IT has been 62 years since independence but many are still ignorant that it was the compromise or “historic bargain” among all races that brought our independence. One needs to wind back the clock to understand the present scenario.
Malaysians at large do not seem to understand the position of the Malays in the country.
The accusation that Malays were pendatang like the Chinese and Indians is preposterous. Before the Chinese and Indians arrived in Malaya in big numbers from the early 20th century, the British had already been dealing with the Malay rulers.
Treaties signed with rulers recognised local Malays as native inhabitants and guaranteed their protections vis-à-vis the non-Malays.
As Tunku Abdul Rahman said, “The Malay’s only chance of keeping their identity in this country alive is to insist on the retention of their inherent rights guaranteed by the Federation of Malaya Agreement, by treaties made between the British Government and the Rulers”.
Before World War II, both Indians and Chinese had not yet even developed permanent interests with the country.
The Indians tended to sympathise with developments in India. The Central Indian Association of Malaya, formed in 1937, purportedly to champion the interests of all Indian immigrant communities, was evidently India-oriented.
During World War II, plantation workers volunteered to Subash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army for Indian independence.
The Malayan (now Malaysian) Indian Congress (MIC) was formed to take up Bose’s call for bolstering patriotic sentiment among Indians in Southeast Asia.
As for the Chinese, their struggle during the Emergency led to the formation of the Malayan (now Malaysian) Chinese Association (MCA), which was primarily concerned with the social welfare of the community.
However, many today are not aware of the help rendered by the Malay rulers to settle the Chinese in new villages on lands reserved for and owned by the Malays. These lands eventually became permanent possession of the Chinese who used it to improve their socio-economic status. Meanwhile, the Malays were suffering in the kampungs.
During the 1955 federal elections, non-Malay members of the Alliance won largely because of political support from the Malays. Tunku in his speech over Radio Malaya on April 22, 1956, said: “17 non-Malay candidates were returned by an electorate the vast majority of whom were Malays and without the loss of a single seat”.
It was based on this mutual understanding that the three races cooperated to finally achieve independence in 1957.
There was also a gentlemanly understanding that whatever enjoyed by the non-Malays under the British will be retained by the independent government. This was clearly stated by Tunku in a speech to the Federal Legislative Council on July 10, 1957: “A formula agreed upon by which it was decided that in considering the rights of the various people, no attempt must be made to reduce such rights which they have enjoyed in the past. As a result you find written in the constitution rights of various peoples they have enjoyed in the past and new rights accorded to new people whom it was the intention to win over into the fold of the Malayan Nation”.
It is pertinent to also register this remark by Tunku: “Under the changes visualised by the new constitution, the Malays were prepared within reason to share those rights with others who owe loyalty to this country. I must ask non-Malays to be fair and be considerate and not to make unreasonable demands, for it is well to remember that no natives of any country in the world have given away so much as the Malays have done. No natives have been friendly to immigrant people as the Malays have been. Nobody need have any fear as to their future well-being in independent Malaya”.
However, in recent years, non-Malays fear there is an agenda to deny significant aspects of their heritages in order to highlight Malay and Islamic elements.
The teaching of jawi in school is the latest contention, but it has its own history which also saw compromises.
When the country got its independence, Alliance party decided to make Malay the national language and the scripts used are jawi and rumi. Tunku could have insisted on jawi but he opted for both. For him rumi could be easily learnt by the non-Malays and they are used to writing roman characters.
He felt this is one of the ways to encourage the non-Malays to learn the language.
The international scenario too was taken into consideration. Indonesia had decided to use Malay as its official language and to use rumi only. Turkey is another Muslim country that has recognised the rumi script.
Non-Malays also find their historical heritages inadequately highlighted in secondary school history textbooks, museums, archives and other cultural domains.
This was surely not what Tunku would have wanted. As rightly pinpointed by Prof Abu Talib Ahmad from Universiti Sains Malaysia in his work Museums, History and Culture in Malaysia, “Islam did not displace Indian or indigenous elements; the latter have become part of Malay society. In fact, many non–Islamic elements survived the post-Lembah Bujang period well into the 20th century, although from 1979 onwards there were efforts to purify Malay culture as advocated by various quarters, notably religious officials and Malay scholars”.
Before independence, the British had felt the history of the country was a reflection of all communities and not of one particular race.
It is within this context that Malaysians should understand the existence of vernacular schools.
Article 152 of the Federal Constitution clearly provides the constitutional provision for mother tongue education: no person is prohibited from teaching and learning his own mother-tongue; every person has the right to use his own mother-tongue for non-official purposes and; the government has the right to preserve and sustain the use and study of the mother-tongue of any other ethnic minority communities. Why then is the existence of vernacular schools criticised as a disuniting factor?
However, since independence, vernacular schools have been unfairly treated in terms of budget allocation and priorities in planning and policy.
The Chinese community has been taking care of Chinese schools without much financial assistance from the government, relying on donations and other resources. Dr Kua Kia Soong, a proponent of vernacular schools, rightly said that it is the Chinese who have been contributing in subsidising Malaysian education.
What is not known is that 100,000 non-Chinese students are attending 1,350 Chinese primary schools. These schools are nurturing productive human resources for the country. It is therefore regrettable there is petty name-calling of Chinese educationists.
In the case of Tamil schools, it is very unfortunate that higher allocation only began from 2008.
The allocations under Malaysia plans from 1990 until 2010 were low (within the range of RM10-50 million).
It was only in 2008 that the government allocated RM440 million for the period 2008-2012.
In 2000, 50% of the total 523 Tamil schools were built of wood and lacked basic facilities.
The low level of performance among Tamil school students and high level of dropouts could be associated with the social problems faced by the community. This should not happen in a country that has been upholding inclusive development since 1957.
It is vital for non-Malays to understand the historical position of the Malays and for the Malays to understand that the non-Malays have contributed in equal measure to the building of the Malaysian nation.
As rightly pointed out by Sir Gerald Templer, the British high commissioner when he launched the Malaysian Historical Society in 1959, “a nation which does not look with pride upon its past can never look forward with confidence towards its future”.
Prior to independence, all races had also participated in events organised by the British without harbouring any ill-feelings.
Racial harmony was considered to be Malaya’s most precious heritage. Multiculturalism is still our greatest asset. We should continue to nurture and celebrate it harmoniously.
Associate Professor Dr Sivachandralingam Sundara Raja heads the Department of History, University of Malaya.