The Malay Peninsula was for centuries the crossroads of Eastern and Western civilizations. Independent sultanates interacted with Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Siamese (Thai) interests in the region for nearly 300 years. It was not until the late nineteenth century, however, that most sultanates were united under British rule as the Federated States of Malaya. Within the so-called residential system, the British controlled government administration, while Malay rulers retained sovereignty. In effect, this co-opted the sultans into the British Empire.
Although anticolonial movements existed before, it was not until World War II that nationalism swept Malaya. The Japanese conquest of Malaya in early 1942 signaled the decline of the British Empire in Asia, and radical Malay nationalists heralded the Japanese as liberators from colonial rule. The Japanese generally respected Islam, the predominant religion in Malaya, by allowing clerical councils considerable latitude. Sultans retained their authority and in many instances openly cooperated with the Japanese authorities.
However, many Chinese and Indians in Malaya were killed, forced into slave labor, or starved to death by the Japanese. The radically different treatment that these groups received only aggravated ethnic tensions in Malaya, and the Chinese and Indians considered the Malay population complicit with Japanese occupation policies. Some, mainly Chinese, joined the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and resisted the Japanese. The MCP was loosely allied with the Western powers but was also anticolonial and opposed to the restoration of British rule.
Even before the war had ended, Britain began reorganizing Malayan states to better suit ethnic and religious divisions in the territories. In April 1946 the Malayan Union was formed, joining the peninsular states with the Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca, while Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo became Crown colonies. All were under the authority of a governor-general. Malay leaders initially opposed this reconfiguration, but the British convinced them that Malay-dominated independence would be granted. Moreover, the British promised economic recovery premised on Malaya's rubber and mineral wealth.
In July 1946 the British government began constitutional talks with the newly formed United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Debate centered on the authority of sultans and on British proposals to extend citizenship to all ethnic groups in a multiracial union. The talks produced the Federation of Malaya, inaugurated in February 1948. Britain maintained its colonial administration, while Malay rulers kept control of individual states. Citizenship was restrictive and heavily favored the Malays, but through this collaboration the British hoped to avoid a more radical nationalist movement as witnessed in Indochina, Burma, and especially Indonesia.
The restoration of Dutch rule in Indonesia after World War II had provoked violent revolution there, which the British feared would lead to Pan-Malay nationalism. After Indonesia won independence in 1949, the worry became communism, which gained support among its Chinese population. Both British and Malay rulers feared that with a large Chinese population of its own, the federation could face a communist insurgency such as Indonesia had experienced.
In fact, the MCP was composed mostly of Chinese and opposed both British rule and Malay domination. Few Malays joined the movement, but there were recruits from Indonesia. Beginning in June 1948 with the murder of three estate managers, the MCP launched a widespread insurgency through its armed wing, the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA). For the British, this began a twelve-year period of conflict known as the Malayan Emergency.
There is debate over whether the insurgency was part of an international campaign of revolutions orchestrated by the Soviet Union and China or was stimulated by the marginalization of Malaya's Chinese population and poor economic conditions. There are also questions about how and why the Malayan Emergency lasted so long, especially considering that MCP leadership was notoriously divided. Clearly, British officials failed to anticipate the insurgency and were slow to react, but international pressures were also a factor. Britain was hard-pressed economically after the war, and it abandoned large parts of its empire, including India and Burma. And defense spending rose sharply after the June 1950 outbreak of the Korean War. In short, the problem in Malaya revealed the larger limitations of Britain's imperial power.
At first, British and Commonwealth forces struggled against the insurgency. The October 1951 assassination of Henry Gurney, Britain's high commissioner in Malaya, marked a particularly low point. But the approach that Gurney and his successor, Sir Gerald Templer, took in fighting the Malayan Emergency was ultimately successful. Economic and social progress was seen as the key to undermining communism's appeal, so Templer embarked on major socioeconomic reforms. The resettlement of Chinese squatters also disrupted the MRLA's network. Above all, reforms to citizenship law helped integrate non-Malays, easing Chinese alienation. Multiracial political parties, rather than those based strictly within communities, were encouraged. But doubtful that this would actually happen, British administrators supported the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), anticommunist groups that wrestled away from the MCP the hearts and minds of non-Malays.
