My Say: Umno and looking back at history

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 7 - 14, 2016.


This is a special year for Malaysia — not because of the Sarawak elections due in April (according to some sources), or the alarming economic situation facing so many already poor Malaysians today, or the risk of a terrorist attack being foretold by external sources that are generally not given to be being alarmist. Neither is it because of the general reputation of the country hitting a new low following internationally noted scandals.

The year is historical because Umno — the party that has ruled the country since independence in 1957, and that has been the one to decide the direction of Malaysia’s political thought for 60 years — turns 70.

The United Malays National Organisation is the result of a broad and passionate reaction to the Malayan Union, a post-war British policy that Malays saw as a move to colonise Malaya for good.

What this turn of events also showed was how for over a century, the Malay community at large seemed strangely to have considered British control over most of the peninsula to be anything less than colonisation. In truth, British colonialism was often about economic control more than about a direct exercise of power.

Importantly, colonial economics was a global phenomenon that involved the migration of peoples within the British sphere of influence. In the case of Malaya, colonialism started out with the securing of ports to create a trading route stretching from the Chinese coast all the way back to Europe. Over time, and with the growth of the tin and rubber industries on the peninsula itself, Malaya became a land of plantations and mines.

People were moved as a policy to support these industries, or they migrated voluntarily for work. And they came from far away, aided by the maritime infrastructure already in place. This resettling of people was essential to the growth of the colonial economy.

All this is part and parcel of the globalisation of the world over the last 500 years. The pretense kept up for seven decades by Malay rulers and the elite in concurrence with British strategies, limited their subjects’ involvement in globalising processes.

With increased political consciousness around the time of World War II and the rise of Malay literacy, came the realisation in the community, debated strongly in the 1950s through Utusan Melayu, that there was indeed a huge gap between the knowledge, political and economic challenges of the time and what the Malay community in general was prepared for.

The enormity of this challenge for the Malays was all the more obvious when their situation was compared with that of non-Malay residents, who had from the start been involved in some way or other with the global economy, even if at the very bottom of the ladder.

Malaya’s territories had, in economic and other terms, been colonised and the rejection of the Malayan Union was not a rejection of colonialism and its globalising ambitions. It was too late for that. It was an expression of the myth that Malaya was not a colony.

One can, therefore, see why the need for Malay unity was so strongly felt in the period immediately following the war. Coming into being in such an emotive atmosphere, Umno’s members found it hard to go beyond the original motivation for the party.

The myth continued, and even the party founder, the hugely popular Onn Ja’afar, could not do much about it. From his perch, he could sense that for the party to lead Malayan society in its entirety it needed to accept the fact that post-colonial Malaya could not be the same as pre-colonial Malaya. Colonialism had already happened, and the demographic, economic and political influences it brought had already changed the Malay world — not to mention the whole world.

But Onn Ja’afar failed to push his party beyond the ethnocentric mode in which it was founded. It is as a strategy that his vehement push to open up the party to non-Malays can be seen to be ahead of its time. In fact, it should be seen as the perspective that one would expect of someone with his exposure, position and calibre to have.

For a fleeting moment, Onn Ja’afar perceived the Malayan population as a multicultural entity, configured and fused over decades by the political economy of colonialism, and not simply as a purely Malay one recently awakened to the approach of colonisation.

The idea that Malayan society was essentially a Malay one that had played — and was playing — host to visiting non-Malays on their territory would triumph within Umno after Onn Ja’afar. The country’s multicultural reality was managed — and sidestepped — through the Alliance model. This model consisted of parties each representing a race, to form a coalition, thus intrinsically keeping the communities apart.

Onn Ja’afar’s successor, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was a liberal enough person but he soon had to give way to others who advocated Malay ethnocentrism much more fervently than he did.

Now, 60 years after the Alliance came to power, Umno politics — cocooned in the Barisan Nasional coalition — continues to deny Malaysia’s multicultural society that the political economy of British colonialism had created.

What makes matters worse today, is that Umno has often chosen to exploit the Muslimness and religiosity of the Malays to control that constituency and to divide it further from others. Significantly, this happens at the same time that Malays have clearly become too diverse to be represented by the simple notion of Malay ethnocentrism.

Now 70 years old, Umno is increasingly feeling the pressure to step back into its past and to recognise the fact that the Malay peninsula was effectively colonised long before the Malayan Union project was implemented, and that its population has been multicultural for 200 years.

Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His writings are accessible at