The Japanese occupied Malaya in World War II. Japanese forces attacked Singapore on December 10, 1941, and by February 15, 1941, the Japanese occupied the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. Under Japanese occupation, ethnic tensions between Malays and Chinese crystallized because Malays filled many administrative positions while the Chinese were treated harshly for their resistance activities and for supporting China’s war of resistance against the Japanese in the 1930s.

The outbreak of war in the Pacific in December 1941 found the British in Malaya completely unprepared. During the 1930s, anticipating the rising threat of Japanese naval power, they had built a great naval base at Singapore, but never anticipated an invasion of Malaya from the north. Because of the demands of the war in Europe, there was virtually no British air capacity in the Far East. The Japanese were thus able to attack from their bases in French Indo-China with impunity, and despite stubborn resistance from British, Australian and Indian forces, they overran Malaya in two months. Singapore, with no landward defences, no air cover and no water supply, was forced to surrender in February 1942, doing irreparable damage to British prestige. British North Borneo and Brunei were also occupied. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Japanese had a racial policy just as the British did. They regarded the Malays as a colonial people liberated from British imperialist rule, and fostered a limited form of Malay nationalism, which gained them some degree of collaboration from the Malay civil service and intellectuals. (Most of the Sultans also collaborated with the Japanese, although they maintained later that they had done so unwillingly.) The Malay nationalist Kesatuan Melayu Muda, advocates of Melayu Raya, collaborated with the Japanese, based on the understanding that Japan would unite the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and Borneo and grant them independence. The occupiers regarded the Chinese, however, as enemy aliens, and treated them with great harshness: during the so-called sook ching (purification through suffering), up to 80,000 Chinese in Malaya and Singapore were killed. Chinese businesses were expropriated and Chinese schools either closed or burned down. Not surprisingly the Chinese, led by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), became the backbone of the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which with British assistance became the most effective resistance force in the occupied Asian countries.

Although the Japanese argued that they supported Malay nationalism, they offended Malay nationalism by allowing their ally Thailand to re-annex the four northern states, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu that had been surrendered to the British in 1909. The loss of Malaya’s export markets soon produced mass unemployment which affected all races and made the Japanese increasingly unpopular.

See World War II

Legacy of World War II

John H. Drabble of the University of Sydney wrote: “During the Japanese occupation years of World War II, the export of primary products was limited to the relatively small amounts required for the Japanese economy. This led to the abandonment of large areas of rubber and the closure of many mines, the latter progressively affected by a shortage of spare parts for machinery. Businesses, especially those Chinese-owned, were taken over and reassigned to Japanese interests. Rice imports fell heavily and thus the population devoted a large part of their efforts to producing enough food to stay alive. Large numbers of laborers (many of whom died) were conscripted to work on military projects such as construction of the Thai-Burma railroad. Overall the war period saw the dislocation of the export economy, widespread destruction of the infrastructure (roads, bridges etc.) and a decline in standards of public health. It also saw a rise in inter-ethnic tensions due to the harsh treatment meted out by the Japanese to some groups, notably the Chinese, compared to a more favorable attitude towards the indigenous peoples among whom (Malays particularly) there was a growing sense of ethnic nationalism (Drabble, 2000).

Mahathir Mohamad wrote; “The success of the Japanese invasion convinced us that there is nothing inherently superior in the Europeans. They could be defeated, they could be reduced to groveling before an Asian race, the Japanese.”

World War II ordnance still kills people in Malaysia. In 2008, AFP reported: “Two foreign workers in a Malaysian scrapyard were killed when a World War II bomb exploded as they were cutting up the 100-kilogramme device, reports said. The victims, a Bangladeshi and an Indian man, died of their injuries shortly after the blast on Tuesday, which destroyed the scrapyard and a hostel located above it and blew out nearby windows, reports said. The scrapyard owner told the Star daily he had purchased the bomb, which had been found by a passerby in an open area just north of the capital Kuala Lumpur, not realising it was a piece of unexploded ordnance. [Source: AFP, August 20, 2008]

Malaysia After World War II

When the British resumed control of Malaysia after World War II in 1945, they sought to establish themselves as a durable administrative power. Ethnic tensions often influenced political arrangements. In 1946 the British formed the Malayan Union and made Sarawak and North Borneo into crown colonies. The set up was much more like colonization that the protectorate system that had existed before. Many Malays objected to the system and the after seeing what the Japanese had done to them the British didn’t seem as all powerful as they once were.

