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Malaysia's Independence Leaders and the Legacies of State Formation under British Rule



Albeit with some deterioration in recent years, Malaysia has a state with high levels of capacity that has achieved sustained economic growth through a commitment to macroeconomic stability and other pro-business measures. Recent comparative historical work argues that this state capacity is an institutional legacy of a specific model of British colonisation. While Malaysia is an amalgam of areas formerly under direct and indirect rule; the former – a model of colonisation characterised by the construction of a legal-rational bureaucracy with extensive geographic reach – was more prevalent. Prior to the transition to independence, the British increased the “direct” nature of their rule by creating a powerful central government that brought the various territories together. And, a concerted transition of power to a cohort of “bureaucrats-turned-politicians” ensured that the new nation's leaders inherited an intact state apparatus. However, a disproportionate number of these senior bureaucrats hailed from Johor, a state formerly under indirect rule - a colonial model associated with small, neo-patrimonial states with limited capacity. By using colonial sources to map the contours and composition of the Malayan state under British and, subsequently, Japanese rule, this article will explore the reasons for this paradox.



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1 Constant 2000 prices, World Development Indicators online,, accessed January 31, 2013.

2 van Donge, J.K., Henley, D. and Lewis, P., “Tracking Development in South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa: The Primacy of Policy”, Development Policy Review, 30 (2012), p. S11 .

3 Henley, D., “The Agrarian Roots of Industrial Growth: Rural Development in South-east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa”, Development Policy Review, 30 (2012), pp. S3435 .

4 Malaya was traditionally used to refer to: the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang, and Malacca; the Federated Malay States of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Pahang; and the Unfederated Malay States of Johor, Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu.

5 Heussler, R., Completing a Stewardship: the Malayan Civil Service, 1942–1957 (Westport, 1983), Chapter 7.

6 Esman, M., Administration and Development in Malaysia: Institution Building and Reform in a Plural Society (Ithaca, 1972), pp. 9697 .

7 Ibid. , pp. 284–285.

8 Ness, G. D., Bureaucracy and Rural Development in Malaysia: A Study of Complex Organisations in Stimulating Economic Development in New States (Berkeley, 1967), pp. 8990 .

9 Lange, M.K., Lineages of Despotism and Development: British Colonialism and State Power (Chicago, 2009), p. 28 .

11 Ibid. , p. 185.

12 Harper, T.N., The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya (Cambridge, 1999); Heussler., Completing a Stewardship.

13 Crouch, H., Government and Society in Malaysia (Ithaca, 1996), pp. 1617 .

14 Funston, J., Malay Politics in Malaysia: A Study of UMNO and PAS (Kuala Lumpur, 1980), p. 106 .

15 Fernando, J. M., The Making of the Malayan Constitution (Kuala Lumpur, 2002), p. 94 . At Independence in 1957, Malayan society was multi-ethnic, composed of almost 50 percent Malays and aborigines, 37 percent Chinese, and 12 percent Indians. In electoral terms, the weight of the Malay vote was further heightened by the fact that the citizenship status of many non-Malays was still under negotiation, rendering them ineligible to vote.

16 Johan, Khasnor, The Emergence of the Modern Malay Administrative Elite (Singapore, 1984), pp. 12 .

17 Roff, W., The Origins of Malay Nationalism (Kuala Lumpur, 1994), p. 120 .

18 Khasnor, The Modern Malay Administrative Elite, p. 104.

19 The UMNO members of the 1955 Cabinet were: Tunku Abdul Rahman (Kedah); Khir Johari (Kedah); Khalid Awang Osman (Kedah); Ismail Abdul Rahman (Johor); Sardon Haji Jubir (Johor); Suleiman Abdul Rahman (Johor); Abdul Razak Hussein (Pahang); Abdul Rahman Talib (Pahang); Abdul Aziz Ishak (Perak); and Bahaman Shamsuddin (Negri Sembilan), Times of Malaya, 5 August, 1955.

