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A Brief History of Malaysia

South East Asia

Late 18th Century
Shaded areas indicate a combination of claimed power and commercial and political activity by European powers.

In the early 17th century the Dutch established trading bases in Southeast Asia. The British role on the peninsula began in 1786 when Francis Light of the British East India Company, searching for a site for trade and a naval base, obtained the cession of the island of Pinang from the Sultan of Kedah. In 1791 the British agreed to make annual payments to the Sultan, and in 1800, the Sultan ceded Province Wellesley on the mainland. In 1819 the British founded Singapore and in 1824 they formally acquired Malacca from the Dutch. A joint administration was formed for Pinang, Malacca and Singapore, which became known as the Straits Settlements.

British in Malaya
In the late 19th century, a number of events led Great Britain to play a more direct part in the affairs of the peninsula. There was conflict between Chinese settlers, who worked in the tin mines, and Malays; there were civil wars among the Malays; and there was an increase in piracy in the western part of the peninsula. Merchants asked the British to restore order.

In 1896 Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan were grouped to form The Federated Malay States, under a resident British general. Johor signed a treaty of alliance with Britain in 1885 and accepted a British adviser in 1914. British control of the four remaining Malayan states was acquired in 1909 when Siam relinquished its claims to sovereignty over Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu (with Johor we now have the Unfederated Malay States).

Japanese Occupation (1941-1945)
By the start of the second world war, Malaya's economy was flourishing with the output of tin and rubber, giving it great strategic importance. Malaya fell under threat of a Japanese invasion when the American, British and Dutch governments froze essential raw materials and oil supplies to Japan. Japan was then forced to look to Southeast Asia for shipments. While Britain was preoccupied with defending itself against he threat of German invasion, the Japanese wasted no time to effect their occupation of Malaya, commencing with the bombing of the beaches of Kota Bharu in Kelantan, and Singapore, on 8 December 1941.

British jungle patrol
during Japanese occupation

The takeover continued almost without opposition as Commonwealth troops defending Malaya were expecting invasion by sea and not by land. They were hopelessly and inadequately trained in jungle warfare and lacked ammunition, so fell to the invaders one by one. Malaya was occupied for the next three and a half years by the Japanese.

The occupation ended only with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. British forces then landed in Malaya and re-established their authority.


The Malayan Emergency (1948-1960)
After the defeat of the Japanese in WWII, a new problem emerged for Malaya. In 1948 Chinese guerrilla fighters (who had been armed and air supplied by the British during the war) emerged from the jungle and under Chin Peng, began their terror campaign to take over the country by force. Thus an intense jungle war began, fought by the British, British Commonwealth and Malay forces against the Malayan Communist Party.

The Australian Government of the day, along with many others in the Western bloc, was apprehensive about the spread of international communism.

Initially there was not much coordination between security forces until Lt.-Gen.Sir Harold Briggs was appointed as Director of Operations in 1949. His war executive committees (including Sir Henry Gurney) coordinated emergency operations, and created 500 new villages for Malayan citizens who lived in remote areas beyond government protection. These citizens had lived in constant fear that the Communists would appear and force them to supply food and money. Travelling was dangerous as a Communist ambush could lurk behind any roadside bush.

So, by depriving the insurgents of their crucial sources of supplies and information, the Communists began to attack the new settlements. But the security forces were now fighting on their own ground, and proved to be too strong for the Communists. These forces were able to concentrate on jungle operations, thereby destroying the Communists and their camps. This was the longest continuous military commitment in Australia's history. It was to be the only war the West had won against Communism.

The Emergency lasted for twelve years, ending in 1960. Australia suffered 15 killed and 27 wounded in action

Independence (1957)
In August 1957, Malaya was granted independence from British colonial rule. With independence, the country became a centralised Federation with a Constitutional Monarchy. Each state had its own fully elected State Assembly, its government chosen from the party which had a majority of elected members in the Asssembly.

