Penang: The Rebel State (Part Two)

Displeasure with the Federation ignited Penang’s secessionist movement which lasted from 1948 to 1951. In this final part concluding last month’s article, we witness the movement’s struggle to gain traction, and its speedy demise.

The initial impetus for secession was provided by the Penang Chamber of Commerce under the leadership of D.A. Mackay. In November 1948 the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce was asked if they would be interested in forming “a movement designated to get Penang out of the Malayan Federation in order that it might re-join Singapore as the Straits Settlement.”

By early December, the irresistible momentum for secession was building up. The Penang Straits Chinese Association voted in favour of secession and this was unanimously backed by an emergency general meeting of the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce on December 12.

Support followed from the Settlement of Penang Association, the Penang Indian Chamber of Commerce and the Penang Eurasian Association. These organisations evidently reflected the bulk of Penang’s mercantile and professional elite.

At a meeting held in the Chinese Town Hall on December 13, 200 against 12 of those present voted in favour of “adopting all constitutional means to obtain the secession of the Settlement of Penang from the Federation of Malaya”, entailing the formation of the Penang Secession Committee, chaired by Mackay himself.

It is interesting to note that even the Penang Muslim Chamber of Commerce once supported the move, and its secretary, A.M. Abu Bakar, was part of the secession committee. Abu Bakar later distanced himself from the movement and claimed that he had supported the move on purely economic reasons; and that this was done under pressure from the Indian Muslims, as Abu Bakar was also their representative in the Settlement Council as appointee of the Penang Muslim League1.


Jetty circa the 1950s.

Whatever the case, the movement was led by a combination of the various Baba-dominated organisations and the European-led Penang Chamber of Commerce. A motion to secede was pushed in the Penang Settlement Council on February 10, 1949. It was narrowly defeated, 15 to 10, by a combination of official and unofficial votes.2

While the Committee proclaimed it a moral victory, the move was deemed during the debate by the Resident Commissioner himself as “a proposition which the Federation Government cannot accept”3. Nonetheless, after considerable delay, a petition was finally sent to London by the end of the year, after a series of redrafting as advised by High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney4. By the time the Colonial Office in Whitehall replied in September 1951, the movement was already dead and Whitehall’s subsequent reiteration of Britain’s refusal to concede was the final nail in the coffin5.

Failure of the Movement

The movement’s main failure laid in itsinability to generate mass support. Leading organisations simply represented the elite, with negotiations conducted at the elite level. Little effort was made to generate grassroots support through public rallies and the Babas simply confined themselves to existing institutions under their influence to serve as platforms.

Fewer attempts were made to gather Malay support. In the public meeting held for the Committee’s appointment, then dubbed the most “momentous within the living memory of Penang”, few of the 216 attendees were Malays6. Hence, the mood for secession was arguably not exploited to its fullest. The secessionists were only well versed in the elitist politics of pre-war days and ignorant of the mass-based dynamics of post-war Malaya.

Their strategy worked towards their detriment in light of a prohibitive and unfavourable political climate of British and Malay opposition. If the secessionists had been able to engineer mass support in Penang, the British might have conceded to the arrangement. However, doubts still remain as to the possibility of engineering mass support in an era when the majority of the masses were uninterested. The pursuit of secession remained at a moderate to part-time level and, even before its first anniversary, the movement was already awaiting its formal burial. This was demonstrated by the extreme example of the eight-month delay in drafting the petition for Whitehall7.

Furthermore, most of the complaints from the elites were properly removed by 1950. For instance, trade boomed in 1949 and concerns about the loss of the free port status were mitigated via the Customs Duties (Penang) Bill 1949 and the Rubber Excise (Penang) Bill 1949. At the same time, race relations had become so strained that a new approach was adopted towards the non-Malays – they should be won over instead of being castigated in light of the ongoing Emergency. Even Datuk Onn Jaafar, founder of Umno, switched to being a Malayan statesman instead of remaining the champion of the Malays8.

Karen Lai

Datuk Onn Jaafar with Che' Azizah Jaafar, Johor state councillor and Onn's sister.



These changes effectively diminished the Straits Chinese’s desire to flee “Malayanisation”. In fact, their fears were further reduced when the central government’s attempt to extend the powers of banishment and double jeopardy was abandoned. The perception of neglect coupled with interference from KL had been temporarily eased and further mitigated by the setting up of a federal committee to look into the matter and by the assurance of greater decentralisation9.

Moreover, the elite welcomed the formation in January 1949 of the Community Liaison Committee chaired by British Commissioner-General in South-East Asia, Malcolm Macdonald, and by the establishment of the Malayan Chinese Association, which offered them a path back into the political process. The subsequent passing of the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance 1950 which reintroduced local elections for the George Town Municipality in 1951 affected their commitment to the secessionist policy10.

To some extent, it can be said that the members of the elite were won over by the way the British addressed their woes. The British allowed for a continuation of the free port status, local elections, power devolution and greater freedom, which altogether succeeded in calming them. Even if the secessionists had maintained a firm stand, it is highly doubtful whether they could have had the actual ability to reconstruct a machinery of government capable of reconstituting the Straits Settlements. They had also been lobbying on a moderate basis and had avoided making any threats.

The wave of Penang separatism had petered out by 1951, with Straits identity merging into a Malayan Chinese identity indistinguishable from its non-Straits Chinese counterpart. The failure of the movement sealed the fate of Penang within the Federation and into a climate of tumultuous uncertainty.

1 Clive J. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonisation, Nationalism and Separatism, I.B Tauris Publishers, 1996, p.44
2 Ibid, p.45
3 Straits Echo, 11 February 1949
4 Sunday Gazette, 20 November 1949
5 The Straits Echo, 19 September 1951
6 Mohd. Noordin Sopiee, The Penang Secession Movement, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Mar. 1973: pp.52-71), p. 64
7 Ibid, p.62
8 Ibid, p.65-66
10 Ibid, p.66

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.

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