Britain began taking steps towards implementing Malaysian independence in 1948 when it realized the only way it was going to put down a communist uprising to get the support of the population with a promise of self rule. In 1948, the states of Malaya were forged into the Federation of Malaya and efforts were made to train the people who would run the government.

Cheah Boon Kheng of the National University of Singapore wrote: Malaya was ‘Britain’s great dollar earner’. Her rubber and tin were precious assets as dollar earnings from the U.S. and Britain was reluctant to give up this source of wealth so quickly.

The British proposed the Malayan Union plan, which would make Singapore one colony and create another colony from the previously separate Federated and Unfederated Malay States, Penang, and Malacca in January 1946. The plans were drawn up in 1944 before the end of the war. Naturalization requirements would be eased for non-Malays. But fearing that they would become a minority group in the new state, many ethnic Malays opposed this plan, including Malaysia’s first political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which was formed in March 1946. Despite Malay opposition, the British implemented the Malayan Union on April 1, 1946, but they soon considered amending it because its support by the largely ethnic Chinese Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) led to fears of potential communist influence.

Cheah Boon Kheng of the National University of Singapore wrote: The Malayan Union plan merely aimed to merge the nine Malay States and the British settlements of Malacca and Penang into a unitary state to be called the Malayan Union, to be governed by a British governor. Britain offered equal citizenship to both Malays and non - Malays to inculcate unity and foster consciousness of a new ‘Malayan’ identity. It decided to transfer the nine Malay Rulers’ sovereignty to the British Crown. Not on ly would it not allow self - government but at the same time deprived the Malay Rulers of their authority, this plan in fact reinforced Britain’s colonial power by introducing a centralized form of government under a British governor. It clearly amounted to annexation. The plan therefore met with strong Malay opposition, which finally forced the British government to restore the Malay Rulers their powers and to the Malay their special privileges.

In May 1947, the British proposed maintaining the same territorial arrangement but as a majority-Malay federation that would have greater autonomy on matters such as Malay customs and religion. Ethnic Chinese and Indians were uneasy about living under an ethnic Malay majority, and left-wing Malay and Chinese groups organized strikes against the new proposal. However, the Federation of Malaya Agreement was implemented on February 1, 1948.

Economy of Malaysia After World War

John H. Drabble of the University of Sydney wrote: “The returning British colonial rulers had two priorities after 1945; to rebuild the export economy as it had been under the OIDL (see above), and to rationalize the fragmented administrative structure (see General Background). The first was accomplished by the late 1940s with estates and mines refurbished, production restarted once the labor force had been brought back and adequate rice imports regained. The second was a complex and delicate political process which resulted in the formation of the Federation of Malaya (1948) from which Singapore, with its predominantly Chinese population (about 75 percent), was kept separate. In Borneo in 1946 the state of Sarawak, which had been a private kingdom of the English Brooke family (so-called "White Rajas") since 1841, and North Borneo, administered by the British North Borneo Company from 1881, were both transferred to direct rule from Britain. However, independence was clearly on the horizon and in Malaya tensions continued with the guerrilla campaign (called the "Emergency") waged by the Malayan Communist Party (membership largely Chinese) from 1948-60 to force out the British and set up a Malayan Peoples' Republic. This failed and in 1957 the Malayan Federation gained independence (Merdeka) under a "bargain" by which the Malays would hold political paramountcy while others, notably Chinese and Indians, were given citizenship and the freedom to pursue their economic interests. The bargain was institutionalized as the Alliance, later renamed the National Front (Barisan Nasional) which remains the dominant political grouping. In 1963 the Federation of Malaysia was formed in which the bumiputera population was sufficient in total to offset the high proportion of Chinese arising from the short-lived inclusion of Singapore (Andaya and Andaya, 2001). [Source: John H. Drabble, University of Sydney, Australia +]

“Postwar two long-term problems came to the forefront. These were (a) the political fragmentation (see above) which had long prevented a centralized approach to economic development, coupled with control from Britain which gave primacy to imperial as opposed to local interests and (b) excessive dependence on a small range of primary products (notably rubber and tin) which prewar experience had shown to be an unstable basis for the economy. +\

