Political change

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The Skinny

  1. Colonialism affected Southeast Asia profoundly. Some of the changes were negative and others positive in nature.

  1. In general, they can be divided into economic, social and political changes.


  1. The following political developments occurred in Southeast Asia:

  • The creation of a centralised, European-style, modern form of government

  • Political stability and security in Southeast Asia, which created conditions for economic development

  • A map of Southeast Asia with clear boundaries

  • Changes in system of law and order

Centralised and impersonal form of government

  1. In the past, the villages and towns in outlying areas were relatively autonomous. They relied more on patron-client relationships and personalised nature to govern and manage the kingdoms.

  1. European colonialism brought new methods of government. The new method was more rational, cold, organized and hierarchical in nature. It was more elaborate and depersonalized with interchangeable officials who had the duty of :

  1. collecting taxes

  2. enforcing laws

c. carrying out government policies

  1. For example, a centralised form of government can be seen in Cochinchina where the a new class of French officials was set up in Saigon. Most of them were from the French Navy and known as inspectors of indigenous (local) affairs. They replaced all Vietnamese provincial officials. They reported to the Governor General of French Indochina who was based in Hanoi.

  1. In other parts of Vietnam which were under indirect rule like Annam and Tongkin, the the Nguyen Emperor was kept in power but his political powers were removed. The Mandarin system was kept in place but by 1902, all Mandarins were required to speak and master the French language. There were 6 boards or departments in the Mandarin System but in all of these courts, there was a French advisor attached to oversee all decision-making. A French Superior Resident was also appointed in Hue, the capital of Annam and his advice was to be sought and enforced on all matters. There were also thousands to French officials recruited and appointed to different levels of administration in Annam and Tongking.

  1. In Malaya, the Straits Settlements was directly controlled from London under the charge of the Governor of Singapore. It comprised Penang, Malacca and Singapore.

  1. The Federated Malay States was set up in 1898 with a Resident General based in Kuala Lumpur who coordinated the development and governments of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang. The Sultans were however still sovereign lords. They were also still the presidents of their state councils. They also had a Durbar (Conference of Meetings) which was held every year to discuss political issues. In the 1930s, there was even a movement to return more power back to the Sultans as part of a policy called Decentralization. Indirect Rule was more ‘indirect’ when compared with the French example.

  1. In the Unfederated Malay States, Indirect Rule was even more deeply applied. In Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu and Perlis, the residential system was introduced. A British resident was stationed in the courts whose advice was to be sought on all matters except religion and traditions. But the Sultans retain considerable autonomy and independence, especially in Johor where he was even allowed to retain his own frontier forces / army.

Political Stability

  1. In traditional Southeast Asia, there were periods of political instability. They took the form of frequent wars between rival kingdoms and local warlords. When there was instability, bandits, pirates, slave raiders, petty chiefs feuded and took sides against each other.

  1. Colonialism created conditions for political stability and security in the region. With colonial rule, feuding dynasties, chiefs or kingdoms did not lay waste to each other in constant warfare.

  1. For example, in Vietnam, Black Flag pirates, feuding families in the imperial courts, and wars with Cambodia, Siam, Burma and China prevented political stability.

  1. In the 1770s, the Tayson rebels against the Nguyen rulers devastated the country. The Tayson rebels even captured Saigon. It was French Bishop Pigneau de Behaine and French forces which helped Emperor Gia Long establish conditions for peace in 1880s.

  1. In Malaya, it was the problem of piracy, secret society clashes and succession disputes involving Malay chiefs and rival claimants to the position of Sultan.

  1. For example, in Perak, the Malay Chiefs, claimants to the Perak throne and secret societies (Ghee Hin and Hai San) fought 4 Larut Wars and still could not establish stability in Perak. However, with the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874 and the creation of the British Residential System, British rule created conditions of stability in Perak.

Clearly Definied Boundaries

  1. In traditional Southeast Asia, it was a mandala theory which operated. This meant that boundaries were determined on whether powers could get tribute and manpower from the various villages and towns.

  1. By the 19th century, clear geographical borders were created and mapped out by colonial powers. It divided Southeast Asia more sharply into distinct political and administrative units. This came with networks of roads, railroads, telegraph wires and postal systems connected to the centres of the various European empires.

