Here’s some food for thought: Why did colonialism occur on our land for several hundred years? Why didn’t proto-Malaysians fight back the moment invasion was upon them? And here’s a tougher nougat for thought; despite everything, was colonialism a good thing for Malaysia?
Before answering those big questions without empirical certainty, perhaps we should ask how colonialism is framed and discussed in the Malaysian popular imagination. Thinking about colonialism at the time of national day celebrations can serve a variety of useful purposes. For the patriotic, it’s about commemorating the day we showed the penjajah (colonial/imperialist powers) the door and declared our political independence; for historians, it’s a reminder of how little we’ve decolonised ourselves. But for the ordinary Malaysian who are neither the chest-beating patriotic type nor learned historian*, colonialism is in the past and has no bearing on the present or future.
How do most Malaysians remember our colonial past? Or rather, how are we expected to remember our colonial past? What does colonialism mean in our popular imagination? The pages of our diluted, heavily edited and biased history textbooks do not burn with distaste and anger toward our European (particularly British) colonial masters. Instead, we remember them as relatively benevolent men who found economic potential in proto-Malaysia. They struck a deal with the sultans to settle and develop industries, our industries. They fought to keep the perils of communism and Japanese imperialism at bay. They helped us on our way to independence.
Their presence was therefore seen in many ways a boon to our imminent independence; our colonial masters helped build roads and other very useful public infrastructure, introduced an organised education system, and made us speak English among other things. With the history of indentured labour a mere footnote in Malaysian history books, we remembered our colonialism as less severe; we did not suffer colonial slavery of the scale that tore swaths of people and cultures apart in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The cradle of our independence was not washed in blood like India and Pakistan. In comparison, the liberation of the federated Malay states and straits states (excluding Sabah and Sarawak) in 1957 was like a gift on a silver platter handed from one group of British colonial elites to a coterie of a mainly Malay elite. For our British colonial masters, the London-educated, steak-loving anglophile Tunku Abdul Rahman ticked the boxes of the ideal leader for the newly-born postcolonial states, not the anti-colonial Malay and Chinese communists who fought bitterly in vain to drive the British out. For Lim Kean Chye, merdeka has little to no meaning, as Malaysia is still a colonial state, furnished with a racist superiority complex that imbues our national psyche and legal system, a complex not far removed from the racist colonial one with the added manic flag-waving pretensions of a liberated and democratic nation.
There are several hypotheses for why the popular imagination of our relationship with colonialism is filtered through rosy pink lenses. First, the control of Malay and strait states was smoothly managed in that the states were relatively compact and geographically accessible, not needing extensive and punishing slave labour to build railroads across vast stretches of land to facilitate the colonial plundering of resources (such as in Canada and United States for example). Because of the presence of Islam and by implication a recognised element of ‘civilisation’, the everyday customs and religions of the common people were allowed to self-manage and not need the brutalising ‘civilising’ processes like in India and in the African countries through widespread missionary work and the denigration of local cultures.
Because African peoples were viewed as lacking a religion in the eyes of the colonial puritanical zealots, their dehumanisation and process to ‘civilisation’ were particularly brutal. Racist colonial scholarship that sought to redeem the savagery of non-white peoples, through the construction of racial hierarchy that posits a group of savages as less savage than others, was eclipsed by its inadvertent results; new forms of marginalisation, ethnic divide, and genocide. In Malaysia, the road to independence was punctuated by luck and circumstance with the ethnic divide smoothed-over by fragile diplomatic arrangements, and not defined by struggle and agency.
Colonialism in proto-Malaysia was seen as simply a benign project because the racism of our European invaders did not register in our Eurocentric collective memory. That is perhaps one of the many complex and inter-locking reasons why colonialism occurred for so long in proto-Malaysia. The spectacular retreat of the French that ended colonialism in Haiti in 1804 taught the post-colonial world, among other things, that independence can be won without the paternalistic hand-me-down of a used and abused nation and that colonialism was not an inevitable event in history to be taken for granted. In contrast, the story of Malaysian independence in history textbooks and popular imagination would have us believe that proto-Malaysians slept all throughout European expansion only to be awaken by the gentle nudge of the distant crumbling of Empire.
* Granted, the categories are not necessarily exclusive.