Colonial Office, Whitehall (Now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). Sir George Gilbert Scott and Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt. 1861-68. Photograph by George P. Landow. Source: Victorian Web.
by Wan Ahmad Fayhsal
It has almost become a tradition for Malaysians, whenever we celebrate our independence day – “Merdeka” as we fond to call it – we would rehearse the similar stories and images particularly how Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Father of Malayan Independence (Bapa Kemerdekaan) who led the delegates comprising members of multi-racial parties under the Alliance banner that went to London and negotiated the independence from the British.
There were actually three sides on the negotiation table: the British as the colonial master, the Alliance who represented the people at large after winning the first general election in 1955 and the least remembered of them all – the representatives of the Malay Rulers.
As the adage goes, history is written by the victors. UMNO as the leader of the multi-racial Alliance (now better known as “Barisan Nasional”) has championed the skewed independence narrative that suppressed many other facets of history of independence that worth to be explored and re-examine again. One of those facets, besides the independence narrative of the Malay rulers is the one recorded at the very heart of British Empire – the Colonial Office.
The colonial genesis of independence
Independence is not a singular event dated 31st August 1957. Gaining independence was an arduous process. Series of negotiations leading to the Malayan independence were conducted in a carefully planned scheme with the view that Britain must able to safeguard their interests in Malaya even after relinquishing the colonial grip.
Exhausted by war in Europe and facing indigenous hostilities in their colonies abroad, the British Empire was really on the brink of dissolution after World War II. With the creation of Atlantic Charter by the US that demanded for self-determination for all nations, the British was left with no choice except to carefully plan their withdrawals from the colonies.
With the creation of League of Nations, which then evolved to be the present United Nations (UN), both the British and the US together rebuilt the post-war world order in the light of Anglo-American interest. The US emerged as the least unscathed after the war. This allowed them to spearhead the rebuilding of Europe via the famous Marshall Plan. The looming threat of communism coming from Russia had forced the Europeans to embrace the plan that many dubbed as “rebuilding Europe in the image of America” especially through its dollarization program.
They both engineered, spearheaded by the US, the international monetary and economic order via Bretton Woods institutions such as the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF) – also known as the “Washington consensus” – that govern and wield massive influence in the day-to-day running of today’s international financial system.
The financial and economic interest of British
Despite the differences with regard to policies in forming the post-World War II international and financial architecture, Britain and the US have able to maintain the Anglo-American hegemony in the arena of international political economy by properly managed the decolonization process.
Global leadership transition from the British Empire to the US occurred through the mechanism of internationalization of nation states by integrating them all into the world organizations like United Nations (UN), World Bank and IMF where the US wield massive influence.
It happened on the eve of those countries receiving independence from their European colonialists, orchestrated from the behind by the US. The birth of Federation of Malaya too was subjected to this arrangement by becoming the member of IMF, World Bank and UN right after independence. The membership was decided by the US, after the official assessments had been conducted earlier before the Malayan independence. All of these decisions were consented by British on behalf of the citizens of Federation of Malaya. There was no substantial debate ever took place on this as both the Alliance and the Malay Rulers back then were too busy focusing on negotiating the political independence.
Malaya was one of the most important British protectorates due to its role in the Sterling Area – an area that helped to strengthen the pound and Britain’s trade balance. As Malaya was renowned for its rubber and tin exports, she also became the dollar earners for Britain especially from the trade Malaya had with the US during the interwar period.
Malaya to Britain was a crucial protectorate that acted as one of Britain’s dollar reserves. She was used by Britain in managing the balance of payment for the empire and its colonies in obtaining vital goods from the US in sustaining their campaign against the Axis in Europe. This relationship continued further even after the independence before the collapse of Sterling Area in 1967.
British business interests in Malaya was sustained even after independence hence the need for British to ensure the proper handover to reliable party that would not only able to fulfill the ‘self-determination’ role as ratified by the Atlantic Charter for the newly birthed nation-state but also in safeguarding their economic interest in the region. British needed local elites who could preserve and maintain the economic and financial interest of London in Malaya and they found it in Tunku Abdul Rahman of UMNO.
Companies like Guthrie, Sime Darby, Boustead were originally British-owned before nationalization occurred under the New Economic Policy. Before that, during the colonial and post-independence period they were known as agency houses, performing trade and investment activities for the British in Malaya. When the British provided aid to Malaya in defense against communism, it was not meant solely to protect the Malayans but more due to safeguard their capitalist interest.
The Federation of Malaya Independence Bill
It was a logical solution for British that in order to safeguard their interest in Malaya, they need to ensure the newly self-determined Malaya to possess a strong central government. Federalism is a tool for British to manage the nine Malay rulers that reigned as sovereigns within their own territories. Federalism was also implemented unto Gold Coast (now known as Ghana) in British African colony.
It was at best an experiment as stated in the bill by one of the members of parliament, Mr. CJ Alport:
“I join with other hon. Members in wishing this new experiment in the evolution of British policy the success which has been the general wish of the House this afternoon. This is something very strange. We have Republics in the Commonwealth and we have monarchies of which the Queen is the Sovereign, but this will be an elected monarchy in the Commonwealth of which the Queen is not the Sovereign. It is a new constitutional contrivance—something different from anything that we have known in Anglo- Saxon constitutional law, at any rate, for many centuries. It is new. It combines long history and tradition with the newest methods of constitutional development. “
Despite of the failure of Malayan Union earlier, the British through Alliance managed to form a strong central government that is palatable to the indigenous Malays as well as the non-Malays who were naturalized after being granted citizenship, overnight.
By artificially creating an overarching monarch called Yang Dipertuan Agong who derived its power from the original and rightful sovereigns – the Conference of Malay Rulers – the Federation of Malaya was designed, borrowing Alport’s on the above, as a “contrivance” in inventing a nation with an artificial identity, conceived out of the necessity to preserve the interest of the outgoing empire.
The role of secret services and intelligence group during decolonization
Similar schemes can be detected in the formation of Malaysian in 1963. Declassified documents as studied by Greg Poulgrain in his The Genesis of Konfrantasi: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia (1945-1965) as well as Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire evidenced how Malaysia as an extension of Federation of Malaya was engineered not only by the Cobbold Commission but also by the role of British and American intelligence in their covert operations with respect to their role in Brunei rebellion, as well as coaxing President Sukarno of Indonesia to launch a hostile rejection (Konfrontasi) to the proposal in forming Malaysia.
The confluence of oil interest in North Kalimantan and Brunei as well as the threat of communism exacerbated the need for a closer cooperation between British and American intelligence in the form of Security Intelligence Far East (SIFE), which oversaw and coordinated strategic interventions in safeguarding Anglo-American geopolitical interests in South East Asia.
Brunei rebellion, the formation of Malaysia, as well as the downfall of Sukarno seemed to be unrelated but declassified records as studied by Poulgrain and Walton indicated ample evidences on the role of secret service and intelligence groups like CIA, MI6 and SIFE had played in inducing those events as well as contriving the decolonization process as nothing but a real transition from a formal rule to an informal one.
From the windowpane of the London Colonial Office it seems the independence was just a shift from colonialism to neo-colonialism; from a direct rule to an indirect rule.
Former colonial masters became the handmaiden for the birth of the new nation-states that now operate as peripheries, especially in their economic relation to the American ‘empire’, the superpower that holds sway the global governance through her leading role in many important international institutions.
Are we truly Merdeka? This question begs serious reexamination of our historical past, present and future. Only then we can do justice to the real meaning of independence.
This revised article was first published by The Malaysian Reserve under different title.