Lee Kuan Yew’s Political Legacy–Matter of Trust

March 27, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew’s Political Legacy–Matter of Trust

by Bridget Welsh

Lee Kuan Yew 2

As Singaporeans mourn their charismatic leader Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), whose political acumen, drive and ideas defined the young nation and played a major role in its successful development, attention turns to assessment. Moments of transition always bring reflection, and this is especially the case with the passing of the man who both personified and defined Singapore. The fact that LKY has passed on in the pivotal year of the nation celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary only serves to reinforce the need for review.

There is good reason to acknowledge the accolades of a man who has been labeled as one of Asia’s most influential leaders. Most of the media, especially in the government-linked media of Singapore, lay out these reasons well. LKY was a force to be reckoned with, a complex man who made no excuses in his views and was direct in stating his opinions. He trusted few, but chose to collaborate with those who shared his hard work ethic with talent and ideas to develop the busy port of Singapore into a safe dynamic cosmopolitan city-state. He will rightly be remembered for not only putting Singapore on the world map, but as a model that is admired and respected by many the world over.

LKY was a man who was respected, but importantly not loved by all. He used fear to stay in power. From the inception of Singapore’s independence – when it was expelled from Malaysia – the ideas of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘survival’ were used to justify decisions. He promoted the idea that Singapore had to have a strong armed forces, requiring national service in 1967, to protect itself as a nation surrounded by the perceived threat of its Malay neighbors.

The enemies outside were matched by those inside, who had to be displaced and in some cases detained.  Among the most controversial were the arrests of men labeled as communists in Operation Coldstore of 1963 and Operation Spectrum of 1987 (a.k.a. the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’) that targeted social activists who promoted greater social equality and were seen as challenging LKY’s People’s Action Party’s (PAP) authority. Two other round-ups occurred with Operation Pecah (Split) in 1966, which coincided with the year of the arrest of Dr. Chia Thye Poh who was held under detention and restriction until 1997, and the arrests of the ‘Eurocommunists’ in 1976-77. Many others from opposition politics, business to academia faced the wrath for challenging and questioning LKY, his PAP and the politicized decisions of its institutions, castigated in the government controlled media, removed from position, forced to live in exile and, in some cases, sued and bankrupted. In the relatively small city state, it did not take much to instill a political culture of fear by making a few examples.

A main point of contention goes that LKY sparred with Western critics over democracy and human rights, with LKY dismissing these ideas as not part of ‘Asia’s values.’ The debate was never about differences in values, but the justification of holding power in the hands of a few for nearly five decades. Singapore’s political model is at its foundation about the elites, with Lee, his family and loyalists at the core. In recent years, reports in Singapore have highlighted a growing trust deficit in the PAP government that LKY founded. The real deficit that defined LKY and became embedded within the party he molded is that he never fundamentally trusted his people.

The group that received the special focus of LKY’s distrust was the Malay population, who now comprise over 10% of the country’s population. Even as LKY matured as a politician, he continued to reinforce negative stereotypes of this community that rioted over their grievances in 1950, 1964 and 1969 when LKY was in his early years in power, and with whom he expressed hard judgments about their religion, Islam. This distrust was shaped in part by a worldview that was not only shaped by his early experiences in political life but had sharp racial cleavages, drew from eugenics and believed in a clear social order. Part of LKY’s outlook prioritized women as homemakers and disparaged single women who opted not to marry or follow a career – another group similar to Malays that faced discrimination within LKY’s Singapore.

In the heyday of Singapore’s economic miracle, the 1970s through the 1990s, the LKY PAP government worked to win over the trust of its people. It did so by providing for the basic welfare of its citizens, with an impressive housing program, affordable food prices, a living wage, job security, safety, education and opportunity. This involved hard work of LKY’s founding team of PAP cadre, as well as the sacrifice of ordinary Singaporeans. It also reflected the wise realization of LKY that fear was not enough to stay in power. There needed to be a healthy balance of deliverables. The LKY decades of economic growth translated into real rewards – at least through the 1980s.

Singapore’s trajectory of sharing the benefits of development has followed a pattern of diminishing returns, as the country now boasts the highest per capita of millionaires and is the world’s most expensive city, with a large number its citizens unable to save and afford the lifestyle promised in the nation’s early narrative. As much as LKY deserves credit for Singapore’s success, he also should be seen to be part of today’s shortcomings.

Elitism has bred arrogance, and a distance between those in power and those governed. Most of the new leaders of the PAP have come from subsequent wealthy generations that do not fully understand the sacrifices of the country’s working poor – shocking in number – and the obstacles elderly and young people face in an era of high costs. Years of following the LKY’s example and being told that the PAP is made up of the ‘best and brightest’ has imbued a mindset of superiority, a lack of empathy, and frequent dismissal of difference in engagement with the public.

While LKY’s son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has worked to win over support, he has suffered consecutive drops of support in the two elections he has led since he assumed office, failing to match the 75% popular vote height of the predecessor Goh Chok Tong in 2001. Unlike in the information controlled era of his father, Lee Hsien Loong is not able to effectively censor and limit public discussions in today’s wired and connected Singapore.  His recent expansion of social services and incentive packages that provide small sums for pensioners, modest support for health and childcare and tax reductions for the middle class are a drop in the bucket for the growing grievances and costs faced by ordinary citizens.

This has to do in part with the challenge Lee Hsien Loong faces in dealing with his father’s legacy. In 2007 LKY claimed that he governed without ideology. This was not quite true. The ideological foundation of LKY’s pragmatic tenure was materialism. This obsession with money, saving it and forcing the public to save it in rigid regulated ways, assuring that government funds were only given to those ‘worthy’ and loyal and defining the value of the performance of his government ministers by pegging their salaries to growth numbers comprised the lifeblood of LKY’s state. With annual ‘bonuses’ to perform, there is a focus on short-term gains rather than long-term investments.

The irony is that it is not even clear how much money the government of Singapore and its linked companies actually have. Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that does not follow the International Monetary Fund guidelines on its budget reporting. It also does not transparently report losses in many of the financial accounts of the government linked companies (GLCs). Lee Hsien Loong has had to tackle head-on the ingrained pattern of limited government spending on social welfare and services, as he attempts to move away from his father’s restrictive parsimony and secretive mindset that originated from a lack of trust in people

Lee Hsien Loong also has to address the problems of a government dominated economy. Singapore Inc. emerged out of the political economy LKY put in place, with the government and its linked companies controlling over half the country’s economy and undercutting almost all domestic business. LKY did not trust local capital, and did not want to strengthen an alternative power center to his own. As such, Singapore’s economy is not a genuinely competitive one. It favors big business, especially property developers, and those allied with government rather than independent entrepreneurs. Those in the system have apparently disproportionately benefited from it, although the exact amounts and assets remain unknown. The accumulated assets of individuals remain hidden as the estate tax was removed in 2008. What is known is that workers have limited rights in the LKY-shaped political economy. A recent example is the sexual harassment bill passed in parliament that excludes employer liability. The harsh response to the bus driver strike in 2012 is another. Much is made about the limited corruption of Singapore, but few appreciate that the country ranks high on the Economist crony-capitalism index, an important outgrowth of the government dominance of the economy. The ties between companies and government are close, at times with government and family members on their boards and a revolving door that never really closes.

Singapore’s economy also favors foreigners. LKY was to start this trend, with the appeal to outsiders for capital rather than a focus on domestic business. Foreigners may have been easier to engage, as they could always be kicked out. Foreign investment has been extremely important in Singapore’s growth numbers initially in manufacturing and later in services. To maintain global competitiveness, keep wages low and maintain high growth numbers, Singapore also turned to foreign labor – cheap workers to staff their construction sectors and to work as domestic help and foreign talent to bring in ideas and the occasional sports medal. This prioritization of outsiders has fostered resentment. When LKY assumed office he worked to force a nation, but with his passing many in Singapore feel the government he left behind is working for others and undermining the fabric of the nation. The crowded trains, strain on services and displacement of Singaporeans in the job market and advancement have angered many, who now see LKY’s legacy as one that in fact left many Singaporeans vulnerable and worried about survival.

No one can take away LKY’s contributions. He lived a long meaningful life, and shaped the lives of all Singaporeans. This does not mean that there is agreement on what he left behind. Singapore now faces the challenge of moving beyond LKY’s ideas and shaping a more promising future for all of its citizens. An integral part of this dynamic will be moving away from fear, promoting more effective policies for inclusion in the economy and society and building trust. It starts with placing more trust in Singaporeans.

It is arguably the latter that is the hardest. LKY lived in an era where societies trusted their leaders. He was given the benefit of the doubt. The PAP remains a relatively closed institution, with the distrust of those not inside deeply embedded. Today in the age of social media and instant messaging there is not as much leeway to work behind closed doors. There is an urgent need to forge genuine dialogue, connectivity and understanding that moves beyond materialism, and reignites the sense of belonging that LKY forged in his early years.

Singapore today has become a more politically divided nation, with those who strongly defend LKY’s incumbent government, die-hard opponents and the majority in the middle. As the country marks its 50th year it moves toward a different narrative, the task at hand is to forge a new Singapore story, one in which LKY is a valued part of its past, but not a constraint on the dreams and aspirations of Singaporeans’ future.

Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University where she conducts research on democracy and politics in Southeast Asia.


READThe Interview with Dr. Michael D. Barr


To be both fair and informative in writing an assessment of Lee Kuan Yew requires a level of detachment that seems to be uncommon. Certainly his devotees, whether in Singapore or overseas, don’t usually come close to achieving it as they echo versions of Lee’s own story of how he took the country ‘from Third World to First’, often taking umbrage at those who are more critical. For those of us who are, indeed, more critical, the temptation is to focus on the Lee Kuan Yew who engaged in ‘brass knuckle politics’, and ignore the achievements.

Many of us have friends who have suffered brutality at his hands – or who have been intimidated or suffered discrimination by the system he put in place. It is not easy to put such personal connections aside and give credit where credit is due. Yet despite these burdens, I am pleased to say that this is a temptation in which critics have not generally indulged for a couple of decades now.

At the time of writing it is now a few days since Lee died and while the devotees have been as adoring and banal as one might fear, his critics have been consistent in recognising his formidable achievements. Their (our) record of even-handedness in this regard is only partly inspired by respect for the dead and for his family. Rather it is a recognition of the complexity of this man. As much as some of us might prefer not to articulate it, he was, in all the conventional senses of the use of the term, ‘a great man’ with a long list of achievements to his name.

His critics might (and do) quibble that he did not do this on his own; that he was the leader of a team of talented men (women generally did not need to apply). And this is indisputable.

We complain that the self-serving narrative of his success would have us believe that he built it from ‘a fetid swamp’ (to quote Greg Sheridan in The Australian a few days ago) and we know full well that this is just plain wrong. He and his colleagues had a lot of valuable material to work with: much of it a legacy of British rule (e.g. the administrative system, the Naval Base and English as the lingua franca); some a gift of nature (such as the port); or the luck of geography (being on the Straits of Malacca, near a rising East Asia).

We complain about a long list of seemingly unintended consequences for those who have been left behind by Singapore’s success or crushed by the dominant elite, and we rightly fear that many of these consequences are not as unintended as they appear at first glance – that they are, in fact, implicitly intended and explicitly accepted as part of the deal.

Yet I cannot think of a single critic who denies his record as a successful builder and who doesn’t feel obliged to put on record some recognition of his achievements. I just wish that those of his devotees who know better could find the honesty to recognise his failings so that more casual followers of public affairs would have a chance of reaching a more balanced perspective.

With this preamble behind me, I would now like to reproduce an interview I did with Zarina Hussain of the BBC last week, a few days before Lee died. Zarina used half-a-dozen sentences of the interview in a piece titled ‘How Lee Kuan Yew engineered Singapore’s economic miracle’, which was published on the BBC website, but most of it has not been reported. I have just tidied up some of the grammar.– Associate Professor Michael D. Barr from the School of International Studies, Flinders University is the author of ‘The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence’ and ‘Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs behind the Man.’

The Curse of The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics by M. Bakri Musa

March 23, 2015

The Curse of The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics

by Dr.M.Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California (received via e-mail)

bakri-musaWe Malays are obsessed – and cursed – with the single-issue politics of bangsa, agama dan negara (race, religion and nation). We have paid, and continue to pay, a severe price for this. Our fixation with those three issues detracts us from pursuing other legitimate endeavors, in particular, our social, economic and educational development. Perversely and far more consequential, our collective addiction to bangsa, agama dan negara only polarizes us.

We, leaders and followers alike, have yet to acknowledge much less address this monumental and unnecessary obstacle we impose upon ourselves. The current angst over hudud (religious laws) reflects this far-from-blissful ignorance. With Malays over represented in the various dysfunctional categories (drug abusers, abandoned babies, and broken families), and with our graduates overwhelmingly unemployable, our leaders are consumed with cutting off hands and stoning to death as punishments for thievery and adultery. Meanwhile pervasive corruption and endemic incompetence destroy our society and institutions. Those are the terrible consequences of our misplaced obsession with agama.

If we focus more on earthly issues such as reducing corruption, enhancing our schools and universities, and on improving economic opportunities, then we are more likely to produce a just and equitable society. That would mertabatkan (enhance the status of) our agama, bangsa dan negara on a far more impressive scale.

Make no mistake, if we remain marginalized or if we fail to contribute our share, then it matters little whether Malaysia is an Islamic State or had achieved “developed” status, our agama, bangsa dan negara will be relegated to the cellar of humanity. Our hollering of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) would then be but a desperate and pathetic manifestation of Kebangsatan Melayu (Malay Poverty).

A Historical Perspective

For the first half of the last century, our fixation was, as to be expected, on nationalism. Our forefathers were consumed with the struggle to be free from the clutches of colonialism, and the right to be independent. With merdeka a reality in 1957, the obsession then shifted from negara to bangsa, from merdeka to bahasa (language). Today with Malay language specifically and customs generally accepted as the national norms, our mania has now shifted to agama.

While our passion for negara and bangsa had a definite and definable endpoint (independence and Malay as the national language respectively), what is the goal with our obsession on agama? ISIS Malaysia? And as for entry into heaven, only Allah knows that.

We have forgotten, or are unaware in the first place, the price we paid for our earlier obsessions. Consider our nationalistic fervor of yore. While we Malays were consumed with treating the colonialists as white devils and fighting them, non-Malays seized every opportunity to work with and learn from them. In our smugness and misplaced sense of superiority we asserted that we had nothing to learn from those colonials and outsiders, blithely ignoring the obvious evidences to the contrary, just like the Japanese before the Meiji Restoration.

What has umno achieved Bakri M

As a result when independence came, non-Malays were much more equipped to take full advantage of that fact while we Malays were still consumed with endlessly shouting merdeka and rehashing an established reality. A decade later we found ourselves marginalized while the non-natives were busy taking over opportunities left behind by the British. Then like a wild boar caught in a trap of its own making, we lashed out at everyone and everything, with ugly consequences for all.

It took the brilliance and foresightedness of the late Tun Razak to first of all recognize the underlying pathology and then craft an imaginative and effective remedy.

As for our struggle for independence, let me inject a not-so-obvious observation. Our merdeka came less from the battles of our jingoistic warriors, more from British realization that colonialism was no longer chic. Indeed it became an affront to their sensibilities. I would be less certain of that conviction had our colonizers been the Chinese or Russians. The Tibetans and Chechens will attest to that.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the British for another reason. They cultivated sensible leaders amongst us and dealt harshly with the radicals. Consequently we were blessed with post-independent figures like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak while spared the likes of Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh.

Had we been less arrogant culturally and instead learned from the British, we would have been able to give full meaning to our merdeka. There was much that we could have learned from a nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Age.

Folly of The National Language Obsession

The May 1969 race riot should have taught us the obvious and very necessary lesson that we must prepare our people well so they could make their rightful contributions and not be left behind. It did not. Instead we shifted our obsession, this time to language. Bahasa jiwa banga (Language the soul of a race), we deluded ourselves.

With that we sacrificed generations of precious and scarce Malay minds to the altar of the supremacy of Bahasa. We also squandered what precious little legacy the British had left us, specifically our facility with English. Imagine had we built on that!

Yes, Malay is now the national language, a fact affirmed by all. Less noticed or acknowledged is that while non-Malays are facile with that language they are also well versed in others, in particular English. Not so Malays, with our leaders eagerly egging on our fantasy that knowing only Malay was sufficient.

DPM MalaysiaWith English now the de facto language of science, commerce and international dealings, not to mention the language of global consumers especially affluent ones, our Malay-only fluency is a severe handicap. We are lost or ignored abroad, or even in Malaysia within the private sector. Again we are being left out because of our misplaced obsession.

The sad part is that we are only now just recognizing this tragic reality. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyyddin (who is also in charge of education) was stunned to learn that our students fared poorly in international comparisons. He is still stunned for he has yet to come up with a coherent solution.

Our Current Delusion with Religion

Judging from the current obsession with hudud, we have learned nothing from our earlier follies with bangsa dan negara.

Faith is a personal matter. This is especially so with Islam. Our Holy Book says that on the Day of Judgment we would be judged solely by our deeds. We cannot excuse them based on our following the dictates of this great leader or the teachings of that mesmerizing ulama. Islam is also unique in being devoid of a clergy class. There is no pope or priest to mediate between us and Allah, or a prophet who died in order to expiate our sins.

The now vociferous and overbearing ulama class imposing itself upon us is a recent innovation (bida’a) in our faith.  As is evident, this obsession with hudud does not bring Muslims together. Far from it! Hudud also creates an unnecessary chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam should bring us together.

To Muslims the Koran is the word of Allah, its message for all mankind and till the end of time. That is a matter of faith. While hudud is based on the Koran it is not the Koran. The present understanding of hudud is but the version interpreted by the ancient Bedouins. It is the handiwork of mortals, with all its imperfections. We should not be bound by it but be open to more enlightened readings of the holy book.

