Malaysia offers valuable lessons on how to stay together and thrive

Sixty years after being 'put together', the country has fared well despite the challenges

Performers with Malaysia flags celebrate National Day at Putrajaya last month. Malaysia's is a cosmopolitan society. Reuters
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Sixty years ago last Saturday, a country was born. However, the creation of Malaysia out of Britain’s former colonial possessions in South-East Asia was of wider significance beyond its borders.

As one state joined and was then ejected within two years – Singapore – another almost joined, and then decided not to – Brunei. At the time, the president of a third – Indonesia – was so opposed to the formation of the new nation that he vowed to “crush” it only two months before its birth.

Other states around the world have been “put together” after empires receded. The case of Malaysia may contain lessons about how to keep together and thrive, despite mistakes inevitably being made along the way.

Not since the heyday of the Majapahit Empire in the 14th century had the peninsula of Malaya (as it was until 1963) been in the same polity as the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, the other constituents of the newly formed Malaysia, along with Singapore. Then Indonesian president Sukarno had previously advocated that all these territories should be part of a “Greater Indonesia”.

He denounced Malaysia as a puppet state set up by the British, a tool of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism, and pursued a policy of “Konfrontasi” – confrontation, which led to armed skirmishes and hundreds of deaths, until the successor who ousted him, Gen Suharto, formally recognised Malaysia in August 1966.

A little more than a year before, another dramatic event had taken place.

The island of Singapore had historically belonged to the Malay sultanate of Johor, until Stamford Raffles established a trading post in 1819, with Britain taking full possession five years later. There were very strong links with the peninsula over the causeway. The University of Malaya was in Singapore until 1962, for instance.

If goodwill, tolerance, laughter and friendship can become the order of the day, there’s good reason to be optimistic for the future

Beside the cultural and geographical connections, there were doubts that the island would be viable on its own, and Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, persuaded his Malayan counterpart, Tunku Abdul Rahman, that they needed to unite to fight the growth of communism.

But there were differences, too. Due to the large ethnic Chinese population in Singapore, ethnic Malays – who expected to wield power in “Tanah Melayu”, or the Malay lands – were outnumbered by the Chinese in the new country.

The “Malay-type peoples” of the Borneo states were supposed to balance this out. But after race riots in Singapore led to nearly 30 deaths and hundreds of injured in 1964, it became clear that the ambitions of leaders in Kuala Lumpur, the national capital, and on the island were not compatible. Tunku Abdul Rahman determined Singapore had to go, and it was expelled in August 1965.

It was then, and still is, a remarkable occurrence in international affairs. As Prof James Ker-Lindsay of the London School of Economics and Political Science, an expert on secessions, puts it: “Singapore is the only state to have been created by being forced out of another country.”

It wasn’t the most promising of starts. This left the Malay peninsula with the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, and by the end of the decade, Kuala Lumpur was struck by its own deadly race riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays, which have made the year 1969 a word of warning that needs no explanation in the country to this day.

How did Malaysia recover, eventually becoming one of the so-called “tiger cub” economies of the East? Ensuring a form of political quietism was one answer.

Any country where the majority race – in this case, the Malays – owned only 3 per cent of the wealth (as they did at the time of the riots), has to act to rectify what will naturally be seen as intolerable. From the early 1970s, positive discrimination to aid the Malays aimed to rectify the differential over decades, while it was understood there would be pathways to success and a role in politics for the Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities, whose culture, languages and religions would also be given space and protected.

This worked, by and large, until the conservative Barisan Nasional coalition, which represented all races, lost office for the first time at the 2018 general election. Radicals in the opposition tasted power for the first time. But the fracturing of a settlement in politics that had lasted for nearly 40 years also let the genie of Islamism out of the bottle. (This had previously happened in Indonesia when, after Gen Suharto fell from power in 1998, 42 Islamist parties were formed within three months.)

Although out of government, the Islamist PAS is now the biggest party in Malaysian Parliament.

The 2018 election also laid bare another issue that the country born in 1963 had never dealt with properly: how to ensure fair treatment of the Borneo states, whose populations are vastly different to that of the peninsula. They had loyally supported the Barisan Nasional for decades, contributing so many MPs to subsequent Barisan governments’ majorities that they were known as “the fixed deposit” – not a very complimentary term – but broke away after 2018.

Realising their power as kingmakers in the fluid state that has led Malaysia to have five prime ministers in the past five years, Borneo’s politicians are demanding far more from a central government that has long underinvested in Sabah and Sarawak while hoovering up billions from their natural resources.

The average visitor is unlikely to see it, but resentment at the peninsula’s dominance has been growing for years, and I’ve seen it boil into open anger in discussions with Sarawakians in particular. More and more autonomy will be demanded, as no federal government will be secure without their backing.

As a shorthand, just know that “Malaysia Day” – September 16 – wasn’t even a national holiday until then prime minister Najib Razak made it one in 2010.

“Nation-building” can seem like a term politicians bandy about overly casually. Looking at the differences that are now obvious in Malaysia shows how much it is still needed – as is the equitable treatment of all people in such a diverse country.

The political quietism of the past is gone. But if the goodwill, tolerance, laughter and friendship that I saw in the crowd that filled Kuala Lumpur’s Merdeka Square on Saturday can become the order of the day – and not just on Malaysia Day – there’s good reason to be optimistic for the future.

Over the weekend, my former colleague at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, Thomas Daniel, put it well in a tweet: “Here we are at 60, far from perfect, but worth every effort as we progress [and stumble] towards a better federation. And perhaps one day, a nation.”

Published: September 21, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: September 27, 2023, 11:55 AM