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Malayan Union Citizenship: Constitutional Change and Controversy in Malaya, 1942–48

  • Albert Lau


Responding to the new forces unleashed by the Second World War, Whitehall planners devised a new scheme that envisaged the creation of Malayan Union Citizenship. In a fundamental break from past practice, the new scheme sought to confer citizenship privileges on Malaya's non-Malay population. In the aftermath of the War the implementation of the new policy embroiled the Colonial Office in a major constitutional controversy that threatened not only Britain's traditional relationship with the indigenous Malay community but also the bases of British rule in Malaya.



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1 Malayan Union and Singapore: Statement of Policy on Future Constitution, Cmd. 6724 (Jan. 1946).

2 Allen, J. de V., The Malayan Union (New Haven, 1967), p. 9.

3 Sopiee, Mohamed Noordin, From Malayan Union to Singapore Separation: Political Unification in the Malaysia Region 1945–65 (Kuala Lumpur, 1974), p. 18.

4 Ibid., p. 17.

5 Kheng, Cheah Boon, “Malayan Chinese and the Citizenship Issue, 1945–48”, Review of Indonesian and Malayan Affairs 12, no. 2 (1978): 99.

6 Stenson, M.R., “The Malayan Union and the Historians”, Journal of Southeast Asian History (hereafter JSEAH), 10, no. 2 (1969): 345.

7 The figures are from Tufo, M.V. del, Malaya: A Report on the 1947 Census of Population (London, 1949) and Appendices II and III in Purcell, Victor, The Chinese in Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, 1967).

9 During the 1920s and 1930s British officials sought a policy of Decentralization to devolve more power to the states and their rulers in the hope of encouraging them to voluntarily accept the rationale for new treaties and further centralization. For a study of the issue in the 1920s see Wah, Yeo Kim, The Politics of Decentralization (Kuala Lumpur, 1982).

10 See Brigadier-General, Sir Samuel Wilson, Visit to Malaya 1932, Cmd. 4276 (Mar. 1933), p. 26.

11 Minute by Gent, 7 Oct. 1941, CO 323/1626 no. 2255/3. An applicant for denationalization, for instance, was expected to furnish details of the birth-place of his ancestors who had emigrated from China to Malaya, including the house number in the street or village in which the latter were born. None of these particulars was readily ascertainable. He must also secure at least two mercantile guarantors to testify that he had no military service liabilities since, under article 12 of the Chinese Law of Nationality, denationalization could be prohibited for anyone “who has attained military age, is not exempted from military service, and has not yet served in the Army”. See Thomas to MacDonald, 3 Aug. 1935, CO 825/19 no. 55020.

12 Minute by Gent, 7 Oct. 1941, CO 323/1626 no. 2255/3.

13 Minute by Gent, 21 Jan. 1936, CO 323/1262 no. 30330/3.

14 Minute by Clauson, 9 Aug. 1930, CO 323/1080 no. 70328.

15 Thomas to Clementi, 8 Oct. 1931, CO 323/1161 no. 81495.

16 Clementi to Cunliffe-Lister, 3 Mar. 1932, CO 323/1177 no. 90297.

17 G.R. Warner (FO) to R.V. Vernon, 1 Jun. 1932, ibid.

18 Minute by Gent, 21 Jan. 1936, CO 323/1262 no. 30330/3.

19 Clementi to Cunfliffe-Lister, 15 Feb. 1934, ibid.

20 The legal framework for British rule in Peninsula Malaya was to be found in the series of Anglo-Malay treaties concluded between 1874 and 1930 which provided for British protection in each of the Malay kingdoms. The latter in turn accepted British paramountcy and control over their external relations and permitted the British to interfere in the internal administrations of the states by appointing either a resident or adviser to each ruler. The advice of the British officer “must be asked” and “acted upon” in all questions other than those affecting Malay religion and custom. A complete set of the Anglo-Malay treaties can be found in Allen, J. de V., Stockwell, A.J. and Wright, L.R., A Collection of Treaties and Other Documents Affecting the States of Malaysia 1761–1963 (London, 1981) in two volumes.

