Penang: The Rebel State (Part One)

loading Weld Quay.

In the post-war period before Merdeka, Penang attempted to secede from the Federation. This remains an obscure tale, even for Penangites. In the first of a two-part article, we revisit this phenomenon and trace the sparks of the state’s secessionist movement from 1948 to 1951.

The formation of the Penang Secession Committee in December 1948 is seldom mentioned in history books. Nonetheless, it was this committee that fielded the primary demands for Penang to be excluded from the Federation of Malaya, to revert to its former status within the Straits Settlements, and to retain its links with the British Empire. Its demands were put forward as a motion to the Penang Settlement Council on February 10, 1949 and later, in a petition sent to Whitehall, London.

While the British were sympathetic towards the move, they were determined to consolidate the process towards selfgovernance and even independence for their Malayan colonies. As such, the move was doomed to fail. One may claim that it fell foul of the contemporary process of decolonisation as did similar movements in Burma, Indonesia or Indochina, and indeed, it lost its momentum and died a natural death by 1951.

Not only did it fail to generate mass support, the secessionist movement of Penang was one that was limited to involvement from the Straits Chinese elite.

The Straits Chinese Elite

The majority of Penang’s secessionists were Straits Chinese, known broadly as the “Babas”1. Positioned in a delicate balance between Chinese origins on one hand and their proud status as the “Queen’s or King’s Chinese” on the other, the Babas aspired for the best of both worlds – a combination of Western education and Anglophonic perspectives with an appreciation of Chinese cultural inheritance. It was this breed of pro- British Baba elite who dominated Penang’s economy, society and – ultimately – politics, after having resided on the island for generations and backed by social status and commercial success.

By the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the Babas had consolidated themselves within the Straits through a network of business and political organisations. Take for instance the Chinese Town Hall established in 1881, followed by the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1903; they were the two leading institutions led by the Babas, although the bulk of the members were non-English speaking Chinese.

Besides holding the key role in reaching a friendly compromise with the Straits government for greater representation, these institutions also exercised considerable advisory influence in local government, typically in the George Town Municipal Commission. Subsequently, the more exclusive Penang Straits Chinese British Association was formed in 1920, to cater to Straits Chinese interests and concerns throughout the Settlement2.

From these positions, the Babas lobbied for greater unofficial representation in the Executive Council, Legislative Council and even for access to jobs and careers in the civil service. Despite refusals and belated concessions from the British authorities, their influence steadily increased in the 1930s. It was only with the Second World War that their landscape of influence was undermined.

The Second World War and its Aftermath

The Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941 inflicted a heavy blow on the Straits Chinese. The collapse of the British Empire in the region came as a gruesome shock, and members of the elite were coerced into collaborating with the Japanese, given their knowledge of English and network of administrative experience. Penang’s rubber magnate, Heah Joo Seang, for example, had to chair the local Overseas Chinese Association, which was set up to facilitate the collection of “voluntary contributions” to Japanese war efforts. Given their economic prosperity, the Babas were similarly forced to foot the bill for the “reparations” imposed by the Nippon government on the Chinese community. Khoo Sian Ewe, a leading Baba community figure once nominated for the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements, had to provide an estimated $1mil to the demanded figure of $7mil3.

As war conditions ended the peace and prosperity they had once enjoyed, they similarly altered their views on the invincibility of the British Empire; not only was their political and economic landscape weakened after the war, they were furthermore left stranded by post-war dynamics.

The return of the British in 1945 ushered in the creation of an administratively united Malaya. After a period of considerable turmoil, the Federation of Malaya was inaugurated on February 1, 1949 as a compromise between safeguarding Malay rights and creating a sustainable post-war polity.

The new Federation, generally speaking, realised the concept of Malaya as a grouping of Malay sultanates and, indirectly, institutionalised the concept of “Tanah Melayu”, as emphasised in the right of the sultans to be consulted by the High Commissioner on immigration and citizenship matters4. It gave priority to Malay identity and statehood providing all Malay subjects of the respective sultans with automatic citizenship.

For the non-Malays, eligibility depended on more stringent conditions; even for British subjects living in Penang and Malacca (a definition which included the Babas), federal citizenship was available if they had been born in those settlements and had resided there continuously for a number of years. The qualifications for citizenship for British subjects born outside Penang and Malacca were even more stringent.5

But while Penang was bestowed with a Settlement Council of its own which had local legislative powers equivalent to those enjoyed by the Malay states, real power resided in KL with the British High Commissioner, the Federal Executive Council and the Legislative Council where Malays would have a majority of seats6. Throughout, Singapore remained outside the Malayan Federation.

These developments were observed by the Penang Babas with growing alarm. Their insecurities stemmed from the new citizenship laws followed by the question of economic status and the perceived dangers of being cut away from their traditional ties with Singapore and Britain. They feared being swallowed up by a Malay-dominated country. While they once dithered between the choice of a united Malaya based on equal citizenship on one hand and the preservation of their Straits identity and privileges on the other, they now found themselves confronted with their worst fears – an overtly Malay-dominated state.7

It was in light of such sentiments that the push towards secession began to take shape.

