To understand a country, you must know its history

6 01 2012

Important Lessons in History


Tan Siok Choo
  • WHEN I was a schoolgirl, the only subject my father wanted me to excel in was history. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my best subject. Undaunted, my father seized every opportunity to underscore the importance of studying history.
  • In April 1968, my parents brought my younger sister and me for our first visit to India. Soon after we had checked into our hotel in New Delhi, my father asked me to name India’s first Mughal emperor. Stunned and unprepared for this question, I protested against this unscheduled history test.
  • To understand a country, you must know its history, my father emphasised. Forty-three years later, I realise my father was right.
  • Today, much of the furore over Article 153 in Malaysia’s Constitution stems from the lack of familiarity with this country’s history, in particular, the protracted and difficult negotiations by leaders of Umno, MCA and MIC – who later formed the Alliance – on several potentially divisive issues.
  • These included the special rights for the Malays, the right of jus soli, Malay as the official language as well as the position of Chinese and Tamil schools. A Latin term meaning “law of the soil”, jus soli is the principle that a person’s citizenship is determined by the country of his or her birth.
  • That leaders of the Alliance component parties – Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Sambanthan – succeeded in reaching agreement on these potential deal breakers was largely because they negotiated as partners involved in a joint undertaking rather than as one Big Brother and two Little Brothers.
  • A press release dated Oct 30, 1956 encapsulated the MCA’s stand on the special rights of the Malays.
  • “Ever since the advent of the British to Malaya, the Malays have enjoyed their special position. The present Federation of Malaya Agreement acknowledges this fact. So in admitting that the Malays are in a special position, we are not doing anything new. On the other hand, if we do not accept the special position of the Malays, we shall be denying to them what is already theirs.
  • “We should also remind the Chinese that the Malays are also in a very special position, on account of their voting strength.”
  • In the country’s first federal election held in July 1955, Malay voters formed 84.2% of the electorate, Chinese voters 11.2% and the others just 4.6%, K.J. Ratnam wrote in his bookCommunalism and the Political Process in Malaya.

  • Stringent citizenship requirements under the Federation of Malaya Agreement 1949 disqualified from citizenship three-quarters of the Chinese population, Heng Pek Koon noted in her book,Chinese Politics in Malaysia. MCA leaders realised that so long as large numbers of Chinese remained disenfranchised, the party could never be an effective force in Malayan politics, Heng wrote.
  • Umno’s acceptance of jus soli was spurred by three factors. First, its overriding aim was to secure independence from Britain. Second, Umno leaders and British officials realised Chinese support was essential in the fight against the communists during the Emergency, that the battle had to be won on two fronts – military and political.
  • Third, Umno found jus soli a useful bargaining tool to obtain unqualified MCA and MIC support for the special rights of Malays as well as for Malay as the official language. In return, Umno agreed to uphold the right of the Chinese and the Indians to study in vernacular schools.
  • For the country’s first federal elections in July 1955, the comprehensive Alliance Manifesto spelled out the rationale for jus soli.
  • “As a result of the Federation of Malaya Agreement of 1948, a problem of a large alien population has been created in the Federation … An independent Malaya cannot tolerate this state of affairs … To meet this situation, it is essential that Independent Malaya must create unity and a common loyalty, among her peoples, and this will not be achieved if half her population were to remain aliens.”
  • Prior to Merdeka in August 1957, the wording of Article 153 and its sub-clauses reflects this give-and-take stance among Alliance leaders.
  • “It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.” (Article 153(1))
  • “Nothing in this article shall empower Parliament to restrict business, or trade, solely for the purpose of reservations for the Malays.” (Article 153 (9))
  • While some of these finely balanced trade-offs may seem a no-brainer today, amid the political cauldron of 1955 and 1956, it took tremendous courage for the Alliance leaders to reach this understanding and to persuade their generally reluctant communities to adhere to this compact.
  • Alliance leaders were all too aware that playing to the gallery would make them personally popular with their communities while restraining aggressors who called for an all-or-nothing stance in determining these issues could be personally costly.
  • That Alliance leaders sealed this compact despite strong pressure from within their own communities reflects their determination to place the country’s interest ahead of short-term personal political gains.
  • With racially-divisive issues again bubbling up, will the present political leaders show the same political courage and restraint their predecessors demonstrated more than 56 years ago?

Personal Note:

  • This article should somehow teach us some good lessons and we should understand of why the Malays do things that way and Chinese and Indian do things on the other. When our forefathers agreed on things, they had made sure things will benefit us. By asking and questioning the Article 153, we should if we really want to do it properly: