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The Erosion of Ideological Hegemony and Royal Power and the Rise of Postwar Malay Nationalism, 1945–46

  • Cheah Boon Kheng


The French Annales historians have made the study of popular mentalites into a fascinating and important field of historical research. This approach has yet to gain ground in Southeast Asian historical studies, especially in Malaysian history, with respect to the thinking of subject classes. If we take the Malay traditional ruling class and the Malay peasantry in Melaka and other states from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, we know very little about the ideological hegemony which the former exercised over the latter, or what the thinking of the dominated class was like. One problem, of course, has been the lack of sources, but such a problem has not deterred the Annales historians from making their attempt.



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This paper was presented at the International Association of Historians of Asia (IAHA) Conference in Singapore in October 1986. I wish to thank several participants for their valuable comments, in particular Zainal Abidin bin A. Wahid, Yusof A. Talib, Tony Reid, Tan Chee Beng and J. Kathirithamby-Wells. I wish also to thank Bill Roff of Columbia University and my colleagues R. Suntharalingam, Tan Liok Ee, Ariffin Omar and finally, the anonymous reader of the Journal for reading and commenting usefully on the paper. Ariffin Omar also kindly allowed me the use of his collection of Malay newspaper reports on the Malayan Union.

1 Their approach has been defined as “a sort of intellectual history of non-intellectuals, an attempt to reconstruct the cosmology of the common man, or more modestly, to understand the attitudes, assumptions, and implicit ideologies of specific social groups….” See Darnton, Robert, “The History of Mentalites: Recent Writings on Revolution, Criminality, and Death in France”, in Structure, Consciousness and History, eds. Brown, Richard Harvey and Lyman, Stanford M. (Cambridge, 1978), p. 112.

2 See the definition by Kohn, Hans in his book, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (New York: Van Nostrand, 1965), p. 10.

3 See Al-atas, S. Hussein, Modernization and Social Change (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972), p. 100; Reid, Anthony, The Blood of the People (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. x, 261–63; and Allen, James V., “The Kelantan Rising of 1915: Some Thoughts on the Concept of Resistance in British Malayan History”, Journal of Southeast Asian History 9, No. 2: 241–57.

4 Allen, , “The Kelantan Rising of 1915”, p. 244.

5 Batson points out that it was the new spirit of nationalism sweeping Asia which also brought about important repercussions within Siam itself in the Seventh Reign of the Chakri Dynasty. It was one of the factors motivating those who overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932 and established constitutional government. See Batson, Benjamin, The End of the Absolute Monarchy in Siam (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 177, 236–64.

6 See Milner, A.J., Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, Association for Asian Studies Monograph No. XL, 1982).

7 Soenarno, Radin, “Malay Nationalism, 1896–1941”, Journal of Southeast Asian History 1 (03 1960): 128.

8 Gungwu, Wang, Community and Nation (Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann, 1981), pp. 201209.

9 Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1967, p. 248. My emphasis.

10 Ibid., p. 256.

11 Ibid., p. 248.

12 See the Minutes of the 1940 meeting, “Peringatan Persidangan Persatuan-Persatuan Melayu Yang Kedua Kali diadakan pada hari Rabu dan Khamis 25hb. dan 26hb. Disember, 1940 di rumah Persekutuan Guru-Guru Melayu Singapura, Palembang Road, Singapura”, copy of Ishak Haji Muhammad, in Kheng, Cheah Boon (ed.), Tokoh-Tokoh Tempatan (Universiti Sains Malaysia, 1982), pp. 160–75.

13 Roff, W.R., “The Persatuan Melayu Selangor: An Early Malay Political Association”, Journal of Southeast Asian History 9 (03 1968).

14 Roff, , The Origins of Malay Nationalism, p. 176.

15 Kheng, Cheah Boon, “The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941–45: Ibrahim Yaacob and the Struggle for Indonesia Raya”, Indonesia 28 (10 1979).

16 Roff, , The Origins of Malay Nationalism, p. 250.

18 Sham, Abu Hassan, “Wira Kebangsaan: Benarkah Kita Belum Dapat Mencarinya?” Dewan Masyarakat (09 1974): 4043.

19 Osman, Mohd. Taib (ed.), Malaysian World-View (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1985), pp. 6072.

20 Gullick, J.M., Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya (London: Athlone Press, 1965), pp. 4445.

21 Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), trans. Brown, C.C. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 16.

22 Al-atas, , Modernization and Social Change, p. 102.

23 Sejarah Melayu, ed. Brown, C.C., pp. 157–58.

24 Ismail, Abdul Rahman Hj., “Sejarah Melayu: Antara Sejarah Dan Dakyah”, Kajian Malaysia (Journal of Malaysian Studies) III (12 1985): 2535.