“The first of these was addressed partly through the political rearrangements outlined in the previous section, with the economic aspects buttressed by a report from a mission to Malaya from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) in 1954. The report argued that Malaya "is now a distinct national economy." A further mission in 1963 urged "closer economic cooperation between the prospective Malaysia[n] territories" (cited in Drabble, 2000, 161, 176). The rationale for the Federation was that Singapore would serve as the initial center of industrialization, with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak following at a pace determined by local conditions. The second problem centered on economic diversification. The IBRD reports just noted advocated building up a range of secondary industries to meet a larger portion of the domestic demand for manufactures, i.e. import-substitution industrialization (ISI). In the interim dependence on primary products would perforce continue.” +\

Rise of Nationalism in Malaysia After World War II

During the Japanese occupation in World War II, ethnic tensions were raised and nationalism grew. The Malayans were thus on the whole glad to see the British back in 1945, but things could not remain as they were before the war, and a stronger desire for independence grew. Britain was bankrupt and the new Labour government was keen to withdraw its forces from the East as soon as possible. Colonial self-rule and eventual independence were now British policy. [Source: Wikipedia]

The tide of colonial nationalism sweeping through Asia soon reached Malaya. But most Malays were more concerned with defending themselves against the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) which was mostly made up of Chinese, than with demanding independence from the British – indeed their immediate concern was that the British not leave and abandon the Malays to the armed Communists of the MPAJA, which was the largest armed force in the country.

British plans for a Malayan Union called for turning the Federated and Unfederated Malay States, plus Penang and Malacca (but not Singapore), into a single Crown colony, with a view towards independence. The Bornean territories and Singapore were left out as it was thought this would make union more difficult to achieve. There was however strong opposition from the Malays, who opposed the weakening of the Malay rulers and the granting of citizenship to the ethnic Chinese and other minorities. The British had decided on equality between races as they perceived the Chinese and Indians as more loyal to the British during the war than the Malays. The Sultans, who had initially supported it, backed down and placed themselves at the head of the resistance.

Mahathir Mohamad wrote: “I got together with my classmates and quietly we began agitating against the Malayan Union proposal. We were not allowed to be involved in political activity, so most of our work took place at night...We moved around the night putting up posters with political messages.”

Formation of the UMNO

In 1946 the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was founded by Malay nationalists led by Dato Onn bin Jaafar, the Chief Minister of Johore. UMNO favoured independence for Malaya, but only if the new state was run exclusively by the Malays. Faced with implacable Malay opposition, the British dropped the plan for equal citizenship. The Malayan Union was thus established in 1946, and was dissolved in 1948 and replaced by the Federation of Malaya, which restored the autonomy of the rulers of the Malay states under British protection.

Cheah Boon Kheng of the National University of Singapore wrote: The anti - Malayan Union campaign, which stimulated Malay nationalism, led to the formation on 11 May 1946 of Malaya’s largest Malay nationalist party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) under the leadership of Dato’ Onn bin Jaafar. The British government’s decision to abandon the Malayan Union plan came aft er negotiations with the UMNO and the Malay Rulers. They agreed to replace it with the formation of a Federation of Malaya. This federation proposal, in turn, met with opposition not only from non - Malays, but also from a small group of radical Malays who p referred Malaya to be federated instead with an independent state of Indonesia. The Federation of Malaya was structured as a ‘nascent Malay nation - state’, known in Malay as Persekutuan Tanah Melayu (literally Federation of Malay homelands). [Source: Cheah Boon Kheng, National University of Singapore, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 11, 1 (June 2009): 132]

It was inaugurated on 1 February 1948 despite strong opposition from non - Malays. In the debates over the constitutional issue the CPM aligned itself with a left - wing coalition of Malay and non - Malay organizations, known as AMCJA - PUTERA, which opposed the terms of the A nglo - Malay 1948 Federation of Malaya Agreement. They presented a counter set of demands to the British government that were more progressive and advanced than that of the UMNO and the Malay Rulers. They asked for self - government for the Federation of Malay a, a fully - elected legislature and democracy for the people for an interim period which was to be followed by the granting of national independence. Their manifesto, ‘The People’s Constitution for Malaya (1947),’ according to Victor Purcell, a liberal - mind ed British official then serving in Malaya, ‘represented the agreed views of the two federations of Malay, Chinese and Indian parties’ and was ‘a comprehensive document.’

