Colonialism by any other name is still colonialism.
(Still India has slaves in various names, forms and colors...)
Debates in post-colonial countries over who really led the independence struggle are nothing uncommon.
The Filipinos recently commemorated the centenary of the birth of their official national hero, Jose Rizal.
The occasion reignited an old debate as to whether the country's hero of independence should really be the radical plebian, Andres Bonifacio (who led the 1896 revolt against Spanish colonialism), rather than Rizal (who actually opposed the resurrection).
The latest phase of this old controversy in our country was unfortunately marred by a high degree of political partisanship.
But even for those of us who for this reason refrained from entering the fray, there was one statement by a protagonist in the debate which cannot go unchallenged.
This is the startling claim by a history professor that our country was never really colonised by the British.
"Startling" because it implies that all those who resisted British intervention were fighting a chimera.
"Startling" because it suggests that people like Maharaja Lela who led a revolt against the British were suffering from some hallucination.
The basis for this claim is that according to colonial juridical theory the Malay states were "protected" states as distinct from colonies.
Zainal Kling, the professor in question, claimed that Malaya had in fact "never been colonised" and was only a "protectorate" of the British.
"Being a protectorate is not the same as being colonised ... Only three states were colonised - Singapore, Malacca and Penang ... Stop saying (Malaya) was colonised for 400 years. That is a big mistake," he said.
Mistake indeed! The learned professor is obviously ignorant of the fact that as far back as 1935 Rupert Emerson, a Professor of Government at Harvard University, had in his study on "Malaysia" (which is aptly subtitled "A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule") shown up this so-called distinction to be nothing more than a piece of legal fiction. As the American don noted:
"Unfortunately, there is neither simplicity nor straightforwardness about the concept of the protectorate or the protected State... The obvious difficulty is that the device of the protectorate has been a very useful one for the Powers in their imperialist exploits and they have not hesitated to twist it in any direction which would suit their immediate purposes.
"In its origins the establishment of a protectorate has very frequently been no more than a preliminary to the establishment of full colonial rule, a device utilised because of its greater economy and its more tentative, but still sufficiently conclusive, character in relation to third States.
"In other instances, as in the Federated Malay States, a virtually complete colonial administration has been set up but the form of the protectorate has for one reason or another been retained. Given such situations, in which words are often used to conceal rather than to explain the reality, it is difficult to arrive at any final and satisfactory terminology or definitions which do more than skim the legal surface.
"But of one thing one may be sure: what is being protected is the interest of the protecting State and of the economic groups within it which profit from imperialism." (Emphases added.)
Further, Emerson goes on to point out that even Lord Lugard, the creator of the system of indirect rule in Nigeria, had admitted that "the distinction between the two is now without practical difference", while a Dutch authority had bluntly declared in 1916 that "the colonial protectorate must be regarded as a disguised colony."
It is indeed astonishing that an American academic could see through this piece of colonial sophistry in the 1930s while a professor in a Third World country which has been independent for more than 50 years is still perpetuating such myths.
It can only be explained by the persistence of colonial thinking in our universities and the enduring hold that colonial scholarship continues to have on the curricula.
It was in an attempt to highlight this problem that we in Citizens International organised an international conference in June this year on "Decolonising Our Universities". While the effort was indeed fruitful, it is clear that that there is still a lot of work to be done.
SM Mohamed Idris is the chairman of Citizens International.