20 Funston, Malay Politics, pp. 298–303.

21 Abdul Rahman, Arifful Ahmadi bin Haji, Wira Bangsa Dalam Kenangan: Sejarah Perjuangan UMNO & Profil Ahli Majlis Kerja Tertinggi 1946–2000 (Kuala Lumpur, 2000).

22 While Malay agency is outside the purview of this article, the biographies of the likes of Onn Jaafar, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Ismail, and Hussein Onn offer valuable insights from this perspective. Of note are: Zainah Anwar, Legacy of Honour (Kuala Lumpur, 2011); Ramlah Adam, Dato’ Onn Ja’afar: Pengesas Kermerdekaan (Kuala Lumpur, 1992); and Ooi Kee Beng, The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr. Ismail and his Time (Singapore, 2006). For a perspective of the Malay elite per se, please consult: Khasnor, The Modern Malay Administrative Elite; J.C. Scott, Political Ideology in Malaysia: reality and the beliefs of an elite (Princeton, 1968); and D.J. Amoroso, “Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya”, PhD Dissertation: Cornell University (1996).

23 Keay, J., India: A History (London, 2000); Winstedt, R.O., Malaya, the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States, and the Unfederated Malay States (London, 1923).

24 Allen, J de V., “Malayan Civil Service, 1874–1941: Colonial Bureaucracy/Malayan Elite”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 12 (2) (1970), pp. 158161 .

25 Report on the Administration of the Straits Settlements (Singapore, 1891, 1911).

26 Virunha, C., “From Regional Entrepôt to Malayan Port: Penang's Trade and Trading Communities, 1890–1940”, in Penang and its Region: the Story of an Asian Entrepôt, (eds.) Yeoh, S.G., Loh, W.L., Khoo, S., and Khor, N. (Singapore, 2009), p. 111 .

27 Report on the Administration of the Straits Settlements (Singapore, 1873), pp. 190–191; Cheung, S.P-Y., “Surviving Economic Crises in Southeast Asia and Southern China: The History of Eu Yan Sang Business Conglomerates in Penang, Singapore, and Hong Kong”, Modern Asian Studies 36 (2) (2002), p. 584 .

28 Lange, Lineages of Despotism and Development, pp. 24–25.

29 V Allen, J. de, Stockwell, A.J., and Wright, L.R., A Collection of Treaties and Other Documents Affecting the States of Malaysia, 1761–1963, Volume I. (London, 1981), p. 6 .

30 Sadka, E., “The Colonial Office and the Protected Malay States” in Malayan and Indonesian Studies: Essays presented to Sir Richard Winstedt on his eighty-fifth birthday, (eds.) Bastin, J. and Roolvink, R. (Oxford, 1964), p. 184185 ; Gullick, J.M., Rulers and Residents: Influence and Power in the Malay States, 1870–1920 (Singapore, 1992), pp. 2829 .

31 Winstedt, Malaya, the Straits Settlements, pp. 3–5.

32 Milner, A. C., “The Federation Decision: 1895”, JMBRAS, 43 (1) (1970), p. 105 .

33 Turnbull, C. M., A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore, 2005), p. 109 .

34 Emerson, R., Malaysia: A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule (New York, 1937), p. 138 .

35 Milner 1970, p. 160.

36 Kelantan in 1910, Terengganu in 1919, Kedah in 1923, and Perlis in 1930. Ibid, p. 233.

37 Ibid. , pp. 220–230; Roff, Origins of Malay Nationalism, pp. 92–94; de Vere Allen, Malayan Civil Service, p. 159.

38 Roff, Origins of Malay Nationalism, p. 95.

39 The Singapore and Straits Directory for 1893 (Singapore, 1893), pp. 280–290.

40 Gullick, Rulers and Residents, p. 4.

41 Emerson, Direct and Indirect Rule, pp. 313–322.

42 Fieldhouse, D. K., Colonialism 1870–1945: An Introduction (New York, 1941), p. 67 .

43 Welsh, B., Taxing Malaya: Revenue Generation, Political Rights, and State Power. PhD Dissertation: Columbia University (2001), p. 8 .