We paid dearly for our earlier obsessions with race and nationalism. What would be the price this time for our fixation with religion? Look at the Middle East today. Ponder Nigeria with its Boko Haram. Contemplate being under the brutal ISIS, the messianic Talibans, or the puritanical Saudis.

We have yet to recover from our earlier follies with nationalism and Bahasa, yet we blithely continue making new ones with our current obsession on religion. The mistakes we make this time could well prove irreversible.

Dispense with this public fixation with religion. Instead focus on adil and amanah (justice and integrity), the tenets of our faith. We cannot be Islamic if we are devoid of both. This should be our pursuit, from eminent Malays to not-so-eminent ones, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

If our leaders do not lead us there, then dispense with them and pursue our own path forward. Unlike the earlier colonial era, this time there is no superior power except for Allah to guide us find and groom enlightened leaders. We are on our own. As per the wisdom of our Koran, Allah will not change our condition unless we do it ourselves.

Dr. M.Bakri Musa’s latest book, Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014. The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership, has just been released. It will be available soon at major online outlets like Amazon.com.

The Passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

March 23, 2015

Our sincere condolences to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his family, my friends and associates and the people of Singapore on the passing of  Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore. In our view, Mr. Lee now belongs in the pantheon of great world leaders. Mr Lee made it possible for Singapore to be the model of good governance and multiculturalism.–Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican

Lee Kuan Yew Obituary


The founding Prime Minister of an independent Singapore, he sought to encourage prosperity through ensuring a dominant role for the state.
Lee-Kuan-YewAs first Prime Minister of Singapore, serving for three decades until 1990, and a continuing cabinet presence for the two that followed, Lee Kuan Yew, who has died aged 91, was a man whose story reflected his times. A relentless nation-builder like Tito, an instantly identifiable symbol like Haile Selassie, Lee also had a third dimension, especially in western eyes – statesman, philosopher king, embodiment of the wisdom of the east.

Lee’s role in and articulation of events from the Pacific war and the Japanese occupation of Singapore till leaving politics completely in 2011 made him a pivotal figure of the modern world. To many he became the embodiment of the orderly transition of a region from western dominance to neo-Confucian success. Yet experience had taught him to be a pessimist, which drove him to work harder, to be more ruthless.

Lee himself may not have changed the world outside little Singapore very much. Indeed, his greatest apparent achievement, the creation of a viable independent state, was the outcome of his biggest failure – Singapore’s expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, two years after the organisation’s inception. His first vision of Singapore’s future, as part of a multicultural Malaysia, may prove in time to have been the correct one, but he can be at least partly judged by the achievement of his second vision for Singapore, the prosperous, prickly and obsessively hygienic city state.

He did not create modern Singapore’s prosperity. The city state thrived naturally in a region of economic growth and rapid development of world trade. However, he certainly created the image of the state in his own likeness.

Being liked was not part of his agenda. A combination of high intelligence and unswervable determination were Lee’s characteristics, and he transferred them, at least superficially, to modern Singapore. Without him, it may in time go a different way, more reflective of its multiracial background and potentially precarious existence. But while he was alive few dared think, let alone put forward, alternative visions.

Lee has been described as many things. To Chinese, particularly during his days fighting Chinese chauvinism in the name of a multiracial Singapore identity, the Cambridge-educated lawyer brought up to believe in English education if not in British institutions, Lee was a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white inside. However, later in life, as Chinese identity and Confucian attitudes emphasising education, discipline and hierarchy became more important, he would be criticised for presenting himself as a fount of wisdom, a convincing articulator of modern Asia to western audiences, while actually behaving with all the intolerance of a Chinese emperor. At his worst, he could combine imperial hauteur with extraordinarily petty spite, relishing the destruction of irritating but unthreatening critics. At his best, he had an incisive mind and clear political judgment. For an avowed elitist, he had a remarkable ability to talk to a crowd.

Born in Singapore, Lee was the eldest son of Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo, members of a comfortably off but not rich Straits Chinese family. The Straits Chinese were those who had been settled in the region for many years, losing much of their Chinese identity both to the language and institutions of their British rulers, and to the Malays, their neighbours whose tongue was the lingua franca of south-east Asia.

The young Harry, as Yew was known in the English-language environment of the time, came first in Malaya in the Senior Cambridge exams (the equivalent of A-levels) of 1939 and was destined to go to Britain to study law. But the second world war intervened and he had to go to the local Raffles College instead, where he acquired some basic economics, and met his future wife, Kwa Geok Choo. The delay in going to Britain was but a minor inconvenience compared with the sudden and humiliating British surrender of Singapore in February 1942. Lee described his own initial humiliation at the hands of Japanese troops as “the single most important event of my life”.

Little is known of his actual role during the occupation, other than that he learned Japanese (he had a remarkable facility for languages), worked for Domei, the Japanese news agency, and may in the latter days of the war been of help to the British. The obscurity with which this period has been shrouded subsequently gave rise to much speculation about his relationships with the British and the Japanese. But he saw enough of British failures not to want to ape them, and enough of Japanese brutality – mostly directed against the recent migrant Chinese than against the more compromising Straits Chinese – to resent them. As he later wrote, he emerged from the war “determined that no one – neither the Japanese nor the British – had the right to push and kick us around”.

Combining drive with connections, he got himself to Britain in 1946 to study at the London School of Economics. But deciding he needed to aim higher, he talked his way into Fitzwilliam Hall, Cambridge, and graduated in 1949 with a starred first in law. His wife-to-be, whom he married the following year, also got a first.

It was also during this time that he began to develop ambitions beyond returning home to a prosperous legal career. He recognised that the British could not recreate the comfortable, colonial Singapore of prewar days. Nationalism, socialism and communism were in the air. In a speech in 1950 to the Malayan Forum in London, he said: “The choice lies between a communist republic of Malaya and a Malaya within the British Commonwealth led by people who, despite their opposition to imperialism, still share certain ideals in common with the Commonwealth … if we [the returning students] do not give leadership, it will come from the other ranks of society.” Malaya, he noted prophetically, could be either “another Palestine or another Switzerland”.

Even before returning to Singapore, Lee had identified the strands necessary to make a successful politician with the aim of securing an independent, non-communist Malaya. The first was a commitment to greater social justice and income distribution. This was part of the ethos of the time, both in Britain, where Lee was involved with the Labour party, and with such exemplars of independence and social democracy as Nehru’s India. But it was also necessary politics. Lee believed that without a commitment to both anti-imperialism and socialism, radicals would win control of the freedom struggle.

The other element in Lee’s equation was multiracialism, which he saw as necessary to prevent Malaya from dissolving into war between two nationalisms, a Chinese one which was communist in sympathy and a Malay one which tended to be exclusive and feudal.

Back in Singapore, Lee the lawyer and Lee the politician were soon inseparable as he took up the cases of trade unionists, radicals and nationalists. Being from the British-educated Chinese elite, he had to work all the harder at being a leader to dialect-speaking Chinese and Indian union firebrands. His energy and application were prodigious, and he added fluency in Mandarin and Hokkien and passable Malay and even Tamil to his roster of languages.

He was the driving force behind the creation of the People’s Action party (PAP) in 1954, including within it people sympathetic to the communist insurgency, then at its height in the Malayan peninsular. The PAP adhered to constitutionalism while Lee acted for those detained under the Internal Security Act.

Lee’s fortunes as a politician benefited from his bravura courtroom performances. It was this very success with juries that made him critical of the jury system. Judges were less easily swayed by emotion, and were appointed by the government. Once in power, Lee abolished juries.

Despite his advocacy on behalf of leftists and nationalists, there were those who believed he connived to ensure that the left faction did not get the upper hand in the PAP. The party, which had been seen as the main agent of constitutional development in Singapore, swept aside more conservative forces to win the 1959 election by a large margin. Lee became chief minister of a self-governing state within the Commonwealth, promoting social reform but retaining political detention without trial.

His principal objective became to achieve, in co-operation with the Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, independence through merger with a somewhat suspicious Malaya – which had been independent since 1957 – plus the territories of Sarawak and Sabah to form Malaysia. The PAP was divided on this and other issues and formally split in 1961, the left faction forming the Barisan Sosialis. However, the merger proposal was approved in a referendum.

Lee further solidified his position by mass detentions, including those of prominent Barisan leaders. Though he justified the detentions by reference to the lingering communist threat and Indonesia’s avowed opposition to Malaysia, they came to symbolise Lee’s authoritarian tendencies. With the Barisan decapitated, he won the 1963 election and the Barisan never recovered.

While unification made sense to the moderate majority of Singaporeans and Malayans, it soon ran into problems. Chief among them was the reluctance of the hyperactive Lee to play second fiddle to a Kuala Lumpur-based federal government led by the relaxed, aristocratic tunku, or prince. Lee insisted on the PAP trying to win seats in the peninsula itself, in the process setting itself up as the party more likely to protect Chinese interests than the Malaysian Chinese Association, the conservative Chinese element of the tunku’s ruling alliance. Lee made speeches which many regarded as racially inflammatory. Some Malays wanted him arrested. In the end, the tunku decided in August 1965 that the only way out was for Singapore to leave the federation.

One vision had failed. Now Lee redoubled his efforts to create a new vision – of a republic of Singapore with its own identity and national interests that could hold its own among potentially hostile neighbours. Malaysia and Singapore still needed each other. The Indonesian policy of confrontation ended with the downfall of Sukarno in 1966. However, times were difficult, exacerbated by British military withdrawal, which created additional problems of finding jobs for a rapidly expanding population.

The first 10 years after the expulsion from Malaysia saw Lee forge the society that is modern Singapore. It could have been done differently. Colonial Hong Kong, so similar in many ways, prospered as well without the guidance of a “philosopher king” or a “Moses”, as Lee was to be later described. Nonetheless, Lee was very much in charge of the new Singapore and thus deserves the credit, and the blame.

The ingredients included a dominant role for the state. This combined aspects of social democracy, for example in major efforts to improve health and public housing, with “the mandarins know best” attitudes to social and economic activity.

Foreign capital was relied upon to create jobs. This was a pragmatic recognition from the beginning that Singapore lacked the capital and know how to create industries. Meanwhile its entrepot role was, by definition, dependent on the services it could provide to foreigners.

Nationalism was fostered too, which meant infusing an opportunistic, multiracial commercial hub with a Singapore identity, sense of pride, citizenship and separateness. It meant having strong armed forces, a Swiss-style national service and international assertiveness.

For Lee, western notions of liberal democracy, free association, independent trade unions, juries and other aspects of the separation of powers might have proved an obstacle to achieving these nation-building goals. Yet he was well aware that the British had left behind some democratic expectations, and in order to compete economically, Singapore had to present itself to the outside world as a reasonably open as well as competently run state.

Some government intervention in the economy was simply pragmatic. But much of it had political overtones. The state, for example, created what is now the largest commercial bank, the Development Bank of Singapore, though there was never any lack of private ones. Its forced savings scheme was a colonial-era provident fund that was used to generate savings that helped give Singapore the best infrastructure in Asia. The scheme gave the government control over far more money than it needed, thus enabling it to dictate not only the pattern of investment but housing and consumer spending. The nation amassed huge foreign reserves, which underpinned its growth, reflected in a currency that was as strong as the German mark.

Emphasis on education, especially in science, helped Singapore develop as a base for multinationals. Lee’s government was very successful in identifying and fostering growth industries, whether it was the Asiadollar money market in the late 60s, oil exploration, production and refinery services in the 70s, or electronics in the 90s. However, critics – and even some government loyalists – noted a decline in the entrepreneurial spirit. Educated Singaporeans did not create enterprises: they went to work, very efficiently, for ones already created by foreigners, or the government. The administration was both extraordinarily pedantic and uncorrupt. Yet part of Singapore’s prosperity rested on it providing a safe haven for money made corruptly in neighbouring countries, smuggling or drug trafficking.

Intellectually, Lee recognised the importance of money-making. Money brought power. Yet he exhibited the kind of distaste for businessmen common among Chinese mandarins, socialists and intellectuals. Thus Singapore’s indigenous capitalists were kept on a short leash. From time to time prominent examples were made of “misbehaviour”.

For all its potential shortcomings, for all its dependence on the growth of neighbours, the rise of Japan and latterly of China, the reality is that for four decades from 1970 Singapore delivered economic growth rates almost as good as any in booming east Asia. There have been few hiccups. Thanks to the prosperity of its oil-producing neighbours, Singapore rode the oil crises easily. The mid-80s recession necessitated some minor policy adjustments, but generally, once the mould had been established, Singapore’s economic progress was as unruffled as its politics.

Internationally, Lee played a key role in the development of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). At first he had been somewhat suspicious, fearing it could become a vehicle for Indonesian domination, or an expression of pan-Malay identity. However, he soon embraced it as an anti-communist buffer which linked countries with formal ties to the US (Thailand and Philippines) to the anti-communist but “neutral” Indonesia and Malaysia. Anti-communism cemented Singapore’s ties with the US when it badly needed implied protection as well as investment. With ties to Washington and Beijing, Lee helped to ensure that Asean participated fully in the cold war to force Vietnam out of Cambodia.

In practice, politics seldom stood in the way of business opportunities. After all, Singapore was commerce (not ideology) in action. But once the Soviet empire had collapsed, foreign policy emphasis changed to a wholehearted pursuit of economic goals. Again, Singapore was quick to see the advantages of turning ASEAN attention to trade, providing a new raison d’etre for the group. Freer trade was not just good for Singapore but for the region’s ethnic Chinese business community, many of whom saw Singapore as their spiritual home and salted away profits there.

In social as in economic affairs, Lee tried to shape society to an extent attempted perhaps only by Mao Zedong in recent times. What began in the early years as a voluntary family-planning campaign ended up with the state trying to influence marriage choices and “enhance” Singapore’s genetic quality by encouraging graduates to reproduce among themselves. Myriad rules, taxes, incentives and exhortations confronted the citizen. The result was an orderly society, but only marginally freer of crime than Hong Kong. It was a society where people were afraid to speak out. Lee the great debater was now the winner by default, whether in parliament or the courts.

While continuing with parliamentary elections, Lee muzzled the press, international as well as local, and stamped hard on opponents of the PAP. Opposition politicians were hounded by legal actions – often for libel, which Lee invariably won – and bankrupted. Social workers were branded as communists and detained till they confessed, often after coercive treatment.

Quite why Lee, revered as the father of the nation, found it necessary to use such sledgehammers was not clear. In the 50s, the communists were real and ruthless. But as time went on, real threats vanished. Yet the unrelenting ambition did not, and Lee was unable to change his self-image as a political streetfighter, the gang boss who forever had to prove his ruthlessness. Beyond that, he had a sense of insecurity about the future of Singapore after he was gone. Partly this was a sense that society would go soft with success, or, like the Malays, surrender to the easy languor of the tropics. The younger generation knew only success and the cultivation of wealth.

He, with his recollections of Japanese occupation, the expulsion from Malaysia, the potential threat from Indonesia, always imagined the worst. Singapore could not afford gentlemanly disagreements or real debates. The leaders led, and that was it.

Increasingly, there was only one leader. Comrades from the heroic anti-colonial days retired, drifted away or were pushed out – in the case of President Devan Nair in 1985, after a humiliating allegation of alcoholism that he contested. New blood was brought into the PAP, but increasingly it became a tightknit elite. It retained an effective command structure but the mass base eroded.

The so-called second generation had no real political experience but was full of intellectual accomplishment. Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee as prime minister in 1990, was a competent and well-liked bureaucrat, but Lee remained in cabinet as senior minister. In 2004, Lee’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister, and his father “minister mentor”. He resigned from that cabinet position in May 2011 following an electoral setback when the PAP share of the vote fell to its lowest level since independence. He then took no further part in public life.

Goh had been unable to deliver the “kinder, gentler” Singapore that had been expected. The force of Lee’s personality, the moral authority that he commanded, left him the arbiter of anything he cared about. Like a Mao in miniature, he seemed both to enjoy and have contempt for the adulation that surrounded him. Never a tolerant man, he began to show some of the symptoms of age. International acclaim added to his convictions of his own brilliance and righteousness.

Some saw excesses of personal power, not just in his treatment of opponents but in the rapid promotion of his sons. The Singapore courts silenced a string of suggestions of dynastic politics.

With Goh and Hsien Loong minding day-to-day affairs, Lee was free to devote his energies to the world. He saw in the economic success of East Asia the triumph of “Confucian values”: discipline, order, respect for education and authority over western values of individualism, liberalism and democracy. He even succeeded for a while in promoting Singapore as the centre of “Asian values”. Lee was especially heartened by China’s economic success, defended its political repression and criticised Taiwan’s new-found democracy. China’s success fitted not only with his own philosophy but with the increasing emphasis in Singapore on its predominantly Chinese, as distinct from multiracial, character.

Ethnic prejudice lurked just under Lee’s image of technocratic rationalism. He combined assumptions about Chinese cultural supremacy with belief in genetic theories which influenced social policy in Singapore. But if Lee’s actions were sometimes driven by gut instinct, his head was more often the winner, particularly in international affairs. He could set aside his underlying distaste for America, with its crude culture and populist politics, and his Chinese ethnic sentiments to deliver masterly analyses of regional and global affairs. Only occasionally did he let prejudices get in the way of Singapore’s national interest – which, he clearly saw, lay with keeping US forces in the region.

Perhaps only he could succeed in making oppressive Singapore the main Asian critic of the US commitment to human rights and personal freedoms while ensuring that Singapore remained a key to the strategic plans of American military and multinationals alike.

Mostly – though not always – he could guard his tongue sufficiently to keep his Malay neighbours co-operative. His sheer length of service gave him a regional prestige that only Suharto could match, and his successors would not inherit. Suharto, with 180 million people and a vast archipelago to rule, had a big stage, while Lee gave every sign of regarding Singapore – with a population of 5 million in 700 square kilometres – as far too small for his talents.

