The British were in Malaya from 1786 to 1963. In the former year, the British East India Company established Georgetown on Penang, which belonged to the Sultan of Kedah. In the latter, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah joined independent Malaysia. If you count Brunei, they were in Malaya from 1786 to 1984.
The first Europeans on the peninsula had been the Portuguese, who in 1511, under Alfonso de Albuquerque, captured the Sultanate of Malacca. Portugal’s control of Malacca was frequently contested by the Sultanate of Aceh (Sumatra).
In 1641 the Dutch captured Malacca from the Portuguese after a long siege. They held it until 1824.
In 1786 Francis Light of the British East India Company established Georgetown on Penang (named after the future George IV; the name Prince of Wales Island never caught on). In 1791, after an unsuccessful attempt to retake the island, the Sultan of Kedah agreed on the settlement of an annual stipend from the British.
From 1795 to 1815 the East India Company occupied Dutch Malacca to forestall French action there.
In 1800 the Sultan of Kedah ceded an area – Province Wellesley – on the mainland opposite Penang to the Company.
In 1819 the Sultan of Johore was made to cede Singapore island to the British East India Company through the efforts of Sir Stamford Raffles.
In 1824 the Dutch formally transferred Malacca to the East India Company.
So the East India Company now has Malacca, Penang with Province Wellesley, and Singapore.
In 1826 these three British East India Company colonies of Malacca, Penang and Singapore were given a unified administration as the Straits Settlements, which were under British East India Company rule, ultimately from Calcutta, to 1858 (when the Crown replaced the East India Company in India); subordinated to British India from 1858 to 1867 (India Office); and from April 1 1867 a separate Crown Colony (Colonial Office).
The Straits Settlements lasted from 1826 to 1946. Immigrants arrived in large numbers from China and India.
In 1841 the Sultan of Brunei ceded Sarawak, on Borneo, to an Englishman, James Brooke, who became the first of the “White Rajahs of Sarawak”. Sarawak was never part of the Straits Settlements. In 1888 it became a British protectorate, but it remained under the control of the Brookes. There were three generations: Sir James Brooke, Sir Charles Johnson Brooke and Sir Charles Vyner Brooke. In 1946 Charles Vyner ceded it to the Crown. It remained a separate Crown Colony (not part of the Malayan Union or Federation) until 1963, when it joined Malaysia. The capital is Kuching.
In 1888 North Borneo, now Sabah, became a British protectorate. In 1865 the American Consul in Brunei had obtained a 10-year lease over the area from the Sultan of Brunei. Ownership then passed to an American trading company and some Chinese merchants. The company’s rights were sold to Baron von Overbeck, the Austrian Consul in Hong Kong, and he obtained a 10-year renewal of the lease. For a time this Gustav Freiherr von Overbeck had the title of Maharajah of Sabah. Then they were transferred to Alfred Dent, who in 1882 formed the British North Borneo Company. Although it became a protectorate, control remained in the hands of the Company until the Japanese invasion. In 1946 it became a separate Crown Colony (with a new capital at Jesselton, now Kota Kinabalu; previous capitals had been Kudat and then Sandakan). In 1963 colonial rule ended and it joined Malaysia as the state of Sabah.
In 1888 Brunei itself became a British protectorate, administered by a British resident, although the sultan retained formal authority. It remained thus until 1984, when it became independent. It has never been administratively linked to the mainland.
What was happening to the nine sultanates on the mainland? On July 1 1896 four of them – Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak and Selangor – became a protectorate known as the Federated Malay States, which lasted until 1946. Its capital, from 1896, was the new Selangor tin-mining town of Kuala Lumpur.
Five states – Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis – continued to have their own, individual relations with Britain and remained “unfederated”.
We then have, on the mainland, the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States, and the unfederated states; and on Borneo the protectorates of Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei.
All these territories were occupied by Japan between 1942 and 1945.