21 Cowell to Beckett, 20 Feb. 1936, CO 323/1262 no. 30330/3.

22 Cowell to Beckwett, 8 Jul. 1935, ibid.

23 Minute by Gent, 21 Jan. 1936, ibid.

24 Ormsby-Gore to Thomas, 10 Aug. 1936, CO 323/1364 no. 2255/3.

25 Thomas to MacDonald, 28 Jun. 1939, CO 323/1626 no. 2255/3.

26 Minute by Gent, 23 Aug. 1941, ibid.

27 Minute by Gent, 11 Apr. 1942, CO 825/35 no. 55104.

28 See Lau, A.K.H., “The Colonial Office and the Emergence of the Malayan Union Policy, 1942–3”, in British Policy and the Transfer of Power in Asia: Documentary Perspectives, ed. Smith, R.B. and Stockwell, A.J. (London, 1988), p. 116.

29 Memo, by Gent and MacDougall, “Note on Future Policy in the Far East”, 3 Jul. 1942, CO 825/35 no. 55104.

30 See Memo, by Luckham, “Some Causes of the Loss of Malaya”, 30 Mar. 1942, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/3.

31 Memo, by Mahyiddeen, n.d., ibid.

32 M. Suffian Hashim to Winstedt, 27 Feb. 1943, ibid. Winstedt informed Gent about the contents of Suffian's letter. See Winstedt to Gent, 11 Apr. 1943, ibid.

33 Memo. by Association of British Malaya, May 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/7.

34 Memo, by Winstedt, 11 Apr. 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/3.

35 Braddell to Gent, 27 Nov. 1942, CO 865/14 no. M101/1.

36 Memo. by Adams, 9 Jun. 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/3.

37 See Lau, p. 116.

38 Memo, by Paskin, 7 Dec. 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/6.

39 Minute by Monson, 22 Dec. 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/9.

40 Minute by Stanley, 19 Jun. 1944, CO 825/42 no. 55104/1/9.

41 Minute by Paskin, 5 May 1944, ibid.

42 “Note of Conference at the Colonial Office”, 16 Mar. 1931, CO 717/76 no. 72483.

43 “Note of Conference at the Colonial Office”, 15 May 1931, CO 717/81 no. 82395.

44 Minute by Gent, 12 Dec. 1933, CO 717/101 no. 13467.

45 Gent, for instance, remarked that it offered “much food for thought”. See Gent to Martin, 19 Apr. 1943, CO 865/14 no. M101/1.

46 Gent to Paskin, 27 Jun. 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/3.

47 Gent to Gater, 16 Jun. 1944, CO 825/42 no. 55104/1/9.

48 See “Fifth Column Activities in the Malayan Campaign, 1941–2”, n.d., in WO 203/4036 no. 438/3. The Malay collaborators were members of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda movement which had been working for Fujiwara Kikan, the Japanese military intelligence agency based in Bangkok and southern Thailand. See Kheng, Cheah Boon, Red Star Over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941–1946 (Singapore, 1983), p. 20.

49 Cheah, Red Star Over Malaya, p. 20.

50 See Domei report “Sultans of Malay States congratulate Yamashita”, Apr. 1942, CO 717/147 no. 52035.

51 Minute by K.W. Blaxter, 15 Apr. 1942, ibid.

52 Cheah, Red Star Over Malaya, p. 80.

53 See Minute by Caine, 25 Mar. 1929, CO 273/554 no. 62010 Pt I.

54 KMT branches were established in Malaya after the formation of the mother party in China by Sun Yat-sen in 1912. At first tolerated by the British authorities, the KMT was banned from Malaya in 1925 because of its “Bolshevik leanings”. See Yong, C.F. and McKenna, R.B., “The Kuomintang Movement in Malaya and Singapore, 1912–1925”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (hereafter JSEAS), 12, no. 1 (1981): 118–32.

