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Chinese Politics in Malaya*

  • Wang Gungwu

During the past 20 years, the politics of the Chinese in Malaya has been a subject of international interest.The Malayan Communist Party has been predominantly Chinese; it was Chinese politics in Singapore (briefly part of Malaysia) which produced the phenomenon of Lee Kuan Yew; and the Kuala Lumpur riots of May 1969 are widely thought to have been efforts to stem a Chinese challenge to Malay supremacy. The Chinese in West Malaysia, especially when taken together with those in Singapore, have earned the attention of governments, journalists and scholars alike. They form the largest concentration of Chinese outside of Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; their economic life is among the most sophisticated in Asia; their social and cultural life probably the most complex that Chinese anywhere have ever known; and, above all, their political life has been more open and exposed than that of any other kind of Chinese. This last, their political life, has been difficult to evaluate for a number of reasons. The main reason is that two contradictory views about them have long prevailed: that the Chinese are non-political and that the Chinese are political in a secretive and inscrutable way. These views are based on a concept of politics in the democratic tradition and are either anachronistic or misleading. Chinese, Malay and colonial political systems have been, in varying degrees, authoritarian, and Chinese political life must be seen in that context except in the period 1957–69.

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1 The official published report, The May 13 Tragedy (Kuala Lumpur, 1969) has listed factors which emphasize the Chinese (or non-Malay) challenge and does not discuss the deep fears that most Chinese have of Malay supremacy.The book by the Prime Minister, Tengku, Abdul Rahman, May 13: Before & After (Kuala Lumpur, 1969) places the blame for the riots mainly on the Malayan Communist Party and its sympathizers. Since internal and external propaganda over a period of some 20 years has successfully played on the idea that the communists in the country are Chinese, it has been easy for non-Chinese to suspect that most Chinese are either communists or potential communists. All this has, of course, made Chinese politics in Malaya of even greater international interest; see Pye, Lucian W., Guerilla Communism in Malaya (Princeton, 1956; reprinted 1964);Brimmell, J. H., Communism in Southeast Asia (London: Oxford University Press, 1959);Kroef, J. M.van der, Communism in Malaya and Singapore (The Hague, 1967), for three different approaches to the subject.

2 Chinese political life became more open to external gaze only in the last 50 years, and especially after the Second World War. Much of it was probably still out of sight, but compared with Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong Chinese on the one hand, and with other Chinese minorities in South-East Asia on the other, Malayan Chinese politics is incomparably open.

3 Most books have not looked directly at the politics of the Chinese, but merely at specific activities which are contrasted with those of the Malays, the British and others; seeRatnam, K. J., Communalism and the Political Process in Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, 1965);Allen, R., Malaysia: Prospect and Retrospect (London: Oxford University Press, 1968); and Gullick, J. M., Malaysia (London, 1969), as three recent examples.I confess to having been myself most reluctant to examine Chinese politics separately because of a deep-seated hope that communal politics will matter less and less. While I do not share the confidence of most Malaysian leaders before the 13 May riots that the less said about communal politics the sooner it will go away, I am still to be convinced of the opposite view that the more politics is asserted as having to be communal, the quicker we will be rid of communalism.

4 There is a vast literature about this, but this is not the place for a long bibliographic essay. The variety of the sources can be seen in Victor, Purcell, The Chinese in Malaya (London, 1948; reprinted 1967), and several relevant studies in the Journal of the Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society (Singapore), the Nanyang hsueh-pao and the Journal of Southeast Asian History (Singapore).

5 Executive Council minutes and legislative council proceedings, government gazettes and annual reports, all bring out (though not always explicitly) the problems of dealing with the Chinese community. Colonial office records, especially the Confidential C.O. 273 despatches, reveal a great deal from time to time. Although most of the materials are couched in terms of technical problems of administration, they often make quite clear that the problems were ultimately political and involved issues of power, authority and control.