  1. The western concept of clearly marked out boundaries led to greater sources of conflict in the short term and long term.

  1. a. For example, the boundaries of Siam in the past was determined by whether the

  2. Chakri Kings in Siam could get tribute and call on manpower.

b. With the expansion of British and French colonialism in the 1870s and 1880s, clear

boundaries were drawn which divided Siam from French Cambodia and French

c. Clear borders were also drawn with British Malaya, resulting in the Bangkok Treaty

of 1909 which led to the Northern Malay States (Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu and

Perlis) being transferred to British rule.


  1. It seems as if the new colonial system totally replaced the Southeast Asian way if ruling. However, in reality, the European powers also needed to compromise and adapt to local conditions to have an effective government.

  1. Sometimes they were traditional ruling classes. In other instances, they were marginal or minority populations.

  1. Usually this went through a period of stages.

  1. Feudal relationships with traditional elites

  2. Taming of local elites or search for new collaborators

  1. In the early part of the 19th century, colonial governments depended on traditional elites. This is called “feudal relationships with traditional elites”.

a. In French Indochina, this took the form of collaboration between French governors/

bishops and local rulers. For example in 1802, Emperor Gia Long, collaborated with

Bishop Pignieu and compromised on religious tolerance to establish Nguyen control

of Vietnam.

b. In Malaya, Sultan Abdullah of Perak was willing to sign the Pangkor Treaty. In

exchange for British protection and recognition, he was to be recognized as the

legitimate ruler of Perak.

  1. After 1880s, most of these arrangements ended. The old arrangements were seen as placing too much power in the hands of non-Europeans. Collaboration took the form of finding clerks, runners, minor officials who could be hired locally. This was done because the costs of hiring European administrators was simply too expensive.

6 During this stage, collaboration took two forms:

  1. A new generation which was demoted and had to make the best of things (For example, Sultans and traditional elites who were schooled in British institutions like the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (formed in 1905) and Sultan Idris Training College (formed in 1922) for teachers

  1. For new territories especially, the approach was usually to tame the former ruling classes for minor work in the colonial governments and to create entirely new classes to perform the day-to-day running of the colonial government.(The French used Vietnamese Cathoics in Laos & Cambodia; Also in Annam and Tongkin).

New System of Law and Order

  1. In traditional Southeast Asia, local customs and practices played an important part in ensuring a system of law and order.

  1. For example, in Vietnam, it was Confucianism and local village customs. In Malaya, it was adat or local custom.

  1. When Vietnam and Malaya became colonies, the westerners believed that they were giving the natives new ‘human rights’ which previously did not exist. Colonial law and new methods of government often led to the weakening of traditional systems of law and order

  1. In Vietnam, Confucianism and the influence of the local Vietnamese court was severely affected. But local customs and practices like Confucianism and the worship of village guardian spirits continued

  1. In Malaya, Islamic law or sharia was maintained. The new British system of law and order still allowed for separate Sharia law courts to deal with traditional matters of marriage and religion

  1. In Malaya, Adat laws related to land tenure and inheritance were also still maintained.


  1. The following economic developments occurred in Southeast Asia:

  • Creation of large-scale export industries and vulnerability to world recession.

  • Communications revolution

  • Standardized monetary system and an efficient economy

  • Domination of local economy by European and Chinese businesses

Large-Scale Export Industries & Vulnerability to World Recession

  1. In traditional Southeast Asia, trade was based on a tribute and patronage system with China or on local/regional trade. There was no large-scale export industries or international trade with Europe.

  1. Colonial rule led to political stability and security. This created large-scale export industries and connected Southeast Asia with colonial trade. It also made Southeast Asia vulnerable to world recessions.

  1. The very idea of colonialism involves:

  • Creation of markets for colonial industrial goods

  • Exploitation of colonial raw materials

  • Creation of plantation industries to stimulate trade within the empire

  1. In Vietnam, rice was produced in large quantities in the Mekong Delta and by the 1920s Vietnam was the third largest exporter of rice in the world at 1.2 million tons. Coal, zinc and tin was also mined and processed in Vietnam.

From the 1920s, rubber plantations were also created in southern Vietnam and Cambodia when French companies like Michelin poured investments and apital into French territories.

  1. In Malaya, Malay was the world’s largest exporter of natural rubber and tin. Together with Indonesia, it accounted for over 75% of the world’s supply of rubber. Southeast Asia also produced two-thirds of the world’s tin production by the 1930s.

