When who came last becomes first


There are several things I had been wondering throughout my struggle through life. And one of them was why Malaysia, or Malaya as it was known before, wasn’t granted Independence at the same time  like India and Burma, if the British really were in such a hurry to get rid of their colonies after World War Ⅱ.


Of course, I could have found out the answer if I had just persisted. However I was so busy doing several things at the same time that I felt lazy to launch a full inquiry. The outcome: I didn’t find out any answers.

The only thing Shans know about Malaya/Malaysia is that their Federated Shan States (1922-1947), their first taste of federalism, came into being after a study trip to Federated Malay States (1895-1946).

“Please don’t waste your breath on us by trying to preach us about federalism,” U Tun Pay, the late prominent Shan politician, was reported as saying, in response to a statement made by a Burman leader who was apparently trying to convince Shan counterparts that there were better ways than secession to resolve differences between the Burmans and the non-Burmans. “We know by our own experience how acceptable it is to us. What you should do instead is to go and teach the generals who seem to be having a cock-eyed idea about federalism.”

In 1945, the British emerged from the World War, a victor but an economically spent one. The new Labor government led by Clement Atlee, despite protests by the Conservatives like Winston Churchill, who won the war but lost the elections nevertheless, decided to grant independence to her colonies, whether or not they were ready to become their own masters.

In the case of Burma, many, including old hands of Burma, have blamed London for the slapdashery that, according to them, have resulted in chaos and war for more than 60 years.

However, with Malaya/Malaysia, even the Labor government had taken its time. What happened?

Dr Paul Lim
Dr Paul Lim

According to Dr Paul Lim, who visited Chiangmai, 10-12 March, and who knew the country well, having lived there, the answer was simple. “It was Malaya’s rubber and tin industries that had kept the British economy afloat,” he told his listeners from Burma. “That’s why even Labor refused to let it go, at least not right away.”

I then looked up in D.G.E. Hall’s History of Southeast Asia (1955) and found his answer, though short, made sense.

Tin and rubber together had accounted for 86% of the country’s exports. Earnings were $519 million in 1948 and $1.195 billion two years later. And the British owned tin mines alone accounted for two-thirds of the production.

The outcome: Independence to Malaysia came only in 1957, 9 years after Burma. And compared to Burma, its problems are, according to one commentator, pint-sized.

With Burma, the peace process initiated by President Thein Sein, seems to be the last hope. Let us therefore support and encourage the peacemakers on both sides to do better and faster, instead of blaming one side against the other(s), so the vicious circle, on rather the cycle, ends soon and we can catch up with the likes of Malaysia.

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