The Struggle for Independence — Tunku’s Finest Hours 31 August 2018 – Posted in: Book Excerpts
The two years between Tunku assuming the post of the Chief Minister of Malaya in 1955 and the declaration of independence in 1957 are known as the time when all efforts were made to gain independence under the leadership of Tunku and the Alliance through peaceful struggle. Among the principal hurdles that Tunku and the Alliance had to overcome in order to achieve independence for Malaya were: the socio-political differences among the component parties of the Alliance, especially between UMNO and the MCA; the hostile attitude of the Malay rulers against any plan for early independence; and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) threats to the security of Malaya.
These hurdles were made even harder to overcome first because of the experience during the war years and its aftermath when bloody conflicts erupted between the Malays and Chinese on the one hand, and the British reluctance to grant independence to Malaya as long as communist threats were still rampant on the other.
To worsen the situation further, the Onn-Malay rulers clashes had resulted in UMNO being truly mistrusted by the rulers. In spite of their unexpected victory at the polls, both Tunku and the Alliance were indeed novices in the game of politics and negotiations. The socio-political environment of the 1950s was certainly daunting for any capable political leader, let alone Tunku and his inexperienced colleagues and supporters. However, as events unfolded, Tunku proved his ability to rise to the occasion, confronted these challenges and did attain independence even earlier than the target set by UMNO.
UMNO-MCA differences over the Citizenship Issue
The basic stumbling block to the UMNO-MCA co-operation was the Chinese demand for equal citizenship and the Malay fear that, without safeguards for their special position and privileges as the indigenous people of the land. they would soon be overpowered by the non-Malays’ economic superiority. In such an eventuality the Malays would become but second class citizens in their very own land.
To most Malays, citizenship was the last safeguard for their socio-political upper-hand in the soon-to-be independent Malaya against the non-Malays socio-economic superiority. The British authority appeared to appreciate the Malay apprehension and were willing to accept gradual citizenship as a means to allow the non-Malays who chose to make Malaya their homeland to slowly enter the pool of Malayan common citizenship. Such a move, however, had attracted only a few non-Malays to apply for the common citizenship.
The Straits Settlements non-Malays who had already been granted limited British citizenship, in particular, found restricted common citizenship a non-starter. Rightly or wrongly, most non-Malays held that the common Malayan citizenship offered was rather insufficient compared to the rights they then enjoyed by virtue of being British citizens.
Among the Chinese elite, Tan Cheng Lock stood out from the beginning as a true believer in Malaya and Malayan unity. Though a great believer in non-communalism as a sure means of creating lasting harmony and unity among Malayans of all races, Tan Cheng Lock was realistic enough to realise that no political party nor leadership could “jump many steps ahead of the masses”. He also identified Sino-Malay unity as one of the important prerequisite for achieving independence for Malaya.
When he realised through the failure of the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) that non-communalism was not acceptable to the people at the time, Tan Cheng Lock was willing to work with UMNO and eventually set up the Alliance party. As far as common citizenship was concerned, Tan Cheng Lock was in favour of the principle of jus soli. To Cheng Lock, “if Malaya is to become ultimately one country and one nation, the people born within its confines should have a common citizenship… A polity based on the exclusive or preferential rights of the Malays with the entire business of the country in the hands of the Malayans… is an impracticable proposition.”
When Tan Cheng Lock had to withdraw from active politics due to his ill-health from 1955, it was his son Tan Siew Sin who continued to fight for the common citizenship based mainly on the jus soli principle. Siew Sin was then very much against Tunku who he regarded as a Malay leader who would not recognise the non-Malays’ right to call themselves “Malayans”. Thus, Siew Sin became a strong supporter of Dato‘ Onn and the IMP until it became evident to him that the IMP had failed to rally the support of the people to their non-communal cause.
In addition, the MCA demand for common citizenship based on the jus soli principle did not go down well with UMNO. The 1955 general election had to go ahead without any final solution reached between the two main component parties of the Alliance. Only the pledge by the UMNO leadership that the issue of common citizenship would be resolved before independence kept the Alliance ship afloat.
According to Tan Siew Sin’s account, it was Tunku who eventually broke the deadlock by proposing that an Alliance committee chaired by Tunku Razak be set up to deal with the major provisions of the constitution to be adopted for independent Malaya. This committee finally reached an agreement on the common citizenship of independent Malaya. Tan Siew Sin alone among the MCA leadership objected to the agreed provisions. Siew Sin’s objection could have been ignored as the majority of the MCA leadership was for the agreement, yet Tunku would not let the matter rest.
He was fully aware of the arduous task of nation-building to be encountered by the new nation, and he wanted to be sure that his government and party, the Alliance, would stand firmly together and face the unknown future, regardless of whatever difficulties lay ahead. It was thus left to Tunku to use his political power and prestige to persuade other UMNO leaders to be generous and accommodating to the qualified principle of jus soli so very dear to Tan Cheng Lock and his son Siew Sin.
The main result was Articles 152 and 153 of the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya which recognise the special position and privileges of the Malays—something the MCA since its inception was unwilling to admit let alone recognise—and the guarantee for the non-Malays’ legitimate rights as citizens of the Federation.
