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British Colonialism in Malaysia and its Effects on Modern Malaysia Essay

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Updated: Dec 14th, 2019


Malaysia is among the countries that were under the colonial rule for long period of time and the effects of this are still felt to this day. Before the Second World War came to an end and the coming up of nationalism, the superpower countries engaged in liberating the African and Asian nations, “imposing their law, transporting immigrants and suppressing local demand for control of the economy” (“What colonialism has done to us, Malaysia” para1).

Therefore, for a large number of years’ doings, the adverse effects of the colonial rule are still being felt. In the Malaysian situation, what is now a clear effect of the British colonial rule is the existence of a racial population. In this paper, a brief history of the colonial rule Malaysia is going to be given and the effects of this rule on the modern Malaysia are also going to be discussed.

The History of the British Rule in Malaysia

Towards the end of the 18th century, the British India Company traded with India and also partly controlled it. During that period, they started searching for a base in Malaya. The British occupied Penang in the year 1786 and at the same time founded Georgetown. The British were under Francis Light.

A short time thereafter, in the year 1800, the British took the Province Wellesley. Later in the year 1819, a British trading post was founded at Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles. The British and the Dutch divided between themselves this region and this was on the basis of the “treaty of London, 1824”. The Dutch gave up Melaka to the British and they were offered control of Sumatra in return together with the entire area that was below the “Malaya Peninsula” (Lambert, para 19).

The Straits Settlements, “Penang, Province Wellesley, Melaka, and Singapore” (Lambert, para 21), expanded quickly and this was partly because of the influx of the Indian as well as Chinese laborers. By the year 1860, the number of people in Singapore had increased to more than eighty thousand.

But even if the “British East India Company” took control of the islands and some parts of the coast, they did not have control over the “interior of the Malaya peninsula” (Lambert, para 21). Moreover, up until the year 1867, the British East India Company” was in charge of controlling the Straits Settlements but did not control the British government. However, in the year 1867, “they were made a crown colony”( Lambert, para 21).

Sarawak came under British control in 1841. Earlier on, in the year 1840, James Brooke assisted the ‘Sultan of Brunel’ in the crushing of a rebellion. In return, he was offered a territory to control and was also given the title of “Raja of Sarawak” (Lambert, para 23). In the year 1853, the territory of James Brooke was made bigger. In the meantime, there was invasion of Kedah by Siam, currently referred to as Thailand, in 1841.

The Sultan was deposed. Rebellions against the Siamese rule came up during the period between the years 1830 and 1831 and also in 1838 and 184. There was restoring of the Sultan in 1841 but nothing happened on Kedah and it remained to be a “vassal state of Siam” (Lambert, para 24).

A new move was taken by the British government in the year 1863 in which they put a stop on imposing duty on tin imports. Consequently, the tin exports that came from Malaya to Britain increased tremendously. The Chinese people came in large numbers to find jobs in the plantations and in the tin mines of Malaya.

In the year 1871, however, the death of the Sultan of Perak occurred and a quarrel came up over the issue of which person to succeed him. In addition, the secret societies of China engaged in a fight over who should take control of the tin mines. The chaos interfered with the tin exports to Britain. Therefore, “one man who claimed he was the rightful heir to the Sultan, Raja Abdulla, made an agreement with the British”( Lambert, para 27).

The agreement was referred to as the “Pangkor Agreement” (Lambert, para 27). Raja Abdulla was recognized by the British people as being the Sultan of Perak. As a reward he accepted to have a British advisor at his court “who would advice him on all matters except those concerning Malayan religion and customs” (Lambert, para 28).

The British restricted themselves to trade and did not got involved in the politics of Malaya up to the year 1874. “The treaty of Pangkor marked the beginning of British political control of Malaya” (Lambert, para 29). The British influence over Malaya grew gradually. More states which included “Selangor, Pahang, Ujong, Rembau, Negr Sembilan and Jeleb were forced to accept British protection”(Lambert, para 29). These states were urged to make a federation in the year 1895.

In the meantime, in 1888, “Brunei, Sarawak, and North Borneo became the British protectorates” (Lambert, para 30). In the course of the initial years of the 20th century, there was extending of the British influence over the Malaya states in the north. These states included Trengganu, Kedah and Kalantan. These states were officially included in the British Malaya. Later in 1914, Johor also was absorbed in the British rule.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a new industry emerged in Malaya-rubber. This industry really boomed. The tin industry also went on booming. At that time, the oil industry emerged in Singapore. In the course of the 1920s, the economy of Malaya was successful but this trend changed in the course of the 1930s following the economic depression leading to the falling of the exports.

During the initial years of the 20th century while there was economic growth in Malaya, the Chinese flocked in Malaya to look for jobs and also to live there. However, there was restricting of immigration after 1930 and this restriction was aimed at trying and helping unemployment.

