Malaysia Before Malaysia: A Labour History of Malaya

Missed our first lecture for the year 2018? Read on for a quick recap:

The significance of Malaysian trade unions in the shaping of our history is seldom discussed. From its origins in the 1920s as scattered General Labour Unions to the height of its influence under the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions in the 1940s, the role played by labour movements in our independence struggle and their subsequent suppression has largely been erased from mainstream narratives of Malaysian history. 

This installment of the Malaysia Before Malaysia series discussed the history of the Malaysian workers, their organisations and their role in Malaysian history. Speaking on this subject was Professor Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Saminathan Munisamy. The session was moderated by our coordinator, Netusha Naidu. 

The struggle of Indian workers in colonial Malaya

Saminathan Munisamy, an independent researcher has dedicated much time and effort to collect newspaper cuttings, photographs, letters and other archives to document the history of the Indian working-class in former British Malaya.  He shares his findings on a website known as Malaya Ganapathy 

“This is a story that has been left out from our school textbooks”, Saminathan said in the opening of his presentation. 

He explained that his research attempts to narrate the making of Malaysia from the perspective of Indian labourers. It tries to see them as human being rather than factors of production. This can be told through the instances of which these workers politically organized themselves to demand for their human rights. 

For example, the Kajang Strike in 1941 demonstrated the class antagonisms that were evident between the kangani  chiefs and workers. Although the protestors learnt that a pacifist approach would help them achieve their means, British governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas did not hesitate to use force in dispersing the strikes. As a result, journalist and strike leader RH Nathan was deported upon his arrest, along with 300 other demonstrators detained.

Neither labour wages nor other demands were realized after the strikes. However, what was pointed out by Saminathan was the colonizer’s perception of worker rights movements to be an inhibitor to the war effort during the Malayan Emergency. He illustrated this through the documentation of RH Nathan’s deportation to be politically motivated, as he was accused for being an instigator that would undermine the fight against communism in Malaya. There were even pressure groups for an inquiry into the violence that entailed in the Klang Strikes of 1941. However, the investigation was never concluded due to the war. 

Saminathan also emphasized that it is important to take note that not all workers’ strikes were organized by the Malayan Communist Party, and this is seen in the 1941 Klang Strikes. The party had previously been more isolationist in its approach and were mostly active in Singapore. This distinction made by him allows for the ability to grant the workers of Malaya a certain degree of agency in advancing their fundamental liberties.

The complexities of narrating labour history

Following this Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former Tun Hussein Onn Chair in the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) and former Assistant Director General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations since 2012, began his speech by posing a question to the audience, that being – what does it mean to talk about labour history in Malaysia? 

Jomo argued that a distinction which might be useful in discussing Malaysia’s labour history is whether what was being talked about is “a class by itself or for itself”? He illustrates this by characterizing the act of working and how labour, as a socio-economic entity, has always existed ever since the beginning of human society being organized. However, as modernity progresses, the meaning of labour became oriented towards wages, erasing any discussion about slavery or indentured workers. Labour as commonly understood in the present is now referred to as ‘free labour’. 

By bringing this up, Jomo tried to compare and contrast the past and the present, examining the differences in ethnic breakdown of Malaysia’s labour class. While Saminathan focused on the plight of Indian workers in Malaya, Jomo reinforced the impact of colonial capitalism in the stratification of the labour class along racial lines. 

He brought up about the dominance of associating the Chinese community with wage labour has long historical ties as well since in the 19th century, many of them worked in the tin mines. Many Chinese labourers left mainland China in search of livelihood as it was in this period that the country was plagued with famine and political turmoil. Jomo highlighted that tin and rubber were fundamental to the making of modern Malaya and the preservation of British colonial rule. Class antagonisms were also rife between Chinese secret societies and the Malay rulers, as seen in Larut Valley.

Keeping this in mind, Jomo showed that it is significant to compare the way in which Indian labour was organized in comparison to the Chinese. As a result, it informs of how the use of force to create an indentured labour class was necessary to British domination because Chinese arrangements were fairly autonomous and had greater bargaining power, coupled with the influence of the secret societies. Indenture became the main mode of control for the labour class in Malaya. He touched quickly on how this is made further complicated by the different demands and experiences of ethnic groups that are not frequently touched on, such as the Javanese community.

On the other hand, when thinking about labour as a class for itself, Jomo said this would only appear more apparent in the mid-19th century due to the rise of left-wing, socialist movements. It was a time when the Communist Manifesto was written, and the later the creation of a working class movement that would be splintered into various ideological factions. In demonstrating how this phenomenon was also in Southeast Asia, Jomo mentioned the revolutionary leadership of figures like Tan Malaka, Sutan Syahrir, Ho Chi Minh, SA Ganapathy and others. To Jomo, this makes it clear that the struggle for workers’ rights was not exclusive to communist parties as often told by official history.

In the case of Malaya, Jomo told that the political mobilisation of workers were made possible by organizations like the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) and the Central Indian Association of Malaya (CIAM). However, all this came to a tragic end with the introduction of the Trade Union Ordinance in 1940 and preceding amendments.

Jomo elaborated on how these historical accounts serve as a reminder to locate domestic political developments within the broader changes in the international sphere. The labour class in Malaya was most definitely subjected to this as well. For example, during the Japanese Occupation during World War 2 witnessed the exploitation and manipulation of Malayan workers. Particularly, their recruitment into the Indian National Army (INA), a collaborator with the Nippon Army, resulted in torture at the infamous Death Railway. 

“The history of power is cruel […] The rebuilding of the British empire was done on the backs of working people”, said Jomo. 

The only way such an aspiration could be fulfilled would be through the repression of the labour class. As seen through these elucidations, it can be seen that the forceful measures by the British colonialists to suppress left leaning movements like Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) and trade unions were due to the perception that the political organization of Malaya’s working class would be a major threat to their political and economic interests.

Rewriting labour history for Malaysia today

In the Q&A session, the questions posed by the audience focused on the relevance and purpose of revising labour history in contemporary Malaysia. Both Jomo and Saminathan shared concerns for the treatment of undocumented foreign workers, working-class women and other discriminated communities who are not being represented politically and are persistently marginalized. Both speakers concluded by reinforcing the importance of efforts to revise Malaysian history to be more inclusive about the participation of the working-class in advancing the fundamental liberties many believe in, as it will inform the present generation about the oppression faced by Malaysia’s labourers today.

*Special thanks to a member of our audience, Ong Li Ling for volunteering as a rapporteur for this forum.

Photographs © Kalash Nanda Kumar