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Tan Cheng Lock and the Chinese Education Issue in Malaya

  • Tan Liok Ee


These memorable words were spoken by Tan Cheng Lock, a man who did not speak any Chinese himself, when addressing a meeting of representatives of Chinese School Committees and Chinese School Teachers' Associations on 9 November 1952. Speaking as president of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), Tan went on in his speech to promise that

At this critical juncture in the history of the growth and development of Chinese education and culture in Malaya … its cause has the full support of the Malayan Chinese Association.

Tan's speech, and the presence of three other MCA leaders at the meeting, were the first clear indications that the MCA was prepared to take a consolidated stand with other Chinese organizations, in particular the United Chinese School Teachers' Association (UCSTA), and the United Chinese Schools' Committees' Association (UCSCA), on the issue of Chinese education. The MCA's decision was greeted by a chorus of approval from the Chinese press which described the 9 November meeting as an unprecedented manifestation of Chinese unity and from leading shetuan, or Chinese social organizations, which expressed their full support for the meeting's stand on Chinese education.



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1 “Speech by Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan at the Conference of Chinese School Committees and Teachers on 9 November 1952 in the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, Kuala Lumpur” in A Collection of the Speeches of Datuk Sir Cheng Lock Tan, Tan Cheng Lock Papers, Kuala Lumpur National Archives (henceforth TCL/NA).

2 The MCA was officially inaugurated on 27 February 1949: For accounts of the early history, organization and development of the MCA, see Chan Heng Chee, , “The Malayan Chinese Association” (M. A., University of Singapore, 1965); Heng Pek Koon, , “The Social and Ideological Origins of the Malayan Chinese Association”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies IX, No. 2 (09 1983): 290311; Lim San Kok, , “Some Aspects of the Malayan Chinese Association 1949–1961”, Journal of the South Seas Society 26, No. 2 (1971): 3148; Roff, Margaret, “The Malayan Chinese Association, 1948–1965”, Journal of Southeast Asian History VI, No. 2 (09 1961): 4053.

3 “Speech by Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan”, 9 November 1952.

4 Apart from Tan Cheng Lock, Leung Yew Koh, the MCA Secretary-General; Leung Cheung Ling, Chairman of the MCA Cultural Sub-committee; and Yap Mau Tatt, the MCA Agent-general were present.

5 The UCSTA was officially formed on 24 December 1951 and the UCSCA much later, in August 1954. See Tan Liok Ee, , “Politics of Chinese Education in Malaya, 1945–1961” (Ph.D., University of Malaya, 1986); Ching, Tan Puay, “The Role of the UCSTA in the Struggle for Chinese Education and Language Status, 1960–1969” (B.A.Ac. Ex., Nanyang University, 1980); Nyen, Wong Yoke, “The Role of Chinese Organizations in Malayan Politics (1945–1957): Special Reference to Citizenship and Education” (M.A., University of Malaya, 1981).

See also Dongzong chuban xiaozu (), Dongzong sanshi nian () (Thirty Years in the History of the UCSCA), in three volumes, Kuala Lumpur, 1987 and Jiaozong jiaoyu yanjiu zhongxin (), Malaixiya Huaxiao jiaoshihui zonghui qingzhu 33 zhounian jinian tekan () (Commemorative Publication on the 33rd Anniversary of the UCSTA), Kuala Lumpur, 1987.

6 SCJP, 12 to 21.11.1952. See also telegrams and letters from Chinese organizations in the various states to High Commissioner in Member for Education File No. 71/52.

7 Notable amongst those who left the MCA then were Lim Chong Eu and Too Joon Hing, members of the Razak Committee who had worked closely with UCSTA and UCSCA leaders. For accounts of the 1959 political crisis see Chan Heng Chee, “The Malayan Chinese Association”; Haas, Roy, “The MCA 1958–1959; an analysis of differing conceptions of the Malayan Chinese Role in Independent Malaya” (M.A., Northern Illinois University, 1967); Moore, Daniel Eldridge, “The UMNO and the 1959 Elections” (Ph.D., University of California, 1960); and Vasil, R.K., Politics in a Plural Society (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1971).