44 Johore. Annual Report for the Year 1939. (Singapore, 1940), Annex D.

45 Statistics Department of the SS and FMS, Malayan Year Book (Singapore, 1939), pp. 37, 143–144.

46 Winstedt, Malaya, the Straits Settlements, p. 18.

47 Rules Governing the Establishment of the Straits Settlements Civil Service 6143/34, 5413/34 and 7795/35.

48 Straits Settlements Establishments, 1936 (Singapore, 1936).

49 Khasnor, The Modern Malay Administrative Elite, p. 107.

51 Kohli, Atul, State-Directed Development: Political Power and Industrialisation in the Global Periphery, (Cambridge, 2004).

52 Roff, Origins of Malay Nationalism, p. 95.

53 For more information on the history of the Johor sultanate, please consult Trocki, C.A., Prince of Pirates: Temenggongs and the Development of Johore and Singapore, 1784–1885 (Singapore, 2007 ).

54 Trocki, Prince of Pirates, p. 194.

55 Documents of 1914 [surat akaun] attached to the 1914 Johore Treaty in de vere Allen, Stockwell, and Wright, A Collection of Treaties, pp. 108–109.

56 Welsh, Taxing Malaya, p. 482; Johore, List of Establishments 1940 (Johore Bahru, 1940).

57 C.S. Gray, “Johore, 1910–1941, Studies in the Colonial Process”, PhD Dissertation: Yale University (1978), pp. 142–143.

58 Ibid. , p. 84.

59 The corresponding figures for Kedah, the second-wealthiest UMS, were smaller, but of a similar proportion: 61 members of the Kedah Civil Service (excluding cadets); and 6 British MCS Officers. State of Kedah, Estimates of the Revenue and Expenditure for the year AD 1939 (Alor Star, 1939); The Malayan Establishment Staff List as on 1st July, 1941 (Singapore, 1941). Interestingly, Kedah did not have a Mentri Besar or a Deputy until after the War. Until then, the senior-most position was that of Secretary to Government, followed by a Chief Malay Judge.

60 “Principles Governing the Administration of Occupied Southern Areas”, p. 1 in Japanese Military Administration in Indonesia: Selected Documents, (eds.) H.J. Benda, J.K. Irikura, and K. Kishi (New Haven, 1965).

61 Kratoska, P.H., The Japanese Occupation of Malaya: A Social and Economic History (London, 1998), p. 5 . Over the course of the war, the MMA was to undergo a number of important structural changes. This discussion will centre on those that have implications for Malaya specifically.

62 Office of Strategic Services, Research and Analysis Branch, Japanese Administration in Malaya, R&A no 2720 (Washington D.C., 1944), pp. 47 .

63 Akashi, Y., “Bureaucracy and the Japanese Military Administration, with specific reference to Malaya” in Japan in Asia, 1942–45, (ed.) Newell, W.H. (Singapore, 1981), p. 46 .

64 Eong, Sim Ewe, “An Account of the Japanese Occupation of the Settlement of Penang, Straits Settlements (1941–1945) with Special Reference to Administration in the Judicial Department”, Malayan Law Journal, November (1981), p. 172 .

65 Kratoska, The Japanese Occupation, p. 307.

66 They were: Lim Khoon Teik, a Singaporean in the Colonial Legal Service; and Lim Chean Ang and Husein Aboolcader, who were members of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council. Lim Kean Siew, Blood on the Golden Sands: the Memoirs of a Penang Family (Subang Jaya, 1999); Barber, A., Penang at War: A History of Penang during and between the First and Second World Wars, 1914–1945 (Kuala Lumpur, 2010).

67 The US Army Center of Military History, Outline of Administration in Occupied Areas, 1941–1945. Japanese Monographs, No. 103 (Fort McNair, 1946), p. 17.

