The Alliance Coalition in the newly autonomous Malaya was formed based on the concept of consensus government. Made up of three major political parties-the UMNO, MCA and MIC, the Alliance was communally based and drew support from their claims to represent the interests of the three major ethnic groups. Similar educational and social backgrounds among the principal leaders contributed significantly to their ability to effect practical solutions to problems.
The dominant group within the Alliance was UMNO, whose founder Datuk Onn had been replaced by Tunku Abdul Rahman. UMNO’s initial success was due to its ability to harness all levels of Malay opinion in opposition to the Malayan Union through government service employees who were able to mobilize Malays holding positions in various state administrative structures.
While the majority of Malays supported UMNO, there were other more radical organizations which vied for Malay allegiance. One group which was more successful in its challenge to UMNO was Parti Islam Se-Tanah Melayu [-Malaysia] (PAS, or the Pan-Malay Islamic Party). As part of UMNO, it had earlier been known as the All-Malaya Islamic Association but later adopted the name PAS in order to contest as a separate political party in the 1955 federal elections. Its emphasis on Islam as a basis of a Malay-dominated society and demands for the preservation of Malay privileges were by no means news and struck a chord in the northern states (Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu), home to a high percentage of Malays and with relatively low economic development. In 1955 PAS gained the only seat not won by the Alliance, and by the 1959 federal elections, under the experienced leadership of Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy, it had made considerable inroads into UMNO’s support among Malays.
The second major party in the alliance hoped to achieve and maintain the protection of Chinese interests by maintaining cordial relations with UMNO. Initially, its leadership comprised a small Western-educated business and professional Chinese class. Y dispensing patronage to the MCA’s Chinese-speaking state leaders, the English-speaking MCA elite was able to reach out to Chinese guilds, clan associations and trade unions. Furthermore, their educational experience in English schools gave these men a solid platform to develop a working relationship with leaders of other ethnic groups of the Alliance.
In 1958, a radical Chinese-educated communal faction began to play a more active role in MCA politics. They were far more representative of Chinese welfare than their English-educated predecessors but when relations with UMNO seemed threatened by their more aggressive demands, the old guard suspended the instigators. A third small faction, which emerged in 1957, obtained the support of young left-wing Western –educated individuals and its leader, Dr. Lim Chong Eu, replaced the ailing president Tan Cheng Lock the following year. Despite promises of continued co-operation, the close personal friendship which had previously existed between the leaders of UMNO and MCA was now absent.
The 1959 ‘July Crisis’ was a timely litmus test of UMNO-MCA relations. Because of the new citizenship laws, the Chinese electorate in 1959 had increased to 35.6% of the total as opposed to 11.2% in the previous elections. However, the Alliance National Council had informally agreed to only 28 places for the MCA. The new MCA leadership pressed for an allocation of 40 positions on the Alliance ticket and further urged that Mandarin be recognized as an official language in a manner that was tantamount to an ultimatum. These demands were swiftly withdrawn when UMNO threatened to contest the elections without the MCA, but the damage was done, and only MCA members acceptable to the Tunku appeared on the ticket for the 1959 elections. As a result of the crisis, the Alliance became much more streamlined according to the Tunku’s leadership. The MCA’s claim to be an advocate of its group’s interests had been significantly undermined and many disillusioned Chinese now sought other forms of leadership that could uphold their rights.
In the 1955 elections, the MIC was allotted only 2 seats in comparison to 15 and 35 positions held by MCA and UMNO respectively, highlighting their status as the weakest member of the Alliance. Significantly, the MIC had yet to prove that it could galvanize the support of the small Indian electorate, which was still divided along cultural and ethnic lines. Furthermore, Indian trade unionists and the educated Hindu elite frequently supported non-communal parties rather than the MIC. Nor had the Hindu-dominated MIC been able to garner support with the mass of Indian labourers, a majority of whom were Tamil. The Tamil press heavily criticized the UMNO-MCA merger and MIC’s perceived lackluster performance in championing Indian interests.
The ability of the MIC to cooperate with the Alliance in the early years was largely due to a close personal bond shared between the Tunky and V.T. Sambanthan, MIC president (1954-1973). As with the MCA, when the activities of more radical members threatened to jeopardize relations with UMNO, they were removed from the party. Despite the long-lasting presence of the old leadership, its bargaining power was limited by the small size of the Indian electorate, which in 1959 was only 7.4% of the total.
Areas of Compromise within the Alliance
In 1956, a Committee headed by Abdul Razak bin Datuk Hussein, minister of education and later prime minister, argued that the separate educational systems which had developed under British colonial rule were a major deterrent to unity among the ethnic races. It was therefore necessary to establish common syllabuses in all schools in the Federation so as to inculcate common ideals and aspirations among the population in a move towards national unity. Significantly, another reason for extending government control over education and curriculum content was the fact that the MCP had long used Chinese schools as a recruiting ground. The Razak Report accordingly recommended limiting access to the school system for mature students.
The new educational system under the Education Ordinance of March 1957 involved much political compromise. Both MCA and MIC accepted the principle that Malay, as a national language, should be accorded primacy. In return, UMNO acknowledged the concerns of the Chinese and Indians to preserve vernacular education. Primary National Schools (Sekolah Kebangsaan) would be conducted in Malay, whereas government-supported National-Type Schools (Jenis Kebangsaan) could use English, Mandarin or Tamil as the medium of instruction, although the study of Malay was required. At secondary level education, the medium of instruction was mainly Malay, while schools in other languages only received partial government support, highlighting the government’s determination to help Malays acquire modern skills beyond the primary level. Although the Ordinance was passed unanimously by the Federal Legislature, this ambiguous position left many among the rank and file supporters of the MIC and MCA uneasy.
The MCA and MIC had constantly supported citizenship based on the principle of jus soli, whereby all those born in Malaya would automatically become citizens. UMNO agreed to this in return for an agreement from its Alliance partneers to an educational policy where Malay would be compulsory and a common Malayan curriculum’ devised for all schools of whatever language medium.
3. Malay Special Rights
The MCA and MIC accepted the existing four-to-one ratio of Malays to non-Malays in the Malayan Civil Service, the status of the sultans and the adoption of Malay as the national language, which asserted the position of Malays as ‘sons/daighters of the soil’ (Bumiputera).
In return for these concessions, UMNO reassured the other two parties that liberal economic policies would be pursued to enable non-Malays to engage in economic activities without fear of confiscation or discrimination.