Drifting towards post-colonialism

Anglo-Malaysian relations may seem strong now, but Richard Lloyd Parry detects a deeper ambivalence
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The Independent Online
TUCKED BEHIND a palm on the edge of the cricket field, next to the whitewashed columns of Carey Hall, is an engraved stone commemorating the last time the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Malaysia. It was 1989 and, like many members of royalty before them, they made the three-hour drive north from the capital, Kuala Lumpur, to Malay College, the country's most famous and eminent school, a place more English than most of England, the renowned "Eton of the East".

Since its foundation in 1905 as a training ground for servants of the British administration, one Malaysian prime minister, dozens of sultans and countless politicians have passed through its porticoes, and the face it presents to the outside world is that of the quintessential English boarding school. The architecture is tropical colonial, with rotating electric fans above heavy-lidded school desks. The gates bear a Latin motto ("Let wisdom be virtue"), and its 700 boarders, all of them male, study a curriculum rich in debating, oratory and rugby.

The boys, all Malay Muslims, are caned if they are bad and sacked if they are unreformable, although fagging and short trousers were abolished during the 1980s. Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) is an institution unembarrassedly devoted to producing gentlemen, but its headmaster, Haji Baharom Kamari, is uneasy. "The older generation associate themselves with Great Britain, but the younger ones couldn't care less - it could be any school," he says. "Many parents want their sons to be here, but often the sons don't want to come... If we don't take action, this school will be nowhere. In four or five years, nobody will remember Malay College."

On the face of it, and certainly compared to other former colonies and their colonisers, post-colonial ties between Malaysia and Britain have been good, and it is this success that will be celebrated after the Queen's arrival in Kuala Lumpur today for the closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games. But the many educational exchanges and the significant two-way trade (equivalent last year to pounds 3.4bn) are only half the story, for there is a complexity and a deep ambivalence about the relationship which peep through the cheerful veneer.

Even after 40 years, and a surge of economic growth punctured by the Asian currency crisis, British influence, good and bad, is seen and felt in many institutions, of which Malay College is only the most extreme. The civil service and police are still organised upon British lines, and Malaysian army officers train at the Sandhurst-inspired Royal Military College.

But decades of colonisation had their evil effects, although the forces at work were those of neglect rather than interference. The native Malays remained unschooled and rural while urban life, with its greater opportunities, was dominated by ethnic Chinese and Indians - imported by the British - whose descendants still control a disproportionate share of national wealth.

For all its recent affluence this is modern Malaysia's greatest problem and darkest nightmare: that ethnic jealousy, exacerbated by the current economic crisis, will explode in the kind of unrest and rioting presently smouldering in Indonesia. Few have reflected more bitterly on this problem than the Queen's host, and Malaysia's Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

It is a problem that he blames directly on the British. "The colonisation of a country is not just a matter of physical occupation," he pointed out in his most recent book. "It is also a colonisation of the minds, [so that] the culture and the whole psyche of the people become terribly weakened."

The very closeness of the two countries has often been the source of their problems. There are more students from Malaysia studying in Britain than from any other foreign country, some 1,800 at the moment. Soon after his appointment as Prime Minister, the Thatcher government raised fees charged to foreign students, provoking Dr Mahathir's "Buy British Last" campaign. Newspaper allegations of bribery surrounding the Pergau Dam affair in 1994 chafed another of the Prime Minister's sore spots - the supposed racism and mendacity of the British press.

During the 1980s Dr Mahathir toyed with the idea of leaving the Commonwealth altogether. "There's nothing common," he observed, "about the wealth in the Commonwealth." Practical politics, in particular the advantages to be gained from membership in trade, diplomacy and education, changed his mind.

For the past 10 days he has gloried in the Commonwealth Games, the first time that the event has been hosted by a non-Caucasian nation. The successful mounting of the event has been promoted as a matter of national pride, a chance to prove the Prime Minister's slogan: Malaysia Boleh! - Malaysia Can. Malaysians and foreigners alike were agog at the Games' opening ceremony, a carnival of nationalism featuring a dance in which rubber dragons representing imperialism battled with noble, oppressed Malays.

The chances are, however, that former colony and reformed imperial power will drift apart naturally with the generations. If older Malays divide between Anglophiles like headmaster Haji Baharom and suspicious pragmatists like Dr Mahathir, younger Malays are neither. "The younger generation is probably indifferent," says Zakaria Ahmad, a professor at University Kebangsaan Malaysia. "The UK is just another country."

At Malay College, Haji Baharom reports, more students are choosing US rather than British universities. Even the view from the cricket field will soon change, with plans for a giant new block, filled with computers and technology, conceived by designers from the New World instead of the Old.

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