Going soft on Light, Raffles, Swettenham and the Lot

September 30, 2015

Going soft on Light, Raffles, Swettenham and the Lot

by Dr. M Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

francis-light-monument-25826140Sir Francis Light of Penang

The British later replaced the Iberians (Portuguese and Spaniards)  and Dutch in Malaysia. Those colonialists carved up the Malay world among themselves, with Malaysia fortunately falling under the British while the larger archipelago going to the Dutch and the Philippines to the Spaniards.

I say “fortunately” considering the fate of the Indonesians and Filipinos. For whatever reason the British were much more benign, or less malevolent. Among the consequential differences, while our Indonesian brethren had to fight for their independence, Malaysians opted for the more civilized and considerably less traumatic route of negotiations. While Malays still harbor fond memories of their former colonial masters, with more than a few being unabashed anglophiles, no such sentiment exists among the Indonesians for the Dutch, or the Filipinos for the Spaniards.

Raffles Sir Stamford Raffles of Singapore

The British legacies in Malaysia were significant, among them a first class civil service, an independent judiciary, and an school system that later proved fortuitous with English becoming the language of science and commerce. The British also introduced rubber plantations. The country is still reaping the economic bonanza from that initiative.

Again here, the credit for the positive consequences for this particular colonial encounter cannot go entirely to the British or the Malays, anymore than the blame for the fiasco in Indonesia could be heaped upon the Dutch or the Indonesians. Instead the answer lies with the unique dynamics of the interactions.

While Malays had plenty of derogatory caricatures of the Dutch, no such epithets existed for the British. Perhaps the British had perfected the art of indirect rule while still maintaining their tight and uncompromising grip.

Whereas with the earlier encounter with the Muslim traders our acceptance of and integration with them were both “down-up” (from the peasants and rising up to the aristocrats and sultans) and “up-down” (from the rulers downwards), with the British it was strictly up-down, from the sultans to the rakyats.  Because of the feudal nature of Malay society, the transformation was rapid.

It could be that the British found kinship with our Malay system of nobility and felt compelled to preserve it. Granted, our Orang Kaya Di Hilir Perak (Wealthy Lord) is not quite on par socially, intellectually or wealth-wise (despite what the title implies) with the Earl of Lancashire, nonetheless the social pattern and dynamics remain the same.

Frank SwettenhamSir Frank Swettenham

The British were wise to appreciate that a system of subtle indirect rule was more in tune with the halus (refine) ways of our culture than brute occupation a la the Dutch or Japanese. The British charade was greatly eased by their heaping honors on our sultans, such as the Knighthoods of some ancient British Order or the occasional invitations to Buckingham Palace.

This was the same insight that General MacArthur effectively used in postwar Japan, except that he did not feel compelled to honor the Japanese Emperor with a Presidential Medal of any sort.

The British must have learned a thing or two from observing how our grandfathers controlled their buffaloes.  Tie a rope to the ring through the nose of the lead bull, then even a toddler could control the herd. The ring may be of gold and the rope spun of silk, but the underlying dynamics remain the same.

Although the Malay masses did not embrace the British colonials with as much enthusiasm as we did the earlier Muslim traders, we were not entirely hostile either, at least not to the level the Indonesians had for the Dutch. There were scattered armed insurrections and a few colonial advisors assassinated, but for the most part we were quite docile under the British. The British not interfering in matters pertaining to our faith (leaving that entirely and exclusively to the sultans) may have had something to do with our resigned acceptance of their rule. We did not protest much even when the British inundated the country with immigrant laborers from China and India.

Of course the British had to justify bringing in those hordes of indentured laborers; thus was born the myth of the lazy native. To put things in perspective, this unwillingness of the natives to take on dirty scud jobs in their own country is not unique to Malays. How else to explain the glut of Indians in Britain, Turks in Germany, and Mexicans in America?

It was only after the children of those tin mine laborers and rubber tappers became lawyers and doctors, having benefited from the superior education afforded by the colonials, did Malays become concerned that their country would soon be taken over by these immigrants.