6 Before 1941, Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States documents were mainly in English, while more Malay documents are found in states like Kedah and Kelantan and, to a lesser extent, Johore. From 1945 to 1957, most official documents are in English. Since 1957, there has been an increasing use of Malay as the National Language, but a large proportion of the published documents have still been in English.Chinese materials before the 1920s are slight except for the surviving newspapers. The increase in the number of newspapers, magazines and books in the 1920s and 1930s was remarkable, but a great deal of the printed matter in these publications was derived from sources in China. From 1945 to the early 1960s, there was a flood of local publications in Chinese. This has fallen off considerably (except in Singapore) since 1965. Several efforts have recently been made to compile comprehensive lists of Chinese books and serials, notably by the Nanyang University and in the pages of the Nanyang hsueh-pao. The best single collection is in the National Library of Singapore.

7 “Traditional Leadership in a new nation: the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore,” in Wijeyawardene, G. (ed.), Leadership and Authority (Singapore, 1968), pp. 208222;also see discussion in Wan Ming Sing, The History of the Organizations of the Chinese Community in Selangor, with Particular Reference to Problems of Leadership (unpublished M.A. thesis, Malaya, 1967).

8 “Political Chinese: an aspect of their contribution to modern Southeast Asian history” (unpublished paper, Seminar on Southeast Asia in the Modern World, Hamburg, 1970).

9 These are historical layers. The Babas emerged in Malacca before the British arrived in the late eighteenth century; the Straits Chinese grew out of the settlements in Penang and Singapore and some followed the British into the Malay States after 1874; while Malayan nationalists are the few, often newly English-educated, who were never “Straits Chinese” but who had high expectations in a post-colonial English-language state.

There were also the few others who were quick to understand the developments in Asia since 1945 and sought to identify with the Malayan Union in 1945–47, with the Federation of Malaya in 1948, with the movement for independence in the early 1950s and with the new nation after 1957. The motives varied considerably and might have been regarded with scepticism by officialdom, but they are difficult to distinguish clearly and do not, I feel, seriously affect Group C identification.

10 This is the well-known process of “re-sinification” by which Baba or Straits Chinese learn the language and return to the larger Group B community. Occasionally, some have become more Chinese than the Chinese and identify completely with the politics of China. Theoretically it is also possible for Group A Chinese to become so thoroughly disgusted with political developments in China that they switch completely to a local loyalty. But it is more likely that this occurs in two stages: first to Group B, and then (more likely, their sons) to Group C. For an admirable discussion of “re-sinification” see Freedman, M., The Chinese in Southeast Asia: a Longer View (London:China Society, 1965). Also seeWang, Gungwu, A Short History of the Nanyang Chinese (Singapore, 1959).

11 Cynics, opportunists, individualists, “marginal men,” waverers and fence-sitters are to be found in any community. There is probably no such thing as a peculiarly Chinese psyche. But the way social pressures to conform work among the Chinese, the function of shame and the duty to be members of established social groups are well-attested.See a recent discussion of this in FitzGerald, C.P., The Third China: the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia (London:Angus and Robertson, 1965). Modern Chinese school textbooks continue to sustain these pressures down to the present.See an earlier discussion of these texts inPurcell, V.Problems of Chinese Education (London, 1936). There are several sets of such textbooks (both pre-war and post-war) preserved in the Singapore National Library and in private collections; seeMabel Yung Yuet-hing, Contributions of the Chinese to Education in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States (1900–1941) (unpublished M.A. thesis, Malaya, 1967).

12 1895–1911 is suggested because the period takes in the extension of British power through the 1895 federation and the Anglo-Siamese treaty of 1909 as well as the obvious decline of the Chinese imperial system culminating in a new kind of republican politics after 1911. 1942 marks the end of a phase in Malayan political history while 1945 marks the beginning of a new one. 1945 is also significant for China's politics as a “Great Power,” although 1949 might make a clearer watershed with China coming under Communist rule.

13 In the nineteenth century, the secret society provided the Chinese with both local power and links with political groups in China:Blythe, W., The Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), andWynne, W. L., Triad and Tabut (Singapore, 1941). Although no detailed study has as yet been made of the techniques of control in the Malay States, much can be gleaned from the studies made of Singapore:Thio, E., “The Singapore Chinese Protectorate: events and conditions leading to its establishment, 1823–77,” Nanyang hsueh·pao, No. 16 (1960), pp.4080;Ng, Siew-yoong, “The Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. II, No. 1 (1961), pp.7699;Jackson, R.N., Pickering: Protector of Chinese (Kuala Lumpur, 1965).

