The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology
Charles Hirschman
Comell University
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 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.*

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