Recently, I have just finished reading a book by Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian titled “Palace, Political Party and Power’. I have got to say, this book changed my whole perception of the Malaysian Monarchy. I was pleasantly surprised by the scope and depth of Mrs Suwannathat’s research, which dates back to the British colonial era.
Now, at this point, I know what are on the minds of the readers. Hush, Malaysians are not allowed or encouraged to talk about the royalty. Rest assured, I will just be talking about the developments of the monarch and UMNO during the 1940’s to 1950’s. This period saw the rise of UMNO as a political party, to safeguard the interests of the monarch. Subsequently, it was an ongoing tussle between three political forces, the monarchy, the British and finally UMNO.
Emerging from the shadows of the Japanese occupation, a power vacuum after WW2 meant that the British came back to power in Malaya. The monarch, severely weakened from the Japanese regime, was only starting to recover. The concept of The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, in which the intention was to overthrow the old world order of colonial powers came to be replaced by a new colonial master, the Japanese Empire. The positions of the sultans in the monarchy was further eroded by Japan, as the rulers were relegated to mere officials of the imperial administration and were no longer the official heads of their states. (Suwannathat, pg 102)
With the weakened position of the royalty after WW2, the British moved to secure its political position in Malaya by introducing the Malayan Union, in an attempt to centralize the administration of Malaya. What the British did not anticipate was the united opposition showed by the Malay people in defense of their monarchy. A prominent figure in the mold of Dato Onn Jaafar, united the Malay masses to fight for the monarchy, and went on to form UMNO, which signals the emergence of the Malay elites in Malaya’s political arena. UMNO with the backing of the royalty, successfully pushed for the end of the Malayan Union and that led the British to seriously consider its strategies in dealing with the new political force of UMNO.
Though the Malayan Union resulted in an alliance of the royalty with UMNO, the end of it also meant that this alliance was a flimsy one. Dato Onn Jaafar, in the years of 1946-1951, was undoubtedly the strongest political figure in the Malay community. His political body, UMNO enjoyed great support from the Malay grassroots, and that later on proved to be the thing that pushed the royalties and UMNO into open conflict with each other.
After the abolishment of Malayan Union, Dato Onn Jaafar’s increasing frustration with the royalty ( the royalty considered UMNO a political rival after Malayan Union, and was highly suspicious of Dato Onn’s political intentions ) resulted in him publicly declaring that it was UMNO who put the royalty back on their thrones, and UMNO’s wish of the Malay States as an independent sovereign state of Malaya. (Suwannathat, pg 212)
This did not go down well with the rulers and the British capitalized on this issue by aligning themselves with the rulers. On one side, the British with the royalty supported a strong central government, while Data Onn supported strong state governments. This political standoff eventually resulted in Dato Onn resigning in 1951 from UMNO, to establish the IMP. ( There are many interesting details and events that happened throughout this period from Suwannathat’s book, if you want to know more, buy the book )
The period after this marked the resurgence of UMNO under Tunku Abdul Rahman, which I will leave for another day. But it is enough to say that Tunku deserves all the credit for reinvigorating UMNO, and subsequently achieving independence for Malaya and Malaysia.
Post Picture from Al-azharrisiddiq