  1. The creation of large-scale export industries made Southeast Asia more vulnerable to changes in global prices and competition from overseas. This made Southeast Asia more vulnerable to price changes and world recession.

  1. For example, during the Great Depression, the price of rubber was badly affected by the drop in sales of cars. Those in remote communities were largely unaffected but the majority who lived in cities and villages saw the rise in prices of basic necessities, unemployment, restricted credit and rebellion.

  1. Rebellions like the VNQDD Yen Beh uprising and the Ha Tinh/ Nghe Anh revolts broke out in the 1930s over the economic changes and discontent.

Communications revolution

  1. In the past, barriers to transportation and economic development took the form of rival kingdoms feuding with each other, piracy and undeveloped overland transport networks . It changed with colonialism

  1. Internationally there was new means of communication which shortened distances and improved communications between the capital cities of Europe and the colonies:

  • Suez Canal.(1869) which became a short cut to Asia.

  • Steamships which reduced travel time from 10 months to 4 month

  • Telegraph and the Submarine cables which gave instant information

  1. In Indochina, the old Mandarin which stretched from Hanoi (north) to Saigon. (south) was improved. A railway system was also built which ran along the coast. The French explored, navigated and used steamships and dredges to improve river transport. They also built canal and drainage projects in the Mekong Delta to encourage rice production in the area.

  1. In British Malaya , more roads were built in the FMS states which linked the states with each other. By 1922, the British railway network ran from Singapore to Bangkok

Standardized monetary system and an efficient economy

  1. The traditional approach in doing business was to trade cargo or goods with each other. Imports like Indian fabrics, valuable Chinese ceramics and cannons were used as luxury goods.

  1. Under colonial rule, a new economic system based on a new money economy was created. It was based on:

  • Trade with within the colonial empire

  • Standardised and modern currency

  1. The French colonial system used the piaster. They traded among their French colonies and a protectionst policy was adopted.

  1. In British Malaya, they used the Straits Dollar. In Malaya, there was at first a whole series of silver dollars used as currency. By 1904, it was eventually replaced with the Straits Dollar . Free trade was promoted.

Domination of local economy by European and Chinese businesses

  1. In traditional Southeast Asia, the economy was not dominated by any particular group. seasonal in nature and dependent on the monsoon winds or based on a tribute system.

  1. Colonial rule led toe the rise of European and Chinese businesses which dominated the local economy

a In Vietnam, French companies and pro-French Vietnamese supporters were

given land and business licences to operate businesses. Many French businesses like Michelin owned rubber plantations.
b In Malaya, all-purpose businesses called agency houses dominated the import-export businesses, managed plantations and even sold insurance and other economic services. Some examples include Sime Darby and Borneo Co. Ltd.
c Chinese businesses were also able to dominate the local economy because they were able to use clan associations and local networks to organize themselves very well and gather capital for entrepreneurial activity
d In Vietnam and Malaya, the Chinese controlled rice milling and trade, harbour work,

tin mines, retailing, wholesale trade and moneylanding. They also were successful in getting government contracts for collecting taxes (revenue farming) and government contracts for the monopoly of various trades (opium; alcohol; salt)


  1. The following economic developments occurred in Southeast Asia:

  • Racial and social tensions

  • Rise of Middle Classes

  • Improvement in Standards of Living

Racial and social tensions

  1. Colonialism led to racial and social tensions in two ways:

  • It created a more cosmopolitan and racially mixed population, creating racial and social tensions

Manual labour in the cities and various labor-intensive industries like harbor work, railroad construction, plantation work or mining, pulling rickshaws was done by migrant labour. Many Southeast Asians (and westerners) were not interested in taking up these jobs because of the low pay and poor conditions. It led to a more mixed population in the colonies.

  • The colonial attitude of viewing western culture as ‘superior’ to traditional culture led to racial and social tensions.

Europeans came as military men, government officials, traders, mining engineers, plantation managers, missionaries and teachers. They enjoyed economic influence, political privileges and had freedom of action. They also had better access to capital, better connections with the markets of the West , modern technology and scientific expertise. This made them feel superior

  1. In Vietnam, there was little ethnic problems. The divisions were more religious and political in nature.

  1. For example, there was a more strict migration policy which prevented Chinese from settling in Indo-China. The Chinese worked in the northeastern corner of Vietnam as peasants and as successful merchants who helped control the rice trade. They were less than 3 percent of the entire population in Vietnam.

