Malaya’s People's Constitution, 70 years on

The “People’s Constitution” offered a different vision of independence for Malaya based on popular democratic participation and multi-ethnic solidarity.

The People's Constitutional Proposals for Malaya: 70th Anniversary Edition
Featuring essay by Syed Hussein Ali, Affrin Omar, Jeyakumar Devarj & Fahmi Reza
Strategic Information & Research Development Centre

The former British colony of Malaya (now Malaysia) gained its independence on August 31, 1957. However, this was based on a deal by the Malay elites represented by the conservative United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) and Chinese and Indian capitalist classes with British colonialism. This deal preserved the privileges of the Malay elite.

Ten years earlier in 1947, a different vision of independence based on popular democratic participation and multi-ethnic solidarity came together in the “People’s Constitution”.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Constitution, the progressive publishers Strategic Information & Research Development Centre reprinted the Constitutional proposals last year, along with several new essays, to mark this often forgotten moment in Malaysian history. 

Before World War II, Malaya was a loose collection of directly ruled colonies known as the Straits Settlement Colonies (including Singapore) and protectorates run by Malay sultans.

A year after Japan’s surrender in 1945, the British government decided for political reasons to make Singapore a separate colony. In 1946, the British government proposed to create a centralised Malayan Union.

However, the Malay aristocracy opposed this proposal because it was seen as undermining their privileged position as it proposed to give equal rights to Chinese and Indian people. This opposition led to UMNO being formed in May 1946, forcing the British to withdraw the Malayan Union proposal. In July 1946, the British set up a Working Committee composed of Malay sultans and UMNO to discuss forming the Malayan federation.

The decision of the British government to include UMNO led to them being viewed as the only representatives of the Malay people. This excluded progressive Malay organisations, such as the Malay Nationalist Party (PKMM) and the Angkatan Permuda Rakyat. These groups took part in UMNO’s founding, but withdrew soon after due to its domination by aristocratic elites.

In late 1946, they joined with several Malay and non-Malay left groups, trade unions, women’s, youth and other civil society groups to form the All Malaya Council for Joint Action (AMCJA). However, in early 1947 the PKMM and other Malay left groups left to form the Centre for People’s Force (PUTERA).

The two groups, united as PUTERA-AMCJA, came together to draft a “people’s constitution” as an alternative to the elite-dominated Malayan federation proposals being proposed by the British and UMNO.

Initially AMCJA proposed a constitution based on six proposals. Through negotiations with PUTERA, another four principles were adopted to the proposed constitution that included the concept of “Melayu”. Under this concept, all citizens, regardless of whether they were Malay, Chinese, Indian or any ethnic group would be “Melayu” citizens.

After a series of congresses in 1947, PUTERA-AMCJA adopted the following constitutional proposals:

1. A united Malaya, including Singapore.

2. Federal and state legislatures formed through popular election.

3. Citizenship that provides equal rights to all who regard Malaya as their homeland and the object of their undivided loyalty.

4. The Malay rulers possess genuine sovereignty and are responsible to the people through certain institutions.

5. Malay customs and Islam to be controlled by the Malay people through certain institutions.

6. Special positions for the economic and the educational advancement of the Malays.

7. Malay as the official language.

8. A national flag and a national anthem.

9. Melayu to be the title of any proposed citizenship and nationality in Malaya.

10. Foreign affairs and defence to be the joint responsibility of the government of Malaya and the government of Britain.

On September 21, 1947, the proposals were publicly unveiled at Singapore’s Farrer Park to a crowd of more than 20,000 people. Further meetings, mass gatherings and demonstrations were held throughout the Malayan peninsula and Singapore with copies of the constitution being distributed in four languages.

Copies of the constitution were sent to the Malayan union government, the British prime minister and colonial office in London. However, the British continued to ignore PUTERA-AMCJA and refused to consider any of the proposals.

In response, PUTERA-AMCJA released a call for a nationwide strike for October 20, calling on people to stay at home to protest against the British government imposing its own constitutional proposals on the Malayan people. In the lead up, committees were set up and propaganda corps spread the message all over Malaya and Singapore.

On October 20, Malaya came to a standstill. It was estimated that the colonial government lost £4 million due to the strike.

However, the authorities refused to even consider the People’s Constitution. On February 1, 1948, the Malay elite-dominated Malayan federation was inaugurated. In June 1948, the authorities declared a state of emergency to crush PUTERA-AMCJA and the rest of the left.

Thousands of left activists were arrested, many jailed for years or deported. By the time Malaya gained its independence, it was ruled by an UMNO-dominated coalition that remained in power right up to this year, when it dramatically lost the May 9 elections.

In 1963, Singapore merged with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia. However, Singapore left Malaysia two years later due to the Malay-dominated character of the federation, something that could have been avoided if the 1947 constitution had been adopted.

In his essay “Lessons from 1947”, Jeyakumar Devaraj emphasises the missed opportunities in the People’s Constitution. He highlights the section on setting up “a council of races” to “scrutinise every bill to make sure that there was no discrimination on religious or racial grounds”.

Other sections advanced workers’ rights, such as guaranteeing a minimum wage and pensions, the right to leisure, education, annual and maternity leave, and most importantly the right to strike — which have only been partially achieved in Malaysia today.

The People’s Constitutional proposals are reprinted in full in this 70th anniversary edition, along with essays assessing this forgotten historical document of the struggle for Malayan independence based on people’s power and multi-ethnic solidarity.

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