Malaysian history — where to start? To help kick off some discussion I figured it worth dealing with one of the most obvious years: 1963. This is the year that the Federation of Malaya (Malaysia), which took in Sabah and Sarawak (and Singapore), became an independent entity. That move followed the 1957 independence of peninsular Malaya. The legacies of this messy period have been many. Singapore, of course, was only part of the Federation very briefly.
Charles Hirschman, one of the world’s leading scholars of Malaysian society, published an article back in 1987 titled “The Meaning and Measurement of Ethnicity in Malaysia: An Analysis of Census Classifications”. This Journal of Asian Studies piece still provides a very useful overview of the politically-charged topic of ethnicity in Malaya/Malaysia. It also deals, in part, with some of the ethnic complexities that reverberate around 1963 for the conceptualisation of Malaysia and Malaysians. On p. 563, Hirchman writes that:

From 1931 to 1957, “Malaysian” was used as an inclusive category for Malays and peoples from Borneo and Indonesia. The formation of the political union of Malaysia in 1963 gave a new meaning to “Malaysian” as a citizen of the country, regardless of ethnic origin. In the 1970 and 1980 censuses, Malay was the inclusive major category as well as a subcategory for those of local (Peninsular) origins. The list of subcategories under the Malay (Malaysian) category has changed considerably over the years. In the censuses before Independence, especially in 1931 and 1947, the list of “Indonesian” groups was very extensive. In the 1957 and subsequent post- Independence censuses, the single inclusive category “Indonesian” was used to include all peoples from the Indonesian archipelago…

Definitions of Malaysian, Indonesian, Malay and all the rest remain contested throughout the Southeast Asian region. It is, for that reason, that the origins of these categories, in particular political moments, require our sustained and ongoing attention. These are starting points of an especially important kind.

Previous posts in this series include Burma in 1962, Thailand in 1932, Laos in 1975 and Vietnam in 1986. Next…Cambodia in 1991