OCT 1 — Recently, there have been debates on whether or not the Malay states were ever colonised by the British. Contentions have been put forward by various parties be it academics, historians and politicians. Nonetheless, confusion still arises and until now, there has never been an ultimate answer.

The Malay states

The area forming the modern day Malaysia was once the seat of a number of Malay kingdoms such as Malacca, Johor-Riau, Pattani, Kedah and Perak. The Malacca sultanate once ruled the entire Peninsular Malaysia and eastern coast of Sumatra. The wealth of these Malay states lured foreign powers like the British, the Dutch and the Siamese to come to the Malay world with imperialistic ambitions. 



Colonisation may be used as a method of absorbing and assimilating foreign peoples into the culture of the imperial country, and thus destroying any remnant of the foreign cultures that might threaten the imperial territory over the long term through any sort of rebellion movements. The modern history of colonisation of the Malay states started off with the capture of Malacca by the Portuguese in 1511. The Portuguese dismantled the Sultanate of Malacca and transformed Malacca as its headquarters in the East. Despite the taking of Malacca, the Portuguese did not colonise the rest of the Peninsula. The areas that used to be under Malaccan vassalage then fell under the dominions of other stronger regional powers of Johor, Perak, Aceh and Siam.

The Portuguese was ousted from Malacca by the combined forces of Johor and the Dutch in 1641. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch only administered Malacca without having intentions to colonise other Malay states. The Dutch remained in Malacca until 1824, the year that witnessed British occupation of Malacca. By the year 1824, the other Malay states of Peninsula Malaysia were still largely independent, namely Johor, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, Perak and Selangor. Aceh became gradually weakened in the eighteenth century with the Dutch gaining more territories in Sumatra.


The northern Malay states of Perlis, Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan were placed under Siamese protection until their suzerainty shifted to the British in 1909. Pattani, a former Malay sultanate in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula was dismantled by Siam in 1902 and formally annexed as part of Thailand in 1909.


Before World War II erupted, Peninsula Malaya was divided into three parts namely the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Malay States. The British regarded the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore as its Crown Colony. However, for the other Malay States, the British retained the sultanate institution and considered these states as British protectorates. International law describes a protectorate as an autonomous territory that is protected diplomatically or militarily against third parties by a stronger state or entity. The protectorate usually accepts specified obligation in exchange of receiving protection from its suzerain. However, it retains formal sovereignty, and remains a state under international law.

Instead of imposing direct rule, the British introduced the resident system which allows them to rule the Malay states by proxy. The first Malay state of Malaya to receive a British resident was Perak and by virtue of the Pangkor Engagement of 1784, the Sultan was obliged to follow the advice of the resident except in matters pertaining to Islam and the Malay customs. In other words, the sultans of the Malay states, through the British resident system, still enjoyed a certain degree of sovereignty, and therefore these states could not be considered as ‘colonised’.

For example, Johor was considered a sovereign state having diplomatic ties with the British government in Singapore. In addition, the Sultanate of Johor has its own military force and state constitution without having to abide by British laws. This scenario is different with that of the Straits Settlements, where the British Royal Charter of Justice was made applicable as the supreme law of the land. 


The notions ‘colony’ and ‘protectorate’ might cause confusion to the public at large as whether or not Malaya was once colonised. If the Malay states were not colonised, why would Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman went to London to create a roadmap of independence for the people of Malaya?

Based on the purview of international law, it is not too simplistic to state that Malaya as a whole was never colonised by the British as the only colonies receiving direct rule from the British Crown were Penang, Malacca and Singapore. However, as protectorates, the independence of the Malay states was, to a certain extent, minimised without entirely removing the sovereignty of the Malay sultans. If the Malay states were British colonies in the first place, Malaya will be without sultans and Malaysia would now probably be a republic, just like Singapore, India or the Philippines.

A way forward

The history of Malaysia is entrenched in episodes of territorial intrusion by foreign powers, be it by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Japanese and Siam. Nevertheless, Malaysians could still take pride that despite having a long history of foreign rule, the sovereignty of the Malay states were still largely recognised by the British.

Regardless of the heated arguments on whether or not Malaysia was ever colonised, the fact remains that the Malay states were British protectorates and were not entirely independent until the Proclamation of Independence of Malaya was made in 1957. Without receiving full independence, Malaysia will not be a country it is now today. Therefore, it is pertinent for all Malaysians to move forward in building a new modern Malaysia steering this country towards achieving the developed-nation status.  

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli (Ph.D) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a research fellow at the Institute of Oceanography and Environment (INOS), Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. Mohd Hazri Mohd Rusli is a Ph.D candidate at Universiti Teknologi Mara.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.