What Colonialism Was About: The Case of Malaya
EDITORIAL, 9 Feb 2015
Have a look at this statement by Cecil Rhodes:
“I was in East End London yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for BREAD!–and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than convinced of the importance of IMPERIALISM…My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e. in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and the mines. THE EMPIRE–IS A BREAD AND BUTTER QUESTION. IF YOU WANT TO AVOID A CIVIL WAR, YOU JUST BECOME IMPERIALISTS.” [i]
Not unintelligent, as expected from the, by definition, first Rhodes scholar; total disregard for “new lands”, but not for surplus capital.
First out to conquer Malacca–the key port in the straits–were the Portuguese, 1511; then the Dutch 1609, 1641; exacting toll for passing the straits, getting spices, tin, lands. The English came later, Penang 1786, Singapore 1819, Malacca in 1824 when the Anglo-Dutch Treaty had made Malaya English and Indonesia Dutch. Their methods: warships, guns, conquest; against at times heavy resistance.
The Suez Canal and steam-ships made Malaya more accessible; tin cans and car tires made tin and rubber trees fine investments. English industrialization with a population too poor to buy the goods fitted the Rhodes formula. The “Straits Settlements” ruled by a British Resident-High Commissioner-Governor caused massive resistance, which was brutally crushed, or manipulated by split and rule. Federations were used for that, giving them a bad name all over the Empire.
The English controlled all natural resources, taxing farmers heavily for “protection” while using Malays, and only Malays, to grow cheap food, and only that, recruiting huge numbers of debt slaves from China and India (already impoverished by England and France), to work the tin mines near Ipoh, and the rubber plantations all over. English investors got fabulously rich. Others settled, to run the country as military, police and civil servants, and to run small businesses.
At most 1% of government’s funds were used for educating the locals.
Malays, Chinese and Indians formed labor unions, strikes were their weapon, and in 1930 the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) was founded. The demands included better pay, no 12-hour days, medical service, education for the children, an end to harassing the women. Their leaders were sacked, the water supply and their rice rations cut off, and troops were sent in to break the strikes.
Then came World War II, Japanese invasion, English capitulation, Japanese split and rule over the three races, guerrillas fighting the Japanese; English re-occupation September 1945. CPM decided to fight for self-rule by peaceful means. But the English had another plan: to use resource-rich Malaya to pay the enormous UK war debt of 3.4 billion pounds, mainly to USA.
Like the West dumped the debt for killing millions of European Jews at the feet of the Arabs, Palestinians in particular, the UK war debt was dumped on Malaya. “Emergency Regulations” (not “war”, insurance companies might not pay) were used to fight independence and strikes more than ever–even using Japanese POWs (prisoners of war) to fight CPM.
Searching, arresting, police shooting on sight, imprisonment without trial, execution for possession of firearms and contact with guerrillas that had fought the Japanese and been decorated as heroes–now called “terrorists”–detained, deported, dispersed. 400,00 troops were deployed–British, Australians, New Zealanders etc.–100 aircraft carrying out 25,000 air strikes, 33,000 tons of bombs, napalm, 1948-1960–top officers had been suppressing Palestinians–mostly paid from Malaya. By 1960 one million, 1/6 of the country were forced to live in “New Villages” concentration camps with doubled barbed wire fences.
Then came a phase of “winning hearts and minds”, and Merdeka, Independence 31 August 1957 when London found English investments were safe, the government party, UMNO–United Malay National Organization–sufficiently conservative, and CPM beaten. The country was safe, not for democracy, but for UK capitalism. Cecil Rhodes in practice.
Seen as a success story by UK-USA Malaya was attempted by the USA in Vietnam, and then in Iran (1953-78), Afghanistan (from 2001), Iraq (from 2003), Somalia, Yemen[ii]. Not strange if UK destroys records of colonialism or keeps them super-secret. Added to shame and guilt comes the fear of reparation, like in the Caribbean under CARICOM-Caribbean Community and Common Market auspices–strongly supported by ALBA-Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, the Peoples’ Trade Treaty–aiming at the colonizers; the English, the French, the Dutch, the Danes–and the Norwegians. See firstname.lastname@example.org.
Malaysia today is the product of this colonial past: 50% Muslim Malays in a tense relation with 23% Chinese, both on top of 7% Hindu Tamils; all of that on top of 12% indigenous, the Orang Asli, with Naturism (called “animism”, when people besoul nature). 9% others.
The political power lies with the Malays. Nine of the 13 provinces are Sultanates run by governors and Sultans electing a Super-Sultan King every five years. When independence struck 31 August 1957 the Sultans had the political power–formally a democracy, in reality a one party state–and the economic power was shared between the English (35%) and the Chinese (above 20%). The racial and cultural tensions had been foisted upon them by the English moving people around for own benefit, like in so many other places, leaving to them to sort it out.
Malay power was used favoring poor Malays under Mahathir Mohamad (Prime Minister 1981-2003) and the New Economic Policy. Muslim power was and is used for islamization, to 61% (21% Buddhist-Chinese, 6% Hindu, 9% Christian–Europeans?), also through immigration of Muslims to rich Malaysia. Non-Muslims now fight for a neutral, secular base and co-existence. But secularism is anathema to Islam: to them Islam is that base; and Islam, not only communism, is also about lifting the bottom up (zakat). They did it for the Malays, overdid and maybe overdo it.
Economic downturn may now turn the tensions into violence. And the English will wash their hands talking about law, order, human rights.
[i]. Musimografik, Where Monsoons meet. A People’s History of Malaya, Grassroots: London, 1970, republished by SIRD: Petalang Jaya, Malaysia, 2007, with cartoons and caricatures not reproduced here. This article is very much based on that book, in turn based on an impressive scholarly bibliography including the celebrated book by Dr. Teck Ghee Lim, Peasants and their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya 1874-1941, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
[ii]. Michael Burleigh, Small Wars, Faraway Places. Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965, Viking 2014, is about this, with strong warnings, particularly to USA, that every limited counterinsurgency “success” in Malaya came with extremely costly failures. And that the countries were very different.
Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He is author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Feb 2015.
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