14 Yen Ching-hwang, The Chinese Revolutionary Movement in Malaya, 1900–1911 (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1970);Yong, Ching-fatt, “Chinese leadership in Nineteenth Century Singapore,” Hsin-she hsueh-pao (Singapore, 1967), pp.118; also seeWang, Gungwu, “Sun Yat-sen and Singapore,” Nanyang hsueh-pao, Vol. 15, No. 2(1959), pp.5568.

15 Yao, Nan, Ma-lai-ya hua-ch'iao shih kang-yao (A Brief History of the Overseas Chinese in Malaya) (Chungking, 1943);Negishi, T., Shina girudo no Kenkyu (Tokyo, 1940);Suyama, T., “Pang Societies and the Economy of Chinese Immigrants in Southeast Asia,” inTregonning, K.G. (ed.), Papers on Malayan History (Singapore, 1962), pp. 193213;Freedman, M., “Immigrants and Associations: Chinese in 19th Century Singapore,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (The Hague), No.3 (1960), pp.2548.

16 Song, Ong-siang, One Hundred Years of History of Chinese in Singapore (London, 1923; reprinted Singapore, 1967) is rich with data about certain Chinese attitudes which were also found among the Chinese in Penang and Malacca.The data about Malay States Chinese during this period have yet to be closely examined. Also see Diana Ooi, The English-speaking Chinese of Penang (unpublished M.A. thesis, Malaya, 1966).

17 The different emphasis in the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States and the other five (unfederated) Malay States.

18 Wong, C.S., A Gallery of Chinese Kapitans (Singapore, 1963) gives some idea of local variations in the nineteenth century.

19 Png, Poh-seng, “The Kuomintang in Malaya, 1912–1941,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol.II, No.1 (1961), pp.123. A great deal of the exhortation to be Chinese appeared in the numerous Chinese newspapers. The best known are Lat pao (1880–1932), Nanyang siang pao (1923–42; 1945–) and Sin chew jit-pao (1929–42; 1945–). These directly affected the Chinese-educated, while clubs and associations and business needs extended the pressure to those who did not read Chinese. Other Chinese writings are to be found mentioned in Lee Ah-chai, Policies and Politics in Chinese Schools in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States, 1786–1941 (unpublished M.A. thesis, Singapore, 1957).

20 There is considerable literature illustrating Group A Chinese political attitudes; see Hsü, Yun-ts'iao, “Nanyang wen-hsien hsü-lu ch'ang-pien,” Nanyang yen-chiu, Vol. 1 (1959), pp. 1170.Magazine articles were particularly extensive and many are to be found listed in Index to Chinese Periodical Literature on Southeast Asia, 1905–1966 (Nanyang University Institute of South-East Asia, Singapore, 1968). These include writings published in China and Hong Kong by literate Chinese visitors to Malaya and Singapore as well as Group A Chinese contributions.

21 The Chinese newspapers for the period illustrate Group B attitudes most clearly, although official British documents show a keen awareness of (if not sympathy for) some features of Chinese community politics from time to time. For example, see Monthly Review of Chinese Affairs after 1928(Secretariat for Chinese Affairs, Singapore).

22 Purcell, V., The Chinese in Malaya, and The Chinese in Modern Malaya (2nd ed., Singapore, 1960), outline some of the activities of group C Chinese in the Straits Settlements;see also Soh Eng, Lim, “Tan Cheng Lock: His Leadership of the Malayan Chinese,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 1(1960). In the F.M.S., prominent Chinese, like Loke Yew, Foo Chee-choon, Yau Tet-shing, Leong Sing-nam and so on, were typical and they were clearly Group B Chinese leaders.As for the Northern Malay States, I found from interviews with prominent Chinese in 1958 and 1959 that pre-war leadership did come from Group C Chinese who had been in the States for two or more generations and spoke fluent Malay, little Chinese and even less English. It was emphasized strongly to me that conditions there were different from those existing in the F.M.S. and the S.S. For the background of this difference, see Wong, C.S., A Gallery of Chinese Kapitans.