  1. The divisions were more religious in nature because the French used Catholic converts and middle-class civil servants who could speak French to run their administration.

  1. In Malaya, there were more ethnic problems. The divisions were racial in nature and less religious in nature.

  1. Indian and Chinese migrants came to Malaya in large numbers because of a lax British immigration policy which encouraged the migration of Indians and Chinese.

  1. Most came aboard “coolie” ships, owed passage money to those for whom they first worked. Indians worked on the plantations and construction projects in Malaya. Chinese who came from the poorer provinces of South China - Guangdong and Fujian province (Cantonese; Hokkien; Teochew; Hakka; Hainanese were the main dialect groups) to work as labourers, coolies, rickshaw workers, plantation owners and traders. They often bickered and fought among themselves, leading to a large secret society problem which the British tried to manage

  1. Between 1850 to 1941, close to 20 million Chinese arrived. They were about 40 percent of the entire population in Malaya which led to ethnic tensions.

  1. The Malays began to feel that they were being alienated on their on their native lands and feared losing their political and economic privileges.

Rise of Middle Classes

  1. A new ‘middle class’ emerged because of the new educational system introduced by the colonial governments.

  1. With government training schools and civil service (government jobs) made more available in colonial Southeast Asia, many Southeast Asians were educated in such both local and western education.

  1. In Malaya and Vietnam, education took the form of training interpreters, government officials and some professionals to fill out the lower rungs of administration of the government.

  1. In Vietnam, the Mission schools of Catholic missionaries provided a French education. French government schols like Lycée Albert Sarraut in Hanoi and Lycee Quoc-Hoc, Hue (Ho Chi Minh educated here) created the new middle class in Vietnam. The University of Hanoi was opened in 1918 to train local Vietnamese for technical skills and administrative skills.

  1. In Malaya, the Sulan Idris Training College in Tanjong Malim, Perak was founded in 1922 to train Malay teachers in gardening and basic agriculture. It was to teach them scientific farming methods. There were also English medium education. Which produced civil servants and professionals like St Xavier’s Institution in Penang.

  1. One major difference is that the Vietnam took a more hands-on and centralized approach in providing education. Education was for the minority.

  1. In Vietnam, the Lycee Albert Sarraut and Lycee Quoc-Hoc were

government institutions. Literacy levels were very low. Only 15% went to schools a and could read and write.

  1. The British adopted a more hands-off policy and decentralized approach in providing education. Education was for the majority.

  1. In Malaya, the British believed that education should be available for all but limited by resources, they let the immigrant community create their own schools – Chinese clan schools; Indian schools; Malay madrasahs and a few government schools and mission schools which provided for an English-based education system.

  1. Tradition elites from among the Malays would be given an English Education and groomed to govern Malaya. For example in 1905, the Malay College was set up in Kuala Kangsar in Perak for the children of Malay nobility to become government administrators and officials.

Improvement in Standards of living and health

  1. The cities of Southeast Asia in the colonial period were crowded, dirty, crime-filled, expensive and unhealthy.

  1. However, because colonial cities were also places of administration, standards of living in the cities also improved.

  1. For example, clean water was provided for drinking and cooking to prevent epidemics like cholera and typhoid from breaking out which could affect the city.

  1. Vaccination against diseases like small pox was also provided to prevent such outbreaks.

  1. Improved sanitation through the digging of latrines and wells, as well as a waste removal system, was implemented to prevent disease outbreaks.

  1. The amenities of modern medicine and hospital care also developed. This led to the decline in infant deaths.

  1. In general, because of better world trade connections, there was also reduced incidents of famine. The import and cultivation of new crops like corn and sweet potatoes also reduced the number of famine in Southeast Asia.

Improvement in Standards of Living

  1. How different were the methods in which European powers

governed their Southeast Asian colonies in the period between

1870 to 1900? Explain your answer. (12)

  1. ‘The introduction of a new cash economy based on global trade

was the most important consequence of colonialism in Southeast

Asia in the period between 1870 to 1900. How far do you agree?

Explain your answer. (13)

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