55 Formed in 1930, the MCP between Sept. 1936 and Mar. 1937 and again from Oct. 1939 to Sept. 1940 staged massive strikes and labour unrest to challenge the Malayan government. See Wah, Yeo Kim, “The Communist Challenge in the Malayan Labour Scene, September 1936-March 1937”, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (hereafter JMBRAS), 64, no. 2 (1976): 3679.

56 Cheah, Red Star Over Malaya, p. 19.

57 Minute by Monson, 16 Oct. 1942, CO 273/699 no. 50744/7.

58 Cheah, Red Star Over Malaya, p. 73. See also Cruickshank, C., SOE in the Far East (Oxford, 1983), pp. 193–96.

59 Memo, by Monson, 1 Sept. 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/6.

60 Memo, by Tan Cheng Lock, 1 Nov. 1943, CO 825/42 no. 55104/1/3A.

61 Minute by Gent, 11 Apr. 1942, CO 825/35 no. 55104.

62 Memo. by G.F. Hudson, Aug. 1942, ibid.

63 Memo, by Adams, 9 Jun. 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/3.

64 Minute by Monson, 24 Aug. 1942, CO 825/35 no. 55104.

65 Minute by Gent, 27 Jun. 1943, CO 825/35 no. 55104/1/3.

66 The Labour Party swept into power on 26 July and Clement Attlee was named Prime Minister and George Hall became the new Secretary of State for the Colonies. Arthur Creech-Jones succeeded Hall on 4 Oct. 1946 as Colonial Secretary in a major ministerial reshuffle. See Harris, Kenneth, Attlee (London, 1982), p. 331. Hall became the First Lord of the Admiralty.

67 MacMichael was the Governor of Tanganyika from 1933 to 1937 before becoming High Commissioner of Palestine and Trans-Jordan from 1938 to 1944.

68 Parliamentary Debates, H.C., 10 Oct. 1945, Cols. 225–256.

69 See Stockwell, A.J., British Policy and Malay Politics During The Malayan Union Experiment 1942–1948 (Kuala Lumpur, 1979), pp. 4760 for a documented study of the MacMichael mission.

70 See Cmd. 6724.

71 See Kratoska, Paul H., “The Post-1945 Food Shortage in British Malaya”, JSEAS 19, no. 1 (1988): 2747.

72 BMA Report for Jan. 1946, in CO 537/1572 no. 51056.

73 Cheah, Red Star Over Malaya, pp. 232–40.

74 Two days after the first British troops landed in Penang on 3 Sept. the main reoccupation forces arrived in Singapore. From 5 Sept. 1945 to 1 Apr. 1946 Singapore and the Peninsula were separately administered under the British Military Administration.

75 BMA Report for Dec. 1945, in CO 537/1572 no. 51056.

76 See “Malayan Press Comment on the White Paper on Malayan Union”, n.d., in CO 537/1536 no. 50823/6/4.

77 MSS/PIJ 30 Apr. 1946, p. 6.

78 “The Malayan Communist Party's Statement on the Malayan Union”, WO 203/6264 no. 1249.

79 See Kheng, Cheah Boon, “The Malayan Democratic Union, 1945–1948” (M.A. thesis, University of Malaya, 1974), p. 329. The MDU was established on 21 Dec. 1945.

80 “Memo, by Guernsey, 19 Feb. 1946, WO 203/6203 no. 1375/1.

81 See “Malayan Press Comments …”, CO 537/1536 no. 50823/6/4.

82 Perlis Malay Association to Hall, 13 Feb. 1946, CO 537/1551 no. 50823/34/3.

83 BMA to Hall, 5 Mar. 1946, CO 537/1548 no. 50823/34 Pt. I.

84 The idea of a Pan-Malayan Congress had been made by Johore aristocrat, Dato Onn bin Jaafar, on 24 Jan. 1946. When it was eventually convened on 1 Mar. 1946 it was enthusiastically supported by some 41 Malay associations. The Congress decided to establish a central organization to spearhead the anti-Malayan Union struggle. UMNO was formally inaugurated on 11 May in Johore Bahru.

