Toying with history again in Malaysia

By Farish A Noor via The Malaysian Insider

SEPT 12 — In all honesty, I really have many other things to do than waste my time commenting on what has to be one of the most inane and counter-productive debates in Malaysian politics today. Yet as the tide of silliness gains strength all around us, I feel it necessary to add my two-sen’s worth to this debate before I get back to my real work which happens to be teaching and research, so here it goes…

It appears that some academics in Malaysia now claim that Malaya (as it was then called) was never colonised by the British after all — or at least that the Malay kingdoms were never colonies in the fullest sense of the word, but rather protectorates. This is, literally, correct and it has to be said that the legal-political status of these states was precisely that: protectorates rather than colonies. But we need to raise some crucial questions at this point in order to flesh out the debate a little further, and try to understand how and why such an arrangement came about in the first place.

Firstly, it ought to be noted that the use of the term “protectorate” rather than “colony” offered (then, in the 19th century) a fig-leaf of respectability to what can only be described as a mad scramble for power and domination by the British who were not satisfied with the acquisition of their outright colonies in Penang, Dindings, Malacca and Singapore. By the 1870s, members of the British mercantile community in the colonies were demanding more British intervention into the Malay kingdoms so that the British could have direct access to the tin ore and fertile land for rubber and palm oil production. Simply put, Penang, Malacca and Singapore were too small for their own capital investment and market concerns, and they wished to have more control over resources in the Malay kingdoms. To this end, the so-called “Forward Movement” policy was devised to facilitate British colonial intervention into the Malay lands.

By the time the British — through means both fair and foul — gained control over the kingdoms of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang, they instituted new treaties that placed the Malay Rulers at a tremendous disadvantage. It has to be remembered that before this the Malay kingdoms were independent sovereign states in their own right, and each kingdom was in fact its own country with its own government, economy, courts of law, etc. All of this was eroded by the British whose mode of indirect rule meant the introduction of the office of the colonial Resident, whose role and status was that of the de facto administrator of the states; and the Malay Rulers were coerced (often at the point of a gun or cannon) to concede control to the British in matters political and economic.

With the arrival of the British in Pahang and the installation of a Resident (John Pickersgill Rodger[1]) at the court in Pekan in 1888, Pahang was “opened up” to the outside world — though the only foreign capital that was henceforth welcomed in the state was British, and not other European capital. British ships began to dock at the ports of Pahang and a bi-weekly ferry service was introduced that brought with it a regular mail service as well. British commercial investments were initially focused on gold and tin mining — both of which required the mapping of the territory as well as the importation of manual labour. Coming just a year after the British had installed Sultan Idris Shah as the new British-backed Ruler of Perak (after having defeated Sultan Abdullah and sent him into exile), the turn of events in Pahang in 1888 signalled that Sultan Ahmad Shah’s days as the Ruler of Pahang were effectively over.

As in the Pangkor Treaty that was signed by Sultan Abdullah of Perak with the British, the 1888 treaty between Pahang and the British meant that henceforth Sultan Ahmad al-Mu’azzam Shah would be forced to accept the presence of a colonial Resident appointed to the court of Pekan, and Pahang’s affairs would come under the auspices of the colonial office based in Singapore. Pahang was forced to open itself up to foreign capital and to accept the currency of the Straits Settlements as well, according to the terms of the Pahang treaty — which also stipulated that henceforth the Sultan of Pahang was not even allowed to enter into diplomatic relations with any other state without prior approval from the British government

The terms of the 1888 treaty between Pahang and the British made it abundantly clear that the latter were about to gain command over the territory and economy of the former. Act 1 of the treaty bound Pahang to the other British states, compelling it to come to their defence when requested to do so. Act 2 of the treaty stated that “His Highness the Raja of Pahang undertakes if requested by the government of the Straits Settlements to co-operate in making arrangements for facilitating trade and transit communication overland through the state of Pahang with the state of Johore and other neighbouring states”, while Act 3 stated that “if the government of the Straits Settlements shall at any time desire to appoint a British officer as Agent to live within the state of Pahang having functions similar to those of a Consular Officer, His Highness the Raja will be prepared to provide free of cost a suitable site within his territory whereon a residence may be erected for occupation by such officer”.

Act 4 stipulated that the currency of the Straits Settlements will be in use in Pahang, and that henceforth the mint of Pahang would not be allowed to produce coinage and other currency without following the limitations set by the government of the Straits Settlements, while Act 5 noted that “the Governor of the Straits Settlements will at all times to the utmost of his power take whatever steps necessary to protect the government and territory of Pahang from external hostile attacks”, and in so doing demanded the same co-operation from the Ruler of Pahang.

Crucially, Act 6 of the treaty made it clear that “the Raja of Pahang undertakes on his part that he will not, without the knowledge and consent of Her Majesty’s government, negotiate any treaty or enter into any engagement with any foreign state”, or “interfere in the politics of administration of any native state”. The same Act further added that “it is further agreed that if occasion should arise for political correspondence between His Highness the Raja and any foreign state, such correspondence shall be conducted through Her Majesty’s government, to whom His Highness makes over the guidance and control of his foreign relations”.

Act 6 thus effectively robbed Sultan Ahmad and any of the future Rulers of Pahang of the right to engage in any diplomatic relations with any other Malay or European kingdom. [Re:Treaties and Other Papers connected with the Native states of the Malay Peninsula,Government Printing House, Singapore, 1888. pp. 42-55.]

The terms of the Pahang Treaty of 1888 and the Pangkor Treaty of 1874 were more or less the same, and they implied that henceforth the Malay Rulers of Pahang, Perak and the other Malay protectorates would be under the coercive “advice” of the British Resident who was in turn backed by British arms and military power. So while the Malay Rulers were allowed to keep their flags and banners, the real power — political and economic — was robbed of them by the British. Now tell me, how is this any different from outright colonialism? Or are we to give lip service to British colonial propaganda that claimed that this sort of intervention was done “for the good of the natives” and to bring development for the Malays?

I am baffled by the recent turn of events in Malaysia where all sorts of characters are now claiming that this charade of colonial intervention was something less than outright colonisation. To aid them in their memory (some of them are close to retirement I think, or should have retired a long time ago.), I end with a quote from Tun Dr Mahathir’s “The Malay Dilemma” (1969/1970) where Mahathir describes the reality of colonial governmentality then:

“Practically all the import-export houses were British or at least European. These firms were protected by the (colonial) government without any need for legislation. The exclusive European clubs all over the country were the places where these protective laws were made and implemented …

“This protectionism was equally comprehensive on the export side. Markets in rubber and tin for example were established by these firms in their own countries, and the markets were not open to any local (Asian) firms.

“… As if government protection was not enough, the British controlled the whole of the banking business, especially the portion of it that was concerned with the financing of the import-export sector. …

“… Contracts with supplies were almost exclusively through the (British) Crown agents. Local supplies, even when needed, were by contract with British firms. British officials and businessmen formed a close-knit community usually presided over by a local British Adviser or Resident.” (from: Mahathir Mohamad, “The Malay Dilemma”, 1970, pp. 48-49)

To our esteemed dons and doyens of the ivory towers who claim that British Malaya was never truly a colonial construct, I would serious advise a trip to the library, or even a conversation with Tun Dr Mahathir to sort out some of the lingering doubts about the past of the country. Malaysia’s youth may be confused enough today; the least that we — teachers — can and ought to do is to help clarify their understanding a little further; rather than muddy the already murky waters of the past with revisionist obfuscation even further.


[1] John Pickersgill Rodget was the first Resident appointed to Pahang in October 1888. (Gopinath, 1996, pg. 103)

* Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.