An Australian independent scholar expounded on British role behind the racial history of Malaysia during a public talk organised by Wawasan Open University at the main campus.
The talk on ‘Colonial Ideologies of Race and their Application in British Malaya’ was presented by Dr Carl Vadivella Belle, a former diplomat with the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.
Dr Belle shared how British theories and policies of race following the Indian Mutiny in colonial India were reproduced in colonial Malaya. Among the practices were indirect rule, co-option of elites, development of special education institutions to train the sons of elites in British values (such as the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar), the maintenance of prestige, and development of racial hierarchy.
He said the British recruited cheap labour from China, India and to a lesser extent, Java, to occupy the main sectors of the colonial economy. According to him, the British then introduced ideologies to disrupt the ethnic relations in Malaya. “The process of the racial classification of the many ethnicities and sub-ethnicities of British Malaya were formalised through the agencies of the census, which successfully collapsed the fluid diversity of Malaya population into three major distinct racial groupings.”
He also blamed the British for creating social hierarchy among the races by attributing certain characteristics on each race – such as lazy, hardworking, greedy, easy to manage – and using these characteristics “to stipulate the race-vocation roles each was to occupy in colonial Malaya”. The Malays worked in small-holdings, Chinese in mining areas and urban settlements, and the Indians in estates and public utilities.
Dr Belle said the British promoted the view that the Malays needed their protection against the industriousness of the other races in economic development and to guarantee their welfare. “The British encouraged the belief that the Chinese and Indian immigrants, irrespective of their stay in Malaya, will never belong here. Also their classification as transients prevented them from claiming certain social and political privileges extended to the Malays,” he added.
He said British policy discounted the notion that the Chinese and Indians, having made their homes here and contributing to the economy, would have a vested interest in the colony’s future. He stated the British then used this perception to justify restricting full participation in the administration of Malaya to the Malay aristocrats and their British advisors.
About 80 people, including educationists and members of Penang Heritage Trust, attended the talk organised by WOU’s School of Foundation and Liberal Studies.