25 See Muzaffar, Chandra, Protector? (Penang: Aliran Publications, 1979). His is nevertheless an important study of the development of modern Malay attitudes within their traditional political culture and reflects the influence of Professor Syed Hussein Al-atas.

26 “False consciousness” is defined as “a set of mistaken beliefs about matters important to them shared by a whole group of persons or even a whole community”. For an interpretation of this Marxian concept, see Plamenatz, John, Ideology (London: MacMillan, 1970), pp. 2324.

27 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, The German Ideology (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1965), p. 61.

28 Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Hoare, Quintin and Smith, Geoffrey Nowell (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), pp. 123209. I am indebted to the anonymous reader of the journal for his valuable and lengthy comments on my interpretation of Marx and Engels' views in The German Ideology as well as of Gramsci. I have revised my views and incorporated some of his points in the above and the following statements — which will be recognizable to the reader — and for which, of course, I alone am responsible.

29 See Ghee, Lim Teck, Peasants and Their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya, 1874–1941 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977).

30 Scott, James C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 304350.

31 See also the special issue of The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (01 1986), entitled “Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance in South-East Asia”, ed. James C. Scott and Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet.

32 Ahmat, Sharom, Tradition and Change in a Malay State: A Study of the Economic and Political Development of Kedah, 1878–1923, Monograph No. 12, Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1984, pp. 3945.

33 See Kheng, Cheah Boon, The Peasant Robbers of Kedah (forthcoming: Oxford University Press).

34 Adas, Michael, “From Avoidance to Confrontation: Peasant Protest in Precolonial and Colonial Southeast Asia”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 28, No. 2 (04 1981): 217–47.

35 See the Hikayat Johor Serta Pahang in Warisan Sejarah Johor, ed. Basri, M.A. Fawzi (Kuala Lumpur: Persatuan Sejarah Malaysia, 1983), pp. 3941.

36 Haji, Raja Ali, Tuhfat-al-Nafis (The Precious Gift), ed. and trans. Matheson, Virginia and Andaya, Barbara Watson (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 4447. See also Winstedt, R.O., in his A History of Malaya (Singapore: Marican, 1960), p. 141. He recounts what happened when Captain Alexander Hamilton gave him a brace of screw-barrelled pistols, “… and the next time the madman went abroad, ‘he tried, on a poor Fellow in the Street, how far they could carry a Ball into his Flesh, and shot him through the shoulder’”

37 Barbara, and Andaya, Leonard, A History of Malaysia (London: MacMillan, 1982), p. 78.

38 Details of the plot involving the Bendahara and the Temenggong are found in the Hikayat Johor Serta Pahang.

39 Before the Second World War, it was a favourite story for dramatization by the Malay bangsawan (dramatic troupes). See Bujang, Rahmah, Sejarah Perkembangan Drama Bangsawan (Dewah Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1975), pp. 54, 151.

40 This was due to a move by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to amend the Constitution to prevent the Yang DiPertuan Agong (the Paramount Ruler) from denying consent to any Bill passed by the Malaysian Parliament. Dr Mahathir launched a country-wide campaign, lasting several months, to seek the support of the people. The campaign was notable for some very outspoken criticisms of the Malay rulers in speeches and in newspaper articles. With the exception of Datuk Onn Jaafar, no other Malay leader since has used the power of Malay nationalism so effectively as Dr Mahathir. Although some observers saw the crisis as “divisive” for Malay society, there was little doubt that Dr Mahathir had widespread Malay support and backing from UMNO reminiscent of Datuk Onn's anti-Malayan Union campaign. The crisis was finally resolved with a “compromise”, in which it was agreed that any Bill vetoed by the Yang DiPertuan Agong would after a certain period return to Parliament, where the Bill would have to be approved a second time. It would then become law.

41 Andaya, Leonard, The Kingdom of Johor, 1641–1728 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 191.

42 Teik, Tan Ban, “The Tok Janggut Rebellion of 1915 in Kelantan: A Reinterpretation”, in Kheng, Cheah Boon (ed.), Tokoh-Tokoh Tempatan, pp. 97113.

43 Talib, Shahril, After Its Own Image: The Trengganu Experience, 1881–1941 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 159, 163.

44 See Mahmood, Ibrahim bin Nik, “The To'Janggut Rebellion of 1915”, in Roff, W.R. (ed.), Kelantan: Religion, Society and Politics in a Malay State (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 6286; and Ghazali, Abdullah Zakaria bin, “Kebangkitan-Kebangkitan Anti-British di Semenanjung Tanah Melayu”, in Malaysia: Sejarah dan Proses Pembangunan (Persatuan Sejarah Malaysia, 1979), pp. 4148.