23 Chinese protectorate files (fragmentary) in the National Archives, Kuala Lumpur, are typical; so are those in the Monthly Review of Chinese Affairs (Singapore). The English-language newspapers, The Malay Mail and The Straits Times, are the best examples of British opinion; see the extensive citations in Lee Ah-chai, Policies and Politics (unpublished M.A. thesis). As for examples of Malay newspaper comments see Roff, W R., The Origins of Malay Nationalism (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1967).

24 Group A opinions are gleaned from the pages of newspapers like the Nanyang siang pao; the collection of essays, Che-pan-ke shih-chi (This Half Century) (Singapore, 1940); and occasional articles in magazines published in Nanking in the 1930s like theHua-ch'iao pan-yueh k'an (Overseas Chinese Bi-monthly) and the Ch'iao-wu yueh-pao (Overseas Chinese Affairs Monthly), and in the Shanghai Chi-nan University Journal, Nanyang yen-chiu (19281943) A representative view is that of Ch'en, Chia-keng (Tan Kah Kee), Nan-ch'iao hui-i lu (2 vols., Foochow, 1950). Group B opinions are reflected in the editorial policies of news-papers like the Nanyang siang pao, but it is very difficult to be sure how widely such views were shared. Group C opinions are mainly found in Legislative Council Proceedings and occasional speeches reported in The Malay Mail and The Straits Times.

25 Wang, Gungwu, “Traditional Leadership,” in Wijeyawardene, (ed.), Leadership and Authority.

26 Hai-shang-ou, , Ma-lai-ya jen-min k'ang-Jih chün (The Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army) (Singapore, 1945); Hu, Yü-chihet al. (eds.), Ta-chan yü Nan-ch'iao (Singapore, 1947). Most of the available material comes from Chinese literary works after 1945 and in the 1950s. These are briefly discussed in my introduction to Malayan Chinese literature in T. Wignesan (ed.), Bunga Emas: Contemporary Malaysian Literature (London, 1964).A useful check-list of post-war Chinese writings in Malaya is that by Huang l-jung in Nanyang hsueh-pao, Vol. 14, Nos. 1 and 2 (1958).Also valuable are short historical notes on Malayan Chinese writings by Fang, Hsiu, Ma-hua hsin wen-hsueh shih-kao (Draft History of Malayan Chinese Literature) Vol. 1 (Singapore, 1962), and Miao, Hsiu, Ma-hua wen-hsueh shih-hua (Singapore, 1968). Also, there is a careful study by YuWang-lun,Ma-hua wen-hsueh ti hsing-ch'eng yü fa-chan (The Rise and Development of Malayan Overseas Chinese Literature)(unpublished M.A. thesis, Malaya, 1967). In English, Chin, Kee-onn'sMalaya Upside Down (Singapore, 1946) and Spencer Chapman's, F.The Jungle is Neutral (London, 1949) are both useful.

27 There are several journalistic accounts of the 1946–48 period, and some discussion in Ratnam, K. J., Communalism and the Political Process in Malaya. For two recent studies which touch on the Chinese response to the Malayan Union, see Stenson, Michael R., Repression and Revolt: the Origins of the 1948 Communist Insurrection in Malaya and Singapore (Athens, Ohio, 1969); and Allen, J. de V., The Malayan Union (New Haven, 1967).

28 Li, Jui-hua, Ma-lai-ya hua-ch'iao (Overseas Chinese in Malaya) (Taipei, 1954). A large number of short-lived Chinese newspapers and magazines appeared in the years 1946–49 and engaged in fierce polemics. Even the cautious and respectable Nanyang siang pao and Sin chew jit-pao could not avoid reporting some of the bitter debates. But it has to be assumed that these represent only the tip of the iceberg. A great deal more discussion in ephemeral pamphlets and circulars did take place and some of the most radical which I have seen have found their way into police files not accessible to the public.