Some would argue that those same superior colonial educational facilities were also available to Malays. This myth, like others, had just a tinge of truth to it to be accepted by many as the all-encompassing explanation for Malay educational laggardness during colonial rule.

penang-free-schoolYes, there were schools. The first was Penang Free School (PFS) that despite its name was not free. In addition to tuition fees there were other substantial ancillary fees. Being located in the city, for rural Malay students there would also be the additional and substantial costs for transportation. Urban-dwelling immigrants were spared such expenses. In my case back in the 1950s, nearly 150 years after the setting of PFS, bus fare was the single biggest cost for my schooling, far exceeding the cost of tuition, books, and uniforms.

It did not help that the British built just enough schools to sooth their social conscience after raking in obscene profits from the country. It would have helped entice Malays to enroll in these English schools if they had been named after our heroes and sultans, or in any way pay homage to our cultural sensitivity. Instead those schools had names like King George V School and Victoria Institution.

Just to make sure that Malays got the message that they were not welcomed, there were the Anglo-Chinese Schools. It was not coincidental that there were no Anglo-Malay Schools.

st-michael-institutionMost were not government schools but set up by missionaries expelled from China. They were eager to continue their evangelical mission among the Chinese, only this time in Malaysia. Such schools sported names like Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. The surprise was that there were still Malay parents who willingly enrolled their children in such schools, as with the parents of the wives of the second and third prime ministers

Then there was the colonial mindset that fervently believed that the best education for Malays would be one that would allow us to continue with our subsistence living as peasant farmers and fishermen

If all of those were not enough, then there was the attitude of Malay parents who thought that sending their children to English schools was tantamount to turning them into brown Mat Salleh (White Man) and, horror of horrors, Christians. They would then sport such names as Matthew and Thomas instead of Mahmud and Tahir.

Those conditions created the perfect storm that prevented Malays from partaking in modern Western education. Later, when we realized that our children and community were left far behind, we suddenly became aware of our precarious situation in our own country. Then we started looking at those immigrants who hitherto had been content confining themselves to the tin mines and rubber estates in a radically different light.

Sultan Ibrahim of Johor Sultan Ibrahim of Johor

The Malay reaction to British colonialists could best be described as grudging accommodation, in marked contrast to our earlier enthusiastic embrace of Muslim traders. Our pseudo or resigned acceptance of British colonial rule was smoothed over by the willing co-operation (or more correctly, co-optation) of our elite, especially our sultans. The most unabashedly anglophile was the late Sultan Ibrahim of Johore (above). He must have loved the English very much; he married at least two of them.

If there were to be any segment of the Malaysian community that unabashedly embraced British colonialism it would be the so-called Queen’s Chinese. That term today sounds odd and quaint. They were the early Chinese immigrants who settled in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. They easily assimilated into British colonial society, complete with their billiard playing and brandy swirling which seemed so out of place with their mandarin dresses, conical hats, and black pigtails.

Like the Sultans, these “Queen’s Chinese” were opposed to Malaysia’s independence. Unlike the sultans who kept their opposition silent, those Chinese were very vocal. There were also many Malays who were similarly not too enthused about independence, in particular Dato’ Onn Jaafar. His opposition however, was not with the principle but the timing, feeling that the country was not as yet ready.

In many ways the Queen’s Chinese embrace of colonialism was akin to the earlier Malay acceptance of Islam. Those Chinese successfully integrated into colonial life while maintaining at least outwardly their Chinese traditions. Consequently they were among the most successful communities at the time of independence.

We can only speculate as to the reasons for the muted Malay reaction to British colonialism. Perhaps our earlier enthusiastic embrace of Islam “immunized” us against the subsequent influences of similar monotheistic faiths. Or perhaps after our earlier sour experiences with the Portuguese and Dutch (typified by the expression “Dutch deal”) the British looked so much more tolerable in comparison.

At any rate it was enough for a critical commentator at the time, Munshi Abdullah, to lament what it was that made Malays not in the least curious and eager to learn from a society that was so far ahead of us. We were not even in awe at how British minds could build such wonderful things as a steel warship. They could make steel float! This lack of curiosity prevented Malays from taking advantage of what the colonials had to offer. And they had a lot!  We would subsequently pay dearly for that neglect.

