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  • Malay Nationalism:A Historical Institutional Explanation
  • Abdillah Noh (bio)

In his tour of the Malay States on the east coast of the Malay peninsula in 1838, Munshi Abdullah, a Muslim scholar, described an apathetic Malay polity, where there existed “all kinds of taboos” between the ruler and the ruled and that the Malay population could not “criticise the unreasonable conduct of kings without the risk of being sentenced to death.”1

Slightly over a hundred years later, in 1946, the Malay masses were throwing their weight against their rulers in reaction to the British-proposed Malayan Union. The Malays felt that the Malayan Union would effectively spell the end of Malay political dominance because it would grant non-Malays citizenship status, employ equal citizenship rights, and revoke Malay special status. By agreeing to the proposal, they felt, the Malay rulers had short-changed Malay political rights.2 Reacting to the event, Ayob Abdullah, a political activist, reminded the Malay rulers of their responsibility toward the Malay masses.3 He also urged Malays to form political organizations since “they could no longer rely on their Rajas to defend their society.”4

The transformation of the Malay masses from political apathy to political activism surprised even the drafters of the Malayan Union. Edward Gent, the main architect of the Malayan Union proposal, wrote to the State Secretary of the Colonies expressing his surprise at Malays’ opposition to the Union, saying the Malays “showed considerable apprehension of any substantial admission of non-Malays to citizenship rights.”5

What contributes to the transformation of the Malay masses from political apathy to a determined and cogent portrayal of Malay nationalism in the twentieth century? Was the show of Malay nationalism in 1946 an ad hoc [End Page 246] display? Or was Malay nationalism a product of a historical process that had led to the transformation of the Malay polity?

This article attempts to answer these questions and will argue that Malay nationalism was a result of the British colonial administration’s inability to remove completely de jure Malay power, even when the administration managed to remove de facto Malay power. This inability to remove completely Malay de jure power was due to the British fear that a complete dismantling of Malay feudal structures would come at considerable financial and political costs. However, it was this failure to remove Malay de jure power that set off a path-dependent process, one where the colonial administration needed to continue to factor in the Malay political presence within its policy calculations. By factoring Malay de jure power, British policies created a self-reinforcing process that not only engendered the development of Malay social and political capacities but also created a network of Malay-based institutions that, in aggregate, gave rise to Malay political expression.

By adopting the historical institutional tool, this article hopes to offer a new explanation to Malay nationalism. Indeed there have been many works that provide historiographical description of Malaya and Malay nationalism.6 Though these works provide a good account of actors and issues involved in Malay nationalism, they do not trace social, political, and economic processes over the long term and do not place a premium on the fact that small policy choices may add to building up a large outcome over a long period of time. They either pay attention to specific Malay actors to explain nationalism (Malay intellectuals, organizations) or pick historical moments to depict Malay nationalism.7 Take, for instance, one of the important works on Malay nationalism by William Roff. Excellent as Roff’s work is, the “Origins of Malay Nationalism” is centered on one aspect of nationalism, one where “new social and political elite groups form the core of his analysis.”8 Roff’s work falls short of explaining the sources of the development of Malay political expression. For instance, how is it possible that the twentieth century saw a rapid growth of Malay elites? Also, what made the British administration implement policies that favored the Malays in the earlier twentieth century when such policies were clearly out of character with British liberal values? More interestingly, what triggered the British change of policy toward Malays in the twentieth...


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pp. 246-273
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