• U.S.

MALAYA: The Unwinding

3 minute read

It took time and patience to knit the skein of British colonial expansion into a tight empire, but the weaving of an empire was nothing compared to the job of unraveling it. Whenever the Labor Government tried to straighten the threads, its fingers caught in the old, hard knots. Last week autocratic sultans and old-line Tories alike were denouncing the British Government for high-handed imperialism in Malaya. British efforts to increase Malayan self-government had resulted in a terrible tangle.

The plan to unify Britain’s nine Malay States and the Straits Settlements (excluding Singapore) into a single Malay federation was worked out long ago, “in the Coalition days. An ardent Tory, Sir Harold MacMichael, went out to Malaya last October to explain the plan to the nine Sultans. The Sultans themselves promptly consented to sign away all their sovereign powers (except their religious authority). Then they got to thinking it over.

“I was presented with an ultimatum,” wrote the Sultan of Kedah—one of five who had risen to power since the Jap invasion—”and in the event of my refusal to sign what I call the Instrument of Surrender, a successor who would sign would be appointed. …”

Betrayal! cried 17 high-ranking British civil servants in a furious letter to the Times—”the people of the Straits Settlements and of the Malay States are being coerced . . . without regard to democratic principles.” Ex-Colonial Secretary Oliver Stanley accused the Government of going “out of their way to insult the Sultans.”

While a five-hour debate raged in Parliament, eight of the Sultans prepared to leave for London to protest in person. A ninth, the fabulous, 72-year-old ex-playboy Sultan of Johore was already there, leading the fight from a swank suite in Grosvenor House. Gone were the days when British officials used to remove him (for his own good) from Singapore nightspots at 10 p.m.; now he was telling the British where to head in.

Malaya for Whom? In Singapore a British fact-finding commission examined the biggest knot of all, firmly tied by British imperialists who for the last 60 years have imported foreign labor to work their tin mines and rubber plantations. Now more than two million Chinese and some 750,000 Indians outnumber the two million easygoing Malays. Many of the industrious Chinese have since advanced far beyond the latter in education and have established thriving businesses of their own. In Britain’s plan for self-government and federation with equal citizenship for all, inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula fear that they would become a minority in a Chinese-dominated state.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com