The Japanese invasion of Malaya and British Borneo in late 1941, which culminated in the humiliating British surrender in Singapore two and a half months later, shattered Western colonial supremacy and unleashed the forces of incipient nationalism. Although the British were able to resume their authority in the region after the collapse of Japan in 1945, they faced an entirely new political situation and those circumstances forced them to adopt new policies. As a result the Straits Settlements were dissolved. Pulau Pinang and Melaka were joined with the Malay States of the Peninsula to form a new Malayan Union. Singapore became a separate crown colony and so did both Sarawak and British North Borneo in place of the former Brooke and Chartered Company regimes. Labuan was joined to British North Borneo.

These new arrangements met with considerable Malaysian opposition. In Sarawak a strong campaign developed opposing the crown colony status and culminated in the assassination of the second British governor (1949). But the most serious opposition was in the Malay Peninsula against the Malayan Union which reduced the status of the Malay States virtually to that of a British colony. Consequently, the British were obliged to abandon the Malayan Union scheme, and in 1948 in its place established the Federation of Malaya, after protracted negotiations with the Malay Rulers, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and other parties concerned. The new Federation consisted of all the nine Malay states of the Peninsula, along with Melaka and Pulau Pinang, united under a federal government in Kuala Lumpur headed by a British High Commissioner.


By the Agreement of 1948 the British had committed themselves to preparing the way for the Federation’s independence. Under the twin pressures of a communist rebellion (the Emergency) and the development of a strong Malay nationalist movement (represented by UMNO), the British introduced elections, starting at local level in 1951. The problem of obtaining political cooperation among the main ethnic groups in the country to fight for independence was resolved by the successful establishment of an alliance between UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), the two principal communal parties, in the same year, which was subsequently joined by the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).

When the first federal elections were held in 1955, the UMNO-MCA-MIC Alliance, headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, won an overwhelming victory
(51 out of the 52 seats contested), and the Tunku was appointed the Federation’s first Chief Minister. The Alliance was successful in pressuring the British to relinquish their sovereignty in August 1957.

In the meantime slower constitutional progress had been taking place under British colonial rule in Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah. In 1955 Singapore was granted internal autonomy (the Rendel Constitution) and had its first Chief Minister (David Marshall). By 1959 Singapore had achieved full internal self-government and was led by the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) under Lee Kuan Yew. In Sarawak local elections were introduced in 1959.


The first move towards the formation of Malaysia came in 1961 when the idea for the formation of a wider federation comprising the Federation of Malaya, Singapore and the Kalimantan States (including Brunei) was mooted by Tunku Abdul Rahman in a speech in Singapore. The Tunku’s proposal received mixed reception. It was generally popular in Malaya and Singapore but raised doubts in Sabah and Sarawak. It also quickly aroused opposition from the Philippines which asserted a claim over British North Borneo (Sabah) and from Indonesia where it was viewed as a “neo-colonialist” plot by Sukarno and the powerful Indonesian Communist Party. However, the proposal had the immediate effect of accelerating constitutional development in Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. Elections were held for the first time in Brunei and in Sabah in 1962. A joint Anglo-Malayan commission headed by a former governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cobbold, visited Sabah and Sarawak in 1962 and reported that the majority in both states favoured the formation of Malaysia. However, continued Philippine and Indonesian opposition led to the sending of a United Nations mission to Borneo in 1963, which also reported that public opinion was in favour of joining Malaysia. Consequently, on 16 September 1963, Malaysia was formally promulgated, although without Brunei which by this time had declined to join.
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MALAYSIA, 1963 –

The first few years of Malaysia were taken up by a serious challenge to its survival, mainly from Indonesia whose policy of confrontation took the form of armed attacks on the Peninsula and across the land frontiers of Sabah and Sarawak. Confrontation was finally brought to an end by an agreement signed in Bangkok in 1966, while the Philippines gave its formal recognition to Malaysia the same year. In the meantime, however, (i.e. in 1965) Singapore ceased to be a member of the Malaysian federation and became an independent state.

In the seven general elections which have been held since the formation of Malaysia (the most recent being in 1990), the ruling coalition of political parties- formerly the Alliance, but expanded in 1971 to become the Barisan Nasional-has easily retained its majority in parliament. However, in 1969 for the first and up till now the only time, the coalition lost its overall two- thirds majority. Communal tensions resulted in the 13 May 1969 incident in Kuala Lumpur, leading to the establishment of an emergency government-the National Operations Council. Parliamentary rule was resumed in 1971. Since then the broad aim of the administration has been the fulfilment of the New Economic Policy which is designed to eradicate poverty regardless of race, and to eliminate the identification of occupation with race.

The economic prosperity achieved in the 1970s enabled the administration of Tun Abdul Razak, who succeeded Tunk
u Abdul Rahman as premier in 1970, and Tun Hussein Onn who took over on the death of Tun Razak in 1976 to make considerable progress towards these ends. At the same time, Malaysia established a more independent foreign policy, helping found ASEAN in 1967, recognising Communist China in t974, and identifying the nation with the non-aligned countries of the Third World. The 1980s have brought new political directions and economic challenges. The administration of Dato’ Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (1981) has seen the search for new sources of support and development (the Look East Policy), the initiation of a bold policy of heavy industrialisation (the national car, a steel industry and oil refineries) and an aggressive foreign policy asserting the interests of the undeveloped South versus those of the developed nations of the North. The ruling coalition of parties in the Barisan Nasional continues to dominate the political arena but a number of developments, including the coming of age of a new generation of voters, suggest that there may be changes in the traditional pattern of Malaysian politics.

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