Indeed, it was far too small. Its size accounted for his obsession that its every detail, down to choice of roadside trees, fit with his plans or prejudices, as well as his eagerness to advise larger countries on how to run their affairs.

Because of his background and early life, he could operate and dominate in many different milieus, but was totally at home in none of them. That perhaps accounted for his ruthlessness. He had permanent interests, not permanent friends. In sum, always a leader rather than a fullower, he set his own agenda.

Kwa Geok Choo died in October 2010, and Lee is survived by their two sons and a daughter. Lee Hsien Loong continues to be Prime Minister; his brother, Lee Hsien Yang, is chairman of the civil aviation authority; and their sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, is director of the national neuroscience institute.

• Lee Kuan Yew, statesman, born 16 September 1923; died 23 March 2015

READ MORE on The Passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew






The World will miss Lee Kuan Yew–A Tribute

By Henry A. Kissinger March 23 at 3:43 PM


Henry A. Kissinger was Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977.

lky-kissingerTwo Brilliant Global Strategists

Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.

Lee emerged onto the international stage as the founding father of the state of Singapore, then a city of about 1 million. He developed into a world statesman who acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe.

Fate initially seemed not to have provided him a canvas on which to achieve more than modest local success. In the first phase of decolonization, Singapore emerged as a part of Malaya. It was cut loose because of tensions between Singapore’s largely Chinese population and the Malay majority and, above all, to teach the fractious city a lesson of dependency. Malaya undoubtedly expected that reality would cure Singapore of its independent spirit.

But great men become such through visions beyond material calculations. Lee defied conventional wisdom by opting for statehood. The choice reflected a deep faith in the virtues of his people. He asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore and co-founder of the People’s Action Party, has died at age 91. Lee led Singapore’s rise from British tropical outpost to global trade and financial center. (Reuters)

A great leader takes his or her society from where it is to where it has never been — indeed, where it as yet cannot imagine being. By insisting on quality education, by suppressing corruption and by basing governance on merit, Lee and his colleagues raised the annual per capita income of their population from $500 at the time of independence in 1965 to roughly $55,000 today. In a generation, Singapore became an international financial center, the leading intellectual metropolis of Southeast Asia, the location of the region’s major hospitals and a favored site for conferences on international affairs. It did so by adhering to an extraordinary pragmatism: by opening careers to the best talents and encouraging them to adopt the best practices from all over the world.

Superior performance was one component of that achievement. Superior leadership was even more important. As the decades went by, it was moving — and inspirational — to see Lee, in material terms the mayor of a medium-size city, bestride the international scene as a mentor of global strategic order. A visit by Lee to Washington was a kind of national event. A presidential conversation was nearly automatic; eminent members of the Cabinet and Congress would seek meetings. They did so not to hear of Singapore’s national problems; Lee rarely, if ever, lobbied policymakers for assistance. His theme was the indispensable U.S. contribution to the defense and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time.

This process started for me when Lee visited Harvard in 1967 shortly after becoming prime minister of an independent Singapore. Lee began a meeting with the senior faculty of the School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School) by inviting comments on the Vietnam War. The faculty, of which I was one dissenting member, was divided primarily on the question of whether President Lyndon Johnson was a war criminal or a psychopath. Lee responded, “You make me sick” — not because he embraced war in a personal sense but because the independence and prosperity of his country depended on the fortitude, unity and resolve of the United States. Singapore was not asking the United States to do something that Singapore would not undertake to the maximum of its ability. But U.S. leadership was needed to supplement and create a framework for order in the world.

Lee elaborated on these themes in the hundreds of encounters I had with him during international conferences, study groups, board meetings, face-to-face discussions and visits at each other’s homes over 45 years. He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership. He understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the United States there could be no stability.

Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current U.S. constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery. This is not the occasion to debate what other options were available. Had Singapore chosen the road of its critics, it might well have collapsed among its ethnic groups, as the example of Syria teaches today. Whether the structures essential for the early decades of Singapore’s independent existence were unnecessarily prolonged can be the subject of another discussion.

I began this eulogy by mentioning my friendship with Lee. He was not a man of many sentimental words. And he nearly always spoke of substantive matters. But one could sense his attachment. A conversation with Lee, whose life was devoted to service and who spent so much of his time on joint explorations, was a vote of confidence that sustained one’s sense of purpose.

The great tragedy of Lee’s life was that his beloved wife was felled by a stroke that left her a prisoner in her body, unable to communicate or receive communication. Through all that time, Lee sat by her bedside in the evening reading to her. He had faith that she understood despite the evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps this was Lee Kuan Yew’s role in his era. He had the same hope for our world. He fought for its better instincts even when the evidence was ambiguous. But many of us heard him and will never forget him.

Ulama Faction is a problem for PAS

March 14, 2015


Ulama Faction is a problem for PAS and boon to UMNO

by Koh Jun Lin@www.malaysiakini.com

The ulama faction in PAS is a problem to the party because many from its ranks keep falling for the ‘hudud trap’ set by UMNO, PAS central committee member Mohamed Hanipa Maidin says.

The issue has become UMNO’s most potent weapon, Hanipa said, to break up the Pakatan Rakyat coalition so as to ensure UMNO’s own survival at a time when its allies MIC and MCA are weak.

“Why? Because when UMNO lobs the hudud issue, PAS people forget about everything else. They forget about the Internal Security Act, they forget about the Sedition Act and they forget about 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

“They forget everything. Everything is about hudud. They have done it before and are doing it again, talking about the same things. This the problem, and most ustaz (religious teachers) are like that.

“Sorry ustaz. But the ustaz are really a problem in PAS,” Hanipa (above) told a forum organised by Malaysiakini at its premises last night.

The forum, held a month after the passing of PAS spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, was themed “Where is PAS heading, without Nik Aziz?” The Sepang MP told the forum that many young religious scholars returning from the Middle East score top marks in reciting the Quran and hadith from memory, but utterly fail when dealing with real world issues or with analytical thinking.

“If you ask them to explain the 1MDB issue, they might even ask you what is 1MDB… for me, this is the reality in PAS,” he quipped.

Uptick in violence in PAS

Hanipa said this when asked to explain an uptick in the use of violence in PAS, which included an incident where PAS central committee member Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad was assaulted, and another incident in which Kuala Krai MP Dr Mohd Hatta Ramli’s car was torched.

Both victims are linked to the faction of professionals in PAS, which is seen to be in loggerheads with the religious scholars and their supporters in the party.

Hanipa said part of the problem is that the scholars are seeking a “utopian and purist” version of Islam, which sees diversity as a threat, even though Islam thrives in diversity.

In contrast, he said Nik Aziz was a religious scholar who understood contemporary issues and sought to make the party more inclusive, and the late spiritual leader even gave much encouragement to the professionals in the party.

Hanipa said he understood that Islam cannot be advanced through its scholars alone. Among others, he cited Nik Aziz’s invitations to non-Muslims to attend Islamic functions and his speech at the Bar Council on human rights as examples of his outreach efforts.

“Unfortunately since Tok Guru (Nik Aziz) is no longer here, and even when he became less active in politics due to his poor health, the phenomena that the moderator spoke of began to spread,” Hanipa added.


The Origins and Evolution of Ethnocracy in Malaysia

March 11, 2015

This paper by Geoff Wade makes an excellent read on ethnicity and the history of Malaysian political developments since Independence. The issues discussed are still relevant in the present context. I hope you have the patience and fortitude to read this paper in its entirety.  I believe  that you will come out of it with an understanding of why ethnicity will not just go away any time soon. It is embedded in our national consciousness. Together with religion,  race,  thanks to UMNO Baru, remains the core issue we have to grapple with for years to come. I would go to the extent to suggest without race there is no politics in Malaysia.–Din Merican

More from Wade, thanks to Conrad. READ ON:

Malaysia’s Next 50 years (Part 1): Domestic Ethnocratic Concerns :

Malaysia’s Next 50 years (Part 2): A Fulcrum or Fault line in Southeast Asia?:


1Malaysia1Malaysia –A Distant Dream

The Origins and Evolution of Ethnocracy in Malaysia

by Geoff Wade

1. Introduction

How is it that today in the diverse, multi-ethnic polity of Malaysia (where government figures give a population breakdown of 65% Bumiputra, 26% Chinese and 8% Indian), a single ethnic group completely controls – and occupies virtually all positions in – the judiciary, public administrative organs, the police, the armed forces and increasingly the universities? While Malays constitute a majority of the population of this nation, their presence in all these spheres of power far exceeds their ratio within the general population. How did this situation emerge and how has it evolved?

It will be argued below that the injustices currently observed in Malaysia together with the ethnic streaming derive essentially from the 1948 Constitution which was created by the British in alliance with UMNO following the breakdown of the 1946 Malayan Union structure. The Constitutionally-mandated special place for the Malays provided for in the 1948 Constitution and subsequently in the 1957 Constitution has been used as a basis for all manner of exclusionist and discriminatory policies which have become increasingly socially encompassing, producing a situation where non-Malay members of Malaysian society feel themselves excluded and thereby ignored in terms of access to “public” facilities, funds and opportunities. The March 2008 election results were in part a reflection of sentiments over this socially inequitable situation.

2. The History of Ethnocracy in Malaya/Malaysia from 1942

Let us begin the account with 1942, and proceed to earlier times later in the paper. Even from the beginning of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Malaya and Singapore over the period 1941-45, it was obvious to the British and others that there would need to be a real reassessment of the British role in the peninsula and Borneo post-war. Planning for the post-war period of reoccupation and readjustment began almost as soon as the Japanese occupation had begun.

The British interests and powers in the peninsula pre-war lay in: 1) The British territories of the Straits Settlements. 2) Nine peninsular states where British power was nominally subordinate to the power of sultans by treaty, but which were essentially administered from Singapore. The British saw these states as appendages of their global empire, and that they had an almost divine obligation to exploit them and provide the administrations necessary to facilitate this. In a 1940s overview of the role of Britain in the region, it was noted: “Owing to the development by foreign capital (British, Chinese, American etc.) of the valuable natural resources of the states, it has fallen to the British to develop the local administrative systems to build up the social services and to ensure law and order.” [1] Essentially, all functions of a state were fulfilled by the British throughout the peninsula, with the Colonial Office noting of their efforts in the 1930s: “Our policy has been to maintain the sovereignty of the Malay Rulers, and to make it continually more real in those States where it had tended to become overlaid by our own direct Administration under the pressure of economic development (e.g. the decentralisation policy in the Federated Malay States). Our declared policy has also been to promote the well-being and efficiency of the Malay peoples and their educational fitness to fill the official services in their own territories. The continued and legitimate fear of the Malays has been that they would be swamped by the more efficient and numerous Chinese and to a lesser extent the Indians.” [2] British political intentions post-war were also being set down in the early Pacific war years. “It may be necessary after the war to take steps to achieve some form of closer union of the Malay states (probably not only with each other but involving the Straits Settlements also) with a view to ensuring a common policy in matters of concern to Malaya generally.”

We thus see, in August 1942, the expression in a joint British Colonial Office-Foreign Office policy paper of a “legitimate fear of the Malays” vis-à-vis other peoples in the peninsula, in combination with a British intention post-war to integrate the various political components into a political union. In respect of the Borneo territories, it was intended that: “Sarawak and Brunei would continue to be independent states under His Majesty’s protection by treaty, but if some form of Malayan union was developed, it would be appropriate that Brunei at least and possibly Sarawak should be associated with that union.” Regarding North Borneo: “An opportunity will arise for proposing the direct assumption by the British government of administrative responsibility for North Borneo…and the state of North Borneo might also be associated with the Malayan Union.” [3]

Soon thereafter, however, even before the end of 1942, the British, concerned about maintaining their post-war power in Asia, decided that Singapore should not be included in the post-War union. In a report by Sir W. Battershill, G.E.J. Gent and W.L. Rolleston on lessons from Hong Kong and Malaya, it was noted: “It is therefore suggested that the island [Singapore] should be excluded from any federation and/or customs union that may be established in the rest of the peninsula.” [4]

There was concern that in the Malay states it had not been possible to “establish the status of Chinese born in a Malay State as British protected persons.” This was important as “the Malay rulers have never been ready to recognise Chinese, however long established in their states, as being nationals of those states. It is desirable, even at this stage, that the formal status of ‘British protected persons’ should be given to those Chinese who are domiciled in the Malay States.” [5] How to deal with the sultans was a key issue discussed. Lord Hailey who headed the Colonial research Committee tasked with investigating post-war arrangements in British colonies averred: “The treatment of the rest of Malaya is our most difficult problem. There is, on the one hand, the obligation of honour to replace the sultans in the position which our Treaties have assigned to them; there is, on the other hand, the need to take account of our announced policy of promoting self-governance in the colonies. It is obvious that there are many advantages in the existing system which is practically one of direct official rule, under the façade of ‘advice’ to the Malayan rulers!” [6] The dilemma was expressed by Lord Hailey thus: “Actually, the greater part of the administration is carried out, in the Federated Malay States at all events, by officers or departments acting under direct orders of the Governor. Sooner or later we will have to face squarely the question whether we are to allow the façade of Sultan-rule to persist, with all the difficulties which it which it presents to the attainment of any form of self-government, or to build up a constitution on the basis of realities.” [7] While exploring this, he saw that Britain “shall be obliged to face two questions, first, whether the system is capable of being adjusted to the promotion of self-governing institutions, and secondly whether it will enable a suitable status to be given to those Chinese and Indian immigrants who may acquire a permanent interest in the country.” [8] His major concern was “autocratic rule in the hands of the sultans and their Malay advisers.”

By May 1943, the Colonial Office was stressing the ethnicity variable in any possible post-war arrangements: While opposing any rule by autocratic sultans, “at the other extreme it was important to ensure that self-government did not rest on the numerical counting of heads which would mean the swamping of the permanent resident communities (especially the Malays) by immigrants without a lasting interest in the country.” [9] The declaration of our purpose in carrying through the policy (the implementation of which would have to be studied on the spot) would be that Malay interests must be recognised as paramount in carrying through such a scheme, but that other communities with permanent interests in the country must be given their due opportunity to share in an advance towards self-government.” [10]

Here is a very clear statement by Colonial Office officials in 1943 that “Malay interests must be recognised as paramount” and that the idea of all individuals within Malaya having the right to equal representation would be a threat to such aim. No basis for such aspirations was openly stated. In the same year a Malayan Planning Unit was established to make arrangements for post-war Malaya, headed by a military official Major-General H.R. Hone, who opined that “One can see at once that from the point of view of administrative economy and convenience there can be no question but that we should establish a single protectorate over the whole of the mainland of the Malay peninsula, and set up a single government for it.” [11] By 1944, it was becoming increasingly clear that the British wished to retain absolute control over Singapore, and in a Colonial Office memo to the War Cabinet Committee on Malaya and Borneo, the following outline for the other parts of Malaya was set down:

“Our constitutional scheme should be designed, first and foremost, to provide for a union of all the Malay states and the settlements of Penang and Malacca. A central authority representing these States and Settlements should be created and at its head should be a Governor with an Executive and Legislative Council. The seat of Government of this Malayan Union would be conveniently at or near Kuala Lumpur.” [12]

As the Pacific War turned in the interests of the Allies through 1944, the War Cabinet was also involved in planning of the post-war Malaya, generally following Colonial Office recommendations. In the appendices to the War Cabinet memorandum on Policy in Regard to Malaya and Borneo, presented on 18 May 1944 to Clement Atlee, it was noted that: “The restoration of the pre-war constitutional and administrative system will be undesirable in the interests of efficiency and security and of our declared purpose of promoting self-government in Colonial territories. The first of these interests requires a closer union of territories comprising the relatively small area of the Malay Peninsula; and the second requires that self-government should not merely develop towards a system of autocratic rule by the Malay Rulers, but should provide for a growing participation in the Government by the people of all communities in Malaya, subject to a special recognition of the political, economic and social interests of the Malay race.” [13]

However, into these smooth Colonial Office preparations for a Malay-dominated post-war Union in Malaya stepped a problem. Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the South East Asia, based in Ceylon, began to engage himself in post-war planning. In terms of overall political power, he expressed opposition to the reinstatement of the Sultans: “I am not in favour of reinstating the Sultans even as constitutional rulers and certainly not as autocratic rulers…But we must be careful not to abolish the Sultans ruthlessly.” [14] He urged some sort of Upper House position for them in a future legislature.

But it was in respect of the Colonial Office’s desire to assign a special position to the Malays in the post-war administrative structure that drew most of his ire. In July 1944, responding to the Colonial Office memo to the War Office, Mountbatten was to note: “My second point refers to the sentence in Para 1 of the Directive which reads that ‘Participation in the Government by all the communities in Malaya is to be promoted, subject to a special recognition of the political, economic and social interests of the Malay race.’ I cannot help feeling that in the long run nothing could perhaps do more to perpetuate sectional antagonisms, to the risk of which you pointedly refer in your letter, than the giving of special recognition to one race.” “I feel that our objectives should be to break down racial sectionalism in every way open to us, politically, economically and socially, and to endeavour to substitute for it the idea of Malayan citizenship.” [15]

The Colonial Office mandarins obviously felt that Mountbatten did not really understand the exigencies of the situation in Malaya, and Mr Stanley of that office responded to the Supreme Commander’s concerns, informing him of the situation as their officers perceived it: “The Malays are, by general consent, not at present capable of competing on equal terms economically and educationally with the ‘immigrant races’ – Chinese and Indian. From the beginning of our relations with the States we have pursued in the Malay States the policy of taking positive measures to prevent the submergence of the Malays in the public services and in the ownership of land by the more energetic, competent and resourceful Chinese. The most damaging criticism of our new policy will be precisely on these grounds, since we are endeavouring to admit non-Malay communities to a political equality with the Malays in the State territories. We shall make certain of estranging the Malays unless we can assure them of measures not only in the political and social field, which will prevent such ‘equality’ inevitably resulting in their submergence, but also in such matters as the reservation of Malay lands, which otherwise will certainly pass into the hands of the ubiquitous Indian money-lender. Even Tan Cheng Lock, a leading Chinese of Malacca, admits this himself to a large extent.” [16] The letter concluded that: “..The social basis of Malayan society for some time to come cannot be expected to be other than communal, seeing that inter-marriage is virtually non-existent, and religion, language and domestic customs must be potent factors in maintaining the present distinctions.” Mountbatten was however unimpressed:

I fully appreciate that the social basis of Malayan society cannot for some time be other than communal, and that the fostering of the three peoples of Malaya of the conception that they are in fact Malayans, will be an uphill business. …Since I wrote to you, I have received from the War Office copies of the Directives on Chinese policy, and on the Creation of Malayan Union Citizenship. It is essential that the Chinese and Indian elements should be legally assimilated, and should be made to feel committed to local responsibility, instead of being merely a group of exploiters, or a source of cheap labour.