14 thoughts on “Going soft on Light, Raffles, Swettenham and the Lot

  1. Quote:- “The first was Penang Free School (PFS) that despite its name was not free”

    For the record:-

    It was Rev. Hutchings who first petitioned for a “free school”.

    His aim was to provide a school for the orphans and poor children. They were to be educated, fed and clothed.

    Quote:- “Those conditions created the perfect storm that prevented Malays from partaking in modern Western education”

    OK, the Malays have for the last half Century being
    “partaking” in modern education, Western and otherwise.

    Anymore excuses?

  2. A nice write-up, Dr. M. Bakri Musa, about the past history of Malaya (now Malaysia), although only in part. However, with respect, I am sorry to say that although I have some knowledge of the past history of Malaya, I find it difficut to ascertain what it is you are trying to point out. I am sure those not familar with the past history of this country would find it more difficult. Perhaps this is because of my old age. It would be nice if you had made this clear for the benefit of all. We must not forget that even before World War II, there were special privileges made by the British for the Malays (e.g. free Malay and English education, priority of admission to Raffles College and University of Malaya, jobs in the Malay Administrative Service and the Malayan Civil Service which turned out able Malay administrators in the past such as the late Dato’ Dr. Haji Mohd. Eusoff and the late Nik Kamil, and many more.). These special privileges had always been accepted by the Non-Malays in the past. What I fail to understand is why Malaysians these days are not able to live in peace and in harmony like in the past. Sorry again, Dr. Bakri. No offence is intended. I have also enjoyed reading articles written by you. Thank you.

  3. Dr. M Bakri, while what you wrote makes interesting reading, you have missed out the Nonyas and Babas who came to Malacca long before the British took over the country from the Dutch.

  4. /// The British legacies in Malaysia were significant, among them a first class civil service, an independent judiciary, and an school system that later proved fortuitous with English becoming the language of science and commerce. ///

    The British legacies in Malaya and Singapore were the same. After independence, one build on the legacies, the other destroyed the legacies.

    /// Like the Sultans, these “Queen’s Chinese” were opposed to Malaysia’s independence. ///

    Why would Malaysia want independence? Independence from whom?

    Dr Bakri – you are confusing Malaya with Malaysia….

  5. One legacy of the British in Malaya is indeed the large non-Malay minority. Another legacy is Malaysia the country. There was no such political entity as “Malaya” before the British era. The northern third of Peninsular Malaysia was under Thai control. To this day the Thais have undisputed rule over Malay-majority Patani (one of the most ancient Malay kingdoms in the peninsular). Also, if not for the British, there would be no Sabah or Sarawak states. If the Malays in Malaysia are proud of the existence of Malaysia, then they should also accept whole-heartedly the British legacy of the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia.

  6. In Dr Bakri’s over-zealousness in assigning blame to the British and the Chinese for the Malays’ nonchalant attitude towards education, he implied that things may be different if the schools set up bore Malay names.
    I believe the ACS network of schools in the country were founded by Methodist missionaries, just like the Methodist schools were. It must seem ridiculous and somewhat inappropriate that schools set up by Christian missionaries should bear names like Madrasah Al-Amin or Sekolah Pendekar Hang Tuah.

    The terms “Methodist schools” and “ACS” were interchangeable at one time. I don’t know why some schools remained as Methodist schools and others were named ACS (or the other way round). I speculate that the term ACS was used because some of these schools may have been funded by the immigrant Chinese who placed a great importance on educating their young. Someone with more knowledge may be able shine more light on this. What I do know is that education at ACS and Methodist schools were as equally accessible to the Malays as it was to others. Just like a certain Catholic missionary school provided education to a boy who would ascend into high office but bring shame to the country by being implicated in murder, state plunder and racial instigation.

    Dr. Bakri must have been unconsciously trying to draw a parallel to schools like the Malay College of Kuala Kangsar in their exclusivity.

    Even so, Dr Bakri did redeem himself later on by channeling Munshi Abdullah’s observation that the Malays’ lack of curiosity and enthusiasm/interest to learn as reasons why most Malays were suffering from an “academic deficit”. Which unfortunately still, by and large, prevails today despite (almost) all things in Malaysia are being colored Malay.

