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  • Amy Lin

The Effect of Decolonisation on the Political Stability of Southeast Asian States

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

From the mid- to late-19th century, Western powers colonised all the countries in Southeast Asia, save Thailand. A sudden, brutal Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia briefly interrupted colonial rule in the 1940s, and when the Japanese departed the regions after World War II, Western powers returned and reasserted control over their colonies. However, this time, colonial rule did not last long. By the mid-20th century, Southeast Asian states began to emerge from the long shadows of colonialism and establish their independence.

Yet, the retreat of foreign powers did not immediately bestow stability upon Southeast Asian nations. While some nations such as Singapore, Malaya and Vietnam were politically stable in their nascent periods as local leaders consolidated power successfully, for other fledgling nations like Indonesia and Burma, decolonisation and independence led to political turmoil, infighting and civil unrest. In the following pages, I examine how the various decolonisation processes of Southeast Asian countries affected their political stability in their early independent years. I argue that a pre-planned, peaceful decolonisation process resulted in political stability for Southeast Asian states, while a hasty decolonisation process, arising from an initial unwillingness of colonial powers to leave, greatly destabilised local politics. Notably, a violent and prolonged decolonisation process, stemming from a strong unwillingness of colonial leaders to relinquish control, also resulted in short-term political stability of newly-independent Southeast Asian states.

A pre-planned decolonisation process resulted in political stability for some nascent Southeast Asian states. Where colonial powers were willing to transfer authority to locals eventually, colonial authorities had ample time to prepare Southeast Asian states for independence and ensure a smooth transition. This was, after all, mutually advantageous — many colonial powers would maintain important security and economic ties with their former colonies post-independence. In Malaya (or present-day Malaysia), the British Colonial Office made plans for Malay’s self-rule from as early as 12 years before its eventual independence, with the Secretary of State for the Colonies announcing plans for a Union of Malaya to “develop [Malaya’s] strength and capacity in due course for self-government” in 1945. Similarly, in 1957, the British Colonial Office agreed to Singapore’s request for eventual self-governance, and they withdrew from Singapore only 6 years later. Hence, given the long runway, the British were able to prepare fully for decolonisation in Malaysia and Singapore. This can be primarily observed in two areas: (1) Installation of democratic processes and constitutional development and (2) Suppression of existing threats to stability — both of which contributed to long-term political stability.

The British installed democratic processes and enabled constitutional development in Singapore and Malaya, which created stable political systems and resulted in experienced leaders upon independence. It organised democratic elections in both countries in 1955 and 1959 which local political parties could participate freely in. This equipped local leaders with experience in democratic proceedings and entrenched respect for constitutional norms amongst local leaders, imparting key governance principles that would later come to define Southeast Asian states’ political structures post-independence. Elections also helped establish a political compromise between the various ethnic-based political groups, ameliorating the threat of communal conflicts and contributing to stability. Additionally, in Malaya, the British introduced the Member System in 1951, which saw the appointment of Malayan elite to various ministerial roles, giving them experience in administration, and served as a precursor to the cabinet system of government in Malaya. Furthermore, the British helped develop a suitable constitutional structure for Malaya. In 1946, the British installed the Malayan Union which unified the Malay Peninsula under a centralised government and awarded equal rights to all those who claimed Malaysia as their homeland. However, when this was met with strong opposition from Malay nationalists, it pivoted to creating a constitutional Federation of Malaya in 1948 which “safe guarded the traditional leadership role of the Sultans” while “offer[ing] ‘generous citizenship rights to the non-Malays.” By taking care to install a political system that would be sustainable in the long term, the British helped ensure Malaya’s stability upon independence.

Additionally, the British helped local leaders quell existing threats to the state before their departure, leaving their former colonies politically stable in the immediate post-independence context. Perhaps the greatest threat to stability — and particularly so in the eyes of the Western powers, against the backdrop of the Cold War — was communism. The British helped Malaya quash the Communist threat by harassing, detaining or deporting communists in Malaya, and cutting off supplies to the Malayan Communist Party during the guerilla war of the 1948 Malayan Emergency. This was complemented by the more benevolent “hearts and minds” strategy of the British, which involved helping locals resettle into safe, well-equipped New Villages, undercutting popular support for the communists. Similarly, in Singapore, the British took an active role in suppressing communism before allowing Singapore to merge with Malaya (notably, another deliberate decision by the British to prevent a leftist takeover and ensure stability after decolonisation). They helped carry out “Operation Coldstore” in February 1963, a large-scale campaign which rounded up and detained over a hundred suspected communists in Singapore using colonial security apparatus. This contributed to later stability, as many left-wing forces which threatened the leadership of the incumbent People’s Action Party government were either jailed or exiled, unable to put up a formidable opposition. Another threat was that of communalism — to facilitate colonial administration, the British had earlier created “‘official’ administrative categories for non-British residents in Malaya” and “calibrate[d] state treatment of each community accordingly” under their “divide and rule” strategy. This resulted in pronounced ethnic faultlines within Malayan society and strong ties to one’s racial community. To tackle communalism, British Governor-General Malcolm MacDonald “intimated to” the leaders of different ethnic groupsthat “the political future of Malaya would be better assured if they put their heads together,” and “encouraged private discussions of [communal] issues at the elite level.” The British also helped broker a political coalition of various ethnic parties in 1957 known as the “Alliance Party,” overseeing the development of an elite compact for multi-ethnic coexistence through consociational arrangements in Malaya. This ensured that racial tensions did not destabilise Malaya upon independence. (Interestingly, while Singapore also battled with the colonial inheritance of communalism, it was local, rather than colonial, leaders who instituted the policy of multiracialism to assuage racial tensions.) Hence, we see how a pre-planned decolonisation allowed colonial powers to adequately prepare their colonies for self-governance, leading to political stability for the latter.

