Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya focuses on the role played by the Malay aristocracy in determining the outcome of the postwar struggle on the Malay peninsula and in shaping the character of the Federation of Malaya that eventually emerged in 1957. It shows how during these early postwar years the Malay elite established their claim to a preeminent position in the federation long before it achieved its full independence, an outcome that has influenced the character of the Malaysian polity up to the present day.
In this original and perceptive work, Donna shows how the success of the upper segment of Malay society in the aftermath of the Second World War was to a large extent based on the character of British rule over the previous half-century, during which the colonial power had reconstructed Malay tradition for its own ends. She illustrates how earlier British manipulations of the political and social order became a vital component in the Malay elite’s ability in 1946 to pressure the government in London to abandon its plan to transfer power to a Malayan Union where all citizens, including non-Malays, had equal rights and the position of the Malay sultans was to be largely ceremonial.
Instead, the Malay states and their rulers emerged as ‘free and sovereign territories under British protection’, and the elites were given time to consolidate their position so that they could eventually replace the British at the helm of the independent state, with political power firmly in the hands of the Malay ruling class.
An original feature of Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya is the concept of ‘traditionalism’, a term that the author employs to describe the conscious use by the British of traditional elements of the earlier Malay kingdoms to consolidate their own administration. The colonial rulers developed a structure of government where the old idioms and rituals were reshaped to provide ‘a modern version of an ancient Malay culture’ that would not impede the system of government they were trying to impose. These new rituals of state safeguarded the Malay rulers’ privileged position while at the same time shielding their subjects from the reality of colonial rule, for the common people in the peninsula’s component states were still able to see themselves as living within their previous Malay sultanates. Thus, the British helped fashion a Malay culture that was compatible with colonial rule, freezing it in an invented past and separating its leaders from exercising any real power while creating and centralising a system of government that accorded with the needs of the metropole.
While maintaining and reshaping the positions of the Malay rulers as the titular heads of their states and safeguarding the positions of the village heads (penghulu) at the lowest level of government. the British undercut the powers of the aristocracy or chiefs (descendants of former rulers), assigning them to largely powerless positions on state councils or eventually training their sons to become bureaucrats within the Malay administrative service.
In the positions of real authority were the European district officers, who formed a new layer of state administration. Donna describes the result of this manipulation in the following terms: ‘Now both the top stratum of government (the ruler) and the bottom stratum (the penghulu) remained Malay. The middle ranges, formerly the province of the powerful district chiefs, were replaced by British officers’. From these positions, the British officials could be the driving force in implementing colonial administrative policies.
After 1945 the ‘traditionalism’ pursued over the previous decades played a new role, protecting the rulers from being ousted from their positions and turning them instead into a weapon the Malay aristocracy could employ to combat both the British plans for a Malayan Union and the anticolonial nationalism that was sweeping other former colonial countries of Southeast Asia. This new force was based on national sovereignty and the political rights of all the people, and its major exponent in Malaya was the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM, Young Malays Union), an organisation founded on radical democratic principles, which took as its model the nationalist movement in Indonesia. As it turned out, adherence to the earlier traditionalism protected not only the sultans’ positions but also those of the bureaucratic aristocracy against this nationalist threat from below.
The outcome of the struggle was not a foregone conclusion, for the British returned in 1945 ‘without the pro-Malay attitude which had defined prewar colonialism’. Both the Malay elite and members of the KMM had collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation. Disillusioned by their protégés’ ‘betrayal’ the British sought to replace the old Malay order with a ‘Malayan Union‘ within which the Malay rulers would lose most of their privileges and a ‘Malayan public’ would replace the prewar Malay, Chinese and Indian communities. These British plans roused fears among Malay conservatives, who saw the Malayan Union as a threat to the Malay race (bangsa Melayu), rendering them merely one group (kaum) within their own country.
In tracing the course of the ensuing struggle, Donna portrays Dato Onn bin Jaafar as the prime mover in pressuring the Malay sultans to take a stand against the Malayan Union, so that they could become its major impediment and at the same time serve as symbols of an emerging Malay nation that embraced the whole peninsula. She also highlights Onn’s role in shaping the opposition to British plans into a political movement, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which developed into a mainstream political party personifying an ‘acceptable Malay nationalism’ and able to appropriate ‘the powerful tools of nationalist symbolism and practice’.
At the same time, UMNO provided an opportunity for a resurgence of aristocratic power at the expense of both the rulers and the radicals. From 1948 this led to a wholesale suppression of progressive politics, including both Malay radicalism and, during the Emergency, Chinese and Indian participation.
As Donna points out, the history of this period has shaped the character of the Malayan and later Malaysian Federation. The hijacking of the nationalist movement by the Malay aristocratic forces prevented a restructuring of society where all citizens would enjoy equal access to benefits of nationhood Because the aristocrats had used the ‘legitimising power of the rulers to deflect radical criticism’, it was difficult for them later to move decisively against the royal officeholders, and the rulers retained their ability to veto any moves towards constitutional change. The result, she contends, was that ‘the popular Malay nationalism which survived independence was a colonial form, encouraged to look to archaisms like the rulers for validation and satisfaction’.