45 For details of the conflict with Humphreys and the factional in-fighting within Trengganu ruling class, the reader is referred to Heather Sutherland's excellent essay, “The Taming of the Trengganu Elite”, in McVey, Ruth T. (ed.), Southeast Asian Transitions: Approaches Through Social History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

46 Becket at the British Colonial Office minuted: “We have an account of the present Sultan, weak, effeminate and uneducated though, I believe, quite amiable and free from vice. Mr Maxwell thought him less than sane and his intelligence is spoken of with general contempt. He is so weak and unused to affairs that he would almost inevitably become the tool of intriguing Mentri and women of the Palace” (Humphreys). See his minute, 23 August 1928, CO 717/61/1928.

47 See the minutes of Walter D. Ellis, 25 August 1928 and Caine, 8 January 1929, in ibid.

48 JMBRAS XIV, Pt. 2 (1936). Reprinted 1973.

49 Gullick, , Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya, p. 133.

50 Roff, , The Origins of Malay Nationalism, pp. 6790.

51 See Abdullah, Munsyi, The Voyage of Abdullah, a translation of Pelayaran Abdullah by A.E. Coope (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 7475. Abdullah's account is based on his experiences on a voyage from Singapore to Kelantan in 1838.

52 George Orwell described it as “benevolent despotism”: “The Indian Empire is a despotism — benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.” See Chapter Five of his Burmese Days.

53 See Appendix 5, “Undang-Undang Tubuh Kerajaan Johor 1895” and “Tambahan Undang-Undang Tubuh Kerajaan Johor, 22 April 1908” in Sejarah Johor Moden, 1855–1940: Satu Perbincangan Dari Pelbagai Aspek, ed. Basri, Fawzi and Haron, Hasrom (Kuala Lumpur: Muzium Negara, 1978), pp. 228–53. I am grateful to my colleague, R. Suntharalingam, for drawing my attention to this document which he used for his course. The following quotation has been translated by me.

54 Akashi, Yoji, “Japanese Military Administration in Malaya, with Reference to Sultans, the Islamic Religion and the Muslim Malays, 1941–1945”, Asian Studies 7, 1 (04 1969).

55 See his Memorandum, dated 18 Oct. 1945, in CO 273/675/50823/2/3, Pt. II, Public Record Office, London.

56 See Willan's reports of his interviews with the Sultans, between 12 and 30 Sept. 1945, in WO 203/5642, Public Record Office, London. Most scholars have regarded MacMichael's mission as more important than Willan's, and consequently have paid scant attention to Willan's reports. In fact, Willan did the preliminary work to pave the way for MacMichael's mission.

57 See Annex I, “Draft memorandum which Sir Harold MacMichael will hand to the Malay rulers in explaining to them His Majesty's Government's intentions as regards the future of Malaya”, attached to “Policy in regard to Malaya”, CP (45) Oct. 1945 in CO 273/675/50823, Pt. I.

58 See “Draft Directive on Policy in Malaya” (appendix) of the Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Malaya and Borneo, CAB 98/41, W.P. 258, dated 18 May 1944.

59 See the report entitled, “Sultan Johor menjawab kawat mengatakan setuju dengan Malayan Union”.

60 For details of this meeting, see the excellent account by de V. Allen, James in The Malayan Union (Monograph No. 10, Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, 1967), pp. 3336.

61 For a discussion of the wider impact of newspapers on the development of nationalism, see Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 1740.

62 Allen, , The Malayan Union, p. 42.

63 Here we may quote Hans Kohn: “It is this will which we call nationalism, a state of mind inspiring the large majority of a people and claiming to inspire all its members. It asserts that the nation-state is the ideal and the only legitimate form of political organization and that the nationality is the source of all cultural creative energy and of economic well-being.” See Kohn, Hans, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, p. 10.

64 See the Majlis report of 14 May 1946 under the headline, “Raja melucutkan kuasa kepada Rakyat” (The rulers have surrendered their powers to the rakyat).

65 Allen, , The Malayan Union, p. 68. The Malay Nationalist Party, formed in November 1946, had initially declared its support for the Malayan Union policy. It believed this would lead to democracy and self-government. However, the real reason might have been tactical. The MNP leaders had all been tainted with Japanese collaboration, and had probably believed that if they surfaced during the British administration with their support for a British policy, they would not be suppressed. Another reason could have been that they believed the Malayan Union would curtail the powers of the Malay rulers, for whom they had no affection, as their orientation was towards the Indonesian republic. However, when the MNP leaders saw the tide of Malay opinion rising against the Malayan Union, they changed their stand and attended the meeting of the All-Malay Congress in Kuala Lumpur on 1 March 1946.

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The Erosion of Ideological Hegemony and Royal Power and the Rise of Postwar Malay Nationalism, 1945–46

  • Cheah Boon Kheng


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