Conversely, when colonial powers undertook decolonisation hastily, due to their initial unwillingness to grant independence, instability ensued. Decolonisation likely happened suddenly and unexpectedly, and the lack of colonial preparation left inexperienced community or ethnic leaders poorly equipped to deal with challenges and consolidate power. For example, in Burma, the unexpected assassination of Burma’s hitherto leader Aung San and some of his colleagues in July 1947 resulted in a wave of anti-colonial sentiments, as many accused the British of orchestrating the incident. This caused the British to lose significant influence in Burma, forcing them to exit hastily: just six months after the assasination, Burma declared its independence. Consequently, various ethnic groups rose up to challenge the local leadership under Aung San’s successor, U Nu. The swift British withdrawal meant that the British had not been able to broker a political solution among the various deeply-divided ethnic groups in Burma and there was no long-term design of power-sharing in place. Minority groups such as the Shans and Karens rose up in resistance against the new state, agitating for their own independence. The politically-inexperienced U Nu was unable to appease these groups for long before a civil war with the Christian Karens broke out in 1949 — a conflict that remains unresolved today and is the world’s longest-running civil war. These minority groups’ explicit rejection of central authority and persistent separatist tendencies resulted in decreasing support for U Nu’s government, causing political chaos in independent Burma. Similarly, in Indonesia, after fighting the locals in the bloody Indonesian National Revolution starting in 1945, the Dutch exited hastily in 1949, when the U.S. Congress threatened to cut off Marshall Plan aid if they did not leave. Indonesia was suddenly thrust into self-governance. Various political parties, which had risen up during the revolution, jostled for power, attempting to fill the power vacuum left behind by the Dutch. This included the Muslim party Masjumi, its splinter group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the Nationalist Party (PNI), the Communist Party (PKI) and several others. They engaged in petty party politics under Indonesia’s parliamentary system, creating volatile parliamentary democracies. In the eight years following Dutch departure, Indonesia saw seven different governments, pointing to the fragile nature of authority in newly independent Indonesia. Hence, we see how a hasty decolonisation caused Southeast Asian states to be politically fractured and unstable.

Finally, decolonisation that emerged from a violent struggle between locals and an unwilling colonial power also resulted in stability in the short-term. This was due to the presence of a clear, de facto leadership in the form of revolutionaries or military leaders upon independence. These leaders had led their nations to victory against the colonial powers, thus earning legitimacy in the eyes of the people and allowing them to consolidate power. Such was the case in Vietnam, where the French had been strictly against Vietnamese independence, explicitly stating in the ​​Ho–Sainteny agreement of March 1946 its intention of restoring colonial control. In 1946, local leader Ho Chi Minh led the communist Viet Minh party to fight for Vietnam’s independence in the First Indochina War, supported by Vietnam’s People’s Army. After nine brutal years, Vietnam eventually defeated the French in 1954 under the command of Ho, earning its independence. This gave Ho and the Viet Minh tremendous support and legitimacy after independence — Ho was affectionately known as “Uncle Ho” and became a widely revered household symbol of Vietnam’s liberation. Thus, Ho was able to consolidate power without significant political opposition, ensuring stability in domestic politics. Likewise, when the Dutch returned to Indonesia in 1946 with the intention of re-conquest, prominent Indonesian revolutionary Sukarno led the Republican Army to successfully resist returning Dutch forces and suppress a violent insurgency by the PKI communists. Such events allowed Sukarno to gain legitimacy and respect in the people’s eyes, allowing him to consolidate power in 1960 after a decade of deeply fragmented party politics in Indonesia.

In conclusion, states which had experienced smooth decolonisation processes experienced political stability in the early independence years, as their colonial powers were willing to hand over the reins of administration to the locals right from the start and prepared them amply to deal with destabilising threats. Conversely, states that experienced hasty decolonisation due to initial unwillingness of colonial powers ended up politically unstable. Yet, states which experienced an extremely violent process of decolonisation were also able to maintain stability, due to the presence of clear leaders who had previously led them to independence or established stability before, with little challenge to their rule. Hence, the two extremities in the extent of force used in decolonisation both led to stability, albeit for different reasons. For the case of Indonesia, the hasty decolonisation process initially created a power vacuum which gave rise to instability, yet this was overturned when Sukarno managed to successfully quell the instability and establish himself as the clear leader of Indonesia, bringing about stability. This is thus the “de-colonial legacy” of early Southeast Asian states.


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