  7. @Y Chan September 30, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Yes, the immigrant Chinese who later became known as peranakans (simply meaning descendants) of course made their way to Malacca way before the British or the Dutch did. Not only in Malacca, but also in Singapore and Penang. Less known is the fact that they also landed in substantial numbers in Belawan-Medan and as far up north as Phuket. The cities in which they ended up give us a good idea of why they are called the Straits Chinese. What separates the peranakan folk from the rest of the Chinese immigrants to the Malay archipelago was their adoption and making their own of nusantara customs, traditions, language, dressing and food. The peranakan people, with whom I am extremely proud to claim kinship on my mother’s side, are very adaptive people and assimilated well with the local populace. The acceptance of the peranakan people in the coastal cities where they settled resulted in a much more colorful culture in those places.

    But I digress. It should be clear that Dr Bakri Musa was not giving a chronology of who came first to Malaya.

  8. Quote:- “the Nonyas and Babas who came to Malacca…..”

    I think it is more accurate to say Melaka, or Malacca, was where the Nonyas & Babas were born sometime in the 15th Century with the early wave of mostly male immigrants from Fujian Province, hence you get “gua tolong lu, lu tolong gua”, “gua” being “I” in the Fujian

    In fact an in-law of my who are Ns & Bs still speak Malay amongst themselves at home especially for the older generations.

  9. PFS enjoyed its 150th anniversary, its sesquicentenary year, an event presided over by its first Asian headmaster – that most affable and kindly Dato’ Tan Boon Lin -, in 1966 and not the 1950s.

    It was called free because it was open to all races and social classes.

  10. Thanks Dr. M Bakri Musa, a pretty interesting piece but you raise far too many themes to construct a coherent whole. Perhaps a series of articles would have been preferable.

    The British had a benign neglect attitude towards the Malays – they were after all a feudalistic society beholden to their ruling elite who were proxies to the British – hence education for them as opposed to educating local urban talent was the main priority.

    UMNO of course replays this stratagem with the rural heartland. I do think though that education generally led to the so called negotiation for independence. Proto Malay nationalism included the left wing educated “greater Indonesian” types , Islamic scholars educated in the middle East and infatuated by the various struggles there and of course the newly minted “educated” Royalty and various hangers on.

    However this points more to an intelligentsia moving the Malay masses as opposed to a grass roots movement, for any radical communal change. Of course we have to keep in mind that the Non Malays were what…half the population….and in those early days did not really consider themselves citizens…I mean really, citizens of what exactly ?

    So in terms of education, the Malays were cut off from the mainstream of Empire building which should not be confused with nation building while the Non Malays were creating the infrastructure for better colonial rule.

  11. The British in the early years of British Malaya certainly had a benign but neglectful attitide towards the people they ruled then. But we must also be fair to them. Withhout the British, Malaya would not be what it is to-day. We must not forget that in some ways, it was the British who laid the foundation of a modern-day country for us. They also laid a good foundation in education for the Malays which suited most of the rural Malays then (with the special privileges, free education, special Malay and English classs, scholarships for tertiary education, training of Malays to man the Malay Administrative Service and the Malayan Civil Service,etc.) – areas which were much needed then and which proved to be a great hekp when Malaya gained its Indepndence from the British in 1957. What the Briish failed to do then was their neglect to provide training of Malays in the sciences, engineering and technology in the early years.. It was the late Tun Abdul Razak (father of our pesent P.M.), who, as the P.M. then, changed this by introducing the NEP of 1971. – a much needed change, Without the late Tun Razak, Malaysia would not have so many Malay professionals in the sciences, engineering and technology as we have to-day. Therefore, in our criticism of the past, we must also give credit where it is due.

  12. “We must not forget that in some ways, it was the British who laid the foundation of a modern-day country for us.”

    Not in some ways, in every way. The concept of Malay(a)sia is a Colonial invention. This is not a question of giving criticism or credit but a discussion on the impact of Colonial rule on a population which is often conflated with contemporary partisan prejudice.

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