I am sorry to see from your letter that the Malays should by general consent be found incapable of competing on equal terms, ‘economically and educationally’, with the Chinese and Indians. I have no reason to suppose that this opinion is not fully borne out; but it seems to me that indigenous peoples sometimes appear lazy and unambitious, largely because they are unwilling to compete with lower standards of living and wage conditions established by immigrants, who are without roots in the country, and cannot afford to turn down a standard of wages which those who have homes and relations on the spot are not forced to sink to. I do not suggest that the Malayan is at the mercy of cheap coolie labour from China; but it is so easy to give a dog a bad name that one is inclined to fear that an opinion of the natives’ qualities may become an idée fixe, which will militate against a proper appreciation of their potentialities under improved conditions. [17]

Thus, by August 1944, the lines were clearly drawn. On the one side was the Colonial Office arguing for a special protected position for the Malays, and on the other Admiral Mountbatten urging a general Malayan citizenship with all having equal rights and responsibilities.

3.The Malayan Union (1946) and the Federation of Malaya

Meanwhile, with the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the urgency of new administrative and constitutional arrangements increased and in preparation for the new Union proposed by the British, which involved the sending of Sir Harold MacMichael to Malaya to meet with the various sultans. He was tasked with gaining their signatures on documents which would see their vestigial power being turned over to the British crown, as a precondition for the establishment of the Malayan Union. [18] Under the Malayan Union proposals, the Sultans were relegated to Council of Sultans who would discuss Islamic matters. Each state to have a Malay Advisory Council, consisting of the Sultan and other Muslims appointed by the sultan, just to advise sultan on matters of religion. In matters of citizenship, any person born in Malayan Union or Singapore, and any person who had resided in the Malayan Union or Singapore for ten years would be citizens as would persons born of fathers who were citizens of the Malayan Union. [19] This Union, which in many ways, followed the ideas of Mountbatten, was implemented in April 1946. The idea of social equality among the various ethnic groups was not, however, to have a long life-span. Cheah Boon Kheng notes that: “Under the plan, the British had intended to end Malay sovereignty, impose direct rule in Malaya and create an equal citizenship for both Malays and non- Malays. If this plan had been fully implemented, Malaya would have become more of a ‘Malayan’ nation-state than a ‘Malay’ nation-state” [20]

The Malayan Union was to last but two years and during this period it was subject to a remarkable turnaround on the part of the British. Through 1946 and 1947, there was a 180- degree turn from a proposed polity with equal citizenship to one where Malays were dominant, privileged and power-brokers. Some of this story has been detailed by Albert Lau in his account of the Malayan Union, [21] but many documents remain unreleased by the British. The full story of this reversal and the huge effects this had on the subsequent development of Malaysia remains to be written.

However, a major element was the creation of a Malay political party during this period – the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which was led by the Johor political elite and headed by Onn Jaafar. A key element of its creation was the intent to oppose the Malayan Union arrangements.

By July 1946, the British responded to Malay concerns about the Malayan Union by creating a 12-man “Political Working Committee” comprising six government representatives, four royal delegates, and 2 UMNO representatives to consider and recommend a new constitutional framework for the Malayan Union. The question remains as to why it was decided that only Malay representatives were to negotiate the future of Malaya with the British. Was it simply the Colonial Office officials reasserting their paternalistic concern for Malay people, or was it an awareness of the growing power of the Left, represented predominantly by Chinese persons, which sparked this remarkable change? Regardless of the reasons, this decision must be seen as the most fateful and harmful decision in the British decolonization of Malaya.

This Committee, in a remarkably rapid six months, concluded its deliberations in December 1946 and recommended:

1. A Federation of Malaya to replace the Malayan Union. To comprise nine peninsular states together with Penang and Malacca
2. It proposed a central government comprising a High Commissioner, a Federal Executive Council and a Federal Legislative Council
3. In each Malay state the Government shall comprise the ruler assisted by a state Executive Council and a Council of State with legislative powers. In each of the Straits Settlements, there will be a Settlement Council with legislative powers.
4. There will be a Conference of Rulers to consult with each other and with the High Commissioner on state and federal issues.
5. Defence and external matters will be under British control.
6. Rulers would undertake to accept the advice of the High Commissioner in all matters relating to government, but would exclude matters relating to Islam and Malay customs.
7. Proposed that the Legislative Council comprise the High Commissioner, three ex-officio members, 11official members, 34 unofficial members including heads of government in the nine states and two settlements and 23 seats for representatives of industries etc
8. UMNO and Sultans would agree to this only following the scrapping of the MacMichael treaties.

A key element of the proposals was that relating to citizenship. A new Malayan citizenship –which was not to be a nationality – was proposed in the Federation plan. This was an addition to nationality and the committee explained it as a possible qualification for electoral rights, membership of Council or other privileges and obligations. Federal citizenship would be acquired by: 1. Any subject of the ruler of any state. This included all Malays and excluded all non-Malays. 2) British subjects born locally. 3) Children of fathers who were federal citizens.

Shortly thereafter a Consultative Committee under Harold Cheeseman, Director of Education Malaya, was convened to collect views offered by “all interested individuals and groups”. The Constitution was obviously drafted by the Colonial Office in London. While the Governor General and the Colonial Office both declared that there would be no final decision on the Constitution without wide-ranging public consultation, it was obvious that all previous proposals of an egalitarian society had been scrapped, the feudal rulers were to be maintained to bolster Malay claims to power, the Legislative Council was to be powerfully weighted towards the Malays and all other communities were to be essentially sidelined. The Constitution was thus a blueprint for Malay ethnocracy.

The Australian Commissioner in Singapore was certainly observing the events closely for, when he reported to Canberra in the same month, he advised: “There has not yet been time to gauge reactions to the Federation scheme, but it can safely be assumed that it will be the object of bitter attack from the non-Malay communities who have lately shown resentment of the fact that negotiations have proceeded so far without their being consulted. In particular they are bound to object to the citizenship proposals which are rather more exclusive than they had hoped for.” [22]

4.Reactions to the Federation of Malaya Proposals 1946-1948

On the same day as the new Constitutional proposals were released – 14 December 1946– a Council of Joint Action was established in Singapore to oppose the proposed Constitution. The initial meeting was attended by 75 delegates, including representatives of the Malay Nationalist Party, [23] the Malayan Democratic Union and various trade unions. Tan Cheng Lock was elected as chairman. The Council adopted three principles to guide their opposition: 1) A united Malaya inclusive of Singapore; 2) Responsible self-government through a fully elected Central legislature; 3) Equal citizenship rights for all who make Malaya their home.

The first principle violated everything the British were working toward with the new proposals. By including Singapore in the new Malayan polity, the ethnic proportion of Malays would fall below that of Chinese, which would nullify the alleged validity of the proposals. [24] In addition, the British were unwilling to give up the security and economic benefits of retaining Singapore as a Crown Colony. Britain was at this time heavily involved with deciding on how to deal with larger problems – India and Burma, and a decision was taken in February 1947 that Britain would withdraw from India by June 1948, a date which Mountbatten later changed to August 1947. [25] The importance of retaining Singapore was stressed early in 1947 by the British Foreign Minister Bevin who noted: “Our imminent withdrawal from India and Burma makes South East Asia the main centre of British interest and influence.” [26]

The year 1947 was to prove a year of political wrangling, and one where UMNO was to attempt to consolidate the foothold which the Colonial Office had provided them. In January of that year, at the opening of the UMNO General Assembly in Kedah, the Sultan of Kedah urged that “the Malay rulers and UMNO must join hands in carrying out the constitutional proposals for the benefit of the Malays,” while Dato Onn emphasized that the peninsula was the home of the Malays and “we shall preserve it as the home of the Malays.” [27]

Meanwhile, both Malayan Left and Right combined in opposition to the proposals. On 12 January 1947, the Malayan Communist Party [28] issued a statement condemning the Constitutional proposals and announcing support for the Council of Joint Action. On 26 January, the Pan-Malayan Council of Joint Action (PMCJA) held a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, passing resolutions calling for members of the Consultative Committee and Advisory Council to resign. The Penang Chinese Consultative Committee also rejected the Constitutional proposals on the grounds that they were “a direct violation of the United Nations declaration regarding non-self-governing territories.” [29] On 24 February 1947, the Pan-Malayan Chinese Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution at Kuala Lumpur rejecting the constitutional proposals and urging that a Royal Commission be established to examine the possibility of giving Malaya full dominion status.

In response, Edward Gent, Governor of the Malayan Union, publicly responded only to Tan Cheng Lock, Chairman of the Pan-Malayan Council of Joint Action, advising that the government could not recognize the Council of Joint Action as the sole body with which to conduct negotiations on Constitutional issues. [30]

But the opposition crowds grew larger, and at a gathering of 4,000 persons on 18 February 1947 in Malacca, Tan Cheng Lock denounced the federation proposals because of the difficulties of acquiring citizenship they would entail: “We demand for Malaya a constitution based on democratic and liberal principles which will guarantee the fundamental rights and liberties of its citizens who are permanently settled here and who are prepared to give Malaya their undivided loyalty, with the proviso that the stronger members of the Malayan community must extend a helping hand to the weaker ones particularly our Malay brothers who must be uplifted to the economic level of the other inhabitants of this land.”

On February 22, 1947, a new coalition of Malay political and cultural organisations called Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (PUTERA) was organised to act as a counter weight to UMNO. A total of 29 organisations including PKMM, Barisan Tani Se-Malaya (Peasant’s Union or BATAS) and Hizbul Muslimin were part of this coalition. The following month PUTERA formed an alliance with PMCJA to coordinate their efforts against the draft Federation Constitution. The PMCJA-PUTERA alliance then decided in May to draft their own proposed constitution and a committee was formed for that purpose. [31] In that month a huge rally was organised against the constitutional proposals by PMCJA-PUTERA. Again they urged: 1) A united Malaya including Singapore 2) Elected central, state and settlement legislatures 3) Equal rights for all who made Malaya their home 4) Constitutional sultans who governed through democratic state councils 5) Special measures for the uplift and advancement of the Malay people. [32]

Despite the widespread opposition to the proposals from members of all ethnic communities of both Left and Right, the Cheeseman Consultative Committee report was completed and published by 19 April 1947 –again a remarkably swift period of “consultation” on such a key issue, underlining that the Colonial Office did not want to see their plans upset. As expected, the Cheeseman report did not recommend radical changes –only: 1) Seven instead of five unofficial members to be appointed to the Federal Executive Committee; 2) Legco to be comprised of 52 instead of 34 unofficial members and 23 instead of 14 official members. 3) Residence qualifications to be five out of previous ten years.

Within four days, on 23-24 April 1947, Malcolm MacDonald met in Kuala Lumpur the members of the Governor-General’s Advisory Committee, comprising only the Malay Rulers, representatives of the United Malay Nationalist Organisation and government officials, in order to discuss the Cheeseman report. On 24 July 1947 the Summary of the Revised Constitutional Proposals was published. This included a provision for a Malay majority in the proposed Malayan legislature, a provision not endorsed by the Cheeseman Committee which preferred an equal balance between Malay and non-Malay interests. Again we see the Colonial Office and Malcolm MacDonald joining with Dato Onn in laying down the basis for Malay ethnocracy in the new Malaya. These proposals were then submitted to the British Government. [33] The speed with which this was done and the fact that no Malayans others than Malays were engaged in the deliberations shows that the Colonial Office would brook no opposition to its policies.

In a very detailed report on the constitutional proposals by the Australian Commissioner in Singapore to the Minister for External Affairs in Canberra, some of the deficiencies of the plan were pointed out: He noted the opposition to the proposals mainly from PMCJA in Singapore and the Chinese Chambers of Commerce, which was ignored by the Colonial Office. He also noted that the citizenship proposals seem unreasonably exclusive, and were too restrictive in terms of residence and that requiring people to speak English or Malay excluded many Indians and Chinese. His conclusion was indeed prescient. “It would appear, however, that the need to protect the Malays is politically more important than to satisfy the aspirations of the other domiciled communities.” The commissioner was likewise astute on his views for Singapore’s exclusion from the scheme. “Singapore’s exclusion, therefore, would seem to be due to political considerations arising from her predominantly Chinese population and the strategic importance in the defence plans of the British Commonwealth.” [34]

As noted, key to Malay aspirations to power and concerns by the other communities were the citizenship provisions of the proposed federal Constitution. It provided for Federal citizenship for:

1. Any subject, wherever born, of His Highness the Ruler of any State.
2. Any British subject born at any time in the settlements and has resided there for 15 years
3. Any British subject born in the territories of the federation and has resided there for 15 years
4. “Any person born at any time in any of the territories now to be comprised in the Federation, who habitually speaks the Malay language and conforms to Malay custom.”

The first and fourth categories included every “Malay” [35] person in the peninsula, regardless of length of residence there, while the other provisions imposed residential requirements on persons of other communities. Again we see a concerted effort to exclude non-Malay persons from the polity and further efforts toward Malay ethnocracy.

The Colonial Office validated this as follows: “The present scheme is designed to include in a common citizenship all those, whether Malays or non-Malays, who can fairly be regarded as having Malaya for their true home. The Malays, however, are peculiarly the people of the country. They have no other homeland, no other loyalty. They thus have a special and justifiable interest in immigration policy, which it would be inequitable to refuse them.” [36] The refusal to acknowledge that the “Malays” had migrated to the peninsula from many other places in the archipelago was conveniently ignored in this disingenuous effort at validating Malay supremacy. Control over immigration was thus ceded to the sultans. “Holding that the Malays have a special and justifiable interest in immigration policy which it would be inequitable to refuse them, the British Government has agreed that it shall be the particular duty of the High Commissioner to consult the Conference of Rulers from time to time on the immigration policy of the Government, and in particular when any major change in such policy is contemplated by the Federal Government.” [37]

Local press reaction (excluding the Straits Times, which was the mouthpiece of the Colonial Office and Malayan government) was scathing. The editorial of Singapore’s The Morning Tribune pulled no punches when it noted: “The final Constitutional proposals, which were published in a White Paper yesterday, are bitterly disappointing. They constitute capitulation to pressure from the Malays.” [38] The Times of London laid out the official government policy and reasons for the institution of this ethnocracy: “It is clear from the White Paper just published that the earlier mistakes which alienated the attachment of the Malay Sultans and drove the Malay community to the verge of violent action have been satisfactorily corrected…..An important feature of the new proposals is the recognition by the Cabinet that the Malays form an absolute majority among those who regard Malaya as their permanent home and the sole object of their loyalty. This principle governs the future immigration policy, the Malay community’s position in the projected constitution, the status accorded to the Sultans, and the qualifications for Malayan citizenship.” [39]

The claim that “the Malays form an absolute majority among those who regard Malaya as their permanent home and the sole object of their loyalty” was neither validated nor supported, but it was an effective hook on which to hang British Colonial Office policy. Over the following months, the Governor General Malcolm MacDonald made repeated radio broadcasts stressing the bases for the new Constitution. On 5 October 1947, MacDonald broadcast as follows: “To begin with, let this be remembered. The negotiations leading up to the Constitution ended a period of sharp political unrest and agitation which stirred to their depths the feelings of the entire Malay population. Eighteen months ago a peaceful and orderly, but unanimous and passionate Malay opposition to the Malayan Union cast a dark shadow across the once sunlit and placid political scene in Malaya. Virtually the whole people of the majority race in the country had lost confidence in the Government.” [40] Again in January 1948, he told listeners that “Malay Kingdoms ruled by Malay princes date back many hundreds of years. They are the truest sons and daughters of the Malayan soil.” [41]

However, the British seemed quite content to ignore the other communities who were actively expressing their loss of confidence in the government, and had been in the peninsula in many cases far longer than recent “Malay” immigrants from Sumatra, Java, the Middle East, and Sulawesi. Hartals [42] were held in Malacca, Perak, and in Singapore throughout October. Shops were closed, plantation work ceased and commerce was absent during these days of protest. Opposition came from the Left – the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions, All-Malaya Council of Action, Association of Progressive Malay Political Parties (Putera), as well as the Right — the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. An entire alternative Constitutional proposal was in fact put forward by Putera and AMCJA. [43] The Associated Chambers of Commerce of Malaya held a meeting on 18 January 1948 and agreed to boycott the Federal Legislative Council and the various State Councils under the new constitution.

The Malaya Tribune in an editorial on 24 January set down the overall objections to the procedures. “For reasons best known to themselves, the British Government has seen fit to completely ignore Chinese representations on the constitutional issue. The original proposals for a broader based legislature and the creation of a national status came from Great Britain, only for the last named to be withdrawn immediately on protests from the right-wing Malays whose boycott immediately brought the British Government to heel and all conduct of affairs since has been at the virtual dictation of the Malays….. the facts considered, it is hardly surprising that Chinese opinion is not prepared to see its leaders enter into the farce of serving upon the Malay-dominated Council and thus giving the appearance of seriously accepting the constitution as a reasonable stepping-stone towards political advancement.” [44]

But the plans of the Colonial Office would brook no delay and on 21 January 1948, state and Federation Treaties were signed by Malayan Union Governor Sir Edward Gent and eight of the Malay Rulers. On 1 February 1948, a Malay-dominated Federation of Malaya was initiated.

