Sociological Forum

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 330-361

First online:

The making of race in colonial Malaya: Political economy and racial ideology

  • Charles HirschmanAffiliated withCornell University

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The conventional interpretation of the “race problem” in Peninsular Malaysia (Malaya) is founded upon the supposedly inevitable frictions between ethnic communities with sharply divergent cultural traditions. In this view, assimilation between the indigenous Malay population and the descendants of immigrants from China and India was always a remote possibility. In this paper I argue that modern “race relations” in Peninsular Malaysia, in the sense of impenetrable group boundaries, were a byproduct of British colonialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prior to 1850, inter-ethnic relations among Asian populations were marked by cultural stereotypes and occasional hostility, but there were also possibilities for inter-ethnic alliances and acculturation. Direct colonial rule brought European racial theory and constructed a social and economic order structured by “race.” A review of the writing of observers of colonial society provides a crude test of this hypothesis.