29 Tan, Cheng-lock, Malayan Problems (Singapore, 1947); Soh Eng, Lim, “Tan Cheng Lock”; also Chin-jih ch'iao-ch'ing (Contemporary Overseas Chinese Affairs), Vols. 1–2 (Taipei, 1954 and 1956), which gives what may be described as a Group A Chinese view of MCA's successes and failures.

30 Two recent studies which have tried to reconstruct the origins of the UMNO-MCA Alliance are Roff, M., “The Malayan Chinese Association, 1948–1965,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. VI, No. 21 (1965), pp. 4053 and Vasil, R. K., Politics in a Plural Society (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Malaya, 1969).

31 Pye, Lucian W., Guerilla Communism in Malaya; Puthucheary, J. J., Ownership and Control in the Malayan Economy (Singapore, 1960), provide some background to the class conflicts.

32 Two journals occasionally published articles purporting to represent the Malayan Chinese point of view during the 1950s. They are the Shih-chieh chih-shih (World Knowledge) in Peking and the Tzu-yu Chung-kuo (Free China) in Taipei, and it is interesting to see how both had come round to trying to see the problems of Malayan politics in terms of Chinese who had made their homes there. They were not successful in so far as both journals tended to reflect their respective positions in the Cold War and emphasized either that most Chinese were progressive and anti-imperialist or that most Chinese were respectable and anti-communist.

Two reports which deeply affected the education of Malayan Chinese were the well-known Fenn-Wu Report (Report on Chinese Schools and the Education of Chinese Malayans, Kuala Lumpur, 1951) and the decisive Razak Report (Report of the Educations Committee, Kuala Lumpur, 1956).

Vasil, R. K. is particularly illuminating on those Chinese who supported neither the MCA nor the MCP; see Politics in a Plural Society, esp. Chap. 2 and Chaps. 4 and 5.

33 Apart from election studies which touch on this (Ratnam, K. J. and Milne, R. S., The Malayan Parliamentary Election of 1964, Kuala Lumpur, 1967), the most illuminating materials come from the verse, drama and fiction by young Malay writers. Many have appeared weekly in the literary pages of the Berita Harian and the Utusan Melayu (and their Sunday editions); others have been collected in anthologies. Some notable recent examples are Hassan, Ibrahim, Tikus Rahmat (Kuala Lumpur, 1963); Usman, Awang, Dari bintang Ke-bintang (Kuala Lumpur, 1965); Shahnon, Ahmad, Menteri (Kuala Lumpur, 1967) and Perdana (Singapore, 1969); the short story anthology Pertentangan, ed. by Omar Mohd., Hashim (Kuala Lumpur, 1968); and the verse anthologies, Teluk Gong (Kuala Lumpur, 1967) and Kebangkitan (Kuala Lumpur, 1969). Also the historical study by Amat Johari, Moain, Sejarah Nasionalisma Maphilindo (Kuala Lumpur, 1969).

34 The Rahman Talib Report (Report of the Education Review Committee, Kuala Lumpur, 1960) lays the foundation of this uneasiness among Group B Chinese. The doubts of young Group C Chinese are more difficult to document. Some of these doubts first emerged with the crisis in the MCA in 1959; see Roff, M., “The Malayan Chinese Association,” in Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 2, No. 21 and Haas, Roy H., The Malayan Chinese Association, 1958–1959 (unpublished M.A. thesis, Northern Illinois University, 1967). Others came to the surface with the formation of Malaysia and the separation of Singapore in 1965; see Ratnam, and Milne, , The Malayan Parliamentary Elections of 1964 and Vasil, R. K., Politics in a Plural Society. Also see Purcell, V., “The Chinese in Malaysia,” in Wang, Gungwu (ed.), Malaysia: a Survey (London, 1964), pp. 190198.