5.The 1948-1957 Period

In the middle of 1948, the Malayan Communist Party launched armed rebellion against the new state and the British state which controlled it. The degree to which British failure to include Chinese aspirations in the 1948 Constitutional arrangements precipitated the rebellion or encouraged the assistance it was to receive from the Chinese communities and the Left from all communities remains an issue for further study.

But it also provided a further avenue by which UMNO could dominate the political firmament of the Federation and further exclude Chinese participation. The Colonial Office political report for November 1948 noted: “The Emergency has given the Malays an opportunity to improve their political position which they have not been slow to take. They point to the leading part which the Malay community is taking in the fight against terrorism, through the Malay regiment, the regular police and the special and auxiliary police. They contrast this with the behaviour of the Chinese.” [45] The Colonial Office was likewise coming to recognize some of the abuse which they Constitutional arrangements they had created were leading to: “There is no doubt that U.M.N.O. is aiming at a form of government in which non-Malays will have little share and in this they are influenced in the hope of ‘rapprochement’ with the M.N.P.. The latter party has been lying low since the emergency and Dato Onn is known to hold the view that the two parties much work together at this stage and sink their differences at least until the Malays have gained a more secure foothold in the Federal Government.” [46]

At the same time, an anti-Chinese attitude became manifest among many of the British administrators. A letter from Gimson, the Governor of Singapore to J.O. Higham on 15 October 1948 included a report by an unnamed person relating to revision of the Register of Electors. The report included the following: “I am convinced the attitude of 90 percent of the Chinese is this: 1. Singapore and Malaya belong to them, virtually at present, factually in due course; 2.The British are weak and growing weaker. Japan walked in seven years ago with ease. The Chinese are already in; they are merely biding their time; 3. In one respect, they are all agreed whether they be KMT or Communist, they are anti-British.” The report, which Gimson chose to circulate, noted that the Government had to strike immediately and strike hard at all Chinese movements.

Given how the British government had treated the non-Malays in Malaya since 1946, such Chinese sentiments if they existed would have been fully comprehensible. However, this demonization of the entirety of the Malayan Chinese population validated, in the eyes of many, their exclusion from the Malayan political process. It was further endorsement and strengthening of the burgeoning Malay ethnocracy.

While demonizing the potential opposition, the British needed to also strengthen their anointed successors. In MacDonald’s view, Dato Onn had to be regarded as the accepted leader of the Malays, so that he would be in a position to make his views prevail with them. In December 1948, Dato Onn travelled to Britain to discuss self-rule in Malaya. Again the British accepted that this individual represented Malaya, yet still found his request for a grant of 10 million pounds a little difficult to accept. Paskin of the Colonial Office reported on the visit and discussions as follows: “Another topic which provoked some bitter remarks was his suggestion that H.M.G should now make a grant of £10,000,000 for expenditure on objects of benefit to the Malays.” This has two grounds: a) As a means of improving the competitive position of the Malays vis-à-vis the Chinese. B) As a gesture to reassure the Malays that H.M.G is mindful of their special position in their own country” He also requested that a Malay be appointed as Deputy High Commissioner. [47]

The year of 1951 was to be another crucial year for the peninsula. The founding leader of UMNO Dato Onn Jaafar, who had had been so dogmatic in championing the rights of the Malays left the party in that year to set up the Independence for Malaya Party (IMP) in September following UMNO’s refusal to open its membership to non-Malays.. However, when the party suffered a devastating defeat in the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal elections to an UMNO-MCA coalition, Onn Jaafar abandoned his multiethnic platform and formed Parti Negara that eventually became an avowedly pro-Malay party. He was replaced as head of UMNO by Tunku Abdul Rahman. This was an opportunity for non-ethnicized politics which was completely bypassed by Malayans. Again this missed opportunity must be in part assigned to the earlier activities of Dato Onn himself but equally to the policies of the British in terms of their absolute enthusiasm for Malay-dominated ethnicized politics in the peninsula

The year also saw the effective containment of the MCP rebellion which had been launched in 1948. The MCP shifted its strategy following its October Resolution of 1951, and the armed struggle was relegated to second priority. The year also saw the introduction of local elections. The George Town elections were held in 1951 and the Kuala Lumpur elections in February 1952.

In January 1952, an “alliance” was entered into by UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) to contest the Kuala Lumpur elections, to face off against Dato Onn’s IMP. The non-communal nature of the IMP was to prove its downfall, and the UMNO-MCA Alliance emerged elect orally supreme by 1953, while IMP still held their seats on the Federal Legislative Council. UMNO calls for elections to 44 of 75 Federal Legislative Council seats thus ensued. Joseph Fernando has argued that the events of this year can be seen as key in the movement towards Independence. In response, the colonial administration announced in July 1953 plans to establish a committee to examine the issue of federal elections. The resultant recommendation, announced in February 1954, was for less that half of the members be elected. High Commissioner Gerald Templer urged a higher figure, but insufficient to meet Alliance demands. In response, the Alliance sent a delegation to London to raise the issue directly with the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs Oliver Lyttelton, who rejected their proposals.

In 1954, state elections were held and in these elections, the Alliance won 226 of the 268 seats nationwide. On June 13, 1954, the colonial government published its White Paper on federal elections providing for a small majority of elected seats. In response, the Alliance withdrew its members from the legislatures, municipal and town councils and organised nationwide demonstrations, resulting in negotiations with the British High Commissioner Donald MacGillivray, agreeing to an acceptable compromise on seats. The first federal elections were held in July 1955 on the basis of this arrangement, and the now UMNO-MCA-MIC Alliance won 51 of the 52 seats available, and thus was able to form the first Malayan government, with Tunku Abdul Rahman as Chief Minister. [48]

A London conference with Secretary of State for the Colonies Alan Lennox-Boyd to discuss eventual independence was then held in January 1956. As a result of the discussions, the British government agreed to grant Malaya independence on 31 August 1957.

In preparation, a commission was established under Lord William Reid to devise a constitution for the future Federation of Malaya. The Reid Commission met on over 100 occasions in 1956 and submitted its draft Constitution to a Working Committee in February 1957. This Working Committee consisted of four representatives from the Malay rulers, another four from the Alliance government, the British High Commissioner, the Chief Secretary, and the Attorney General, ensuring that it was essentially the interests of the Malays which were being represented. Tunku Abdul Rahman was to write in his memoirs that he prodded his colleagues to agree to the terms by arguing that they could be amended later on — after independence: “It was, of course, not a perfect constitution … But we knew we were going to be in power with an overwhelming majority and if any changes appeared necessary we would amend the constitution. … So why waste haggling over it at that stage? I just told my colleagues to accept everything that was proposed” [49] The Constitution took effect on 15 August and on 31 August the Federation of Malaya became an independent country.

6.1957-1969 – Ethnocracy Consolidated

Under the new Federation of Malaya, UMNO became increasingly assertive in promoting Malay dominance, an assertiveness not matched by the Malayan Chinese Association president Tan Cheng Lock in promoting the interests of his constituency. It was partly this attitude which saw Lim Chong Eu and his supporters – mainly Chinese-educated — seize power in the MCA and Lim becoming the second MCA President in 1958. The feisty newcomers clashed swiftly with UMNO in asserting the interests of the Chinese and seeking political equality as well as Chinese language and cultural rights. Matters came to a head with the 1959 election. The MCA felt that the 1957 Constitution provided insufficient safeguards for the Chinese community, and that in order to prevent a two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats going to UMNO (allowing them to change the Constitution at will), sought from Tunku Abdul Rahman an increase in allocated seats from 28 to 40 (out of a total 104). If MCA could contest and likely win one-third of the seats for the Alliance, no ethnic group would have absolute control of Parliament. The Tunku rejected this and Lim and his supporters resigned from the MCA, [50] allowing Tan Cheng Lock and his son Tan Siew Sin to return to the leadership. The seats were eventually allocated as follows: UMNO 69, MCA 32 and MIC 4. The Alliance coalition was to go on and win 74 out of 104 seats, allowing a two-thirds majority, sufficient to amend the Constitution at will. Cheah Boon Kheng notes of this election: But this was probably the last general election in which [the Alliance] would allow for this free play of democratic forces. Thereafter, it would resort to constitutional gerrymandering of constituencies to ensure communal representation. An amendment of 1962 to the Constitution provided for rural weightage in the determination of electoral districts. As the majority of the rural population was Malay, this provision ensured a high representation of Malays in Parliament. [51]

7.Creation of Malaysia (1963)

The win in the 1959 elections, in alliance with an emasculated MCA, gave the Tunku confidence, but before he could begin to fully pursue and promote preferential policies for the Malays, another major political opportunity presented itself. The British-instigated plan to establish a new state of Malaysia, [52] as expressed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and made public as a proposal in speeches by the Tunku in 1961, [53] was in part a Cold War strategy by which to prevent Singapore and the Borneo Territories from becoming Communist bases, and ensure that the British could maintain bases in the region by which to pursue their own global strategies. The anti-Communism which drove this agenda was often manifested as anti-Chinese sentiments both among the British and the Malays. The Tunku eventually advised that he was amenable to the new arrangements if, in addition to Malaya and Singapore, the new state definitely included Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei. The aim was to ensure that the Chinese did not constitute a majority in Malaysia. It was in the negotiations leading up to this new state that a new Constitution was enacted, in which the Malay special rights were also made available to the “natives” of Sabah and Sarawak, and on 31 August 1963, Malaysia (excluding Brunei) came into being.

With a new mandate in a new state, an increased “Bumiputra” population, British support, broad anti-Communist sentiments and the Chinese community divided between Left and Right, the Tunku began further reforms in pursuing a Malay-dominated state. Pushed by Tun Abdul Razak and Dr Ismail, the Tunku approved the creation or expansion of Malay-targeted institutions – Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA), the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA), the Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority (RISDA), and Bank Bumiputra. These were mainly aimed at improving the lives of Malay farmers. More broadly, however, there were cultural moves afoot, with both the semi-governmental institution Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), led by Syed Nasir Ismail, and the National Language Action Front (NLAF) formed in 1964 in reaction to Chinese opposition to the Talib report on education, strongly urged the adoption of Malay as the national language.

But it was Singapore, led by Lee Kuan Yew, which was to be the most actively engaged in actions which were aimed at working against the emergence of an ethnocracy in Malaysia. It was during the two years when Singapore was a part of Malaysia that Lee Kuan Yew led the Malaysian Solidarity Convention (MSC) — a coalition of political parties which called for a “Malaysian Malaysia” as opposed to one with Bumiputra privileges. The MSC declared:

A Malaysian Malaysia means that the nation and the state is not identified with the supremacy, well-being and the interests of any one particular community or race. …The special and legitimate rights of different communities must be secured and promoted within the framework of the collective rights, interests and responsibilities of all races. The people of Malaysia did not vote for a Malaysia assuring hegemony to one community. Still less would they be prepared to fight for the preservation of so meaningless a Malaysia. [54]

After two years of struggle, riots, and gradually widening views on the future directions of the country, Singapore was ousted from Malaysia on 9 August 1965. The departure of Singapore and its largely Chinese population from Malaysia allowed UMNO to further consolidate the ethnocracy which now clearly marked federal and state politics. The increased reliance of Malay in government affairs and the consequent downplaying of English was a part of this. In opposition to the increasing privileges and separateness of the Malays, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which had evolved out of the Malaysian branch of the People’s Action Party continued calling for a “Malaysian Malaysia”, urging the adoption of Mandarin as one of the official languages, and noting that Bumiputra “special rights” had only benefited the Malay elite and done nothing for the rural poor.

Within the Alliance, the MCA was increasingly playing second-fiddle to UMNO, and when the 1967 National Language Bill was passed by parliament, much of the Chinese community become disenchanted with the MCA’s capacity to pursue and protect the interests of the Chinese. Even when Chinese associations and educationists proposed the establishment of a Chinese-medium tertiary institution — Merdeka University — in 1968, the MCA expressed opposition to the idea. It was such attitudes which led to its disastrous showing in the 1969 elections. The DAP and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) [55] also gained support from the disenchanted English-educated members of the MCA. By 1968, another opposition party — Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan) — had been created and, led by Lim Chong Eu, it also adopted opposition to Bumiputra rights as one of its key policies.>Within UMNO, the Tunku was being increasingly seen as being too soft on the Chinese and this was perceived as costing the party support. By early 1969, the voices against him had grown vociferous.

The third Malaysian general election, held on 10 May 1969, was to reveal starkly the depths to which the communalization and ethnocratic rule of the country had led. The Alliance was returned to power, but with a reduced majority. Both the new Gerakan party and the DAP had campaigned against the Malay privileges provided by the Constitution and made major gains, with the non-Malay opposition parties increasing their seats from eight to 25. While the Alliance won 66 out of 104 Parliamentary seats, the MCA was a major loser. The opposition won in a major way at state level, with the Allliance holding only 14 out of 24 seats in Selangor and 19 out of 40 in Perak. The Alliance lost power in Kelantan, Perak and Penang.

The violence which ensued on 13 May 1969, which is said by some contemporary commentators as having been planned and initiated by Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak and Harun Idris, the Selangor Mentri Besar, resulted in hundreds dead, the Parliament suspended and a national emergency declared. A National Operations Council (NOC, which comprised 7 Malays, one Chinese and one Indian), led by Tun Abdul Razak took over Government. An obscene interpretation of the violence of 1969 that has persistently been used as one of the validations of the New Economic Policy was that it was that the violence was due to economic inequalities.

It was during this period of ongoing unrest that little-known UMNO backbencher Mahathir bin Mohamad — who had lost his Parliamentary seat in the election — publicly criticized the Tunku for having given “the Chinese what they demand…you have given them too much face. The responsibility for the deaths of this people, Muslims and infidels, must be shouldered by [you].” Mahathir organized a campaign calling for the ouster of the Tunku and demanded imposition of an UMNO autocracy without an elected Parliament. Even for the UMNO elite, this was beyond the pale and, following more rioting in June, Mahathir and his colleague Musa Hitam were expelled from the party.

In an attempt to further consolidate the Malay ethnocracy, in addition to having two years to act at will, with no parliamentary oversight, the UMNO-led NOC put forward proposed making illegal (even among members of Parliament) discussion of the topic of abolition of those provisions of the Constitution dealing with Malay rights, When the parliament was eventually reconvened in 1971, the amended Sedition Act including these provisions was passed.

8. 1970 Onwards — The New Economic Policy

It was in 1970 that Tun Razak, Head of the NOC, succeeded the Tunku as prime minister, and immediately began asserting even greater Malay dominance in the Alliance. The only post in his Cabinet held by a non-Malay was that of the MCA president Tan Siew Sin, who was appointed as Finance Minister. In 1972, Razak readmitted to the party Mahathir Mohamad, who in the interim had authored The Malay Dilemma, which claimed that “the Malay race” is the indigenous people of Malaysia, and that they had been subjugated in their own land by other races with the assistance of the British. Many of these claims by Dr Mahathir became standard rhetoric throughout Malaysia in later years when Mahathir became prime minister.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was also announced as a key Malaysian Government policy in 1971. Its stated goal was to “eventually eradicate poverty… irrespective of race” through a “rapidly expanding economy.” Further details of the policies pursued under this policy will be provided below when looking at the specific manifestations of ethnocracy in Malaysia. Much of the rationale behind the NEP was reasonable and just, but this, like many other elements described below, has been hijacked over the last 35 years as a further vehicle in consolidating Malay ethnocracy.

A further tool used in this “ethnocratizing” of Malaysia has been dividing the non-Malay components of the Alliance, particularly those within the Barisan Nasional (or National Front, as the Alliance formally became in 1974, prior to the general election). Following the defection of Lim Keng Yaik from the MCA to Gerakan in 1973, Tun Razak took Gerakan into the Barisan, effectively dividing Chinese interests in the Barisan. He also took in the Sarawak National Party under its new leader Leo Moggie. Then through the gerrymandering which resulted from turning Kuala Lumpur into a Federal territory rather than a part of Selangor, he greatly damaged the DAP which had strong support among the urban population. These were all contributory factors in the Barisan winning 135 of 154 seats in the Parliamentary elections of 1974.

9.Hussein Onn (Prime Minister 1976-1981)

With the death on Tun Razak in 1976, the conservative and cautious Hussein Onn, son of the nationalist Onn Jaafar came to power. The ongoing insurgency by the Malayan Communist Party allowed Hussein to use various legal methods to curb dissent. The passing of the Societies (Amendment) Act 1981 “attempted to curb political comment by any society on government policies and activities unless it registered itself as a ‘political society’.” [56] His actions against the Bar also saw the Bar Council adopting a resolution accusing the Hussein Onn government of “the clear and unworthy intention of muzzling the Bar.”

Control over the non-Malay parts of the Barisan increased under Hussein Onn. When the MCA, still weak after the 1969 debacle, joined with various groups within the Chinese community, including DAP, to form a “Chinese Unity Movement” between 1971 and 1973 to pursue Chinese rights as a parallel concept to Bumiputra rights, it was eventually forced by UMNO to withdraw. Chinese interests were further damaged in 1978 by the Education Ministry’s rejection of the proposed Chinese-language Merdeka University.

Hussein pursued further NEP targets through the Industrial Co-Ordination Act 1975, to extend the ethnic employment quota system, requiring manufacturing firms to employ Malays as 30 percent of their workforce. Foreign and non-Malay businesses were also required to divest 30 percent of their ownership to Malay shareholders. The Act eventually had to be amended due to domestic and foreign objections.

The 1978 election, called 18 months before they were due, saw the Barisan winning 130 seats of the total 154, with DAP gaining a further 8 seats to the 9 they had held previously. It was obvious that the DAP was at this time seen as the party which represented Chinese interests, despite its avowedly multi-ethnic charter.In February 1981, Hussein Onn retired from office after a heart bypass.