The AMCJA - PUTERA also demanded the introduction of a nationality, called Melayu (Mal ay) for all its citizens, Malay to be adopted as the national language and all the Malay Rulers to be regarded as constitutional monarchs. This document became an important blueprint for many political parties in Malaya and in Singapore in the next two dec ades. It was a bold attempt to establish a united nation of all races who viewed Malaya as their home and the object of their loyalty. The British government, however, rejected their demands outright, as it was not ready to grant self - government and indepe ndence. The Malay Rulers and the UMNO also did not agree with the demands as they were not quite ready to ask for national independence yet. Although the CPM had been secretly planning an armed rising, its plans were not finalized when a breakdown of law a nd order suddenly occurred in the country in June 1948. This was caused by the escalating industrial unrest, which reached its climax with a series of murders of European planters and managers in Perak and other states.

Unrest After the End of World War II

In the transition from war time to peace, food shortages in Malaya led to public riots and to workers’ strikes and demonstrations for higher wages. The CPM involved itself in these causes, and came into conflict w ith the British Military Administration (BMA). In many incidents British troops clashed with its members and even opened fire to put down CPM - organized demonstrations and picket lines. [Source: Cheah Boon Kheng, National University of Singapore, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 11, 1 (June 2009): 132]

When civil government returned, labour unrest escalated further through out 1947 - 8. These events coincided with a constitutional crisis in Malaya, which was brought about by the British government’s decision to introduce political reforms in the form of the Malayan Union constitutional proposals for the country’s multi - ethnic population. Britain, however, had no immediate plans to grant Malaya self - government, democracy or to set an early date for national independence. [Source: Cheah Boon Kheng, National University of Singapore, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 11, 1 (June 2009): 132]


The Emergency in Malaysia in the late 1940s and Early 1950s

Civil conflict followed the creation of the Federation of Malaya while Meanwhile the Communists were moving towards open insurrection. The British government declared a state of emergency on June 18, 1948. The CPM’s armed division, the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA), engaged in a rural insurgency, but the insurgents were poorly organized and had little success after 1951. The British were able to undermine MRLA support by moving ethnic Chinese out of rural squatter areas and into government-controlled “New Villages” that were equipped with better health and educational facilities than in squatter areas. The MRLA was eventually forced into areas bordering Thailand, and by 1960 the “Emergency” was formally declared at an end.

The Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) had been disbanded in December 1945, and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) organised as a legal political party, but the MPAJA’s arms were carefully stored for future use. The MCP policy was for immediate independence with full equality for all races. This meant it recruited very few Malays. The Party’s strength was in the Chinese-dominated trade unions, particularly in Singapore, and in the Chinese schools, where the teachers, mostly born in China, saw the Communist Party of China as the leader of China’s national revival. In March 1947, reflecting the international Communist movement’s “turn to left” as the Cold War set in, the MCP leader Lai Tek was purged and replaced by the veteran MPAJA guerrilla leader Chin Peng, who turned the party increasingly to direct action. These rebels, under the leadership of the Malayan Communist Party, launched guerrilla operations designed to force the British out of Malaya. In July, following a string of assassinations of plantation managers, the colonial government struck back, declaring a State of Emergency, banning the MCP and arresting hundreds of its militants. The Party retreated to the jungle and formed the Malayan Peoples’ Liberation Army, with about 13,000 men under arms, all Chinese. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Malayan Emergency as it was known, lasted from 1948 to 1960, and involved a long anti-insurgency campaign by Commonwealth troops in Malaya. The British strategy, which proved ultimately successful, was to isolate the MCP from its support base by a combination of economic and political concessions to the Chinese and the resettlement of Chinese squatters into “New Villages” in “white areas” free of MCP influence. The effective mobilisation of the Malays against the MCP was also an important part of the British strategy. From 1949 the MCP campaign lost momentum and the number of recruits fell sharply. Although the MCP succeeded in assassinating the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, in October 1951, this turn to terrorist tactics alienated many moderate Chinese from the Party. The arrival of Lt-Gen Sir Gerald Templer as British commander in 1952 was the beginning of the end of the Emergency. Templer invented the techniques of counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and applied them ruthlessly. Although the insurgency was defeated Commonwealth troops remained with the backdrop of the Cold War. Against this backdrop, independence for the Federation within the Commonwealth was granted on 31 August 1957, with Tunku Abdul Rahman as the first prime minister.

