To understand the history of Malay disunity, we must first understand the history of the Malay Archipelago. And when I say the Malay Archipelago this will include what is today known as Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and parts of the Philippines.
The Buddhist Srivijaya Empire ruled the Malay Archipelago from the 7th-13th century, followed by the Hindu Majapahit Empire from the 13th-16th century. Hence, for almost 1,000 years, Malaysia was predominantly Buddhist and Hindu until Islam expanded in that region about 700 years ago.
The first Sultan of Malacca was Parameswara, who fled the Majapahit invasion of Singapura and founded the Malacca Sultanate in the 1300s. Due to expanding trade between China and India, Malacca, which was a port halfway between China and India in the Straits of Malacca, grew in importance and wealth. Muslim traders from India as well as from China led by Admiral Cheng Ho, a Muslim, established trade relations with Malacca.
Parameswara eventually converted to Islam and took the name of Sultan Iskandar Shah. The entire population of Malacca followed suit and became Muslims, as in those days subjects followed the example of their feudal lords.
In 1511, the Portuguese invaded Melaka and it is said that this was possible mainly because the Malays were disunited or split. In fact, ex-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir is very fond of pointing this out in his talks regarding the Malay split and the downfall of the Melaka Sultanate.
In 1641, the Dutch drove the Portuguese out and ruled Malacca for almost 200 years until the 1800s when the British took Malacca from the Dutch and quickly began to extend their influence to the rest of the Malay States using ‘gunboat diplomacy’.
It was not until the Japanese occupation of Malaya from 1941-1945 that the Malays began to have visions of independence. This was partly triggered by the nationalist movement in Indonesia plus the realisation that the British colonialists were not that powerful after all and could be defeated by Asian powers (and Malaya would have remained ‘Asian’ if not because of the atom bomb).
It was only when the British decided to form the Malayan Union in 1946 that Umno was born, not so much to fight for independence but to oppose the Malayan Union. The Islamists in Umno, however, were not too happy with the secular foundation of the party and in 1951 the Islamists left the party to form the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PMIP).
Hence the Malays were clearly split six years before Merdeka in 1957. While Umno under the umbrella of the Alliance Party won mainly urban and non-Malay support, PMIP, now called PAS, made gains in the Malay heartland such as the East Coast states of West Malaysia. Since then the Malays would never become united under one political ideology.
In its history, PAS saw many internal crises between the liberals and the conservatives resulting in breakaway parties such as BERJASA and HAMIM being formed (and this internal crisis is still going on until today). Umno, too, saw many splits that resulted in breakaway parties such as the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP), Parti Negara, Umno Baru, Semangat 46 and Parti Keadilan Nasional being formed.
In short, the history of the Malays has always been a history of disunity. And that, unfortunately, is still true until today. Bapa Merdeka Tunku Abdul Rahman could not avoid it. Tun Dr Mahathir also could not avoid it (in fact it happened twice during the time of Dr Mahathir). And I doubt Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak can be blamed for this as well because the problem is with the Malays who have never seen unity for more than 1,000 years.
And that, if I may be so bold as to suggest, is the real Malay dilemma.