10.Mahathir Mohamed (Prime Minister 1981-2003)

Prime Minister Mahathir is perhaps the best-known advocate of Malay rights and dominance. He built the economy and international stature of Malaysia over 20 years, side-stepping the efforts of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Team B to unseat him in 1987, overseeing mass arrests in Operation Lallang in the same year, dealing with a Barisan Alternatif and attracting global attention through sacking and vilifying the deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir probably did more than anyone else in Malaysia’s history to strengthen and enforce the divisions between Malaysia’s ethnic groups. While producing a richer Malaysia, with the “privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses,” he gave rise to a possibly eternally fractured society. It was his premiership which allowed the Deputy Prime Minister and then UMNO Youth Chief Najib Razak to threaten, during an UMNO Youth congress in 1987, to bathe a keris (dagger) with Chinese blood. It was during his period in office that anti-Chinese sentiments were encouraged and exacerbated, and it was during his period in power that most of the abuses of Malay ethnocracy noted below came to pass. His creation of a solely Malay capital at Putrajaya reflects excellently his attitudes to how he wanted this multi-ethnic nation to develop. There are sufficient good books on Mahathir’s period of rule to obviate the need here for even an overview of his period in power. [57] Various aspects of ethnocracy during the Mahathir years will be examined below.

11.Abdullah Ahmad Badawi ( Prime Minister 2003- 2009)

Mahathir’s handover of power to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2003 is something that the good doctor has apparently come to regret, but Abdullah did manage a landslide victory in 2004, almost re-capturing Kelantan which has been ruled by the Opposition PAS since 1990. This win was the biggest since Merdeka in 1957.

Under Abdullah, UMNO has seen various crises, most notably repeated attacks on the premier and the party by former Prime Minister Mahathir, repeated protests against the government, claiming corruption and racism, and a stunning defection of many voters away from the Barisan in the March 2008 elections. Ethnic divisions have been exacerbated with UMNO Youth Chief Hishammuddin Hussein (son of former Prime Minister Hussein Onn, and grandson of Onn Jaafar) brandishing a keris at the UMNO Annual General Meeting in 2005 while denigrating critics of Article 153 and the “social contract”. The 2006 UMNO Annual General Assembly was also remarked upon as a “return to the atmosphere of the 1980s, when there was a ‘strong anti-Chinese sentiment'”. Several controversial statements were made at the assembly, such as “UMNO is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend the race and religion. Don’t play with fire. If they (non-Malays) mess with our rights, we will mess with theirs.” These were certainly contributory elements to the massive flood of votes away from the Barisan parties in March 2008.

12. Manifestations of Ethnocracy in Malaysia

The above background is intended to provide a historical context for the growth of ethnocracy within the Malayan (and then Malaysian) polity over the last 50 years. It shows that there was no “natural” condition of Malay dominance and hegemony, but rather a process of very targeted human agency intended to create a structure where Malays dominate the political and almost monopolize the administrative life of the country. The nature of this hegemony or ethnocracy will be examined in this second section of the paper. The avenues and measures by which ethnocracy is implemented will be discussed first.

a. Constitutional Provisions

There are a number of provisions under the Malaysian Constitution which mandate a special position for Malays. Article 160 defines a Malay as follows:

“Malay” means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and –
(a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or
(b) is the issue of such a person;

The best-known of these Constitutional provisions is perhaps Article 153 which provides:

(1) It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.

The Article then proceeds to list the various aspects of society (public service positions, scholarships, permits, licenses, etc) which the king may assign to the “the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak.”

However, this provision was intended only as a transitional measure. The Reid Commission in 1956 saw the danger in one community in the country enjoying preferential treatment into the indefinite future. Although the Commission reported it did not find opposition to the continuance of the existing privileges for a certain length of time, it stated that “there was great opposition in some quarters to any increase of the present preferences and to their being continued for any prolonged period.” The Commission recommended that the existing privileges should be continued as the “Malays would be at a serious and unfair disadvantage compared with other communities if they were suddenly withdrawn.” However, “in due course the present preferences should be reduced and should ultimately cease.” The Commission suggested that these provisions be revisited in 15 years, and that a report should be presented to the appropriate legislature. The “legislature should then determine either to retain or to reduce any quota or to discontinue it entirely.”

Although Article 153 would have been up for review in 1972, fifteen years after Malaysia’s independence in 1957, it remained unreviewed. In 1970, a Cabinet member declared hat Malay special rights would remain for “hundreds of years to come,” while in 2007 Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said that there would be no time limit for the expiration of the “Malay Agenda”.

b. Land Reservations

The earliest legislation on Malay reservation land seems to be the Selangor Land Code of 1891 introduced by the then Resident of Selangor, W.E. Maxwell, where land was reserved for the use of ‘Mohameddans’.

Article 89 of the Federal Constitution provides for the continuance of Malay reservation land which existed before Merdeka and defines reserved land as follows:

“In this Article ‘Malay Reservation’ means land reserved for alienation to Malays or to natives of the state in which it lies: and ‘Malay’ includes any person who, under the law of the state in which he is resident, is treated as a Malay for the purposes of the reservation of the land.”

It is estimated that today approximately 4.5 million hectares of land are under Malay reservation, which usually precludes their use by other Malaysians. [58]

c. New Economic Policy

The New Economic Policy (NEP) is a socio-economic restructuring program launched by the Malaysian government in 1971 under Tun Abdul Razak. The NEP was renamed 1990 as the National Development Policy (NDP) in 1991, which appears to have been targeted at encouraging and grooming Malay entrepreneurs and business tycoons.. The NEP uses economic and administrative affirmative action policies to improve the participation of the Malays in the economy. It targeted a 30 per cent Malay share of the economy by 1990, which would have, it was anticipated, led to a “just society” Quotas in education and the civil service were expanded under the NEP, as was government intervention in the private sector. Specific measures include:

• Publicly-listed companies must set aside 30% of equity for Bumiputras and 30% of all shares in initial public offerings will be disbursed by the government to selected Bumiputras at substantial discounts.
• Virtually all real estate is sold to the Bumiputra discounted at rates ranging from 5% to 15%, and set percentages of new housing estates are set aside for Bumiputras.
• Companies submitting bids for government projects need to be Bumiputra-owned or at least have major participation by Bumiputras.
• A range of government-run (and profit guaranteed) mutual funds called the Amanah Saham Nasional are available for purchase by Bumiputra buyers only. This provides return rates approximately 3 to 5 times that of local commercial banks.
• Approved Permits (APs) for automobiles preferentially allow Bumiputra to import vehicles.

While these measures have been instrumental in the creation of a Malay middle-class, there is great debate as to what percentage of equity Malays now own. The Government claims that the targeted 30 percent has not yet been reached, while a study by economists at ASLI suggested a figure of 45 percent, based on ownership of 1,000 publicly-listed companies. After government complaints, the claim was withdrawn and lead economist Lim Teck Ghee resigned in protest.

In a recent development, some UMNO members have called for the Malay equity target to be increased to 70%, in line with the “Malay Agenda”.

d. Education

As a component of the projects to expand Malay participation in the economy and society, a range of education agenda are being pursued. These include:

• Quotas on Malay acceptance into Universities. These were introduced under Mahathir. In 1998, then Education Minister Najib Razak stated that without quotas, only 5% of undergraduates in public universities would be Malays. Najib argued this justified the need for the continuance of quotas. In 2004, Dr. Shafie Salleh, the newly appointed Higher Education Minister, stated that he “will ensure the quota of Malay students’ entry into universities is always higher.”
• Simplified avenues and lower entry standards for Malay entry into University
• Access to scholarships for study domestically and abroad. Over 90% of government scholarships for studying abroad are awarded to Malays.
• Some public universities, such as Universiti Teknologi MARA admitting only Bumiputra students.
• Many organisations in Malaysia such as Bank Negara, Petronas, Telekom and Tenaga Nasional, provides overseas scholarships only or mainly to Malays.
• Preference to Malays in appointment as university lecturers. Malay appointments as university lecturers have increased from 30 percent to 95 percent.

e. The Position of Islam

The Malaysian Constitution defines Malays as Muslims, and it has been a major element in UMNO (and PAS) policy to invoke Islam in as many aspects of daily life as possible. Islam is also defined in the Constitution (Article 8 of Appendix 1, Article 8) as the official religion of the Federation. The Alliance’s memorandum to the Reid Commission during the drafting of the Constitution did not propose to include Islam as the official religion in the Constitution and neither was it suggested in the Draft Constitution. However, it was suggested by Abdul Hamid, the Pakistani representative in the Reid Commission, in his separate memo attached to the Draft Constitution. Subsequently, in the Working Party which deliberated on the Constitution, the UMNO elites successfully argued for its inclusion in the Constitution. [59]

This role of Islam is manifested in various respects:

• There is, from various sources, full funding for mosques and other Islamic places of worship.
• It is official government policy to “infuse Islamic values” into the administration of the country.
• Government funds support an Islamic religious establishment.
• Muslim children receive extra education through enrichment programs funded through the Religious Affairs Department which receives the zakat tax from Muslims.
• Property developers must include a mosque or surau in every new development. No such provision for houses of worship of other religions. It is estimated that some 3000 mosques have been built throughout the country since 1970.

In September 2001, the then Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad declared that the country was an Islamic state (negara Islam). The opposition leader at the time, Lim Kit Siang, actively sought support to declare Mahathir’s move as unconstitutional by repeatedly clarifying that Malaysia is a secular state with Islam as its official religion as enshrined in the Constitution.

f. Public service and administration

Over the last 20 years, there have been efforts to almost completely replace non-Malay civil servants with Malays. In the 1950s, the Reid Commission reported the practice of “not more than one-quarter of new entrants [to a particular service] should be non-Malays.” However, over the last 40 years, this has been effectively disregarded and since 1969, well over 90% of new employees of the various government departments have been Malay. This is particularly so of the police and armed forces, where the figure exceeds 96%. Such hiring practices are also pursued in government-linked or owned companies such as Petronas, Tenaga Nasional and so on.

From the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Wisma Putra, [60] one is able to ascertain the ethnicity of officials assigned to foreign missions by the Malaysian government. Through a survey of 100 Malaysian overseas missions listed on this website, one finds that diplomatic staff (including military attaches and a few Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board staff had an ethnic breakdown as follows:

Malay: 654 (91.7%) Other: 59 (8.3%) Total 713 (100%)

The Malaysian government has 28 federal ministries. If one examines, for example, the staff of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage (Kementerian Kebudayaan, Kesenian dan Warisan) as provided on the Malaysian Government official portal website, [61] one arrives with the following figures for officers (pegawai);

Malay: 351 (96%) Other: 14 (4%) Total: 365 (100%)

The Minister of Defence (Kementrian Pertahanan) administration officers website [62] details staff of the Ministry (excluding armed forces staff). Of the 692 persons listed, 670 or 96.8 percent of the total are Malay.

The Malay-ization of the entire public service and defence forces was apparently the aim of the Mahathir government, as complete control over the public administration is an important aspect in achieving and maintaining Malay ethnocracy.

Mahathir went further than this. He strove to create a completely Malay capital, by moving government departments to the administrative capital at Putrajaya, where today only civil servants (Malay) and their servicing economic partners (mainly Malay) live and work. It is today an essentially Malay city.

13. Effects of Ethnocratic Administration in Malaysia

a. Subordination of the Interests of other Ethnic Groups

The 50-year dominance of UMNO as supreme power in Malaysia has seen it pursue policies aimed at empowering the Malays and creating an ethnocracy where Malay interests are prime. This has, by definition meant that the interests of other ethnic groups in the country have had to be subordinated. This is manifested in an almost infinite variety of forms –politically, economically, culturally, and socially, some of which are detailed in other areas of this paper. Even at national level, UMNO’s dominance has relegated other ruling coalition parties representing minority interests to insignificance, fuelling discontent over ethnic, religious and economic marginalisation. Here we need only examine the recent HINDRAF events to see how this subordination is manifested.

The Indian community in Malaysia constitutes perhaps 8 percent of the population and has long been associated with some of the most menial economic positions in the country—plantation workers, labourers and street-sweepers. The changes in the plantation industry have seen some of these persons forced into urban slums where they are precluded from decent housing, education or opportunity. Their interests are supposedly represented at national level by the Malaysian Indian Congress, a component party of the Barisan, but it is more than apparent that the national MIC has been less than competent in representing the interests of Indians of the lower socioeconomic strata. As powerless squatters, they are often easy prey for those who wish to oppress or exploit them.

The situation came to boiling point in 2007, when the Hindu Rights Action Force, a coalition of 30 Hindu non-governmental organizations committed to the preservation of Hindu community rights and heritage, began to protest about the tearing down of Hindu temples by local government agents. Some HINDRAF members were arrested under the Sedition Act but later released for lack of evidence. In August 2007, a class action on behalf of Malaysian Indians was filed at The Royal Courts of Justice in London to sue the UK Government for US$4 trillion for bringing Indians as indentured laborers into Malaya, “exploiting them for 150 years” and thereafter failing to protect the minority Indians’ rights in the Federal Constitution when independence was granted. [Unable to afford to pursue the claims, a petition was circulated in Malaysia, and on 25 November 2007, HINDRAF organised a rally to present it to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. In one of the largest protests against ethnocracy seen in the country, more than 10,000 people participated in the protests which were subject to tear gas and water cannons. Five of the leaders have been detained indefinitely under the Internal Security Act.

Life expectancy amongst the major ethnic groups; according to Hindraf, Indians have the highest suicide rate amongst the major ethnic groups; while according to government statistics, Indians make up 40% of convicted criminals. But this community is excluded from the many advantages available to those the government claims are the marginalized Malays.

b. Religious Autocracy

Establishing Islam as the “official religion” of the state and ensuring that the government departments and agencies are run by Muslims has had major social repercussions throughout the country. These range from complaints from followers of other religions that they are unable to obtain permission or land to erect houses of worship, to the targeting and destruction of temples. From 2002-2007, 15 Hindu temples were demolished in the Klang Valley by state contractors or agents, and 31 others have been threatened with demolition. The construction of a 36 metre-high Chinese “Goddess of the Sea” statue has also been suspended by the state government in the north Borneo state of Sabah. At the level of the individual, persons have been precluded from having the religion of their choice noted on their identification cards (the Lina Joy case), and non-Malay parents have complained about powerful Islamization trends within the schools their children attend. The same trend is manifested in Kelantan where imams are offered $10,000, a Range Rover, free accommodation and other perks if they agree to marry (and thereby convert) an orang asli woman.

c. Educational Woes

The policies which have been implemented in the educational realm over the last 20 years have produced much anger both over the discrimination practised against non-Malay students and the huge declines in educational quality at both secondary and tertiary levels as a result of staffing schools and universities with essentially members of only one ethnic group.

• Regardless of the quality of results of school examinations, non-Malays will be generally ranked behind Malays
• Non-Malays are often precluded from scholarship allocation.
• Non-Malays are virtually precluded from teaching positions at the tertiary level. On the University of Malaya’s “Expert Page” which details the researchers and thereby essentially the academic staff of the University, [63] of 1240 persons listed, only 20 Chinese names are included, 8 of whom also have Islamic names, as well as 46 Indian names (both Tamil and Northern), and 30 names which are obviously foreign or otherwise cannot be classified. Thus, of the 1240 UM academic researchers listed on the University’s website, less than 100 are, under the ethnic divisions as used in Malaysia, “non-Malay”.
• There can be no political activity on Universities. Section 15 of Malaysia’s Universities and University Colleges Act states that no student shall be a member of or in any manner associate with any society, political party, trade union or any other organisation, body or group of people whatsoever, be it in or outside Malaysia, unless it is approved in advance and in writing by the vice-chancellor.
• Schools are run with Islamic religious aspects throughout giving parents the feeling that non-Muslim children do not exist or do not matter.
• The cavalier attitude to education demonstrated through such schemes and policies has resulted in very marked reductions in the quality of Malaysian education. As a single example, the General Medical Council of Great Britain withdrew recognition of University of Malaya medical degrees because of the decline in the standards of medical education at the University.
• There has also been a freefall in the gradings of Malaysian universities in the international assessment exercises for tertiary institutions. The University of Malaya fell from 89th in 2004 to 192nd in 2006 and now has fallen out of the top 200 list.

d. Judicial Problems

There has been a gradual process of replacement over the last 50 years of the ethnically diverse judiciary with a majority of Malays. Today, the Chief Justice of the Federal Court, the President of the Court of Appeal, and the Chief Judge of the High Court are all Malay. The Chief Judge for Sabah and Sarawak Richard Malanjum is a KadazanDusun from Sabah. Five of the six judges of the Federal Court are Malay. When the incumbents of any position—public or private are appointed from a restricted pool, quality will by definition suffer.

In addition to the limiting of the ethnic pool from which judges are drawn, UMNO has also dramatically politicized the judiciary. UMNO has long been inured to both amending the Constitution and amending judges when they do not act as required. A key replacement was Mahathir’s sacking of the Lord President, Tun Salleh Abas and replacement by the more pliant Tun Hamid Omar, a schoolmate of Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin, during the 1988 Constitutional crisis. The appointment of Tun Hamid Omar triggered the collapse of the integrity and the independence of the judiciary.

More recent events, such as the Lingam video case show that the Malaysian judiciary today commands almost no respect. Many foreign companies investing in Malaysia now demand that disputes between the contracting partners be head in courts, or by adjudicators, outside Malaysia, because of the country’s tainted judiciary. Claims that Malaysian judges demand percentages from damages awarded in court cannot be confirmed.