On April 1 1946 the Straits Settlements were dissolved. Singapore was made into a separate Crown Colony. The other peninsular possessions were established as a new colony, called the Malayan Union, consisting of both previously federated and unfederated Malay states plus Malacca and Penang.
The Malays vehemently opposed the Union. They feared that the admission of the large, immigrant Chinese and Indian populations of Penang and Malacca, who had been brought in by the British, to Malayan citizenship would end the special position Malays had always enjoyed, and they were unwilling to surrender the political power they enjoyed within the individual sultanates. In 1948 the British backed down. On February 1 the Federation of Malaya, headed by a British High Commissioner, took the place of the Union. Malacca and Penang became members in addition to the nine federated and unfederated states, but there was no common citizenship. Singapore, with its Chinese majority, remained a separate colony – it had been detached in 1946 precisely to avoid problems between Malays and Chinese.
The so-called Emergency began in June 1948. Communist terrorists (almost all Chinese, known to the British army as CTs and to themselves as the Min Yuen), who had previously worked with the British against the Japanese, attacked government posts and police and military patrols in the rubber plantations and tin-mining areas. Many Malayan officials were killed. They also intended to wreck the economy by killing planters and their managers and slashing rubber trees: one in ten rubber planters was killed during the course of the Emergency.
The British responded by gathering together the Chinese workers of the plantations and mines into “new villages”. About 300,000 squatters lived on the fringes of the plantations and provided the “sea” in which the CT “fish” could swim, under Mao’s prescription for guerilla war. These squatters were rounded up into secure and well organised government controlled villages. The policy worked, and was the model for the “strategic hamlets” policy that the Americans tried in Vietnam.
The British also responded by training their own conscript army in the techniques of guerilla warfare and combing the Malayan jungle, section by section, with the help of Dayak trackers from Borneo. By the time of independence most remaining CTs had been driven across the border into Thailand.
At the height of the Emergency there were 40,000 regular British troops in Malaya, including the Malay Regiment, 70,000 police who were almost entirely Malay, and perhaps 250,000 indigenous “Home Guards” who defended their own villages and communities.
On November 21 1954 Lee Kuan Yew founded the People’s Action Party in Singapore. At first, it existed in alliance with communist-led trade unions (Lim Chin Siong). Lee’s nickname for Fong Chong Pik, the head of the Singapore section of the Communist Party of Malaya, was “the Plen”. Fong wanted a united front with the PAP against the British.
On August 31 1957 – we have just had the 50th anniversary – the Federation of Malaya became an independent country. The insurrection was already subsiding.
In 1959 Singapore became self-governing in all matters except defence and foreign affairs. The PAP took power with Lee as prime minister and has ruled ever since.
On September 16 1963 the Federation of Malaya became the Federation of Malaysia, with the accession of Sabah (formerly North Borneo), Sarawak and Singapore. Brunei, not wishing to share its oil wealth, did not accede and remained under British protection until 1984.
The Singaporean communists (“the Plen”) were against the merger. Lee wanted it to prevent Singapore being eaten away by the communists.
1963-66: the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, an undeclared war fought mainly in Borneo. Indonesia opposed the formation and existence of Malaysia.
1962-90: communist insurgency in Sarawak. When the pro-communist Sukarno sent in guerillas during the confrontation phase, British troops helped to defeat them by the same methods that had beaten the Malayan communists in the ’50s.
On August 9 1965 Malaysia expelled Singapore from the Federation – an event which turned out to be profoundly invigorating for the Chinese. To the Chinese, independence had not felt like independence in 1963.
At what point did communism cease to be a potent force in Singapore? During the period of the merger or after 1965?
In 1967 Britain announced that it would close its military bases east of Suez. They closed in Singapore and Malaysia in 1971. It continues to support Brunei with a small presence.
Since its own independence, Malaya/Malaysia has been an elective kingdom, with the head of state, a paramount ruler with the title of yang di-pertuan agong, elected every five years from among the nine hereditary Malay sultans. The king’s power to veto legislation was removed after a constitutional crisis in 1983.
Click to view