KUALA LUMPUR, 13 June 2011: The Malay peninsula was colonised exactly 500 years ago this year, and its significance in our history should be marked in some way by universities and scholars, lawyer Tommy Thomas said.
“We should be having public seminars and academic conferences to remember and discuss this aspect of our history on its 500th anniversary,” he said.
Thomas expressed disappointment that nearly half a year had gone by and no institution has announced any such initiative.
Thomas, who is also a student of history, said remembering that the Malay peninsula was colonised half a millennium ago was one way to remind the post-Independence generation of Malaysians to be grateful for Merdeka.
“It is critical to teach the present generation about the dangers of empire and colonialism, so that we can celebrate what independence means and pay tribute to the people who fought for it,” he said in an interview at his office on 25 May 2011.
“However critical we may be of our government and institutions, at the end of the day, we must appreciate Malaysia as an independent, sovereign nation which justly has a place in the world community,” he said.
Thomas noted that since 1511, when the Portuguese invaded and colonised Malacca, parts of the Malay peninsula, beginning with the trading port, have only experienced 54 years of self-governance.
“In the 446 years between 1511 and 1957, Malaya was colonised by three European powers and one Asian,” he said.
The Portuguese colonised Malacca from 1511 to 1641, and the Dutch from 1641 to 1824. The British were in Malaya from 1786 to 1941, when the Japanese invaded and took over until 1945. The British then returned to continue its rule over Malaya until 1957, when the country gained independence.
Additionally, for a period of 38 years between 1786 and 1824, two European powers ruled parts of Malaya – the British over Penang and the Dutch over Malacca.
Thomas said Malaysia’s colonial history is probably unique in the annals of imperialism in that we were colonised by four foreign powers.
New forms of colonialism
True nationalism, Thomas said, meant being wary of different forms of colonialism and standing united against any foreign occupation, and not the current jingoism that pits the different races against each other in a plural society.
Thomas noted that even though Malaysia was no longer colonised, new forms of financial, economic and cultural imperialism have developed. He cited Hollywood films and obsession with English football as subtle cultural imperialism Malaysians are addicted to.
“What is critical is for public discussion on the effects of empire and imperialism. It is not healthy to pretend that we were never under colonial yoke, and that our history only begins with Merdeka in 1957,” he argued, asking for a public debate to begin.
Admittedly, he said, Malaysia did benefit from some colonial legacies such as the civil service, educational, transportation and legal system, parliamentary democracy, and the English language.
He observed that Malaysians are resilient to foreign influence, having retained our religions, culture, food, dress, and other aspects of our identity despite the presence of various colonial powers and the duration of colonialism.
No imminent threat
Thomas said there was no imminent threat of Malaysia being colonised again through brutal invasion by any of its four former colonisers.
“Since Merdeka, Malaysia enjoys the best of relations with the four colonial powers. Should we seek reparations from each of them or at least a public apology are matters worthy of public debate,” he said.
However, he noted with regret that colonialism involving invasion and occupation still exists in the 21st century.
“The US is the most dangerous colonial power in the 21st century. Since 11 Sept 2001, the US has invaded and occupied two sovereign states – Iraq and Afghanistan. Both countries remain colonised even though Osama bin Laden has been executed and the public justification for invading Afghanistan has disappeared. There was none for Iraq,” Thomas noted.
He added that Malaysia was fortunate in that the country was not deemed to be of strategic importance to the policymakers in Washington, DC, and hence, Malaysia was not likely to be occupied by the US.