On the eighth day of December in the year 1941, there was invasion of Malay Peninsula by the Japanese who swiftly overran it. “The last British troops withdrew across the straits in to Singapore Island on 31 January 1942”( Lambert, para 32). There was invasion of Singapore by the Japanese on the eighth day of February in the year 1942. The last “British troops surrendered on 15 February 1942” (Lambert, para 32).

This was actually a “military calamity” for the British. In the meantime, there was also invasion of Borneo by the Japanese troops. These troops were able to capture Kuching on December 25th, 1941 and they also captured Jesselton on January 8th in 1942. In the course of the Japanese occupation, “the Chinese were treated the most harshly and the Indians were treated less harshly” (Lambert, para 33).

In the year 1944, the Japanese encountered defeat and the British government made a decision to bring all the Malayan states together apart from Singapore to form one unified state referred to as the Malayan Union. Following this move, there was intense opposition and the plan was eventually scrapped. In its place, there was formation of the “federation of Malaya” on the 1st day of February 1948.

In the meantime, there was emerging of Malayan nationalism. The first Malayan organization to be formed was the “Kesatuan Melayu Singapuru, or Singapore Malayan Union, which was formed in 1926” (Lambert, para 34). Thereafter, there was formation of more organizations at a faster rate. In the year 1946, the Malayan organizations came together to make up the “Pertuuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu, the United Malays National organization” (Lambert, para 34).

There was formation of the “Malayan Communist Party” in 1930. The attacks on the European estate managers started in 1948. Consequently, there was introducing of the state of emergency by the government. However, communist activity declined after 1949 when the British parliament promised independence”( Lambert, para 35). The insurgence went on for several years but it was not more of a threat. The “communist activity” rose once more in the course of the mid-1970s but went down again.

There was formation of the “Reid Commission” in 1955 with an intention of making a constitution for Malaya. Independence was attained by Malaya on the 31st day of August, 1957. Tunku Abdul Rahan became the first prime minister of Malaya and he was in office from 1957 up to the year 1970. In the year 1963, “Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah joined to form the Federation of Malaysia” (Lambert, para 35) but two year later, in 1965, Singapore turned out to be a separate state.

In the course of the 1960s, tension arose between the Malays and those who were not Malays and this resulted in to violence and election being held in 1969. However, calm was slowly restored and there was reconvening of parliament in the year 1971. The government of Malaysia came up with a new economic policy which turned out to be considerably successful. In the course of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Malaysia transformed from being an agricultural nation that is poor to an industrial rich nation.

was dramatic rising of the living standards of the people of Malaysia. In 1991, “the new economic policy was replaced by a new development policy” (Lambert, para 37). The 2009 recession had an effect on the economy of Malaysia but it did not take long before this nation recovered from this. In the current day, Malaysia is a very successful nation and has a population of about 28 million people.

How the British Rule has affected Malaysia

According to Jamil, “ethnic composition is the key to understanding the whole picture of Malaysian economic, political and social patterns” (Jamil 1). It is also pointed out that in fact everything economic, social and political in Malaysia is “dominated by the considerations of ethnic arithmetic” (Milne, 19). This concept gives a designation of the economic, social and political arrangements and has assisted in shaping the constitution and has also had an influence on the democratic process as well as the party system (Ratnam, 1).

The current different ethnic identities in the society of Malaysia have as well had an effect on the state formation and policy agendas and particularly, the education system. This condition has “drawn the state in to the role of mediating and managing enter-ethnic issues arising from contestation among major ethnic groups for sharing economic, political power and cultural space” (Jamil 1).

Before the start of the 20th century, Malaysia was homogeneous. This society was a singular one formed by the Malays who are the indigenous people. In the year 1880, the Malays formed about 90 percent of the total population in Peninsular Malaysia (Gullick 197). In the course of the British rule, there was substantial change of the population of Malaysia.

“The British through their policy of encouraging migration, especially from China to India, changed the nature of this relatively ethnical homogenous society to a more pluralistic society” (Jamil 2). Therefore, this changed the society of Malaysia from being a greatly “mono-ethnic” society to a “multi-ethnic” society.

Basing on the 2000 Census, the total number of people in Malaysia was about 23 million and out of this population, the Malaysian citizens form 95 percent. Among these citizens, the indigenous people formed by the Malays and other indigenous groups form more than 66 percent of the total population, the Chinese form about 27 percent and the Indian form over 7 percent (Malaysia 1).

Ratnam points out that “there is no cultural homogeneity in Malaysian society with each ethnic group having their own religion, language, culture and customs” (Ratnam 2). For instance, the language of the Malays is the Malay language which is another strong factor in holding the Malays together. There is no doubt that language is a significant rallying point for the Malays, and “it has been one of the most sensitive issues in Malaysian politics” (Jamil 3).

The second largest group is the Chinese people who are held together by a common heritage and culture. This community makes use of several dialects and they include Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka. Although these Chinese groups belong to separate linguistic groups, for the purpose of writing and education, they use Mandarin.