The magnanimity and sincerity of Tunku and the UMNO leadership—including two of his ardent supporters, namely Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr. Ismail—towards MCA and the non-Malays had completely won Siew Sin’s appreciation and loyalty. In Siew Sin’s own words, “When it comes to the acid test, the Tunku proved it by his actions.”
To Tunku, a better future for the Malays was tied up with independence of Malaya, and the sooner that became a reality, the better for the Malays. The solution reached over the jus soli issue would help facilitate the end of colonial rule. Tunku declared, “To me bad government is better than foreign government. I could not put it more strongly than that.”
Tunku, of course, exacted from the non-Malays, as a quid-pro-quo/compromise tor the Malay generosity, a similar concession, namely recognition and acknowledgement of the Malay special position and privileges as the indigenous community of Malaya. The draft constitution was thus hammered out by the Alliance committee set up in 1956 and represented by the three component parties to work out the Alliance historic compromise. This solution was presented to the Reid Commission as part of the Alliance constitutional proposals to be included in the draft of the new constitution for independent Malaya.
The relevant Articles in the 1957 Constitution that formalise the all-important compromise between UMNO/Malays and the non-Malays led by the MCA,—often referred to as the social contract of the independent Federation of Malaya 1957,—are Part III of the Constitution—concerning citizenship; Article 152—concerning the national language and languages of other communities; Article 153—concerning the special position and privileges of the Malays (later included the indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak) and legitimate interests of other communities; and Article 181—concerning the sovereignty of the rulers. Subsequent and relevant amendments to update the 1957 Constitution with the socio-political changes of the nation aside, the compromise continues to remain as the bedrock providing a firm and solid foundation for Malaysia and its bright future.
UMNO and the Malay Rulers
UMNO and the Malay rulers stood at the Opposite corners of the post-war political ring, ready to slug it out for the most sought-after prize of becoming the champion and protector of the Malays. Between 1946 and 1951 , UMNO under the combative and demanding Dato’ Om Jaafar was successful in putting the rulers in their proper place, i.e. mindful of UMNO’s role in restoring and protecting the royal position, rights and privileges vis-a-vis the British authority.
The rulers should, in Onn’s logical argument, be ever grateful to the Malays, UMNO-the Malays’ new champion, and, by inference, to Onn who was the leader supremo of UMNO. The unhappy situation between the Malay rulers on the one side, and Onn and UMNO on the other, continued right through the time Dato’ Onn left UMNO in 1951.
The most serious residue of the Malay rulers-Onn conflict was the rulers’ deep-rooted mistrust of UMNO, its objectives and its leadership, including the new President. At the same time, it was evident that the British colonial regime regarded the Malay rulers as their favoured partner in the run for the political reform of Malaya towards self-government and eventually independence. It was likewise clear to Tunku that the rulers were neither happy nor supportive of any progress towards such a dreadful goal.
A good example of this royal attitude can be detected from the setting up of the Federation of Malaya in February 1948. The Federation of Malaya, a system of politics and administration agreed by the three parties concerned—British colonial authorities, the Rulers and UMNO—to replace the Malayan Union, took more than eight months of tracked discussion. arguments, exchanges of “harsh words” and even the walk outs by the UMNO representatives before they could come to an agreement with the representatives of the Malay rulers as to the nature of, in Onn’s words. “a government of the Malay homeland.”
It was obvious to UMNO and Onn—and later Tunku—that the Malay rulers were prepared to employ all means to slow down or even derail any efforts towards democratisation of Malaya.
How did Tunku deal with this delicate yet most threatening issue of royal hostility to UMNO’s primary goal of independence and democratisation of the political and administrative system of Malaya? How could he achieve what the great Malay leader Onn Jaafar with all his political prestige, experience and even good-will of the colonial officials, had found tt irritatingly elusive?
Tunku was very well aware that without the royals hopping on the UMNO’s socio-political bandwagon which demanded for a speedy political and administrative reform, the British would make it most difficult for UMNO to have its way, regardless of the Alliance’s most impressive popular support.
One thing was apparent: unlike Dato’ Onn, Tunku hardy ever employed bullying tactics against the rulers. Tunku, a royal himself, seemed to understand fully the Malay royal psyche in spite of the fact that he could never really be described as a typical Malay prince himself. Tunku was quite aware of the fundamental reason why the Malay rulers’ objected to any political reform that would usher in a democratic system of administration in Malaya.
The postwar political changes, especially in Asia more often than not resulted in the new socio-political system based on the principle of democracy, naturally at the expense of the traditional monarchical rule. Examples were commonplace: such countries as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam had totally rejected monarchy and replaced it with that of a democratic republic or the rule of the people.
For the Malay rulers, the apprehension was that such change in Malaya would bring about a similar catastrophic outcome to their status, rights and privileges. Apparently, Tunku reserved much compassionate understanding for, and appreciation of the Malay royalty concerning their contribution towards the position of the Malays as the indigenous community of Malaya, and their socio-cultural way of life. Tunku likewise was alive to their genuine apprehension of their future within the context of independent Malaya. This understanding and compassion led to Tunku’s decision to win the rulers over to his and the Alliance struggle through a most accommodating means.