8 MCA leaders held no meetings with UCSTA or UCSCA leaders after the 1959 crisis and during the time when the Talib Committee was meeting to review implementation of education policy. This was in direct contrast to the close working relationship maintained when the Razak Report was written. See discussion later on in this paper. After the Talib Report was released in August 1960, the MCA also refused to join the UCSTA and UCSCA in their protests against the Report. See Tan Liok Ee, “Politics of Chinese Education”, Ch. 7.

9 See Lim, Soh Eng, “Tan Cheng Lock and His Leadership of the Malayan Chinese”, Journal of Southeast Asian History 1, No. 1 (03 1960): 2955; Guan, Tjoa Hock, “The Social and Political Ideas of Tun Datuk Sir Tan Cheng Lock” in Sandhu, K.S. and Wheatley, P. (eds.), Melaka: The Transformation of a Malay Capital, C1400–1980 (Kuala Lumpur, 1983), Vol. 1, pp. 299323; Tregonning, K.G., “Tan Cheng Lock: a Malayan Nationalist”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies X, No. 1 (03 1979): 2576.

10 For background to appointment of the Barnes and Fenn-Wu Committees as well as developments in education policy in the fifties see Tan Liok Ee, “Politics of Chinese Education”, and Fennel, T.R., “Commitment to Change: A History of Malayan Education Policy, 1945–1957” (Ph.D., University of Hawaii, 1968).

11 See Federation of Malaya, Report of the Committee on Malay Education, 1951, p. v.

12 Ibid., p. 24.

14 Sin Chew Jit Poh (SCJP), 8.7.1951–30.9.1951. Copies of some of the Memoranda submitted by Chinese organizations are available in Director of Education File No. 555/51.

15 Federation of Malaya, Report of a Mission Invited by the Federation Government to Study the Problems of the Education of the Chinese in Malaya: Chinese Schools and the Education of Chinese Malayans, 1951, p. 3.

16 Based on sources cited in footnote 13.

17 See T.R. Fennel, “Commitment to Change”, for more detailed discussions of Malay reactions.

18 Chan, Chai Hon, Education and Nation-building in Plural Societies: The Malaysian Experience (Canberra, 1977), p. 23.

19 Tregonning, , “Tan Cheng Lock”, p. 58.

20 For more discussions on this see Chan Heng Chee, “The Malayan Chinese Association”, and Heng Pek Koon, “The Social and Ideological Origins of the MCA”.

21 Before and up to World War II, the Chinese school teachers had been active in Chinese nationalistic activities. See Leong, Stephen, “Sources, Agencies and Manifestations of Overseas Chinese Nationalism in Malaya, 1937–1941” (Ph.D., University of California, 1976); Hui, Lee Ting, “Policies and Politics in Chinese Schools in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States, 1786–1941” (M.A., University of Malaya, 1957); Ong Yen Her, , “Politics of Chinese Education in Singapore during the Colonial Period” (M.Soc.Sc., University of Singapore, 1974); Kim, Khoo Kay, “The Beginnings of Political Extremism in Malaya, 1915–1935” (Ph.D., University of Malaya, 1973).

22 See Tan Liok Ee, , “Politics of Chinese Education”, Ch. 2 for discussion on formation of CSTAS and UCSTA.

23 The first to recognize the potential importance of the UCSTA was, in fact, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), then engaged in an armed insurrection against the British colonial government. Barely two months after David Chen was elected as the first president of the UCSTA, he was shot dead at point blank range outside the premises of the Penang CSTA, on one of Penang's major thoroughfares. An MCP publication claimed responsibility for his killing because he was “the most iniquitious reactionary element who knew only how to be loyal to the British Imperialists and to the KMT reactionaries”.

24 Tan Liok Ee, , “Politics of Chinese Education”, Ch. 2.

25 Chan Heng Chee, , “The Malayan Chinese Association”, p. 19.

26 Tan Cheng Lock was a founding member of the IMP and spoke at its inaugural meeting. The background to and reasons for Tan's decision to relinquish the IMP and develop the MCA into a political party in partnership with UMNO is another aspect of Tan's life which has yet to be studied in greater detail.

27 Letter from H.S. Lee to Tan Cheng Lock, 18.2.1952 in Tan Cheng Lock Papers, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore (henceforth TCL/ISEAS), Document IX/33; reply from Tan to Lee, 22.2.1952, TCL/ISEAS/IX/34 and IX/35.