The third largest group is the Indians. This people are “largely South Indian Tamils, constituting 85 percent of the total Indian population in Malaysia” (Santhiram, 77). Indian community in Malaysia speak the Tamil language. These varied ethnic identities have constituted a multi-ethnic or pluralistic nature in Malaysian society” (Jamil 3).

The British colonialists as well produced an “artificial occupational segregation” basing on the ethnic lines. The Malays were put in Agriculture, the Indians worked on plantations and the Chinese were put in commerce. This move reinforced “a sense of enter-ethnic divisions, economic imbalance, and therefore prohibited any kind of solidarity between these major ethnic groups” (Stockwell 60).

According to Boon, the actual reason for the “racist ideology” was “of course a British strategy to divide and rule”. There was tolerating of the Chinese merchants by the British and they were used as middlemen. But “British capital wanted to keep them away from direct political power” (Boon para 19).

For the reason that the Malay Sultans seemed to engage in spending well beyond their incomes, it did not take long before they were in debt to Chinese bankers and following this, they turned out to be dependent.

In order to counteract “Chinese capitalist political aspirations, the British leaned on the Malay feudal lords and allowed them virtual monopoly of positions in the police and local military units, as well as majority of those administrative position open to non-Europeans” (Boon para 20). Even if these positions did not just have minimum power, they as well offered them the vital prestige.

The educational policies that were put in place by the British colonialists also segregated the various ethnic groups, offering very minimal public education to the Malays. As on one hand the Chinese people set up their own schools and imported the teachers from their country, on the other hand, the colonial government engaged in fostering education for the Malays.

The Malay peasants lived in misery. “The agricultural rights of the indigenous Malays were protected by law to soothe them against colonial dominion” (Boon para 22). However, in the actual sense, Malay peasants were given encouragement to plant rice for the local consumption, as they had been doing before, but they were not allowed to grow rubber which was a most profitable crop set aside for the Chinese commercial famers.

Under the British colonial rule, with the influx of big immigrant communities, a description is given by Furnival of the existing society as ‘a unit of disparate parts that mix but do not combine which each group holds its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways” (Furnival 313). Following this, there is relative lack of “consensus values” with relative “autonomy for the separate parts of the social system, resulting in tension and ethnic conflict” (Chan 20).

Because the Malaysian social-economic structure before independence and also after independence is divided basing on the ethnic lines, it is not a big surprise to realize that “politics, responding to this realty, is also organized on this basis” (Jamil 3). In this regard, the practice of the “ethnic-based political parties” serves to reinforce the difference of the many ethnic communities of Malaysia.

In essence, a larger number of the political parties in the Malaysian society were just pressure groups looking for privileges as well as advantages for thie members who are ethnically oriented (Saad 59). Most of the time, they serve as a mediator of the ethnic interests as well as ethnic symbols. To this day, the ethnic differences “have been given a political dimension; thus education issues are also being structured and debated around ethnicity dimensions” (Jamil 4).


The effects of British colonialism are still felt in Malaysia up to this day. Originally, the Malaysian society was a homogenous one, consisting mostly of the Malays. However, with the coming of the British; the Chinese and Indians came in to look for work. The Chinese, Indians and Malays were divided and were not allowed to come together. They worked in different section basing on the race to which they belonged. This ethnical divide is still there to this day. Politics and other issues in this country are also organized on the ethnic lines.

Works Cited

Boon, Bruce. Malaysia: 50 years of independence – colonialism at the root of national question. International Marxist tendency, 31 august 2007. Web. <>.

Chan, Chai. Planning education for plural society. Paris: Unesco, IIEP, 1971.

Furnival, John Sydenham. Colonial policy and practice: A comparative study of Burma and Netherlands India. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1948.

Gullick, John. Malaysia. London: Ernest Benn Ltd, 1969.

Lambert, Tim. A short history of Malaysia. Localhistories.org, 2011. Web. <>.

“Malaysia”. Press statement, population distribution and basic demographic characteristic report. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics.

Milne, Robert. Government and politics in Malaysia. Boston: Oughton Mifflin Co., 1967.

Ratnam, Kanagaratnam Jeya. Communalism and political process in Malaya. Singapore: The University of Malaya Press, 1965.

Saad, Ibrahim. The impact of national language medium schools on attitudes related to national integration in Peninsula Malaysia. PhD Thesis (Unpublished). University of Wisconsin-Madison, U.S.A, 1979.

Santhiram, Robert. Education of minorities: The case of Indians in Malaysia. New York: Child information and Development Center, 1999.

Stockwell, Jacob. “The White man’s burden and brown humanity: Colonialism and ethnicity in British Malays”. Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 10.1 (1982): 59 -62.

“What colonialism has done to us, Malaysia”. WordPress.com. wordpress, 13 October 2008. Web.

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