Communists, Chinese and the Road to Independence in the 1950s

Chinese reaction against the MCP was shown by the formation of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) in 1949 as a vehicle for moderate Chinese political opinion. Its leader, Tan Cheng Lock, favoured a policy of collaboration with UMNO to win Malayan independence on a policy of equal citizenship, but with sufficient concessions to Malay sensitivities to ease nationalist fears. Tan formed a close collaboration with Tunku (Prince) Abdul Rahman, the Chief Minister of Kedah and from 1951 successor to Datuk Onn as leader of UMNO. Since the British had announced in 1949 that Malaya would soon become independent whether the Malayans liked it or not, both leaders were determined to forge an agreement their communities could live with as a basis for a stable independent state. The UMNO-MCA Alliance (which was later joined by the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC)), won convincing victories in local and state elections in both Malay and Chinese areas between 1952 and 1955. [Source: Wikipedia]

The introduction of elected local government was another important step in defeating the Communists. After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, there was a split in the MCP leadership over the wisdom of continuing the armed struggle. Many MCP militants lost heart and went home, and by the time Templer left Malaya in 1954 the Emergency was over, although Chin Peng led a diehard group that lurked in the inaccessible country along the Thai border for many years. The Emergency left a lasting legacy of bitterness between Malays and Chinese.

During 1955 and 1956 UMNO, the MCA and the British hammered out a constitutional settlement for a principle of equal citizenship for all races. In exchange, the MCA agreed that Malaya’s head of state would be drawn from the ranks of the Malay Sultans, that Malay would be the official language, and that Malay education and economic development would be promoted and subsidised. In effect this meant that Malaya would be run by the Malays, particularly since they continued to dominate the civil service, the army and the police, but that the Chinese and Indians would have proportionate representation in the Cabinet and the parliament, would run those states where they were the majority, and would have their economic position protected. The difficult issue of who would control the education system was deferred until after independence. This came on 31 August 1957, when Tunku Abdul Rahman became the first Prime Minister of independent Malaya.


Tunku Abdul Rahman, UMNO Success in Elections in 1955 and Negotiations with the Communists

Cheah Boon Kheng of the National University of Singapore wrote: Before long,Tunku Abdul Rahman, who had taken over as the new leader of the UMNO, formed an allia nce with the MCA to contest municipal elections in the country. After winning most of the municipal elections in 1952 and 1953 as a coalition, the alliance was eventually enlarged and formalized as a grand coalition of three communal parties, known as the UMNO - MCA - MIC - Alliance representing the three major races in Malaya. [Source: Cheah Boon Kheng, National University of Singapore, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 11, 1 (June 2009): 132]

In July 1955, after Templer’s departure, Malaya held its first general elections in which the multi - ethnic UMNO - MCA - MIC Alliance Party won 51 of the 52 contested federal seats. The various communities in Malaya seemed to prefer communal party representation to safeguard their own communal interests, thereby intensifying the trend of communalism in politics. The Alliance formed the federal government and immediately offered amnesty to the communist insurgents. It also began negotiations with the British government for full self - government and national independence. To discuss the amnesty terms, Tunku Abdul Rahman, leader of the Alliance government, met with the communist leaders at Baling (in Kedah state) on 28 and 29 December 1955. Baling Talks, December 1955:

Chin Peng said that the CPM would cease its hostilities and lay down its arms if the Alliance government could obtain the powers of internal security and defence from the British government. Tunku Abdul Rahman promptly accepted the challenge and promised to obtain these concessions from London. Gre at publicity was given in the media to this dramatic challenge from Chin Peng. The challenge, indeed, served to strengthen the Alliance government’s bargaining position at the London talks. Anxious to end the Emergency, the British government agreed to co ncede those powers of internal security and defence and to the demand for independence for Malaya by 31 August 1957, if possible. Chin Peng would later claim that his challenge had hastened the arrival of independence by at least three years and that Tunku Abdul Rahman had acknowledged the importance of the Baling talks when the latter wrote in 1974 that ‘Baling had led straight to Merdeka (Independence).’ 18 After independence, the communists asked for a second meeting with Tunku Abdul Rahman, but this was turned down.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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