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Saturday 14 July 2012

Class, Race and Colonialism in West Malaysia - A Review

Random Reviews – 6 

Michael Stenson

(University of Queensland Press, 1980)

Since the overwhelming body of writing in English about the Malayan colonial period naturally has a colonialist tinge of some shade or other, it was a surprise to pick up a book which very obviously belonged to a different school. In fact, it was quite refreshing to read a socialist take on the country’s history from the start of the 20th century to the 1969 riots.

Stenson sets out to figure out why socialism had not quite taken hold in Malaysia in the way that it had in mangled forms in, say, Indonesia and Singapore. He came to the conclusion that he would not be able to make much headway unless he looked in detail at the politics and experiences of the Indian community. In many ways this community is as much at the bottom of the class heap today as it has  been ever since the British began replicating the West Indian indenture system in their plantations in Malaya. The story is both depressing and fascinating.

The Indian struggle to achieve a respected place in Malayan society is depressing as they appear to have been unusually handicapped. The vast majority of the community was, unlike the Malays and Chinese, cut off from general society in enclosed estates where employers provided enough to enable labourers to produce profits, but little more. They certainly did not have the means to organise to improve their conditions. Misdemeanours resulted in beatings and anything more serious could result in repatriation to India. The situation only began to change with the Japanese occupation which ended migration and half heartedly encouraged Indians to challenge British colonialism. 

Stenson demonstrates in fairly well argued and documented parts of the book not only the vital role that Malaya played in producing dollars for the British economy but also the crucial role that economically and socially depressed Indian labour played in producing those dollars. So the post war colonial administration went out of its way, according to the author, to ensure profits continued to be high and wages depressed. The control of Indian labour and the undermining of Indian politics detailed in the book reflect a very different form of life on the plantations compared to that recounted in Malayan Spymaster and Confessions of a Rubber Planter in Malaya reviewed elsewhere in this blog.

However amongst the English educated members of the Indian community - usually lawyers, teachers and clerks -  there were ready made community leaders, whom the British started by ignoring, but eventually came to accept. The British probably slowly came to an accommodation because they soon realised that Indian politics in Malaya seldom posed much of a threat to the status quo. Quite simply the community was often split by regional and other rivalries so that it was seldom, even after the war, able to speak with one voice. The natural leaders, inspired by the Indian independence struggle, found it difficult to articulate the needs of the plantation worker who only wanted a decent life and was often a long way off from understanding or wanting anything approaching a say in the country’s affairs.

Of course it did not help the Indian case, as Stenson clearly points out, that they had difficulties in choosing the country, India or Malaya, with which they wanted to identify. The Communist insurrection in Malaya and Maoist takeover of China helped the Chinese business class quickly throw in their lot with Malay conservatives working for independence. The Indians eventually threw in their lot too, but not without considerable dithering and clear signals from India that they should treat the new Malaya as their homeland.

Finally, Stenson argues, the failure of the Indians to radicalise on truly pan-Malayan issues combined with the distinctly Chinese agenda of the Communist insurgents left the door open for the British to preserve the economic status quo. The British found willing help matess in the Malay and Chinese parties being readied for independence thus setting the tone for the country’s politics and economy for decades to come.

This book is currently available at The Penang Bookshelf at RM110. SOLD


Wanderer said...

Is this book available with you?

Penangbookshelf said...

No. Sorry it's been sold some time ago. However I have ordered another copy. Please write to me at and I'll keep you posted - William

Wanderer said...

Hello Mr.William, any update on the availability of the book??

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