Daim Zainuddin, the country’s former finance minister, is reported to have noted that judges in Malaysia were a bunch of idiots. “Of course we want them to be biased”, he noted, “but not that biased.” The affiliation of the tainted judiciary with the process of establishing Malay ethnocracy is intimate.

e. Police

The ethnic unification of the police force has resulted in enormous attitudinal changes to the force among the population, and particularly among non-Malays. From the obvious increase in payments to police officers to avoid prosecution, to faked witness statements, and from increased deaths in police custody to assault on the Deputy Prime Minister by the Inspector-Generalof Police, there has been a widespread lack of confidence in the police. Most non-Malays will today not approach a police officer or a police station unless under duress.

The Royal Malaysian Police have quite naturally objected to the creation of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission, despite a royal commission’s main recommendation that it be established. Again, having only one ethnic group comprise the police force provides a greater platform for corruption and abuse than would be the case with a multi-ethnic force.

f. Corruption

The disillusionment with the Police Force is but a small fraction of the public’s dismay over corruption and abuse of power in the major institutions of government. The corruption and nepotism which marked the latter years of the Mahathir reign appear to have established new levels for these activities. When Finance Minister Daim persuaded Mahathir to give the Economic Planning Unit and Treasury full power in implementing the privatisation policy, it became no longer necessary to call for tenders for government projects. Instead, the projects were awarded directly to favoured companies. Thus were opened many doors for potential corruption. But this was true at every level of a society where economic interests were being restructured, where licenses were being awarded, where commissions became par for the course, and where ethnicity was itself a valuable asset.

In a single example, in 1983 Rais Saniman was one of four Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) Limited officials who, together with George Tan of the Carrian Group, were convicted for conspiracy to defraud BMF in what was then the biggest financial scandal to rock the country and which cost the Government an estimated M$2.5 billion in lost monies. The Perwaja Steel debacle, Bank Islam losses, and defence procurement scandals all involved aspects which have been classified as “corruption”. These are but a few of the cases which have been brought to public attention. Many have not.

There is no real need to continue discussing here the potential or disadvantages of corruption but it can be stated categorically that having one ethnic group controlling permissions and allocations of government contracts contributes hugely to the potentials for and severity of corrupt acts.

g. Migration and Citizenship Issues

Migration and citizenship issues have been at the heart of Malay ethnocracy for 50 years. Under the 1948 Federation of Malaya Constitution, sultans were given control over migration and issues of citizenship engaged all the non-Malay inhabitants of the peninsula.

Today, as Malay ethnocracy is pursued, efforts are being made to ensure that the ratio of non-Malay peoples in the population continues to fall. The Chinese percentage of the population has declined from 45% in 1957 to 26% today. How is this being achieved?

• Firstly, by making life difficult and opportunities few for the non-Malays. This is a great inducement to migration for those who have the financial capacity. According to Abdul Rahman Ibrahim, the Home Ministry’s parliamentary secretary, some 14,316 Chinese surrendered their citizenship on migration between 2000 and 2006, compared to 1,098 Malays, 822 Indians, and 238 others.
• Secondly, by encouraging in-migration of Muslims from Indonesia and the southern Philippines. These persons can immediately become “bumiputra” and enjoy the benefits of such status in Malaysia. Statistics on such in-migration are not made public. Ethnic statistics are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the Malaysian statistical firmament, and one has no idea how the statistics are compiled or adjusted. As such, the published figures must be considered with some caution.

14. Modes Employed in Validating Malay Ethnocracy

a. Indigeneity of Malays

Malay rule was validated by the British in 1947, as Malay ethnocracy is validated by the Malaysian state today, on the premise on the indigeneity of the Malays in the Peninsula. How valid is this claim?

The original inhabitants of the peninsula appear to have been the people generically referred to today as “orang asli.” These speakers of Austroasiatic (Aslian) languages number somewhere in the region of 100,000 persons, usually live in rural or jungle settings, are often poverty-stricken, and are generally not Muslims. The Federal Constitution does not consider the Orang Asli as bumiputera

The earliest evidence we have for outsiders arriving in the peninsula are the persons who left the Sanskrit inscriptions when visiting or residing in what is today Kedah from the fourth century CE. The earliest evidence of any Malay inhabitants or visitors to the peninsula is the Terengganu Stone of the 14th century, an inscription written in the Malay language in Jawi script which suggests some sort of missionary activity. The first evidence of any known Malay figure arriving in the peninsula is the entourage of Parameswara when he fled from Palembang to the Peninsula in the late 14th century. It appears that it was from this period that Malay colonization began in earnest. Most of the “Malay” inhabitants of the peninsula today can trace an ancestor from beyond the peninsula within three generations. Let us examine a few prominent Malays of today and observe their ethnic origins within the last two or three generations

•Dato’ Syed Ja’afar Albar — Hadhrami Arab who came to Malaya from Java pre-war. His son, Syed Hamid Albar now Home Minister
•Khir Toyo, former Mentri Besar of Selangor — Javanese
•Mahathir Mohamed — Grandfather was from south India (Kerala)
•Abdullah Badawi — Mother is Cham descendant from Hainan.
•Tunku Abdul Rahman — half Thai.
•Onn Jaafar — Turkish background, shared with Ungku Aziz and Syed Hussein Alatas
•Hussein Onn, Hishammuddin Hussein — ditto
•Khairy Jamaluddin — Javanese
•Puteh Maria, first Head of Wanita UMNO — Tamil Muslim from Sri Lanka
•Najib Razak — Bugis descent

Such a list can be continued almost ad infinitum. Large areas of Johor are populated by descendants of Javanese who moved to the Peninsula in the 20th century. Most western coastal states have large populations of persons who still identify themselves as Minang, Rawa and Maindailing. If persons from all these places are to be considered “Malay” then the idea of Malay indigeneity has no meaning, and certainly cannot be used to exclude from social participation persons whose ancestors came from other areas. It should be noted in passing it has usually been recent arrivals who have been the main defenders of the idea of Malay indigeneity. Syed Ja’afar Albar, newly arrived from Java, was adamant that the Chinese were kaum pendatang or pendatang asing (immigrants) or lodgers (orang tumpangan).

In a recent blog, Marina Mahathir wrote:

“I’d like to ask everyone, especially those categorised as ‘Malays’, to list their family histories. And see how many of us can really go back further than three generations born in this land. I know I can’t.” [64]

b. Supremacy of Malays

UMNO sees itself as the “protector and champion of ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy), which has within it the idea that that Malays are the rulers of Malaysia or “masters of this land”, as stated by former UMNO Youth Information Chief Azimi Daim in 2003. The UMNO Youth wing in particular is known for what some call radical and extremist defense of ketuanan Melayu. But it not solely the youthful ultras who express such thoughts. In early 2008, Tengku Faris Petra, the Kelantan Crown Prince, while delivering a keynote speech at a forum titled “Malay unity is the core of national unity”, declared that as the Malays had agreed in granting non-Malays citizenship, the latter should therefore not seek equality or special treatment. The supremacy of the Malays was implicit in this statement.

c. The Sultans

The Sultans of the various states are seen as or at least portrayed as symbols of Malayness, and therefore indigeneity and legitimacy. It is they who signed the Merdeka and Constitutional agreements with the British and therefore underwrite the right of Malay ethnocracy.

Yet, if we examine the history of the respective royal houses, we observe again migrants to the peninsula within the last few hundred years. None of the royal houses of Malaysia can trace their lines of descent back to the Malaccan ruling house.

We need only take a few examples to demonstrate what is being suggested.


Raja Lumu who became Sultan Sallehuddin of Selangor (1742 – 1780) was the son of Daeng Cellak, second Yamtuan Muda of Riau (1728-1745) who is turn was son of Daeng Rilaka of Sulawesi. He can thus be considered a Bugis, 2000 kilometres from home.


The Johor sultans trace their origins to ‘Aidarus of Aceh, a Sayyid from the Hadramaut in Southern Arabia. And to Bugis ancestors.


In 1760, a certain Kubang Labu succeeded in unifying the disparate territories into a single state, but was overthrown four years later. Long Muhammad, younger son of Long Yunus, declared himself Sultan in 1800.

Negri Sembilan

The first Sultan of Negri Sembilan was a Minangkabau person appointed by the Johor sultan in the early 18th century.

We thus see that many of the Malaysian royal families are of fairly recent origin and in many cases, derived from recent immigrants. It is very difficult to validate ethnocracy through sultanates of this nature.

d. Claims of a “Social contract”

The term “social contract”: was first used in the Malaysian context by Abdullah Ahmad, an UMNO MP at the time, in 1986. He noted:

“The political system of Malay dominance was born out of the sacrosanct social contract which preceded national independence. Let us never forget that in the Malaysian political system the Malay position must be preserved and that Malay expectations must be met. There have been moves to question, to set aside and to violate this contract, that have threatened the stability of the system.”

When one examines the process by which the Malays were literally handed power by the British, with the other communities protesting noisily about the lack of consultation with them, this reference to a ‘social contract” appears to lack any historical basis. However, since 1986, the term “social contract” has become a part of the vocabulary of various political players, often with the meaning of a social contract entered into at Merdeka whereby the Indians and Chinese were provided with citizenship in exchange for the Malays being able to enjoy special rights or Ketuanan Melayu. The fiction within these claims can be demonstrated by any reading of Malaysian history of the 1940s and 1950s.

16. Measures Used to Maintain Malay Ethnocracy

Given the often specious claims made to validate the aspirations to special status, indigeneity and other aspects of the Malay Agenda, how has UMNO gone about maintaining the claims and avoiding or quashing opposition to them?

a. Legislation

One of the key methods of quashing those who wish to question or argue against the special privileges enjoyed under Malay ethnocracy is to legislate. Article 10.4 of the Constitution allows Parliament to prohibit the questioning of any “matter, right, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative”, including of course Article 153 of the Constitution.

(10.4) In imposing restrictions in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof or public order under Clause (2) (a), Parliament may pass law prohibiting the questioning of any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative established or protected by the provisions of Part III, article 152, 153 or 181 otherwise than in relation to the implementation thereof as may be specified in such law.

The Internal Security Act, which effectively allows the government to detain anyone it sees as a threat to national security for an indefinite period, provides another excellent tool for stifling dissent on any matter. In 1987 under Operation Lalang, several leaders of the DAP, including Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh, were held under the ISA. It is widely believed this was due to their calling for the NEP and other Malay privileges to be reviewed. Today, various of the HINDRAF leaders are being held under ISA for their calls for a more just social structure.

The Sedition Act was passed in 1971 and this also provides draconian punishments for actions which the state (a.k.a UMNO) considers, or at least depicts, as being seditious. This includes questioning Malay rights.

In 1975, to stem student dissent of government policies, amendments were made to the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) which banned students from expressing support of or holding positions in any political party or trade union without written consent from the university’s Vice Chancellor. The new Act also banned political demonstrations from being held on university campuses.

And to stop dangerous ideas being spread too widely, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 is a piece of legislation that requires all print media in the country to obtain a licence and abide by its strict regulations. The license or permit must be renewed annually. The Act has evolved out of the Printing Ordinance of 1948, introduced by the British. The powers are vested in the Home Affairs Minister who can grant or deny any permit. The minister can also restrict or ban outright publications that are likely to endanger national security interest or create social unrest.

b. Failure to ratify UN conventions

Malaysia has failed to ratify a range of international covenants and conventions, which have been signed by the majority of UN members. These include:

• the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which is monitored by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
• the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), which is monitored by the Human Rights Committee;
• the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination;
• the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which is monitored by the Committee against Torture;
• the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (MWC). [65]

The signing of these conventions would mean that Malaysia’s domestic social and particularly ethnic policies would be subject to much greater attention and supervision from around the globe. Various of the policies of ethnic discrimination as practiced in Malaysia would be illegal under the CERD. Failure to sign the conventions costs them only minor reputation.

c. Electoral control

Parliamentary democracy is premised on elections and if UMNO is to continue to win elections and maintain its ethnocracy, there is a need to have methods by which to, if not ensure, at least encourage, this outcome. The most effective weapon in the arsenal is control of the Election Commission. The Election Commission (EC) is seen as one of the primary instruments through which the BN has manipulated the election process for its own political gain. The Government appoints all members of the EC, and all recommendations made by the EC must pass through the Government in order to take effect. The BN has been able to hastily push through delimitation proposals whereby seat boundaries are changed, without serious debate in Parliament. The EC proposal to use indelible ink to mark the hands of voters in the March 2008 election was withdrawn following UMNO opposition.

The EC is also the main vector through another key weapon –the gerrymander—is implemented. Gerrymandering is the drawing of constituency boundaries for partisan advantage. This can be observed in Malaysian electorates where generally rural voters (predominantly Malay) have a higher vote value. The average number of voters per seat in the Malay dominant state of Perlis is about 40,000, while in Chinese-dominated Selangor it is 71,000, [66] giving the Perlis voters almost twice the value for their vote. The original 1957 Constitution contained a provision limiting the size discrepancy between any two districts to no more than 15%. This restriction, however, was eliminated by constitutional amendments in 1962 and 1973.

The Barisan Nasional also relies during elections on government resources such as personnel, funds and facilities to aid their election campaigns. They also control the media which disseminate electoral news.

d. Control of media

When trying to convince the populace of particular views or preventing uncomfortable news being disseminated, control of the media is a boon. UMNO controls Bernama, the state newsagency, six state-owned radio stations and two television stations under national broadcaster Radio Television Malaysia, the Utusan Group and is also closely allied to media conglomerate Media Prima Bhd.

The MCA, through its investment arm Huaren, owns Star Publications, which owns the English newspaper, “The Star”, various magazines, and radio stations FM 988 and Red FM. It now holds a 20 percent stake in Nanyang Press, which publishes Chinese newspapers “Nanyang Siang Pau” and “China Press”

The ruling Indian party, MIC, has close affiliations with owners of major Tamil newspapers “Tamil Nesan” and “Malaysian Nanban”.

Thus, rather than having to shut down newspapers as Dr Mahathir did in 1987, the newspapers now do not need to be shut down as they print no stories which reflect poorly on the government.

e. History Writing

When trying to ensure that the populace is sympathetic to a particular point of view, starting inculcation young is a useful tactic. In various ways, UMNO is using school history textbooks to push its view of Malayan and Malaysian history. There has been a gradual process of ethnic cleansing in Malaysian history books over the last 25 years. A anonymous textbook entitled Sejarah Menengah Malaysia, (Tingkatan Tiga), published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in under the Ministry of Education in 1971 had much space devoted to the British role in Malayan history, and included a chapter on the Chinese in the peninsula until 1874. By 1998, a textbook entitled Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menegah Sejarah Tingkatan 1, also published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and compiled by Dato’ Dr Abdul Shukor bin Abdullah and his 17 Malay collaborators, depicts a peninsula whose history begins with the Melaka Sultanate, when it appears that the population of Malaya was entirely Malay, and continues on into the Johor period of Malayan history. The cultural aspects are entirely Malay and it is as if half the country has disappeared. A 2003 textbook entitled Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah Sejarah Tingkatan 5, published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and compiled by Ramlah bte Adam and her 7 Malay collaborators, concentrates on finding Malay national heroes, almost one for each state. It portrays immigration as something which only happened in the 19th century and only involved people from India and China. The 1930s is written of only through vignettes of Malay figures, while the Malayan Union and Federation depicted as though only Malays and the British existed.

The state/UMNO-endorsed and sponsored textbooks are increasingly depicting the history of Malaya’s past as almost solely a Malay history and are gradually excising the roles of Chinese and Indian figures from national history.

f. Threats

And when legislation, distorted history and electoral and media controls fail to convince others of the necessity and validity of Malay ethnocracy, there are always threats of violence available.

At the 2005 UMNO annual meeting, Hishammuddin Hussein brandished the traditional Malay dagger, the keris, while warning the non-Malays not to attack or question Malay rights and “Ketuanan Melayu.” His action was applauded by the UMNO delegates. Again in 2006, when Hishammuddin again brandished the keris at the assembly, Hashim Suboh asked Hishammuddin when he would “use” the keris.

15. Opponents of Ethnocracy

The Non-Malay communities had in general been opposed to their disenfranchisement as full citizens since the reversals of 1946. While the line of argument in this paper may suggest that all of UMNO and all Malays support and endorse the ethnocracy now being practiced in Malaysia, this is far from being the case. There are opponents of the various systems and practices among all communities at all levels.

The organizers of Bersih — Gabungan Pilihanraya Bersih dan Adil / Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections — engage with one aspect of the abuses, while the HINDRAF organisers more specifically target the ethnocratic structures under which the non-Malay communities they have been discriminated against.

There has been increasing attention paid by foreigners to the effects of ethnocratic policies in Malaysia. European Union Ambassador to Malaysia, Thierry Rommel criticising Malaysia’s New Economic Policy (NEP) as being detrimental to the country. He suggested that Malaysia’s attractiveness to foreign investors had weakened as a result of the affirmative action policies for the Malays. “Protectionism in public procurement is rising. That protectionism is expanding and the scope for competition and efficiency is narrowing … Malaysia is marginalising itself,” he told reporters.

But most importantly, the voters of Malaysia are expressing their views through the ballot box. In the March 2008 Elections, the Barisan Nasional were roundly chastised for many aspects, resulting in the loss of 58 seats and its two-thirds majority in parliament.

Leaders in Penang, which now has a non-Barisan government, have announced that it will not be following Bumiputera policies in state sector employment, while Anwar Ibrahim has declared his opposition to aspects of Malay ethnocracy and is busily preparing himself to serve as head of a Pakatan Rakyat which will possibly unseat the long-standing BN coalition and form a new federal government. How any such coalition will in fact act when in power remains a great unknown.

16. Ethnocracy as Apartheid

I have characterized the ethnocratic policies pursued by the UMNO-led coalition over the last close to 50 years as “apartheid”. Some explanation of this is in order. The term, meaning separation or separateness, is from Afrikaans, and it was used in South Africa to refer to the policies of the Afrikaner National Party government between 1948 and 1990. The Apartheid regime classified people into racial groups and then implemented differentiated policies towards these various groups. These policies affected where people lived, the quality of education people received, what activities people could engage in and their opportunities for the future. In many ways, Malaysian ethnocracy, through the effective disenfranchisement of non-Malay peoples and restricted opportunities in commerce, education, and employment through their exclusion from the mainstream reflects some aspects of the South African Apartheid system. Like the Apartheid system, Malaysia’s ethnocracy vindicates a hierarchy of rights along ethnic lines.

