a number of Chinese Communists and dissident Malays to assist in the “crush Malaysia” campaign, but Malays, Chinese, and Indians generally closed their ranks against the guerrillas. Instead of the welcoming committee the Indonesians expected to find waiting for them, there were vigilante groups ready to turn them over to the police or the army. Financial reward was one factor, and also a fear of Indonesia, which may be an ersatz sort of nationalism but is at least a beginning of an appreciation that the people of Malaysia do have some common interests.
In other ways, also, confrontation has proved much less successful than the Indonesians might reasonably have expected. Dr. Subandrio, Indonesia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, believed that Singapore’s economy could be wrecked by an economic boycott since more than a quarter of Singapore’s billion-dollar-a-year imports came from Indonesia, mostly in the form of crude rubber. But in one way or another, much of the rubber found its way back to Singapore; and when Kuala Lumpur, because of urgent defense needs, was obliged to cut off the Indonesian smuggling, the displaced labor was absorbed by new industries encouraged by the inspirational Jurong project, which the Singapore government hopes to turn into Southeast Asia’s biggest manufacturing complex and a breathtaking slum clearance and rehousing project.
Order amid turbulence?
Confrontation has, of course, damaged the federation. Defense and internal security will consume $128 million, or 24 percent of the total budget, this year. Unlike all other Southeast Asian countries, however, Malaysia has an effective tax-gathering system. It has increased income taxes and introduced other new taxes, including a payroll tax and a capital gains tax, and therefore defense is not likely to strain the economy unduly or cause serious inflation, which prudent financial policies have always kept under control.
Increased world prices of tin, coupled with higher rubber production and better prices than the industry had expected, have kept per capita income at a high level, second only to that of Japan. In the long run, rubber and tin are uncertain foundations for the economy, but the warm welcome the federation offers to foreign capital and the rapidly expanding industries in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur reflect the urgent official appreciation of the need to diversify.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say that the federation was tot) hastily contrived, but it still has great potential as an orderly, prosperous, free-world center in turbulent Southeast Asia. What it needs to assure its future is statesmanship in handling its touchy domestic problems.