68 Office of Strategic Services, Japanese Administration in Malaya, p. 14.

69 Akashi, “Bureaucracy and the Japanese Military Administration”, p. 54.

70 L. Horner, “Japanese Military Administration in Malaya and the Philippines”, PhD Dissertation, University of Arizona (1974), p. 56. Available evidence indicates that a similar process of restructuring began in Penang in June. Lim Beng-Kooi, “The Japanese Occupation in Penang, 1941–45”, BA Academic Exercise, University of Singapore (1974), p. 13.

71 Akashi, Y., “Japanese Military Administration in Malaya: its Formation and Evolution in Reference to the Sultans, the Islamic Religion, and Moslem Malays, 1941–45”, Asian Studies 7 (1) (1969), p. 105 .

72 Akashi, “Bureaucracy and the Japanese Military Administration”, p. 46.

73 Johore, Establishment Lists 2603 (Johore Bahru, 1943), p. 1.

74 Mayudin, Ghazali bin, Johor Semasa Pendudukan Jepun 1942–1945 (Bangi, 1978), p. 33 .

75 Johore, List of Establishments 1940; Johore, Establishment Lists, 2003.

76 Personal observation of intra-departmental correspondence from the Johor State Archives.

77 Stockwell, A.J., British Policy and Malay Politics during the Malayan Union Experiment, 1942–1948 (Kuala Lumpur, 1979), pp. 9 and pp. 41; Kheng, Cheah Boon, Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941–1946 (Singapore, 2003), p. 55 .

78 Sopiee, Mohamed Noordin, From Malayan Union to Singapore Separation: Political Unification in the Malaysia Region, 1945–1965 (Kuala Lumpur, 1975), p. 17 .

79 Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics, pp. 18,36.

80 Ibid. , 49.

81 Noordin, Mohd, Malayan Union to Singapore Separation, p. 23 .

82 Amoroso “Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class”, p. 171.

83 Halinah Bamadhaj, “The Impact of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya on Malay Society and Politics (1941–1945)”, MA Thesis: University of Auckland (1975), p. 59.

84 Amoroso, “Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class”, p. 192.

85 In contrast, despite their early rise to power under the Japanese, left-wing Malay nationalist groups such as the KMM were subsequently marginalised. The Japanese sought to discourage political organisations they did not control and did not foresee, at least initially, making Malaya independent. Akashi, Y. and Yoshimura, M., “Introduction” in New Perspectives on the Japanese Occupation in Malaya and Singapore, 1941–1945, (eds.) Akashi, Y. and Yoshimura, M. (Singapore, 2008), p. 18 .

86 Halinah, “The Impact of the Japanese Occupation”, p. 141.

87 Amoroso, “Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class”, p. 193.

88 Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics, p. 82.

89 At 306 literate people per 1,000 population, Johor was considerably ahead of the other UMS, whose rates were: 236 (Kedah); 104 (Kelantan); 115 (Terengganu); and 234 (Perlis). del Tufo, M.V., Malaya Comprising the Federation of Malaya and the Colony of Singapore: A Report of the 1947 Census of Population (London, 1947), Table 52.

90 Ibid. , Table 89.

91 The sole exception to this is Hussein Onn. Before the war, he was a member of the Johor Military Force. In June 1941, he was sent to Dehra Dun Military College in India and then served in the British Indian Army. After the war, he joined the Johor Civil Service and, subsequently, the Malayan Civil Service.

92 Zainah, Legacy of Honour, p. 109; Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics, p. 86.

93 Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics, p. 68; Zainah, Legacy of Honour, p. 113.

94 Tan, C., Tun Sardon Jubir: His life and times (Petaling Jaya, 1986), pp. 2122, 29.

95 Halinah, “The Impact of the Japanese Occupation”, p. 48; Manderson, L., Women, Politics, and Change: the Kaum Ibu UMNO, Malaysia, 1945–1972 (Kuala Lumpur, 1980), p. 51; Johore, Establishment Lists 2603.

96 Adam, Ramlah, “Pergolakan Politik de Johor 1946–1948”, JEBAT 19 (1991), p. 84 ; Gray, “Studies in the Colonial Process”, Appendix B.

