Malaya’s Fight for Freedom

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Doojendranath Napal

Malaya is essentially a land where Islam flourishes. The majority of the population consists of Malays who profess the Mohammedan faith. It is this Malay bloc which is the source of power of Tengku Abdul Rahman though he is reinforced by alliances with the Chinese and the Indians and Pakistanis. The latter occupy the position of a minority community. The Chinese number 2,500,000 and the Indians and Pakistanis combined 800,000. Malaya became independent on the 31st August last.

Banners during the first ever elections, 1955. Pic –

It may appear strange that a colony where the first legislative elections were held only two years ago should in so short a time achieve independence. Where lies the secret of Rahman’s success? A glimpse of Malaya’s recent history will throw light on this question.

Prior to 1953 when Malaya entered into the present phase of her development, that is the achievement of independence by constitutional means, she had to face the ever-present danger of becoming a Communist dominated country. As early as 1924 Chinese Communist agents had penetrated Malaya. In 1930 the Malayan Communist party (M.C.P.) was formed. The M.C.P. from the first knew where lay the secret of power. It realised the importance of trade unions. By 1963 it had assured the support of the workers and could with success organise labour unrest throughout the country. Workers of all races in Malaya after the failure of negotiations came out on strikes at the bidding of Communists who, in due course, came to control the Malayan labour movement.

The Malayan Chinese at first kept aloof from the M.C.P. but when the Japanese attacked China in 1937, they began to give their support to that party, urged to this course by national sentiment. On the eve of World War II, the M.C.P.’s strength rose to 37,000 members. The tide, however, turned against them, when the Japanese occupied Malaya. Almost all their leaders were arrested and executed. But undaunted, the Communists secured the alliance of the Chinese and Malayan nationalists and formed the People’s Anti Japanese Army.

Sir Gerald Templer assumed office as High Commissioner in 1952. He immediately set about to take the offensive against the Communists and, by 1954 he could boast of having almost pacified the country. In his own words, the communist fight had become by that time one for bare survival. A year before, Malaya had entered in its second phase: independence by constitutional means.

The exchange of dispatches between the High Commissioner and Sir Gerald Templer revealed that the latter had rejected both proposals in favour of a compromise proposal of his which the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Oliver Lyttelton, accepted. This proposal put it that the Council should consist of 99 members of which 52 to be elected and 43 nominated. Among the nominated members, 22 were to represent “scheduled interest”, of which more than half were to be representatives of trade unions. It may be noted en passant that in our own island representatives of trade unions are not nominated as Council members. They are too weak to fight elections for themselves. Nor have they been able to impose themselves on political parties. Consequently, in past elections they have been playing a secondary role.

The Secretary of State also accepted the adoption of adult universal suffrage, direct elections by a majority vote in the territorial constituencies, disregarding communal distinctions and the appointment of a Constituency Delimitation Commission.

Soon two political parties, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) appeared on the scene. Acting in concert, they sent representatives to London to criticize the Secretary of State’s proposals and to press the demand that 3/5 of the members of Council should be elected. The UMNO and the MCA did not sheepishly accept the Secretary of State’s decision. They announced in a joint statement on the 13th June 1954 their resolution to boycott all representative councils by directing all councillors of their party to resign before the 23rd of June.

The High Commissioner (Sir Donald Charles MacGillivray, who had succeeded Sir Gerald Templer on the 1st June 1954) assured them that he would consult the leaders of the majority before making appointments to the reserved seats in the Legislative Council. Thereupon the boycott was called off. Malaya was successfully making use of boycott, a classical weapon in the fight for freedom, first made use of by Mahatma Gandhi. It showed, as Ghana and British Guiana had done before, that governors and Secretaries of State can revoke their decisions if only sufficient pressure is made on them.

On the 25th July, 1955, the elections were held in Malaya under the revised Constitution. The UMNO, MCA and the Malayan Indian Congress formed a triple alliance under the leadership of Tengku Abdul Rahman. They won 51 of the 52 elected seats. Their opponent, the Parti Negara, the National Party failed to secure any seat, the remaining seat being won by the Pan-Malayan Moslem party.

The new Legislative Council was inaugurated in the presence of Alan Lennox-Boyd. Tengku Abdul Rahman stressed that his government’s policy should be independence for Malaya and that talks should be opened with the Secretary of State to achieve this objective. He said that through independence alone Malaya could be helped “along the road to peace and prosperity and saved from Communism”. Britain had either to accede to Malaya’s demands or hand it over to Communist control. He also said:

“If the High Commissioner vetoes Bills passed by us, we are not working for the people and we might as well walk out. I can see no immediate crisis arising from proposed legislation. Naturally we are not anxious to clash. But I cannot rest until this matter of veto power’s is finally settled.”

Tengku Abdul Rahman hoped that “Malayanisation” of the public services and the transfer to Malayan control of internal security and defence would take place by 1959. But his hopes have been realised sooner than he himself expected.

In this achievement there is one lesson for all colonial peoples yet struggling for autonomy – if the leaders really know what they are out for, and want it with determination, Great Britain cannot and will not oppose. Whether they want autonomy or not is for the leaders to decide. It is for them to plan and devise means. They are the makers of history. Whether they succeed or fail depends on them. However, if a colony’s constitutional struggle is no more than a record of one surrender after another to the forces of reaction, how such a colony can go ahead on the road to autonomy is beyond human understanding.

Friday 20th September 1957
4thyear – No 163

* Published in print edition on 11 June 2021

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