35 It is too early to provide detailed cause-effect relationships for the internal and external events of the 1960s. Malaysian official sources have been relatively silent, except on Confrontation and subversion. Exceptions are Senu b. Rahman, A., The Truth About Us (Kuala Lumpur, 1964), and Rahman, Ismail b. Dato A., Alliance Malaysian Malaysia in Two Stages (Petaling Jaya, 1964). Much more explicit on internal politics have been the leaders of the PAP in Singapore and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in Malaya; see Lee Kuan Yew, Battle for a Malaysian Malaysia (2 vols., Singapore, 1965); DAP, Who Lives if Malaysia Dies? (Kuala Lumpur, 1969); Alex, Josey, Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore, 1968). The official report, The May 13 Tragedy, provides some cause-effect explanations. Also see Fletcher, N. M., The Separation of Singapore from Malaysia (Ithaca, N.Y., 1969).

36 References about Maoist Chinese have been frequent since the Confrontation years (1963–1965). The most recent are Tengku Abdul Rahman's May 13: Before and After and the official The May 13 Tragedy. It may well be that communists are communists and anti-communists must fight them as such however small the numbers of communists may be, but for an understanding of Malayan Chinese politics, it is vital to distinguish between those Group A sympathizers who have no commitment to local politics and MCP members and followers who believe they are leading a Malaysian revolution (Group C) and those whose concern for the community has led them to seek a communist solution (Group B); see Pye, Lucian W., Guerilla Communism.

37 There has been no separate study of the Chinese contribution to non-communal opposition parties, but the study by R. K. Vasil shows clearly why a small group of Chinese felt that non-communal politics was their only chance of finding a legitimate place in national politics. The study also shows why many Malay political leaders suspected that non-communal politics would give an unfair advantage to non-Malay (especially Chinese) groups who had considerable economic and educational advantages.

38 Roff, M., “The Malayan Chinese Association,” in Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 2, No. 21; Haas, Roy H., The Malayan Chinese Association; Ratnam, K. J. and Milne, R. S., The Malayan Parliamentary Election of 1964; Vasil, R. K., Politics in a Plural Society.

39 The impact of Lee Kuan Yew on the Malayan Chinese in the period 1963–65 cannot be measured by the 1964 election figures; Ratnam and Milne, The Malayan Parliamentary Elections of 1964. Group C Chinese are completely out-numbered by other Chinese in all constituencies, except possibly in Bungsar where the PAP candidate, Devan Nair, won easily. For some of the reasons for excitement among Group C Chinese, see Lee Kuan Yew's speeches in parliament, 1963–65, and Battle for a Malaysian Malaysia.

40 For the MCA, the establishment of Bintang and Maju wards in Penang and Kuala Lumpur respectively satisfied most of its Group C supporters. The electoral alliance of DAP, GRM and PPP was no surprise after the Serdang Bahru by-election in December 1968, although there remained important differences in the DAP and GRM election manifestoes. In practice, the three parties agreed mainly to make a big dent in the Alliance majority and the electors were not expected to distinguish between them.

41 The Merdeka University issue dominated the political scene for Group B Chinese and most Group C leaders felt obliged to support it or at least not oppose it. DAP, Who Lives if Malaysia Dies? See also the recent study of Chinese community leadership by Li, I-yuan, “Ma-lai-ya hua-jen she-hui ti she-t'uan tsu-chih yü ling-hsiu hsing-t'ai,” in Academia Sinica Ethnographic Research Centre Papers, Vol. 20 (Taipei, 1965), reprinted in Hua-ch'iao wen-t'i lun-ts'ung, No. 1 (Taipei, 1968), pp. 129195.

42 For an attempt to analyse Chinese votes in the 1969 elections, see McGee, T. G., “Down—but not Out,” Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), No. 23 (1969), pp. 566568; also see Gray, C. S., “The 1969 Malaysian Elections,” in The May Tragedy in Malaysia (Melbourne, 1969), pp. 1418; and a brief reference in Anthony, Reid, “The Kuala Lumpur Riots and the Malaysian Political System,” Australian Outlook (Melbourne), Vol. 23, No. 3 (1969), pp. 258278.

* Before 1957, Malaya often referred to both the Federation of Malaya and the Colony of Singapore. From 1957 to 1963, Malaya normally referred to the Federation and after 1963, Malaya would refer only to the States of Malaya in West Malaysia.

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