HC Deb 25 May 1954 vol 528 cc10-6W
Mr. Alport

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he can now make a further statement about his recent talks with the representatives of the United Malayan National Organisation and Malayan Chinese Association Alliance.

Mr. Lyttelton

Yes. My views are fully set out in my letter of 18th May to the Alliance delegation in reply to their representations. The text of the letter, which has also been released today in the Federation of Malaya, is as followsI was glad last week to have an opportunity to meet your colleagues and yourself as representatives of the United Malay National Organisation and the Malayan Chinese Association, and to have at first hand a full account of your views upon certain of the present proposals for the introduction of elections to the Federal Legislative Council. I undertook to give your views my careful consideration and to write to you about them before you left London on your return to Malaya on Thursday next, the 20th May. I am sure that our discussion was valuable in enabling us to understand each other's point of view; and looking back upon it I am encouraged by the reflection that, as I think you will agree from what follows, there is between us no essential disagreement upon principle and little even upon practical issues. Your party has raised six points of criticism against the proposals of the Federal Elections Committee. I deal with them in detail below but it may be convenient for me first to summarise the present position in regard to each:— (a) your desire that Government servants should not be debarred from standing for election to the Legislative Council has been met to the greatest extent possible without eroding the vital principle of the impartiality of the civil servant in relation to politics; (b) your desire that there should be a simple majority vote in all constituencies has been met in full; (c) for the logical and practical reasons given below it is not possible to depart from the general practice in modern States that only citizens enjoy the right to vote; (d) your desire that nominated members of the Legislative Council should be eligible for Ministerial office has also been met in full; (e) there is no difference between us in our anxiety that the first Federal elections should be held as soon as possible; it is a practical impossibility to hold them before the end of this year but they will be held as early as possible next year; and (f) above all, your desire that the majority party in the Legislative Council should be able to function effectively in government will be fully satisfied by my assurance that, if it were prevented from doing so by deliberate obstructiveness, I should at once ask the High Commissioner to consider with the Conference of Rulers how the situation might be remedied, and that I should be prepared, if necessary, to agree to amendment of the Federation Agreement in order to apply a suitable remedy. Our discussion last week turned almost entirely upon your request that at least three-fifths of the new Legislative Council should be elected members—and you clearly regard this as much the most important of your counter-proposals—but before coming to that I should like to deal with the other five points. First, you have asked that Government servants should not be debarred from standing for election to the Council. I am convinced, however, that the decision which we have taken is the right one. This is one of those issues of principle upon which it is scarcely possible to compromise and I am sure that the majority of the Federal Elections Committee were right in coming to the conclusion that: "It is of paramount importance at this juncture to establish firmly and irrefutably that the rôles of the politician and the civil servant are separate and distinct and should be kept entirely apart. On the other hand, Their Highnesses the Rulers, the High Commissioner and I myself fully recognised the difficulties that might arise from this decision in finding a sufficient number of candidates of the necessary calibre and experience in public affairs to enter the Legislative Council as elected members, and we therefore gave very close attention to your arguments on the subject. As a result it was decided to modify the majority recommendations of the Federal Elections Committee by two substantial concessions which in my view very largely meet your wishes without endangering the fundamental principle involved. These are, first, that Government servants in the junior grades will, before polling day, be allowed to take one month's leave without pay in order to stand as candidates; and, second, that, for the first elections only, Government servants in the senior grades who have reached the age of 46 on nomination day will be allowed to retire with the pension or gratuity which they have earned so far. To go further than this would involve the risk of grave damage to the status and efficiency of the Federation's Civil Service, upon which so heavily depends the success of its advance towards self-government and its stability when that has been achieved. Experience in the United Kingdom and elsewhere has long and clearly demonstrated the importance to the political leaders of a nation of being able to rely with complete confidence upon the integrity and impartiality as well as upon the ability of their senior civil servants; and I am sure that in years to come the peoples of Malaya will look back with gratitude to those who at this decisive stage were sufficiently far-sighted to stand firmly by this vital principle. Second, you have asked that there should be a simple majority vote in all constituencies, whether multiple-member or single-member. I am able to tell you that on this your wishes will be met for