Thursday, March 27, 2008

Imperialism - history revisited

This may sound very unpatriotic. As students, we learned that the British exploited the wealth of Malaysia when they ruled this country. That Malays were impoverished because they were neglected by the colonial governments. That racial polarity in this country was a result of their Divide and Conquer strategy. After independence, the government renamed many streets as if to erase our “painful memory”. Now I am suggesting that British rule of Malaysia is not all bad. This is absolutely absurd. Or is it?

Chris Pattern, the last governor of Hong Kong, said that even though the Britons wrestled the colony from China by force, they nonetheless put in effort to govern and develop it. He was certainly right to some extent. Hong Kong prospered under British rule. Ironically, the Pearl of the Orient lost its luster after it was reverted to China in 1997. I believe many Hong Kongers prefer British governors to the Beijing-approved Tung Chee Hwa.

Many years ago, when I read Jules Verne’s classic, Around the World in 80 Days, I learned of an ancient tradition in India whereby a widow would jump onto her husband’s cremation pyre. The British colonial government banned this practice. Unfortunately, it has made a comeback in recent decades.

It has been more than half a century since the independence of Malaysia. Perhaps we can be more open-minded now. This is not to glorify imperialism, but to be truthful to our history and to be fair to the British. There is no denying that the British rule had many shortcomings, but they have been discussed in great length in our textbooks. Now I would just highlight a few areas where I think Malaysia has gained from its colonial past.


If we had not been ruled by the Europeans, the country we call Malaysia probably would not exist. Prior to the arrivals of Britons, the Malay kingdoms on the Peninsula were not united. Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu were vassal states of Siam. On the Borneo Island, Sarawak was part of Brunei, while Sabah was under the influence of the Sulu Sultanate. A united Malaya in 1957, and later Malaysia in 1963, is a product of British Empire.


We are told again and again that British exploited the wealth of this country. Let’s face it: they boost efficiency of tin mining by introducing dredge to this country. They also brought rubber trees from Brazil, some of the earliest were planted in my hometown of Kuala Kangsar, Perak.


The colonial government built schools for locals. One of the most famous, also located in my hometown, was the Malay College. It is worth noting that Chinese had to raise fund to build their schools.


Without imperialism I probably would not be writing this post. The British were responsible for bringing Chinese and Indians to this country.


British introduced Common Law to Malaysia, and instilled the concept of rule of law. Prior to this, Malays lived by following Adat (customs) and Islamic law. One may argue that Malaysia’s judiciary system was established by the colonial rulers.


Before they left, the British replaced the absolute monarchies with constitutional ones. Today Malaysia is a democratic nation – though with many flaws.


English was the official language before independence. Today it remains widely spoken. Our proficiency in the lingua franca of the world gives us tremendous advantage in the 21st century.


In short, we did gain from British rule. Of course this doesn’t mean Britain should continue to rule this country after 1957. Just like a grown up person who leaves the parents to start his/her own family, Malaysia should eventually become independent – and we did.

By understanding our history better, we can leave our unnecessary hatred against Westerners behind. More importantly, we have always blamed our problems on the European colonizers. We should now start to look within – 50 years after independence.

Malaysia's oldest rubber tree - in Kuala Kangsar


  1. I agree the British did us some good. We would ottherwise be left far behind.

    But guess no one likes to be colonised.

    When things go wrong, its always preferred to have the fingers pointed at those who are different.

  2. Well, at least I can thank the British Imperialists for rubber trees and you.

    But, I have to ask, at what cost?

    Is everything to be measured in economic terms (like the efficiency of tin mining)? What might have been had they not conquered the area? Is Western civilization and economics to be valued above Eastern? or of indigenous peoples' way of life, at what ever economic level that may be?

    I'm not saying it was bad, just posing some questions to consider.

    As a long time resident of Hawaii, I am saddened by the fact that the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown by American businessmen (not even with permission of the US government) in the late 19th century. True, some benefit eventually resulted, but again, at what cost?

    And now the American Empire is stomping around the Middle East. Doesn't look likely to result in much good, even if I didn't like the previous conditions.

  3. panda
    I did point out in the post that British rule had many shortcomings. I didn't elaborate further because all Malaysians already know them.

    The reason I write this post is because Malaysians politicians like to blame British for our social and political problems. And the government has always referred to the colonial past to justify the affirmative actions, which are unfair to the minorities.

    Yes few people like to be colonized, but some countries like Zimbabwe are actually worse after gaining independence.

  4. I put my Panda paw in my mouth again. :^p