Underlying Tunku’s decision to accommodate the Malay rulers’ fear for their future in a reformed and independent Malaya, was his belief in the fundamental contribution and unique role of the monarchy to the well-being of Malaya in general and the Malays in particular. It was his ardent belief that without the Malay rulership, particularly in the North and North-eastern Malay states the Malays would have lost not only their birthright as indigenous people of Malaya but also their socio-cultural way of life.
Most likely, Malays would have become a minority in their own motherland. It was the Malay rulers, acting as guardians of the Malays and reservoir of Malay socio-cultural heritage, that had resulted in the survival of the Malays as both legal and historical owners of Tanah Melayu. For these historic contributions, Tunku was willing to go a long way to mitigate the rulers’ fear of changes that would come with independence, and to accommodate the rulers’ wishes as much as he could.
Tunku’s and UMNO’s decision to preserve the Malay rulership with its traditional privileges intact won over the royalty to the cause at independence of Malaya. Eventually, Tunku won the day and the rulers, including Tunku’s own estranged brother Sultan Badlishah, changed their mind and came to accept the new role assigned to them as constitutional rulers in independent Malaya. The special proviso accorded by Tunku and UMNO to the Malay constitutional mien was that they were, like their predecessors, above the law.
On 31st August 1957, the Malay rulers arguably occupied a very unique position as they were constitutional monarchs who were simultaneously endowed with legal immunity, which made them above the law and untouchable even when they committed crimes in their personal capacity. It was not until the big clash with UMNO in 1980s and 1990s that the rulers were eventually forced to torgo their personal legal immunity and came under the law of the land like their subjects, well almost.
Tunku and the Communist Threat
By the time the 1955 election took place, the only main hurdle left on the Alliance path toward independence was the communist threat to the security of Malaya—and by inference the survival oi an independent Malaya without British military protection. The British authority was reluctant to grant independence to Malaya so long as the war against communist terrorists had yet to be successfully concluded. Thus, Tunku had to come up with some substantial assurance that threats from the MCP would be contained or altogether eliminated once independence was granted.
He also saw the Malayan communist struggle as something akin to the efforts of UMNO and the Alliance, to liberate Malaya from the British. The principal difference between the communist struggle against colonialism and the UMNO and Alliance struggle for independence was, according to Tunku, that “our strength does not come from hatred or bitterness but from righteousness and extreme patriotism.”
Apparently, Tunku was most disappointed with Chin Peng, who, in Tunku’s opinion, was first and foremost a diehard communist with little if any loyalty for the land of his birth.
To Tunku, colonial rule in Malaya provided the MCP with a legitimate cause to take up arms. Colonialism encouraged and enhanced communisi strength and popularity among the masses, especially those who suffered from unfair treatment by the colonial authorities. Conversely, the sooner independence was granted, the sooner the MCP would lose its influence and legitimacy among the people. The Alliance Election Manifesto in 1955 made it clear under the slogan “Independence within four years” that, it they won the election, they would propose a general amnesty for all communist terrorists; if the amnesty were rejected by the MCP, the Alliance would mobilise all their resources “to intensify the campaign against the terrorists and bring it to a successful conclusion.”
In other words, it peaceful means failed to win over the MCP, it would be a war of attrition to the destructive and of communists in Malaya.
In sum, the overall outcome of the Baling talks very much favoured Tunku and his self-government that emerged with their reputation and prestige increased. It also enhanced Tunku’s position in dealing with the British as communist surrender and end of the Emergency was now more or less tied up with independence for Malaya. Tunku had managed to get an agreement from Chin Peng that it he succeeded in gaining independence from Great Britain, then Chin Peng and the MCP would stop their hostilities and disband their armed units.
In fact, Tunku had Chin Peng and the MCP where he wanted. The burden of blame for violence and loss of life now lay squarely on the MCP’s shoulders. After independence, if the MCP were to continue its armed struggle, it would reveal the true nature of its war in Malaya, namely to serve the interests of communism, and not to liberate Malaya from colonialist rule as it had claimed since the party began its armed struggle in 1947. Communism was, in fact, unacceptable to an overwhelming majority of the citizens of Malaya. Defeat was staring at the Malayan communists in their face. It was a matter of time before their futile and unpopular ideological war would come to an end.
On 31st July 1960, the government declared the Emergency ended. Tunku went on the radio and declared, “We have won our freedom as a nation, and now we have won a battle against our enemy… This is a moment of particular pride for me as your Prime Minister that not only did I have the honour of proclaiming our independence three years ago, but I now have the honour of signing a Proclamation by Royal Command to end the Emergency.”
It was a humiliating experience for the MCP. The party, now “…reduced to a few hundreds,” was hounded out of Malaya and was forced to live a fugitive life, “skulking across the borders of Thailand.” Tunku had every right to feel proud. He had reached the apex of his political quest.
“The Struggle for Independence—Tunku’s Finest Hours.” Tunku: An Odyssey of Life Well-Lived and Well-Loved. By Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian. First ed. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 2017. 140-48. Print.