28 “Report on a visit to Malaya from 20th August to 20th September 1952 at the invitation of the MCA by Victor Purcell and Francis Carnell”, TCL/ISEAS/XIII/18.

29 Published in Lock, Tan Cheng, Malayan Problems from a Chinese Point of View (Singapore, 1947), pp. 1042.

30 “Comments on the Association of British Malaya's Memorandum on the Reconstruction of Malaya”, TCL/NA.

31 See text of his speech on 9 November 1952, cited in Footnote 1.

32 See Member for Education File No. 31/51 for minutes of two of the three meetings of the Central Advisory Committee, and Selangor Secretariat File No. 2143/51 for minutes of meetings of the Special Committee. The two MCA leaders on the Central Advisory Committee were Chong Khoon Lin and Leung Cheung Ling while the two MCA members of the Special Committee were H.S. Lee and Leung Cheung Ling.

33 Federation of Malaya, Education Ordinance, 1952, Sections 18–21.

34 Proceedings of the Federal Legislative Council, 19.9.1951.

35 Memoranda submitted by various Chinese organizations to the High Commissioner were submitted by local MCA leaders such as Lau Pak Khuan, Ong Keng Seng, Cho Yew Fai. See Director of Education File No. 555/51.

36 SCJP, 10.11.1952. A Presidium of three members was formed to draft a constitution for the proposed national body.

37 Ibid. A committee was set up to conduct the negotiations. A new scheme of financial aid, commonly referred to as the New Salary Aid Scheme and drawn up specifically for the Chinese primary schools, was proposed by the colonial government earlier in 1952. For detailed discussion see Tan Liok Ee, “Politics of Chinese Education”, Ch. 2.

38 See Memorandum submitted to the High Commissioner, 14.11.1952 in Member for Education File No. 71/52.

39 Wen reported on the negotiations at the beginning of the next meeting of the Sanda Jigou. “Minutes of Second Meeting of Representatives of Chinese School Committees and Teachers in the Federation and Representatives of the MCA, 19 and 20.4.1953”, copy courtesy of Mr. Too Joon Hing.

40 Proceedings of the Federal Legislative Council, 20 and 21.11.1952.

41 “Minutes of Second Meeting of Representatives”.

43 The drafting Presidium had proposed this but some CSTA and CSCA had submitted counter-resolutions that the proposed committee should be an independent body. See ibid.

45 Ibid. Tan, in fact, arrived late at the meeting, just as the discussion on the proposed committee began.

46 This point was made, for example, by Loh Ching Chua from the Penang CSCA. See ibid.

47 Ibid. Report of the negotiations was one of the first items on the agenda.

48 See Draft Constitution of the MCACECC, appended to the Minutes of the meeting.

50 See for example, letter addressed to the High Commissioner by Tan Cheng Lock, 12.5.1953, TCL/NA.

51 Lock, Tan Cheng, Memorandum on Chinese Education in the Federation of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, 1953).

52 Malayan Mirror, Vol. I, Nos. 2, 4 and 7 (June, July and September 1953) and Vol. II, Nos. 6, 7, 10 and 18 (March to July 1954).

53 Text of Tan's speech to the MCA Annual General Meeting, 27.12.1953, TCL/NA.

54 Full text of the radio broadcast, 30.1.1953, TCL/NA.

55 Letter from High Commissioner to Tan Cheng Lock, 6.7.1953, TCL/NA.

57 Letter from Tan Cheng Lock to Sir Donald McGillivray, 11.10.1954, TCL/ISEAS/XIII/38.

58 Letter from Sir Donald McGillivray to Tan Cheng Lock, 15.11.1954, TCL/ISEAS/XIH/40.

59 Federation of Malaya, Report of the Special Committee Appointed by the High Commissioner in Council to Consider Ways and Means of Implementing the Policy Outlined in the Education Ordinance, 1952, Council Paper No. 67 of 1954.

60 Ibid., p. 5.

61 Ibid., p. 12.

62 See, for example, UCSTA pamphlet on objections to the White Paper, “Malaiya Lianhebang Huaxiao Jiaoshihui Zhonghui fandui gai Fangyen Xuexiao wei Guoming Xuexiao Xuanyen” (), copy courtesy of UCSTA.