Post-War Dissatisfactions and the Emergency

Apart from citizenship rights, the elite businessmen tended to favour the prewar economic set up which had minimal government intervention and little control on trading. They regarded the new postwar regulations imposed on trade by KL to be burdensome and unnecessary. Jules Martin of the Penang Chamber of Commerce commented thus in the Straits Times: “If you have to send a commercial sample, however small to Singapore… you cannot do so without an export permit”.8 The paper replied to this comment unhappily: “Nobody who knew the Straits Settlements before the war can read that statement by a Penang merchant without a sense of exasperation and disgust”.9 This controversy was coupled with the passing of the Prohibition of Export Order which barred from exporting to the more lucrative markets of Siam and Sumatra.10

Allied Forces liberated Penang at the end of August. The Japanese surrender party signed off the war aboard HMS Nelson lying off George Town. Rear Admiral Bazudi, Flag Officer Commanding Japanese Forces, Penang, waits while Allied representatives examine the surrender document.

A greater cause of dissatisfaction rested in the free port status of Penang, one conferred in 1827. The future of this status remained uncertain throughout 1948 as the Colonial Office considered the tax structure for the entire Federation11. The Penang merchants were particularly angered by having to pay export duties on copra, coconut oil and palm oil. This grievance was exacerbated by the fact that Singapore suffered no such levies and its businesses were permitted to reexport textiles and export certain quantities of coconut oil to the Netherlands East Indies. Not only was Singapore in a more competitive position, she was able to establish herself in other markets at Penang’s expense12.

Beneath their economic complaints lay the underlying fear that Penang’s entrepot economy would be subordinated to those of the primary-products export economy of the Malayan mainland and that the wealthy modern economy of the island would become the “milking cow” for the more backward states. They despised the excessive control by KL and demanded greater decentralisation and freedom. On top of that grew the fear of them becoming second-class citizens in a Malay-dominated state with no guarantee that the state would not sever its links with the British Empire in order to drift towards a racial partnership with the more radical and unstable Indonesian Republic.

The first clear sign of such resistance emerged in December 1946 when the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Chinese Town Hall and Straits Chinese British Association of Penang united in forming the Penang Constitutional Consultative Committee13. A petition was sent in March 1947 by the Committee to the Secretary of State for Colonies, noting that it would be a violation of the United Nations’ Declaration on Non Self-governing Territories to change the status of Penang without the consent of its inhabitants. This depicted the sentiments of the elite as not only traders and leaders but Penang patriots. The Straits Echo reported in November 1946 that: “The people of Penang have just as much right to be consulted [on] whether they wish to join a Malayan Federation as the various Malay States…”14.

It was not until the Emergency was declared in 1948 that Penang’s position in the Federation framework was revisited more seriously by the Straits Chinese elites. The assassination of Dr Ong Chong Keng, a leading public figure in Penang and a friend of many secessionist leaders, casted doubts on the stability and security of the new Federation and heightened the romantic desire for a return to Penang’s prewar tranquillity. And this seemed possible if the state opted out of the Federation project. With the communist insurgency, an economic slump was imminent; and while restrictions on trade could be tolerated back in 1946, 1947 and the early months of 1948 owing to a boom in trade, the pessimism which came with the Emergency proved onerous15. The slump made the free port issue a pressing issue and although the Benham Report16 was tabled in May 1948 at the Federal Legislative Council, no further action was taken in the ensuring months.

Last but not least, members of the elite felt threatened by the reality that the legal rights of the entire Chinese community would be restricted without distinction by Emergency measures. After all, the end of 1948 saw the Federation proposing to extend to Penang the jurisdictional power of the Banishment Ordinance and the right of the Public Prosecutor to appeal against acquittals in courts17. On top this unfavourable climate came the dramatic visit of Datuk Onn Jaafar, leader of Umno, to London where he argued for Malay rights and privileges and spoke somewhat disparagingly of the Chinese18. These events confirmed the worst nightmares of Penang’s leaders, and sparked the response for secession.

The second part of this article will appear in our October issue.

1 “The Chinese, whom in an earlier period, intermarried with local women. According to Clive Christie, Straits Chinese identity was essentially the confluence of three distinct foci of loyalty: to China by blood and roots; to the Malayan region by territorial settlement and to the British Empire by a combination of interest and sentiment”, Clive J. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonisation, Nationalism and Separatism, I.B Tauris Publishers, 1996, p.31
2 Diana Tan (Ooi), The Penang Straits Chinese British Association, Malaysia in History, Vol. XXI, No.2, p.45-46
3 Clive J. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonisation, Nationalism and Separatism, I.B Tauris Publishers, 1996, p.38
4 Ibid, p.41
5 Ibid, p.41
6 Ibid, p.41
7 Clive J. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonisation, Nationalism and Separatism, I.B Tauris Publishers, 1996, p.41-42
8 Straits Times Editorial, 14 April 1948.
9 Ibid
10 Annual Report on the Malayan Union 1947, p.29
11 Clive J. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonisation, Nationalism and Separatism, I.B Tauris Publishers, 1996, p.42
12 Mohd. Noordin Sopiee, The Penang Secession Movement, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Mar. 1973: pp.52-71),p.54-55
13 Clive J. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonisation, Nationalism and Separatism, I.B Tauris Publishers, 1996, p.42
14 Straits Echo, 30 November 1946
15 Mohd. Noordin Sopiee, The Penang Secession Movement, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Mar. 1973: pp.52-71), p.57
16 Concerns over Penang’s free port status was mitigated by the appointment of the Benham Committee, under the Economic Adviser to the Governor General, Professor Benham in December 1947 to report on the matter.
17 Clive J. Christie, A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonisation, Nationalism and Separatism, I.B Tauris Publishers, 1996, p.43
18 Mohd. Noordin Sopiee, The Penang Secession Movement, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Mar. 1973: pp.52-71), p.57

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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