17. Malaysia and Israel

Can one then pursue a democracy where citizens are supposedly equal in their rights, and yet at the same time constitutionally mandate the special position of a certain group within that country. In this respect, the Malaysian state as created by UMNO shares a problem with Israel.

Israel has no Constitution, despite formally committed to the adoption of a written Constitution since 1948. Many of the more orthodox Jews hold that the only real constitution for a Jewish state is the Torah and the Jewish law (halakhah) that flows from it. They not only see no need for a modern secular constitution. But there is a Declaration of Independence which sets down aspects of the state.

“The Declaration of Independence determined that the State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; and it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

However, in the country’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, [67] there is no provision on equality of freedom of religion. Rather it notes in Article 1: “The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Here then we have the conundrum faced. Israel wants to develop a modern democratic state, one which gives a specially-mandated place to Jewish people, but at the same time, treats all citizens fairly as equals. As the Malaysian ethnocracy demonstrates, the contradictions of such an arrangement will always raise their heads.

A religion or ethnicity which is detailed in a basic legal document as an essential element of the state necessarily makes believers in other religions, or persons of other ethnic groups, second-rate citizens, and precludes an equality of citizenship.


Article 8 of the Malaysian Constitution (clause 2) states: ‘Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.’

>However, through other Articles, all these discriminations are actually mandated by the Malaysian Constitution, and UMNO has used these provision to consolidate Malay power through control of all state institutions.

The ethnocracy which has been slowly developed in Malaysia particularly since 1957 has excluded from full participation in the country the non-Malay peoples of the land. Through economic and social policies, non-Malay people have been deprived of education, employment, political and other opportunities as a cost of the development and consolidation of Malay supremacy and the economic aspects of the NEP.

The question of how the power of UMNO is to be called to account and how the increasing fragmentation of Malaysian society is to be reversed may already have begun to be answered by the March 2008 election. In any case, in any major re-examination or reconsideration of the various privileging policies and ethnocratic structures which have been created in Malaysia, an essential element needs to be a recognition that these structures have as their root the British-UMNO alliance of 1946-57, which pursued the interests of these two groups, and excluded from fair participation in the political process the non-elite and non-Malay members of society.

 Geoff Wade is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore and the editor of the six volume work China and Southeast Asia. An earlier version of this paper was Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 112.

Recommended citation: Geoff Wade, “The Origins and Evolution of Ethnocracy in Malaysia,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 47-4-09, November 23, 2009.


[1] Joint Colonial Office-Foreign Office memo on post-war settlement in the Far East: need for definite policy” (CO 825/35/4 No. 52) (August 1942) in A. J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 23.
[2] CO 825/35/4 No. 52, Stockwell, Malaya, Part I, p. 24.
[3] CO 825/35/4 No. 52, Stockwell, Malaya, Part I, p. 24-5.
[4] CO 877/25/7/27265/7 No. 1 (4 Dec 1942) Stockwell Document 11, Vol. 1, p. 42.
[5] CO 877/25/7/27265/7 No. 1 (4 Dec 1942) Stockwell Document 11, Vol. 1, p. 43.
[6] A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, pp 47-48. 48.
[7] A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 49.
[8] A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 48.
[9] CO 825/35/6 No. 4 (14 May 1943), A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, pp. 50-51.
[10] CO 825/35/6 No. 4 (14 May 1943), A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 51.
[11] Hone memo on post-war constitutional arrangements for mainland of Malaya: CO 825/35/6 No. 14 (28 July 1943), A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 55.
[12] Mr Stanley of Colonial Office to War Cabinet Committee on Malaya and Borneo, CAB 98/41 CMB (44) 3 (14 Jan 1944), A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 68.
13] Policy in Regard to Malaya and Borneo’: War Cabinet memorandum to Mr Atlee. Appendices: I Draft Directive ion policy in Malaya’ and II ‘Draft Directive on policy –Borneo’, CAB 66/50, WP (44) 258, A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire
[14] Letter from Admiral Mountbatten Supreme Allied Commander to Maj. Gen Hone, 4 Feb 1944, “Letter on publicity for post-war policy”, A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 72.
[15] Mountbatten to Stanley, CO 825/42/3 No. 25 (29 July 1944), A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 83.
[16] Stanley to Mountbatten CO 825/42/3 No. 27 (21 Aug 1944), A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 84.
[17] Mountbatten to Stanley CO 825/42/3 No. 28 (6 Sept 1944), A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 86.
[18] Cabinet meeting CAB 128/1 CM 27 (45)3 (3 Sept 1945) Conclusions authorizing the MacMichael Mission, A.J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaya (3 parts), British Documents on the End of Empire, London HMSO, 1995, Part I, p. 122.
[19] A1838 413/2/1/4 Part 1 BTSEA [British Territories in South East Asia]- Malayan Constitutional Reforms (National Australian Archives).
[20] Cheah Boon Kheng, Malaysia: The Making of a Nation, Singapore, ISEAS, 2002, p.
[21] Albert Lau, The Malayan Union Experiment, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press,
[22] Australian Commissioner in Singapore C. Massey to H.V. Evatt, Minister of State for External Affairs, Canberra, 24 December 1946. A1838 413/2/1/4 Part 1 : BTSEA [British Territories in South East Asia]- Malayan Constitutional Reforms.
[23] Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), which was a Leftist party opposed to UMNO and also opposed to continuing the role of sultans.
[24] The 1947 census showed a total population of Malaya including Singapore of 5.8 million. Chinese numbered 2.6 milllion and Malays 2.4 million. This was the first time the Chinese outnumbered the Malays. See Minute of 17 August 1948 NAA A1838 410/1/1 Part 1 : BTSEA [British Territories in South East Asia]- General Information.
[25] Tarling, Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Cold War, p. 187.
[26] Tarling, Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Cold War, p. 188.
[27] Straits Times, 10 January 1947.
[28] Still a legal party at this time.
[29] Straits Budget, 13 February 1947.
[30] Straits Times, 16 January 1947.
[31] Original copy contained within Now reprinted as: PUTERA-AMCJA, The People’s Constitutional Proposals For Malaya 1947, Kuala Lumpur: Ban Ah Kam, 2005.
[32] Malaya Tribune, 31 March 1947.
[33] W Garrett, Official Secretary, Office of the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom, Canberra to Prime Minister’s Department, Canberra 5 May 1947: NAA A1838 413/2/1/4 Part 1, BTSEA – Malayan Constitutional Reforms.
[34] Australian Commissioner in Singapore C. Massey to H.V. Evatt, Minister of State for External Affairs, Canberra, 9 May 1947. A1838 413/2/1/4 Part 1 : BTSEA [British Territories in South East Asia]- Malayan Constitutional Reforms.
[35] The Constitution proposal noted: “The word ‘Malay’ here means a person who: i) habitually speaks the Malay language; and ii) professes the Muslim religion; and iii) conforms to Malay custom.”
[36] United Kingdom Colonial Office, Federation of Malaya: Summary of Revised Constitutional Proposals, presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of His Majesty, July 1947. p. 8, Item 18.
[37] “Immigration Policy Change: ‘Special Interest for Malays’” Straits Times 25 July 1947
[38] The Morning Tribune, Friday 25 July, 1947, p. 4.
[39] “Early Errors Corrected” Straits Times, 26 July 1947 reprinted from The Times
[40] NAA A1838 413/2/1/4 Part 1, BTSEA – Malayan Constitutional Reforms.
[41] Broadcast Speech by the Governor-General, 4 January 1948. NAA A1838 413/2/1/4 Part 1, BTSEA – Malayan Constitutional Reforms.
[42] A Gujarati terms used in reference to the closing of shops and business activity in protest. Derived from Gandhi’s use of hartals in anti-British activities in India. These hartals in 1947 are the subject of a film Sepuluh tahun sebelum Merdeka by Fahmi Reza. Link
[43] These have recently been republished.
[44] Editorial, Malaya Tribune, 24 January 1948. NAA, A1838 413/2/1/4 Part 1 : BTSEA [British Territories in South East Asia]- Malayan Constitutional Reforms.
[45] CO 537/3746 Federation of Malaya – Political Developments (1948), f. 28.
[46] CO 537/3746 Federation of Malaya – Political Developments (1948), f. 28.
[47] To Malaya from Paskin on Onn’s visit to Britain. Dated 22 Dec 1948, f. 60.
[48] In the 1955 election, Malay voters made up about 80% of the total electorate. Although the Chinese made up close to 50% of the population, they constituted only about 20% of the total electorate because the stringent criteria in the1948 Federation Agreement, albeit modified slightly in the early 1950s, meant that only a minority of Chinese were eligible for Malayan citizenship.
[49] Lee Hock Guan, Political Parties and the Politics of Citizenship in Peninsular Malay(si)a 1957-68, Singapore, ISEAS, p. 31, note 4. The text quoted was originally in the Tunku’s As a Matter of Interest (1981).
[50] Lim subsequently established a short-lived party named the United Democratic Party, and later was involved in establishing the Gerakan Party. He later became the longest-serving Chief Minister of Penang.
[51] Cheah Boon Kheng, Malaysia: the Making of a Nation, Singapore, ISEAS, 2004.
[52] The “Grand Design” for integration of British territories in Southeast Asia had been a part of British decolonization policies since the 1950s. “On 18 April 1961, the question of the Grand Design was considered at a meeting of the Colonial Policy Committee, during which it was decided …the development of a political association between Malaya, Singapore and the three Borneo territories as ‘an ultimate aim of policy’.” “In pursuing this policy, it was clear that politics and security were foremost considerations. Only through a greater Malaysia were the British confident of granting self-government status to the Borneo Territories and Singapore.” See Tan Tai Yong, Creating Greater Malaysia: Decolonization and the Politics of Merger, Singapore, ISEAS, 2008, pp. 20-25.
[53] Tan Tai Yong suggests that the Malayans were the least enthusiastic about the idea of an expanded polity such as Malaysia. See Tan, Creating Greater Malaysia pp. 20-21.
[54] Tan, Creating Greater Malaysia, p. 196.
[55] Founded in 1953 by D.R. Seenivasagam and his brother S. Seenivasagam as an opposition party to the Aliance. In 1969, it was almost able to form the Perak State Government, but after joining the Barisan National in 1973 lost most of its support in the 1974 election.
[56] Cheah, Malaysia: The Making of a Nation, p. 161.
[57] See, for example, Khoo Boo Teik’s Paradoxes of Mahathirism (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995) and his Beyond Mahathir : Malaysian politics and its discontents, (London: Zed 2003).
[58] Shaikh Mohd Nor Alam Sheikh Hussein and Basiran Begum, Malay Reservations: Meeting the Challenges of the Millenium.
[59] For fuller details, see Joseph M. Fernando, “The Position of Islam in the Constitution of Malaysia”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 37, 2006, pp. 249-66.
[60] Link
[61] Link
[62] Link
[63] Link
[64] Marina Mahatir, “Rantings by MM”, Sep 9 2008.
[65] Link
[66] Link
[67] Passed by the Knesset on the 12th Adar Bet, 5752 (17th March, 1992) under prime ministership of Yitzhak Shamir

NY Times Book Review: ‘Hell and Good Company’, by Richard Rhodes

March 7, 2015

Sunday Book Review

‘Hell and Good Company’, by Richard Rhodes

Paul BermanIs it possible to speak intelligently about supremely ideological political events from a standpoint that airily dismisses the supremely ideological politics? Richard Rhodes has put this question to a test by writing an aggressively anti-ideological history of one of the most extravagantly ideological events that has ever occurred, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

The Spanish war broke out because, on one side, the radically leftist Socialist Party pushed the Republican government ever further to the left, and large parts of the labor movement pushed still more sharply leftward, unto the zones of collectivist and libertarian revolution — and because, on the ­opposite side, the national army and most of the Catholic Church and other parts of society veered sharply rightward, unto the nether regions of the fascist extreme. And, well, the two sides could not get along. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin made their own specialized contributions. Three years of this and Generalissimo Francisco Franco became the caudillo of Spain, and wartime atrocities gave way to peacetime atrocities.

From Rhodes’s standpoint, though, the various sane and insane doctrines and intrigues that entered into these events need not concern us overmuch. His preface explains: “Spain today is a democracy. Who was a Communist, who a fascist, who connived with whom in the Spanish labyrinth are questions for academics to mull.” No one will mistake the dagger thrust in Rhodes’s remark, and connoisseurs of the literature of the war will recognize that his anti-academic blade is directed, in particular, at the historian Gerald Brenan, who wrote a classic study called “The Spanish Labyrinth.” Brenan was not, as it happens, an academic. He was a Bloomsbury bohemian. Still, he was a meticulous scholar. He knew exactly who was a Communist and who a fascist. Also, who was a Republican, a Catalan Socialist, a non-Catalan Socialist, a non-Soviet Leninist, an anarchist, an anarcho-syndicalist, a nationalist (Spanish, Basque, Catalan), a Catholic ultra-rightist, a monarchist and so on. Gerald Brenan was a great historian.

Rhodes (right), by contrast, prefers to tell “the human stories that had notRhodes yet been told or had been told only incompletely.” And he wishes to recount the “technical ­developments of the war.” He recruits a little platoon of wartime protagonists for these purposes, and he sends these people marching episodically through the Spanish events, in the expectation that as the anecdotes pile up, he will succeed in ­revealing something new and significant. It cannot be said that he reveals great numbers of previously unknown personalities.

Last year, Amanda Vaill published her own anecdotal history of the Spanish Civil War, “Hotel Florida,” in which she described the largely English-speaking circle that populated the Madrid hotel of her title, where Ernest Hemingway stayed. Rhodes has selected the central figures of his book, too, from the same crowd at the same hotel — the New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews, the British scientist J. B. S. Haldane, the American volunteer soldier Robert Merriman, the journalist Martha Gellhorn and onward to Hemingway himself.

Rhodes draws the tone of his narrative from these people and their writings — clenched, grim, occasionally lyrical, dashing and stoical, in the 1930s style. He draws from them a simplifying picture of the war. He describes Franco as a “43-year-old traitor” and the enemies of Franco as “the long-suffering Spanish people,” which shows that Rhodes’s heart is in the right place, and his commitment to nuanced description is in the wrong place. He also draws from these individuals a good many of his military details — from Matthews and Haldane especially, as if these men were eyewitnesses with solid reputations for accuracy. The solidity of Matthews’s reputation melted into liquid long ago, mostly because of his naïveté about Communism, and as for Haldane, he was notorious for applying the principles of Stalinism even to hard science, which for some reason seems to leave Rhodes unconcerned.

Rhodes himself is under no delusions about Soviet policy in Spain. He records some of the attacks by Soviet security men and Spanish Communists on the non-Communist left, which undid the anti-fascist cause. And he recounts anecdotes about a couple of additional English-speaking writers, John Dos Passos and George ­Orwell, who composed ferocious criticisms of their fellow English speakers in Spain for failing to understand those particular attacks and even for colluding in them — immortal criticisms, which have become staples of the ­modern liberal sensibility. But these immortal ­criticisms bear on precisely the controversies that Rhodes prefers to leave to academics, which means that on this topic, his book has nothing to contribute.

He does recount a number of stories about wartime medical developments, and these passages make up his best ­pages. He introduces us to Frederic Duran Jordà, a Catalan doctor who pioneered a technique for administering blood transfusions, and to a Canadian doctor named Norman Bethune who advanced the technique. He mentions the Communist International, too, and hints at its ability to mobilize medical professionals around the world, which is the sort of undertaking that lent Communism its prestige in those years. But the politics of medicine is likewise not his theme.


Still another strand of his narrative follows Pablo Picasso, in Paris, as the artist goes about painting his civil war protest mural, “Guernica.” The politics of art does not arouse Rhodes’s curiosity. The mural does lead him, though, to discuss the aerial attack on the city of Guernica by Franco’s German and Italian allies in 1937, which was Picasso’s subject. And the attack plunges Rhodes into the arcana of military technology — a congenial topic for him, as shown by the best-known of his previous books, his entirely admirable “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” He ­recites the names of airplanes and the components of explosives.

Guernica, he tells us, was bombed by a German twin-engine Dornier 17 with a “long, narrow, tubular fuselage,” ­followed by Italian Savoia-Marchetti 79 trimotors, followed by a Heinkel 111B with Fiat fighter escorts, followed by Junkers-52 trimotor bombers with “corrugated duralumin fuselages,” which dropped, among other things, incendiaries: “The two-pound incendiaries — tubes 14 ­inches long and two inches in diameter of Elektron (an alloy of 92 percent magnesium, 5 percent aluminum and 3 percent zinc) filled with thermite — were packed in droppable metal dispensers each holding 36 bombs.”

Rhodes' BookHere, at last, is a topic for academic pedants! Still, something is to be said for reciting airplane names. Rhodes ­observes correctly that during the war, the Axis powers provided military support to their right-wing allies in Spain, and the Soviet Union likewise to the Spanish Communists. But the Western democracies ­declined to support the Spanish democrats. Anti-interventionism was the principle of the hour among the Western powers; and the hour concluded with democracy’s defeat and a fateful forward lurch for the fascists of Europe and the outbreak of a much wider war. The names of those Heinkels and Junkers and Savoia-Marchettis drive the point home, and a gloomy home it is — doubly gloomy if you take the occasion to reflect on our own era of Russian and Iranian eagerness to intervene, and Western reluctance to intervene, in the internationalized civil war of the present catastrophic moment, which is in Syria.

Paul Berman is a columnist at Tablet and the author of “Power and the Idealists,” among other books.