British Colonisation in Malaya: A Positive Thing?

Corneill Spaapen

Through a number of treaties between the late 1800s and 1930, the British Colonial Administrators gained control of the foreign affairs of the nine Malay sultanates on the peninsula, with the Federated Malay States coming formally into existence in 1896. Whilst also looking for new resources and bases in the area, periodic raids by Siam (now Thailand), piracy sustained by Malay rulers, and skirmishes between Malay rulers of tin-producing states and Chinese tin miners equipped by Chinese secret societies all threatened British commercial interests and motivated the British to become increasingly involved in peninsular affairs.

Although it is widely ascertained that colonisation in general has a negative impact on the state being colonised, could it be the case that Britain colonising Malaya was the best case scenario for Malaysia? When compared to other colonised nations in the region, this certainly seems to be the case. As two examples, it does seem that Malaysia has done better upon return to independence than both Indonesia (colonised by the Dutch) and Vietnam/Indochina (colonised by the French). Without going into depth into how development is measured, this can be arbitrarily seen through them having lower death rates, a higher percentage of GDP expenditure on education, higher HDI scores and lower levels of corruption.

Although it is likely that there are other factors driving postcolonial development, it is difficult to imagine Malaysia having the set up that it has today without British influence. Perhaps the more extractive regimes of Dutch or French colonisation would have led to the same point today, but as put forward by Lange et al. (2006), the effect of more extensive British colonialism “introducing a rule of law, effective administration, and competitive markets which helped with promoting development in the postcolonial period” can definitely be said to have had an impact. Alongside Ferguson’s notion of “anglobalization” being mostly a positive thing in his book Empire, it may be true to say that the positives of the British incursion into Malaya outweighs the negatives.