63 Kwong Wah Yit Pao, 2.11.1954; 8.11.1954.

64 SCJP, 10–18.11.1954; 26.11.1954; 17.12.1954; 20.12.1954.

65 Letter from Wen Tien Kuang to Tan Cheng Lock, 4.11.1954, TCL/ISEAS/XIII/61.

66 Means, Gordon, Malaysian Politics (London: University of London Press, 1970), Ch. 10.

67 Minutes of three such meetings are available in TCL/ISEAS/VIII/15, 18 and 19.

68 Letter from Wen Tien Kuang to Tan Cheng Lock, TCL/ISEAS/XV/98 and 98a.

69 “Minutes of a Meeting of the MCACECC, 21.8.1954” in TCL/ISEAS/XIH/27.

71 Lim Lian Geok explains in his memoirs that UCSTA leaders became aware of the importance of the official language issue after being informed by McGillivray at a meeting with him on 8.11.1952 that the reason why Chinese could not be a medium of instruction in National schools was because it was not an official language of the country. See Lianyu, Lin, Huiyi Pianpian Lu () (Kuala Lumpur, 1962), p. 9.

72 “Minutes of a Meeting of the MCACECC, 21.8.1954”.

74 Letter from T.H. Tan to Tan Cheng Lock, 25.8.1954, TCL/NA.

79 Ibid. The two MCA leaders were H.S. Lee and Leung Cheung Ling.

80 Letter from Tunku Abdul Rahman to Tan Cheng Lock, 1.10.1954, TCL/NA.

81 Letter from Tan Cheng Lock to Sir Donald McGillivray, 21.10.1954, TCL/ISEAS/XIII/45.

82 Interview, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Penang, 26.5.1983.

83 Interview, Lim Lian Geok, Selayang, 2.4.1982.

84 Present at the meeting were the Tunku, Dr. Ismail Dato Abdul Rahman, Aziz Ishak, Bahaman Shamsudin from UMNO; Tan Cheng Lock, Leong Yew Koh, H.S. Lee, Ong Yoke Lin, T.H. Tan, Goh Chee Yan, Leung Cheung Ling, Wen Tien Kuang from MCA; Chong Khoon Lin, Cho Yew Fai, Ong Keng Seng, Chua Tien Kung from UCSCA; Lim Lian Geok, Sha Yun Yeo, Chai Jen Ping, Shen Mo Yu, Kung Cheong Thai from UCSTA. See “Minutes of a meeting on 12th January 1955 at the Residence of Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan in Malacca”, TCL/ISEAS/IX/155.

86 Ibid. The UCSTA had stated its position in a memorandum prepared for the meeting. This is attached to the minutes of the meeting.

91 “Minutes of a Meeting of the MCACECC, 14.1.1955”, TCL/NA.

92 Letter from Leong Chee Cheong to Tan Cheng Lock, 5.1.1955, TCL/ISEAS/XIV/81d.

93 Letter from Tan Cheng Lock to Leong Chee Cheong, 21.1.1955, TCL/ISEAS/XIV/81b.

94 “Minutes of First Alliance Executive Committee Meeting, 7th February 1955”, TCL/ISEAS/XVI/37.

95 “Merdeka Within Four Years”, 1955 Alliance Election Manifesto, Copy courtesy of Mr. Too Joon Hing.

97 Federation of Malaya, Report of the Education Committee (Kuala Lumpur, 1956), p. 1.

98 Copies of minutes of two such meetings courtesy of Mr. Too Joon Hing. Lim Lian Geok states that these meetings were arranged by Toon Joon Hing on the instructions of Tan Cheng Lock. See “Lin Lianyu luyin gao” (). Mimeo., March 1980.

99 Letter from Wen Tien Kuang on behalf of MCACECC to Secretary of Minister of Education, 29.10.1955 and letters from Secretary of Minister of Education to Wen Tien Kuang, 14.12.1955 and 7.3.1956. Copies courtesy of Dr Gwee Yee Hean.

100 SCJP, 7.5.1956.

101 For more discussion, see Tan Liok Ee, , “Politics of Chinese Education”, Ch. 5.

102 Report of the Education Committee, Para. 115.

103 Ibid., Para. 54.

104 See Tan Liok Ee, , “Politics of Chinese Education”, Ch. 7.

105 Tregonning, K.G., “Tan Cheng Lock”, p. 75.

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Tan Cheng Lock and the Chinese Education Issue in Malaya

  • Tan Liok Ee


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