I have learned from the High Commissioner that the Constituency Delineation Commission does not intend to recommend the establishment of any constituency with more than two members, and that there will therefore be no provision for a limited vote. Third, you have asked that, in addition to Federal citizens and subjects of the Rulers, certain other persons should be given the right to vote. Adoption of this proposal would run counter to the general practice in modern States, which is to restrict the franchise to citizens of the State. I need not elaborate the powerful logical justification for this almost universal practice, but I may, perhaps, add my personal opinion that adherence to it is indispensable to the aim which we all share of building up a united Malayan nation conscious and proud of its claim to that title. I realise that the problem of citizenship is complicated but I have no doubt that the high privilege of the right to vote in the Federation should be reserved to its citizens. Fourth, as you know, it has been decided to go beyond the majority of the Federal Elections Committee and to provide that nominated members of the Legislative Council should not be precluded from Ministerial office as holders of portfolios in the Executive Council. Here again your wishes have been met. Fifth, I am satisfied after thorough examination of the problems involved that it is in fact simply impossible to complete the legislative, administrative and other arrangements for the first elections in time for them to be held before the end of this year. I can, however, assure you with equal confidence that no effort will be spared to hold the elections at the earliest practicable date in 1955. There is thus no difference between us on this issue: we are just bound by the limits of practical possibility. I come now to your request that at least three-fifths of the new Legislative Council should be elected members. You put it to me that the matter was one only of degree and not of principle since you were not asking for so large a number of elected seats as to ensure that the party which won the elections would in all circumstances enjoy a clear majority in the Council. You put forward two arguments in support of this contention. First, you said that if the majority of elected members were no more than was at present intended, the people would not think it worth while participating fully in the elections; and, second, you said that, as no party could hope to win more than 70 per cent. of the seats, the present proposals would allow the victorious party too small a majority for it to function effectively in government, since it could not always be sure of the substantial support from non-elected members of the Council upon which it would have to rely to secure approval of its policies. I fully appreciate the sincerity of these apprehensions but I believe that, when you have been able to reflect upon what I am now about to say, you will recognise that you need have no anxiety upon either of these counts, and that, as the responsible leaders of your party, you will be able so to persuade your supporters. There is already convincing evidence of the readiness of the peoples of Malaya to play their part in elections without insisting upon an elected majority larger than that at present contemplated. It seems to me significant that registration for the State elections in Johore is going forward enthusiastically despite the fact that the elected members of the State Legislature will not be in a majority gat all. I believe that the Federal elections will command the same enthusiasm without need on that account for any increase in the proposed majority of elected members. Moreover, there is in my view every likelihood that the victorious party in the Federal elections will be able to rely on such stable support in the Legislative Council as will enable it to take part with real confidence in the government of the country. For one thing, in becoming the Government party it will automatically secure the support of the three ex officio members of the Legislative Council and also of the two other official members charged with the duties of Secretary for Defence and Member for Economic Affairs. Again, it seems clear that if, for example, your party commanded a majority of the elected members of the Council they would be regularly supported by a number of the nominated members, since it is a reasonable expectation that these will include some Councillors who are already members of the party. Finally, I am sure that, whatever party may win the elections it will set itself with a high sense of purpose to pursue sober and progressive policies; and if it does I have no doubt that it will enjoy the dependable support of a large number of the other nominated members. To think otherwise is to imply that the majority party might pursue such unreasonable experiments or so mishandle the conduct of public business that it was unable to carry with it any members of the Council outside its own ranks. I do not believe that your own or any other party would follow a course so prejudicial to the true interests of the Federation. On the contrary, it is because of the evidence of maturity and responsibility which the political leaders in the Federation have hitherto shown that it has been possible to go further than the majority recommendation of the Federal Elections Committee on this subject and to take the quite exceptional step of introducing a majority of elected members on the occasion of the first elections ever to be held in the country. At the same time, it must be recognised that that is a bold and adventurous step, a token not of timidity or distrust but of appreciation of past achievement and faith in future progress. But, with the welfare of