85 Badlishah to Ibrahim, 9 Mar. 1946, CO 537/1550 no. 50823/34/1.

86 Minute by Bourdillon, 25 Feb. 1946, CO 537/1528 no. 50823 Pt I.

87 The ruler of Perak, for instance, had cabled his protests to Lord March wood and Lord Elibank. See Aziz to Elibank, 30 Jan. 1946, CO 537/1554 no. 50823/34/7. The Old Malayans in London had also lobbied L.D. Gammans (Unionist MP for Hornsey), who was also an old Malayan hand, to exert pressure in the House of Commons.

88 BMA to Hall, 5 Mar. 1946, CO 537/1548 no. 50823/34 Pt I.

89 Minute by Bourdillon, 6 Mar. 1946, ibid.

90 Minute by Lloyd, 6 Mar. 1946, CO 537/1528 no. 50823 Pt I.

91 Malayan Union and Singapore: Summary of Proposed Constitutional Arrangements, Cmd. 6749 (Mar. 1946).

92 Parliamentary Debates, H.C., 8 Mar. 1946, Col. 727.

93 Ibid., 18 Mar. 1946, Col. 1565.

94 Newboult to Gater, 27 Mar. 1946, CO 537/1554 no. 50823/34/7.

95 Gent's appointment as Governor surprised the Eastern Department. Gent himself expected the post to go to Sir Arthur Richards (Governor of Jamaica, 1938–43, and of Nigeria, 1934–47). See Stockwell, pp. 70–71.

96 Given the establishment of both the Malayan Union and Singapore it was felt that a Governor-General should be appointed to coordinate the policies of British territories in Southeast Asia. Prior to his appointment, MacDonald had been Colonial Secretary (1935 and 1938–40), Dominions Secretary (1935–38) Minister of Health (1940–41) and UK High Commissioner in Canada (1941–46).

97 Gent to Hall, 4 May 1946, CO 537/1528 no. 50823 Pt I.

98 Gent to Hall, 11 May 1946, CO 537/1529 no. 50823 Pt II.

99 MacDonald to Hall, 21 Jun. 1946, ibid.

100 Hall to Gent, 5 Jul. 1946, ibid.

101 Gent to Hall, 20 Jul. 1946, ibid.

102 Cmd. 6749.

103 See “Interim Report of the Committee appointed by His Excellency the Governor to consider and make recommendations to the Government upon the matter of the qualifications appropriate to Malayan Union Citizenship”, 2 Jul. 1946, CSO 474/46.

104 Ibid.

105 Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army — the military arm of the MCP during the Japanese occupation.

106 “Joint Criticism and Proposals of the Singapore City Committee and the Johore State Committee of the MCP on the Rights of Citizenship”, 1 May 1946, BMA/HQ S Div 311/45.

107 The MNP was founded by a group of Malay radicals in mid-Oct. 1945.

108 See “Summary of Views” in “Interim Report …”, CSO 474/46.

109 Ibid.

110 The 9 unofficial members of the Advisory Council were Colonel H.S. Lee, Dr Ong Chong Keng, Dr Tan Cheng Leng, Dr (Miss) Soo Kim Lan, Tan Eng Chye, W.G.C. Blunn, S.B. Palmer, H.H. Abdool Cader, and M.L.R. Doraisamy Aiyer. The MCS was represented by A.C. Jomaron, W. A. Gordon-Hall, and A. Williams E.C.S. Adkins was the nominee from Singapore and C.F. Gomes was nominated as the representative of the Eurasian Associations.

111 The MNP was forced to change its mind by the tide of Malay resentment against Union.

112 “Proceedings of the Second Meeting of the Committee appointed by His Excellency the Governor to consider and make recommendations upon the matter of the qualifications appropriate for Malayan Union Citizenship”, 1 and 2 Jun. 1946.