By 1953 counterinsurgency operations were proving successful, and by mid-1954 the strategy of political cooperation also seemed to be working. In July 1954, the Alliance Party—uniting UMNO, the MCA, and the MIC—was born. It dominated national elections in July 1955, committed fully to fight the insurgency, and moved quickly with the British to plan Malaya's independence. The communist strategy had clearly backfired. Rather than dividing Malaya, the Malayan Emergency brought ethnic groups together in a staunchly anticommunist alliance linked to Britain. With the signing of the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement in 1957, Britain continued counterinsurgency efforts while moving toward Malayan independence, which was finally achieved on 31 August 1957.
There was only slight support for the MCP from the Soviet Union and China, as Indonesia and Indochina received the most attention from Moscow and Beijing. Conversely, the United States supported Britain's counterinsurgency efforts, which furthered the Anglo-American special relationship. This was particularly the case with one of the leaders of the counterinsurgent strategy, Sir Robert Thompson, who held a variety of posts in Malaya, including secretary for defense (1959–1961), and later advised the United States in Vietnam. With the disintegration of the MRLA, the Malayan Emergency ended in 1960. Malaya had survived the communist threat.
In 1963 Britain yielded Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak to the renamed Federation of Malaysia. It then backed Malaysia in its confrontation with Indonesia, which opposed the federation's acquisitions of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo. As part of his Crush Malaysia campaign, Indonesia's President Sukarno broke off diplomatic relations and withdrew from the United Nations (UN). War seemed a real possibility, but Britain stood fast behind Malaysia, clearly sobering Indonesia. In this Britain retained some of its imperial glory in Southeast Asia while allowing for a relatively peaceful process of decolonization.
There were, however, other problems facing Malaysia. Secessionist movements in Penang, Johor, and Kelantan complicated the federation. Singapore, largely Chinese in population, withdrew from the federation to become an independent country in 1965 because of disputes involving revenue sharing and political representation. As always, the balance of power between Malays and non-Malays remained a constant worry. Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman (1957–1970), survived these challenges by maintaining the multiracial Alliance Party. Malaysia even managed considerable foreign policy successes, such as gaining an elected seat to the UN Security Council (1965) and helping to form the 1967 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Following the May 1969 elections, however, violent race riots broke out, and Rahman was accused of abandoning Malay constituencies in favor of the Chinese and Indians. UMNO was seriously divided, with some members defecting to the opposition Parti Islam se Tanah Malaya (PAS, Pan-Malayan Islamic Party). Many Chinese joined the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which became the main vehicle for political participation by non-Malays. The Alliance Party quickly fell apart. Rahman resigned as prime minister in September 1970 and as UMNO president in June 1971.
The 1969 riots did, however, force examination of government and legal structures in Malaysia. Parliament was temporarily disbanded and replaced by the National Operations Council, a sixty-seven-member body representing the major ethnic groups, trade unions, professions, and religious bodies. The council worked to secure the rights and representation of non-Malays while guaranteeing the special position of Malay language, culture, and the Islamic faith. Economic prosperity was considered the key to combating racial and ethnic tensions. Yet urban centers, where most Chinese and Indians lived, were better off than rural areas, where the Malay majority resided. The council therefore adopted policies to advance the bumiputra (sons of the soil), the predominantly Malay lower classes.
Under Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad (1981–2003), economic development for Malays became the overriding concern. This focus, however, came at the expense of the non-Malay community, which was checked by the domination of UMNO. Thus, although ostensibly a democracy, in effect Malaysia emerged in the 1980s as a unitary state. Behind the veneer of a multiracial federation, Malaysia had become a predominantly Malay country. Through the draconian 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA), a vestige of British law from the Malayan Emergency, Mahatir undermined all opposition. Human rights violations against non-Malay activists, particularly during the late 1980s, went largely ignored by the world community. Instead, Malaysia's moderate Islam, economic prosperity, and leading role in ASEAN lent it credibility as one of Southeast Asia's most economically successful and developed countries.
Andaya, Barbara Watson, and Leonard Y. Andaya. A History of Malaysia. 2nd ed. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001.; Cheah, Boon Kheng. Malaysia: The Making of a Nation. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2002.; Shome, Anthony S. K. Malay Political Leadership. London: Routledge, 2002.; Stubbs, Richard. Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare: The Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.; Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 2, part 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.