Malaysia – Creation of the 1960s

Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are states of mainland Southeast Asia, clustered together in the shadow of the giant to the north, China. By contrast, the maritime states of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines pull southward, and are scattered across three thousand miles of ocean, the width of the United States in longitude. Certainly part of the Chinese diaspora, all of these states have a tremendous cultural layering. Some embrace Islam, while at the same time are considered extensions of South Asia or “Farther India.” With the exception of the Philippines, all lie astride the equator and sit atop Australia. All live by the sea, touching the vast expanses of Oceania and the southern Pacific. These states and the events that take place there rarely reach discussions of the 1960s but are a piece with the Vietnam saga, and are vital to an understanding of today’s world picture.

It is no exaggeration to say that Malaysia was actually created – indeed received its current name – in our decade. It was a new country made from an old part of the world. For its modern history, the general area was under European influence – first explored by Portugal in the 16th century, then the Dutch, and came under British control as a conglomeration of principalities in the age of Napoleon. The Japanese occupation during the Second World War ended British dominance and unleashed a spirit of nationalism as it did in so many other parts of the region and around the world. The British did not oppose Malaysian independence, though they wanted an orderly transition from colonial rule, and had a difficult time finding a plan between 1945 and 1947 that balanced the interests of the majority Malays and the minority Chinese and Indian populations. A provisional solution came in February 1948 – six months after India’s independence – in something called the Federation of Malaya – which assured Malay political dominance, and kept Singapore a separate colony and military base under British rule.

The large Chinese minority resented continued control by the Malay Sultans, but most remained moderate and discreet. Still, tens of thousands of Chinese who had communist sympathies and were battle-hardened resisting the Japanese, reacted with open insurrection to the Federation news, and retreated to the Malay jungles to disrupt farming, transport networks, and kill white and Malay planters. Amidst the backdrop of the Cold War, the British government declared a State of Emergency. Essentially a war, the Emergency lasted for twelve years and was one of the seminal events in the early days of Malaysia’s postwar history. Among other things, it is credited with inventing the idea of the “counterinsurgency” which British Commonwealth troops applied with ruthless brilliance after 1952. In August 1957, Malaya was granted formal independence, even before declaring the Emergency over in 1960.

Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903-1990) became Malaya’s first prime minister, and presided over changes in the 1960s that explain why the country looks the way it does today. In 1961, the Tunku (“Prince”) floated the idea of forming a greater Malaya, and two years later, Sarawak and North Borneo (now Sabah) joined Malaya and Singapore to form a Greater Malaysian Union, or simply “Malaysia.”

The birth of Malaysia got mixed reviews. The Philippines broke off relations with Malaysia claiming Sabah as part of its territory. Indonesia reacted with fury, calling for a confrontation (Konfrontasi), and a “Crush Malaysia” campaign. Indonesian president Sukarno painted the plan for Malaysian Union as a western-oriented scheme to check his country’s ambitions which included the territories that Malaysia claimed for itself. He called Tunku a British lackey, and from 1963 to 1966 carried out an undeclared war against Malaysia that took place mainly in Borneo. On both sides of the strategic Straits of Malacca – through which much of Middle East oil flowed to a modernizing Japan – tensions rose. The Malaysian ambassador was expelled from Jakarta, and rioters burned the British embassy there. Crowds attacked the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur. More noise than substance we now know, the “confrontation” nevertheless required the mobilization of Malaysian, Australian, and British troops in the region for three years, and alarmed policymakers just as Vietnam was demanding decisions in the United States.

The confrontation ended when Sukarno was relieved by his own army.   But it was amidst tensions between these maritime states that Singapore left the Malaysian Union. The year 1964 was one of social problems in Singapore, as riots occurred twice between Malays and Chinese. In 1965, prime minister, party leader and Malay nobleman, Tunku Abdul Rahman, determined that the only way to maintain racial tranquility among the Malays and Chinese was to ensure that no Chinese should become prime minister of the federation. Singapore had the highest concentration of Chinese in the federation, so he decided to solve his Chinese “problem” by jettisoning it away. At the time, the socialist leader, Lee Kuan Yew, did not want to cut ties physically, but acknowledged that tensions were high within the federation; and reluctantly agreed to an amicable separation. Singapore went its own way as a small independent state, and left Malaysia without its greatest city. Ever since, this Asian tiger has managed as a Chinese-Confucian outpost embedded between the two large Islamic states of Malaysia and Indonesia.

With the “confrontation” ended and Singapore gone, Malaysia embarked on its first five-year plan which extended from 1966 to 1970. It endeavored to address the issue of poverty, especially among rural Malays; integrate eastern and western territories, and to move away from the products of rubber and tin, which had been the staples of production since the 19th century. During this first plan, the country became a major producer of timber (in Sabah) and the world’s number one processor of palm oil. Over time, petroleum products, particularly liquefied natural gas, would become the main earner of foreign exchange for Malaysia through its oil company, Petronas, founded in 1974 – one of the most profitable companies in the world today.

Amidst the flux of this first economic plan, the British withdrew after 1967 (“East of Suez”), and there came a time of great uncertainty as to how the Malays, Indians, and the Chinese outside of Singapore would mix. In May 1969, communal violence erupted in Kuala Lumpur after general elections. Muslim Malays targeted and murdered hundreds of ethnic Chinese. Parliament was suspended, a state of emergency declared for two years, and the long-serving prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, resigned in 1970. The incidents of “13 May 1969” were a rude awakening to many who were unsure of the Malaysia’s multi-racial political future, and resulted in change. After the riots, Malaysia sought to reinforce institutions that created a sense of common identity and purpose. It reemphasized the constitutional protections of Malay as the official language and Islam as the national religion; and restricted certain civil liberties. Above all, it strengthened the Constitution’s Article 153 that reserved a privileged position for Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak (collectively “bumiputras”), and to this day such items as scholarships, mortgages, and business permits are discounted for Malays. After these controversial adjustments institutionalized the imbalance of one ethnic group over another, Malaysia progressed forward enormously and continues to do so.

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