113 Ibid.

114 Ibid.

115 Hall to Gent, 2 Aug. 1946, CO 537/1530 no. 50823 Pt III.

116 Minute by Bourdillon, 1 Aug. 1946, ibid.

117 Hall to Gent, 2 Aug. 1946, ibid.

118 Gent to Hall, 14 Jun. 1946, CO 537/1542 no. 50823/15 Pt I.

119 Gent to Hall, 25 Jul. 1946, CO 537/1529 no. 50823 Pt II.

120 Hall to Gent, 27 Jul. 1946, ibid.

121 Representing the government were: A.T. Newboult, K.K. O'Connor, W.D. Godsall, W. Linehan, A. Williams and D.C. Watherston as Secretary. UMNO was represented by: Dato Onn b. Jaafar (Johore) and Dato Abdul Rahman b. Mohammed Yasin (Johore). The rulers’ representatives were: Raja Kamaralzaman b. Raja Mansur (Perak), Haji Mohammed Sheriff b. Osman (Kedah), Dato Nik Ahmed Kamil b. Mahmud (Kelantan) and Dato Hamzah b. Abdullah (Selangor). In addition the Committee's meetings were also attended by H.R. Hone (for MacDonald), T.S. Adams (for the rulers) and R. Braddell (for UMNO).

122 Minutes of CWC, 16 Aug. 1946, MU 294/A/46.

123 Minutes of CWC, 9 Sept. 1946, ibid.

124 Hall to Gent, 24 Sept. 1946, CO 537/1530 no. 50823 Pt III.

125 Minutes of CWC, 26 Oct. 1946, MU 131.

126 Minutes of CWC, 29 Oct. 1946, ibid.

127 Minutes of CWC, 30 Oct. 1946, ibid.

128 Minute by Bourdillon, 13 Nov. 1946, CO 537/1530 no. 50823 Pt III.

129 Gent to Gater, 5 Nov. 1946, ibid.

130 Creech-Jones to Gent, 8 Nov. 1946, ibid.

131 Minutes of CWC, 15 Nov. 1946, MU 131.

132 Gent to Creech-Jones, 16 Nov. 1946, CO 537/1543 no. 50823/15 Pt II.

133 Minute by Bourdillon, 22 Nov. 1946, ibid.

134 Gent to Lloyd, 22 Nov. 1946, CO 537/1531 no. 50823 Pt IV.

135 Minute by Bourdillon, 22 Nov. 1946, CO 537/1543 no. 50823/15 Pt III.

136 The nucleus of the Committee consisted of 4 members of the Malayan Union Advisory Council appointed by Gent — S.B. Palmer (European), M.L.R. Doraisamy Aiyer (Indian), Colonel H.S. Lee (Chinese) and C.F. Gomes (Eurasian). They in turn nominated a member from their own community: respectively, A. Arbuthnot, C.P.R. Menon, Leong Yew Koh and Dr J.S. Goonting. G.E. Turner from the MCS was appointed Secretary.

137 These were held on 28 Jan. (Kuala Lumpur), 13 Feb. (Penang), 20 Feb. (Malacca), 1 Mar. (Kuala Lumpur), 5 Mar. (Ipoh), and 11 Mar. (Kuala Lumpur).

138 Of the 168 clauses and five schedules which it considered, the Consultative Committee found it necessary to recommend amendments to only 11 clauses and some of these on points of minor importance.

139 See Constitutional Proposals for Malaya: Report of the Consultative Committee together with the Proceedings of Six Public Meetings, a Summary of Representations Made and Letters and Memoranda Considered by the Committee (Kuala Lumpur, 1947).

140 Gent to Creech-Jones, 7 Apr. 1947, CO 537/2141 no. 52243 Pt I.

141 Proceedings of the Advisory Council of the Malayan Union, 10 Apr. 1947, pp. B61-B72.

142 The Working Committee was reconvened on 17 Apr. 1947.

143 For British subjects born in the Settlement, the period of residence was amended to read “in any of the territories now to be comprised in the Federation”.

144 Minutes of CWC, 18 Apr. 1947, MU 294/A/46.

145 Proceedings of the Plenary Conference, 24 Apr. 1947, MU 294/X/46.

146 Memo, by Creech-Jones, 28 Jun. 1947, FO 371/63517.

147 See The Federation of Malaya Agreement, 1948, Pt. XII Sect. 124.

148 “Permanently resident” referred to a person who completed a continuous period of 15 years residence.

