Saturday, August 10, 2013

How the British Won Over Malays : A Lesson For All Malaysians.

(by Joe Chelliah)

I have often wondered how only a relatively few Brits ruled over and controlled such a vast empire on which, they had boasted, that the sun never sets. They had employed different strategies that best suited in differing localities all over the world and have gone down in history as the last of the greatest empires in human civilization.  It is generally agreed that they divided and ruled which I personally am not too comfortable with.  But I will not ramble on on this issue but merely focus on how the British managed to excel in Malaya and make it indeed the “ gem on its crown’ without actually “ruling” the place.  I say this that the Malay rulers were NEVER disposed, even during the Japanese occupation to a great extent.  Even the Japanese left the Malays alone.

The British colonials  were quite unlike the Portuguese and Spaniards who also had a missionary zeal to spread Christianity on their agenda worldwide.   The football countries of South America and The Philippines can serve as good examples.  They ae staunchly Catholic countries today.  I posit here that the British mission was purely set on trade. Only the Dutch can come as a close second as both came here as mercantile companies – The Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the British East India Company (EIC).  Since its creation in 1600 by The Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I, the influence of The East India Company has been well documented.  Without the EIC our world would not be as it is today. 

The early colonials saw great potential in the fertile plains and undulating hills in Malay Peninsula. They acquired Penang and Singapore quite easily be helping the Malay rulers fend off the Siamese besides helping their preferred candidates to ascend thrones claimed by disputing
brothers, uncles and cousins.  Melaka was taken over through negotiations with the Dutch through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 which effectively divided the Malay Archipelago into the English and Dutch spheres of influence among themselves.  What was under the British is what we know as Malaysia and Brunei today with Indonesia being wholly “owned” by the Dutch. This treaty also effectively kept the Spanish out of the Malay a archipelago who then centered their mission and activity in only the Philippines which is predominantly Catholic today.  

It is my take that the British managed to rule Malaya well until 1957 by understanding the local Malay psyche very well.  They had studied the Malays well and knew their strengths and more so their weaknesses.  They knew that their “nature’s gentleman” (that is what they had termed the Malay) could be the best of friends and the worst of enemies. Leave them alone and they leave you alone – almost a hornets’ nest story. There were essentially four things that they knew that would upset the indigenous Malays terribly.  So they very cleverly steered off the four “taboos” and worked around them which I can identify – leave the Malay sultans, Islam, the Malay language and Malay local customs alone.  Simple as that.

Malays have a strange symbiotic relationship with the Malay rulers.  The word feudalism has actually been an alien thing to Malays.  Till today, no Malay worth his salt will allow anyone to insult
his sultan.  Not quite unlike Siam and Japan, the Malays have a very strong love and loyalty to their respective rulers and since a long time ago.   Even British monarchs were “merely” referred to as His or Her Majesty but in Malay, check this out, the Malaysian king is referred to as Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di Pertuan Agung. The early sultans had had all sorts of problems with pirates, tax collection and rival claimants to the throne besides the Chinese secret societies menace all of which they found cumbersome and hard to manage.  With British help all these problems were sorted out quite easily.  Further, the British “placated” the Malay rulers with generous pensions, built stately stone mansions to replace wooden palaces, taught them “social graces” of the British including dressing, regalia, polo and horse riding and brought them to see even distant England.  The Johor royalty is the
best example of this influence to date.  Thus you take care of the sultans and you are afforded a free hand to literally do what you want with the land.  Malay rebellions against the British have been quite insignificant in the overall scheme of things.  When the British tried to curb the powers of the sultan or even dispose them through their proposal for a Malayan Union after WW II the whole Malay race was in the streets in nationwide protests which immediately halted any such British design. This was then replaced with the Federated Malay states in which position of the sultans remained intact.  As I had mentioned, do not play with a hornets’ nest is and was the order of the day.  Today, such a thing is even unlawful to bring up even in Parliament.

Second, Islam has always been the religion of the Malays since the 15th century. Even though Hinduism had left an indelible mark on Malay culture and remains strongly embedded in it, Islam

has always been the religion of the Malays till today. Being a Muslim is equated with being a Malay….. constitutionally speaking too.  Knowing and understanding this Malay sensitivity fully, the British never tried to proselytize Christianity to the Malays and left the sultans in full control over such matters.  They even promulgated a law that prohibits anyone from preaching any non-Islamic religion to the Malays – a law that still stands today.  No missionary activity was allowed on the Malays but it was a free-for-all where non-Muslims were concerned.  To cement Islam and the position of the sultans, the British also made the sultans the respective heads of Islam as well which must have immensely pleased the Malays who allowed the British to do almost whatever they wanted in Malaya.  The  British only technically ruled Penang, Singapore and Melaka which were accepted as Crown colonies.

Thirdly, I am reminded of the Malay saying “Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat”.  The British understood this very well and left the Malays and their customs too alone and conveniently put it under the control of the respective Malay sultans.  The “adat perpatih” practiced in Negeri Sembilan is one that even contradicts Islam especially in matters related to hereditary inheritance.  It is a matriarchal society in which only women can own traditional Malay land
and property which is again something that British had gazetted.  The British, in this way, also protected the Malay ownership of such land from falling into the hands of the migrants.  These laws are in place even till today.  Thus the British stayed clearly off in matters of Malay “adat” (customs) too which again helped them to rule this country quite freely.

Fourthly, the Malay language too was left alone by the British.  Till today, even the most educated Malay is quite happy and proud to speak Malay.  Even if linguists may say that it is an under-developed language and tends to borrow heavily from Sanskrit and English the Malay continues to be proud of his language.  Thus Malays had always had their own schools albeit in huts / pondoks or ramshackle placesto teach Malay and Jawi ( the original written form of Malay).

These Malay schools also made the learning of Islamic tenets and reciting the Quran an integral part of the curriculum.   In 1957, Malay was made the national language in the Federal Constitution which again was drafted by none other than the British.

When the British left they did not completely forget the large almost 50% non-Malay communities that had contributed towards the British coffers too.  As such full citizenship for non-Malays born after Merdeka was enshrined in the Malayan constitution with an allowance for naturalized citizenship too for those born before 1957 ……… and also for those who, though born elsewhere, could apply for citizenship after staying in Malaya for a certain period of time. Those born in the Straits Settlements even before 1957 were considered British citizens with automatic Malayan citizenship. The other provisions for the non-Malays (or seen as concessions today) were and they include included the right to profess non-Islamic religions and the right to study the respective mother tongues of the Indians and the Chinese.  All these were agreed upon by representatives of the Malays, Chinese an Indians whom the British recognized and negotiated with before granting independence.  In return the Malays were to enjoy certain special privileges that included Islam being the official religion of Malaya and the Malay language to be made the national language.  All such provisions are now referred to as the “social contract” although that word is a more recently coined word. 

 It would be good for all Malaysians to know of these things which I consider the basic foundations on which the nation stands today. ………including the “social contract” which have helped Malaya, and later Malaysia, to grow and prosper with peace and stability even till now.  When these provisions are questioned by anybody the boat gets rocked which can result in much civil commotion and social disorder that we can ill afford. I hope for a more united and peaceful Malaysia.

1 comment:

betakappa said...

Very well written article. Do you have any personal opinion on sultans? Ive always found it interesting how Islam has changed so much from its inception. In fact hereditary rule was something that the Prophet Muhammad was against. Shura/democracy was the way to go.. at least back then