Tunku Abdul Rahman's Alliance Government ruled the country on the basic premise that the Malays should have political power and the Chinese should be satisfied with their commercial monopoly. On this basis, an elaborate system of economic advantages had been extended to the Malays. They were given loans, scholarships and Government jobs (at a ratio of 4:1) by official racial discrimination, over the heads of non-Malays. Racial friction and tension therefore increased over the next decade, culminating in the election riots in May 1969.

When Malaya achieved full independence, the role of Australian forces began to change as the locals took more responsibility for their own defence. By July 1958, most of the RAAF forces had left. The infantry forces remained. Although the Emergency was declared over on 31 July 1960, Australian forces remained in the area as part of the Commonwealth's Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR).

Indonesian Confrontation (1963-1966)
The Federation of Malaysia (Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak) came into existence on 16 September 1963. Indonesia had voiced its strong opposition to the Malaysia plan and immediately severed all diplomatic ties with Kuala Lumpur, announcing that Indonesia would "crush" Malaysia. In January 1963 the Indonesians announced a policy of "confrontation" against Malaya. Subsequently, the British Embassy, cricket club and countless British-owned businesses were vandalised or burnt to the ground.

The confrontation took the form of armed Indonesian invasions across the borders of Sarawak and North Borneo from Indonesian Kalimantan. Indonesian terrorists began landing on the coast of the Malay peninsula but were quickly killed or captured by the security forces. Australian units fought as part of a larger British and Commonwealth force in Australia's most unrecognised and secret war, the campaign to defend the newly established Malaysia against confrontation by Indonesia.. Similar to Australia's role in the Malayan Emergency, operations against Indonesia in Borneo and West Malaysia were part of the Australian government's contribution to the Far East Strategic Reserve. This was an "undeclared war", largely unpublicised in Australia and overshadowed by the commitment of troops to Vietnam.

In 1966 President Sukarno was ousted from power and the new government was not keen on continuing the confrontation. A signed peace agreement between Indonesia and Malaysia brought the conflict to an end. The Philippines also dropped its claim on Sabah and recognised Malaysia. Twenty three Australians were killed during the confrontation.

Meanwhile, political differences had surfaced between Malaysia and Singapore. On 9 August 1965, Singapore left the Federation and became an independent nation.

Ethnic Disturbances (1969)
On 13th May 1969, the day after the Federal elections, riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur as a result of simmering racial tension between Malays and Chinese. The violent outbreaks killed hundreds of people and caused considerable property damage. Order was restored after 4 days but for 2 months after incidents of communal violence persisted. Only when the government threatened to take severe action against the militant Malay groups, especially those calling for the Tunku's resignation, did the violence cease.

Butterworth had been a British Royal Air Force base established in the colonial days, and was turned over to Australia in the late 1950s. It was then modernized and expanded. Canberra bombers and Sabre fighters flew missions over Malaya during the Emergency. By 1971, Australia utilised the base for two reasons. First as part of the Commonwealth Far East Strategic Treaty in supporting Malaysia's defense, when a squadron of Mirage fighters operated from Butterworth. Secondly, the base was a trans-shipment point for Australian operations into Vietnam using C130 and other transport aircraft. The British were in the final process of pulling out their Malaysian and Singapore bases at that stage.

In 1955-56, the RAAF was deployed to Butterworth as part of the Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve, and later became part of the various arrangements such as the Five Power (Australia/New Zealand/Great Britain/Malaysia and Singapore) when the British withdrew from East of the Suez in the 1960s.

During October 1963, the British government approached Canberra to enlist support for its commitment to Malaysia and the Australian government approved the request. The following February, the Malaysian government requested of Menzies a further military commitment to the conflict with Indonesia. The squadrons were to assist with the air defence of Malaysia against the communist threats and subsequently the Indonesian conflict. In 1965 with the escalation of the Indonesian confrontation of Malaysia, RAAF Sabres were sent from Butterworth to Labuan in Borneo. The threat of the spread of communism was very real, and defending our near neighbour was part of a wider strategy of keeping the threat away from our shores.

Butterworth is now the base for the Royal Malaysian Air Force.

© 2001 Bukit Pagar Group