Hard Questions and Hard Truths that May Lay the Foundations for Long Term Solutions.
By Wan Nor
DISCOVERING THE UNADULTERATED HISTORY OF MALAYSIA
Malaysian history has been blurred. The truth has been kept from the peoples of Malaysia. The history that is taught in school is seemingly inauthentic. Initially, I would think that this adulteration of genuine history took place initially for economic reasons, then later for politico-religious reasons. The ordinary person such as I, has no clue as to the genuine history of our nation. We have no clue as to where to start searching for reliable documentation or sources of information that is not biased or skewed to protect one group of persons or another.
History must be told. It must be presented from various perspectives and debated openly, not only by Malaysians, but importantly by historians from all corners of the world, who may have an interest in Malaysia, specifically the New Malaysia.
My starting point is the following publication:
 The British and rubber in Malaya, c 1890–1940 by Jim Hagan and Andrew Wells*, University of Wollongong, published by Hagan, J. & Wells, A. D. 2005, British and rubber in Malaya, c1890-1940′, in G. Patmore, J. Shields & N. Balnave (eds), The Past is Before Us: Proceedings of the Ninth National Labour History Conference, ASSLH, Business & Labour History Group, University of Sydney, Australia, pp. 143-150.
Extracts from the publication indicate that before Malaysia’s independence, certain interventions had put in place biases and discriminatory processes against the Malay natives that would affect the history and development of Malaysia influencing, particularly economic equality of the soon to be citizens of the nation.
The publication clearly states that:
“On behalf of British subjects (and especially those interested in exploiting tin deposits), the Government of Great Britain interfered in disputes over succession to the Sultanates, and ‘in the 1860s and the 1870s, disputes over the succession claims in Perak, Selangor and Sungei Ujong were transformed from the normal short feuds to prolonged and bloody wars’. In each case, the claimant who emerged victorious paid a price to his British allies. He became a Sultan in name only, stripped of all the important powers that once went with that office; his Council retained only ceremonial powers, and both he and it were subject to the advice of a Resident, appointed by the British, who held all real legislative, executive and even judicial power.” 
Thus, this is how the Sultans lost their power and were thus unable to defend their own rights or the rights of their subjects, the Malay peasantry. We establish from this paragraph that Malaya clearly had its own administrative system ruled by the Sultans over the Malay peasantry. This included legislative, executive, judicial and ceremonial powers. We can thus conclude that towns/villages existed prior to the permanent settlement of migrants. Thus the migrants did not bring civilisation or social structure with them, it was already in place and functioning.
“The Residents used their powers to implement systems of landholding that were extremely generous to capitalists seeking to establish plantation estates. In devising them, the British were able to build on Malayan custom and practice. The Sultans had recognised a form of land tenure established through usufruct and had levied taxes on the land payable in kind.
The Residents adapted the system to allow lease or purchase of land by means of cash. All land was vested in the Head of State, so that thousands of acres of virgin land could be sold or leased with legal title. Malays who had their customary tenure converted into ownership could also sell their land.” 
This thus explains how the Malays lost their land to the British and to capitalists endorsed and empowered by the British.
“The principle of ‘permanent settlement’ applied: the leases could hold land for up to 999 years without any increase in the lease fee.” 
This explains the permanent loss of land by the Malays to migrants seeking permanent settlement on native land.
“Until early in the twentieth century, most applicants wanting large areas of land in Malaya had been seeking tin concessions, or planning to grow plantation crops like tapioca and coffee. The demand for land rose sharply when companies formed in Britain began to seek land for rubber plantations. Except in times of trade recession, demand continued until 1940, when rubber plantations in Malaya spread over 2.1 million acres. The lure of the cash these companies were able to offer through their agents often proved irresistible to the native Malays who had acquired title to the land they had held through customary tenure.” 
ORIGIN OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL SPECIAL POSITION OF THE MALAYS
Cash was King; power and administrative authority was in the hands of the British who sought self-gain; and foreign capitalists held the purchasing power. The perfect recipe for the natives to lose their land, their rights, and their prospects. 50 years later, history would repeat itself. Once again, cash would be King; administrative authority would be in the hands of persons who sought self-gain; and foreign investors would hold the purchasing power. The perfect recipe for Malaysians to lose their land, their rights and their prospects.
“The Government of the Federated Malay States noted in 1912 that it had been caused grave anxiety and apprehension by the fact that our Malay subjects, deluded by visions of all but transitory wealth, have been divesting themselves of their homestead and family lands to anyone willing to pay in cash for them. The rulers of the Federated Malay States and their Advisers conclusively feel that unless a better judgement is exercised on their behalf, the result will be the extinction of the Malay yeoman peasantry.” 
This was the start of the Malay Reserve Land Policy. This policy dates pre-independence and was a consequence of excessive loss of land and prospects which should have been protected for the natives. We note here that the natives were the “Malay yeoman peasantry”. Thus, if the historical basis for the structure of the Federal Constitution was set during British rule, it is thus clear that the natives at the time were the Malays. Many Malaysians question the origin of the Malays, insisting that they are not the aborigines of the country. However, here this uncertainty is lifted.
“The result was the Malay Reservations Act of 1913, which provided that land within a Malay reservation was not to be sold or leased to a non-Malay, as thousands of acres had already been.” 
DISTORTION OF THE MALAY SPECIAL POSITION
The term Bumiputra would be introduced towards the end of the century. The Bumiputras or ‘Princes of the Soil’ included the Malays, and would later become a somewhat ambiguous term which would also seem to include Muslims of other races, or converts to Islam. This inclusion is somewhat vague in that it either includes these non-Malays into the definition of Bumiputras, or it includes them within the rights of Bumiputras. Here again we see how the system has been adapted to benefit those who should not benefit.