149 This clause was added mainly to ensure that non-Muslim Malays would not be discriminated in their entitlement to citizenship.

150 This was conceded by Malay members of the Working Committee on 26 Oct. 1946.

151 See Sect. 125 of The Federation of Malaya Agreement, 1948.

152 This was agreed as a compromise to the Consultative Committee's recommendation of 5 out of 10 years.

153 The confidentiality of the proceedings was insisted by the Malay members of the Working Committee on 7 Aug. 1946.

154 See Newboult to Tan Cheng Lock, 25 Jul. 1946, printed in Tan Cheng Lock, Malayan Problems from a Chinese Point of View (Singapore, 1947), pp. 164–65.

155 Fairly accurate summaries of the Working Committee's proposals were leaked by the London press in early October, forcing Gent to issue an official statement on 7 Oct. 1946 dismissing them as having “no official authority”. See Gent to Creech-Jones, 8 Oct. 1946, CO 537/1530 no. 50823.

156 It was initially established in Singapore on 14 Dec. 1946 as the Council of Joint Action. “Pan- Malayan” was added to give it a more explicitly “Malayan” focus. The organizations represented in the Council included the MDU, MNP, Malayan Indian Congress, the Singapore Women's Federation, the Singapore Clerical Union, the General Labour Union, the Straits Chinese British Association, Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Singapore Tamils Association.

157 The change in name was made to assuage two of its later coalition partners — the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce — which felt that the term “Pan-Malayan” denoted communist domination and PUTERA which interpreted “Malayan” to include only the non-Malays.

158 This was made up of a number of radical Malay groups opposed to UMNO.

159 See The People's Constitutional Proposals for Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, 1947).

160 The most successful was the country-wide hartal on 20 Oct. 1947 which paralysed nearly all the main towns in Malaya.

161 Unlike UMNO, which had mobilized almost all Malay opinion under its wings, the AMCJAPUTERA coalition did not have the support of all non-Malay opinion, some of whom directed their representations through the Consultative Committee.

162 Gent noted that the coalition was not only seriously weakened by ideological differences but also by their “inability to reconcile their different interests”. Gent to Bourdillon, 4 Oct. 1947, CO 537/2148 no. 52243/2/1.

163 Although the MCP was not directly represented in the AMCJA-PUTERA coalition, its influence was nevertheless strongly suspected by the Malayan Security Service which believed that the MCP was the “driving force” which “engineered united action” by all the other “subsidiary forces”. MSS/PIJ 30 Oct. 1947, p. 1.

164 See fn. 141.

165 The Federation scheme was endorsed by the Cabinet on 3 Jul. 1947. CAB 128/10 CM (47) 59.

166 The People's Constitution was first presented at a mass rally at Farrer Park in Singapore on 21 Sept. 1947. On 4 Oct. 1947 Gent reported that the AMCJA-PUTERA were still “pulling a draft about” because of their inability to agree on a final version. Gent to Bourdillon, 4 Oct. 1947, CO 537/2148 no. 52243/2/1.

167 The term was used at the insistence of the PUTERA members.

168 Minute by Morris, 13 Nov. 1947, CO 537/2148 no. 52243/2/1.

169 Minute by Bourdillon, 18 Sept. 1947, CO 537/2146 no. 52243/2 Pt II.

170 See Kahin, G.M., Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (Ithaca, 1952), pp. 196212.

171 Note by Morris, n.d., CO 537/2177 no. 52834.

172 On 27 Jul. 1947, Dato Onn b. Jaafar declared, for example, “Now is the time for the people of Malaya to show their true feelings towards the Indonesians.” Ibid.

173 Ibid.

174 Minute by Bourdillon, 13 Nov. 1947, ibid.

175 Minute by Bourdillon, 18 Sept. 1947, CO 537/2146 no. 52243/2 Pt. II

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Malayan Union Citizenship: Constitutional Change and Controversy in Malaya, 1942–48

  • Albert Lau


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