97 Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics, p. 100.

98 Amoroso, “Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class”, p. 263.

99 Ramlah, Dato’ Onn Ja’afar, p. 75.

100 CO 537/1581, no. 11 “The Inaugural conference of UMNO”: HQ Malaya Command weekly intelligence review, no. 28.

101 Funston, Malay Politics, p. 77.

102 Ramlah, “Pergolakan Politik de Johor”, p. 88.

103 Onn had a complex personal relationship with the Sultan of Johor. Being a member of Johor aristocracy and from a family of senior civil servants, Onn was raised in close proximity to the latter. However, their relationship had notable ups and downs, with Onn being sacked from the Johor civil service and living in “exile” in Singapore for his outspokenness. There, in his work as a journalist, the Sultan was a frequent target for criticism. In 1935, the two had a rapprochement, and Onn moved back to Johor and was made a member of the State Council. Onn did not support the deposition of the Sultan, much to the disappointment of the Johore Malay Union. It is possible that both personal and political interests coincided. Some have maintained that he wanted to maintain a united front among Malays at this period. Zainah, Legacy of Honour, p. 113. This caused serious disagreement between Onn and Abdul Rahman as well as his sons Suleiman and Ismail. Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics, pp. 66–68.

104 Puthucheary, J., Dato Onn, UMNO and the Independence of Malaya Party, 1948–1952, PhD Dissertation: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (1997), p. 57 ; CO 537/2174, no. 1 [UMNO]: despatch no 92/47 from Sir E. Gent to Mr Creech Jones. Annex: report on UMNO general assembly, 10–12 Jan 1947.

105 Manderson, Women, Politics, and Change, p. 110.

106 Ramlah, “Pergolakan Politik de Johor”, p. 99.

107 Ooi, The Reluctant Politician, p. 46.

108 Amoroso, “Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class”, p. 313.

109 In the immediate post-war period, Kedah had two leading Malay political organisations, Saberkas and the Kedah Malay Union (KMU), which both joined UMNO in varying capacities. Khir, Mahadzir bin Mohd, “The Kedah UMNO-PAS Struggle: Its Origins and Development” in Southeast Asian Affairs 1980 (Singapore, 1980). As a member of Kedah royalty, a senior civil servant, founder and patron of Saberkas and, subsequently, Chairman of the KMU, Tunku Abdul Rahman emerged as the state's preeminent leader. The KMU became an UMNO branch organisation, and while Tunku then attained a certain amount of prominence in UMNO, he left Malaya to study in the UK from late 1946–1948, precisely when the party's structures were being established. Suwannathat-Pian, Kobkua, Palace, Political Party and Power: A Story of the Socio-Political Development of Malay Kingship (Singapore, 2011), p. 247 . Furthermore, upon his return to Malaya and his work in the Attourney-General's Office, he was banned from political participation. Following his election as UMNO President, he retired to participate in politics. Miller, H., Prince and Premier (London, 1959), pp. 99 , 108. For its part, Saberkas was a socially progressive association and differed with the more conservative UMNO leadership. However, while Saberkas was an UMNO associate member, the group remained outside the party's mainstream and eventually dissolved itself. Stockwell, British Policy and Malay Politics, p. 123; Kamar, Ahmad, “The Formation of Saberkas’” in Darulaman: Essays on Linguistic, Cultural, and Socio-Economic Aspects of the Malaysian State of Kedah, (ed.) Omar, Asmah Haji (Kuala Lumpur, 1979), p. 182 . Following Tunku Abdul Rahman's assumption of the UMNO presidency in 1951, the influence of Kedahans at the party's highest levels increased with the participation of former Saberkas members Mohd Khir Johari, Senu Abdul Rahman, and Mohd Ismail Yusof. Ahmad Kamar “The Formation of Saberkas”, p. 182.

110 Puthucheary, Dato Onn, p. 303.

111 Harper, The End of Empire, p. 359.

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Malaysia's Independence Leaders and the Legacies of State Formation under British Rule



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