“Further acts of 1917 and 1918 supplemented the Act of 1913 were aimed at ensuring that the Malays used the lands reserved to them to grow rice, and did not use them to set up smallholdings in rubber. Colonial policy went further than this, and aimed directly at preventing rubber cultivation by Malays in smallholdings from competing with plantation rubber. The principal means to this end was through the manipulation of land policy. By the time the Malay Reservations Act was passed in 1913, Malays had been growing rubber for some years on the land to which they had acquired tenure through custom, but also on land they had managed to buy. These smallholdings were usually family affairs, often worked only from time to time. They were, according to the Government, poorly cared for and a source of weeds and plant diseases, which would infest the plantations and involve their owners in considerable expense.” 
The acts of 1917 and 1918 thus further eroded the rights of the Malay natives, who then lost the right to cultivate rubber. This also meant the loss of smallholdings rubber plantations that were already cultivated by the Malays.
“The land offices of the Federated Malay States discouraged the Malays from acquiring land for rubber production, and discriminated against them. They reserved virgin land close to railways and main roads for purchase by non-Malays, and in 1915, 1916 and 1917 refused to sell any land at all to Malays for the purpose of rubber planting.” 
Hence, discriminatory policies against the Malay natives ensured that they lost ownership prospects on prime land and rubber plantation land.
THE INDIAN AND CHINESE ‘COOLIES’
“Apart from some ups and downs depending on the world rubber price, the area continued to expand until halted by the world depression which began in 1929. In that year, the rubber plantation companies were employing about 258, 000 coolies on their estates.
Most of these men and women – about 80 per cent – came from Southern India, where Madras Presidency, like much of the rest of India, was a fertile recruiting ground. Frequent failure of the monsoon resulted in drought and famine; the system of taxation the British Raj imposed exacerbated poverty and indebtedness.
The people most affected were Untouchables and of the lowest castes. Recruitment for employment in Malaya was often an alternative to starvation, both for themselves and the families they left behind. Until 1912, most Indians were recruited under indenture. Agents for recruiting firms visited villages, offered a cash advance to men and sometimes women willing to put their thumbprint to an indenture agreement. This provided that the recruit would work for a specified employer (and no-one else) for a fixed period (usually three years) to his employer’s satisfaction, and for a fixed wage. The cash advance was a charge against the money the coolie would earn; if he succeeded in repaying it within the period set by the indenture he was free to leave the plantation; if not he had to remain and work off his debt. If he left before he had acquitted his debt and served his time, he was subjected to criminal penalties.” 
This explains how the Indians migrated to Malaya, or rather were brought into Malaya. The ‘coolies’ were subjected to discriminatory processes that kept them in poverty and highly dependent on their employers in a near slave-like situation. They were deprived of rights, right from the start.
“..the recruitment of Chinese labour, which differed from that of the recruitment of Indians. Chinese who were mustered in hostels in Chinese ports then travelled to a depot in Singapore, usually on the ‘credit ticket’ system, which obliged them to work for the ticket’s purchaser. This was always a labour contractor, who would assemble his coolies at the depot (often amid scenes of great disorder which bordered on riots) and take them to a kongsi house he had built on the estate of the plantation owner with whom he had contracted. Here, the coolies would work under his supervision, he would pay them, and the estate management would have no direct contact with them. Chinese employed on this contract system made up about a third of the plantation workforce in 1931. Administrative arrangements for the supervision of Chinese labourers were different from those applying to Indians. Since the coolies worked under a contract system, the management of the plantation was not their employer in law, and the detailed regulation of the Labour Code did not apply to Chinese plantation workers. There was instead a Protector of Chinese, with deputies in the various Federated Malay States.” 
This paragraph would suggest that the British treated the Chinese coolies who worked in the rubber plantations differently as compared to the Indian coolies. I will not go into more detail on the Chinese immigrants as their involvement in tin mining, goes beyond the publication of reference here. The question that we could ask in future would be: What were the benefits that the British offered the Chinese tin miners and did the British discriminate against the Malays for tin mining land and prospects?
Thus, we have established that the Malays are descendants of the Malay Yeoman peasantry and were amongst the natives of Tanah Melayu. They were discriminated against, leading to a loss of land and economic prospects. The Chinese on the other hand benefitted from the British. This created an imbalance resulting in the Chinese emerging with a dynamic edge.
As such, the future is about closing these gaps. We would need to ensure that Constitutional Malay Rights, namely Article 153 and the Malay Special Position, are upheld in a way that preserves human dignity, particularly of all Malaysians. This can only be done if we close the social gaps in education, economic and financial capacity. It is imperative to empower the Malays towards self-actualisation and progress through an understanding of history. Notwithstanding, this cannot be done by disregarding the welfare, progress and potential of the moderates, particularly the moderate and liberal Malays who have been sidelined, or the Bangsa Malaysia of other races, who do not belong to the elitist clan, thus struggle on an everyday basis. We need to review all policies and national strategies in order to allow our country to grow based on historical fairness, meritocracy and the quest for human dignity.
(The views expressed are those of the contributor.
Disclaimer: Wan Nor is a scientist, not a historian and writes based on information available.)
Wan Nor writes under the byline, “Hard Questions By Wan Nor”.
Wan Nor, PhD, scientist, born and raised in Britain. Through her deep sense of commitment to Malaysia, she seeks workable solutions in this climate of uncertainty and, at times, hopelessness.
For her full profile, please click here.