the Malayan peoples as our only touchstone in these matters, it would be wrong for us to pass beyond what is bold into what would be reckless; and I am bound to express my conviction that, at this important experimental stage in the advance towards self-government, the checks and balances provided by the proposed allocation of seats between elected and nominated members, and by the quality of the nominated members who are likely to sit in the Council, are both necessary and desirable. I have already expressed my confidence that whatever party may win the elections will, in helping to govern the country, itself be governed only by the best interests of the country, and that any party so disposed will have no difficulty in carrying with it a solid and regular majority of the Legislative Council: but when elections are being introduced for the first time, when all the political parties are still comparatively young and have as yet had insufficient opportunity to prove themselves fully in the arduous business of government, and when the Federation is passing through a period during which that business will, because of the emergency and of financial stringency, constitute a formidable burden of responsibility, it would to my mind be unwise to let our ambitions, however reasonable, involve us in the risk of irremediable mistakes. I am certain that this would be the view of all the thinking people in the Federation who sincerely combine a desire for political progress with a jealous interest in the country's stability and welfare. It will be clear from what I have said that it is our firm intention that the majority party in the Legislative Council should be able to function effectively in government, and that I have every confidence that it will not from any quarter meet with unreasonable opposition in trying to do so. I should, however, like to reinforce this by giving you my assurance that, if it were found in practice that the ability of the majority party to function effectively in government was being frustrated by a deliberately obstructive minority, I should at once ask the High Commissioner to consider with the Conference of Rulers what steps should be taken to remedy the situation—and that, in order to give effect to such a remedy, I should be prepared, if necessary, to agree to further amendment of the Federation Agreement without waiting until the end of the four-year period for which the present proposals provide. I think that you will agree that this important fresh assurance finally removes any anxiety which you may hitherto have felt upon the whole question. In my personal opinion, the Federal Elections Committee was as representative and authoritative a body as could have been constituted (in the circumstances of the Federation today;) and its achievement in reaching unanimity on many of the issues involved, some of them highly controversial, and in narrowing down to negligible proportions its differences on many others, seems to me very impressive. I realise that in your view the representation of your party upon the Committee was inadeqaute, but in matters of this kind none of us can ever hope to have all his desires entirely satisfied and I believe that the composition of the Committee was as just a cross section of all shades of opinion and of all legitimate interests in the Federation as was possible if it were to remain of manageable size. Moreover, I think that I have shown in this letter that the decisions which have now finally been taken upon the Committee's recommendations, while necessarily a compromise, have reduced to a very narrow compass the points of disagreement between the main sections of opinion in the Federation including your party. The appointment and procedure of the Committee provided ample opportunity for individuals and organisations in the Federation to ensure that full account was taken of their views in the formulation of recommendations upon the important issues which the Committee was charged to consider. Your party rightly took full advantage of these opportunities, both through its representatives upon the Committee and by making its views known in other ways; and you again naturally and rightly made known your views upon the committee's recommendations when its report was released for the consideration of public opinion. Thereafter, in accordance with the terms of the Federation Agreement, there followed prolonged and meticulous consultation upon the Committee's recommendations between the Conference of Rulers, the High Commissioner and myself on behalf of Her Majesty. Under the constitution of the Federation only these, and all of these, were at that stage properly concerned in reaching the agreement without which no decisions could be taken. I myself was not then and am not now in a position unilaterally to reach decisions or to vary them. The decisions taken as a result of these consultations, and since published in a Legislative Council paper, are thus the outcome of a most careful and exhaustive process of investigation, debate and deliberation at all levels and over the widest possible field. Even in matters of degree there is always a breaking point and I am sure that you will agree that it would be a tragedy to stand uncompromisingly upon differences involving no question of principle and in reality not even any significant question of degree. I believe that this would do grievous harm to the best interests of the Federation and I am confident that you will agree with me—as, I have no doubt, will all reasonable opinion in the Federation and this country alike—that our sense of responsibility requires us to avoid a damaging crisis of this kind. Let us not cast away the true substance of our common aims and agreement for a shadow which has no body behind it.