MAT KILAU: need to separate facts and real events from fiction

To conclude, the film “Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan” certainly lives up to its disclaimer that it portrays fictionalised characters and events which do not conform to several historical truths. 


The recently released blockbuster Malay film, “Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan”, has been drawing large numbers to the cinemas and received rave reviews from fans of Malay films. I, too, watched the film and took pride in its success while hoping it would give a boost to our local film industry.

However, the film has also ignited a fair bit of debate on the events surrounding the Pahang Uprising 1891–95, the roles played by the various people living at that time, and how they have been portrayed.

I do recognise that, as creative works, feature films are often intended to appeal to the audience’s imagination and emotions, and are different from documentaries which are factual in nature.

Admittedly, the film opens with a disclaimer that “the characters and events in the film are fictional.”

Nonetheless, it is important to separate facts and real events from fiction as depicted in the movie to avoid any dissemination of wrong messages to the public, particularly in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like ours.

The film gives the impression that the Malay chiefs and warriors who opposed the British did so primarily to uphold “ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy), safeguard the rights of the Malays, and defend the sanctity of Islam. Additionally, the Malays revolted to end foreign domination of Pahang’s economy.

One also gets the impression that the British strike force, which was comprised of Sikh and European police officers, was ruthless and brutal in performing their duties as part of the colonial police and paramilitary force.

This article seeks to set the record straight about the Pahang Uprising.

British rule in Pahang

Let’s begin with the introduction of British indirect rule in Pahang and its impact on several Malay chiefs who spearheaded the uprising.

With the appointment of JP Rodger as the resident of Pahang in October 1888, the British introduced various reforms and regulations which reduced the powers and income of hereditary Malay chiefs.

They were no longer allowed to collect tolls and taxes in their districts. But to compensate for their loss of income, the Malay chiefs were given monthly allowances.

Further, the British regulated the system of forced labour – kerah – and introduced the registration of slaves with fixed redemption fees. To gradually end slavery, the Malay chiefs were not allowed to recruit new slaves.

Among the most prominent Malay chiefs in Pahang then, Dato’ Bahaman, the orang kaya of Semantan, arguably opposed British rule primarily due to personal reasons and not “demi memperjuangkan ketuanan Melayu dan agama Islam” (fighting for Malay supremacy and Islam).

First, he was greatly upset that the British resident rejected his request to increase his monthly allowance from $70 to $500 (Straits Dollars), i.e. equal to that given to the orang besar berempat in lieu of him no longer being allowed to levy tolls and taxes in his district.

In this regard, he specifically told magistrate JF Owen that he and his people would not obey British laws unless he was given an annual allowance of $6,000.

Second, Bahaman felt slighted that the British built a police station at Lubok Terua in his district without first informing him.

His main reason for opposing British rule became clearer when he reportedly wrote a letter to WE Maxwell, the British resident of Selangor, demanding that his district be attached to Selangor instead of Pahang with an increase in his annual personal allowance to $6,000.

His sense of patriotism and loyalty to his own ruler, Sultan Ahmad of Pahang, is thus questionable. As stated by Aruna Gopinath in her book, “Pahang 1880–1933: A Political History”, this act by Bahaman “proved that he did not fully abide by his ruler.”

Bahaman’s requests were ignored by the British. In turn, he defied the orders and regulations imposed by the British. As a result of Bahaman’s defiance, Sultan Ahmad, in October 1891, issued an order depriving him of his title and position.

Igniting an uprising

The immediate reason for the Malay uprising led by Bahaman in mid-December 1891 was the arrest of three of his followers by the British for illegally collecting jungle produce.

Bahaman and his men ambushed the British force which had entered the Semantan river. The British force, which consisted of 15 Sikhs and six Malay police officers, was led by Desborough, the collector and magistrate of Temerloh district.

In this encounter, three Sikh police officers were killed and their bodies mutilated.

The reasons for the Pahang Uprising in 1891 are best summarised by Jang Aisjah Muttalib in her book, “Pemberontakan Pahang 1891–1895”, who wrote: “This incident itself was not the result of a plot by elements who were dissatisfied with the British in Pahang but was rather a localised event.”

Interestingly, not many people are aware that Sultan Ahmad personally took command of an expedition in mid-January 1892 with about 500 Malays to arrest Bahaman, who had vanished into the jungle.

This expedition destroyed 12 of Bahaman’s stockades at Bentong.

It is important to note that Sultan Ahmad initially gave tacit support to the rebelling Malay chiefs but was subsequently pressured by the British to support their rule in Pahang.

On April 5, 1892, two Europeans, Harris and Stewart of the Pahang Exploration Company, were murdered by the Panglima Muda of Jempol.

Meanwhile, Mat Kilau, who managed to raise a band of followers at Budu, in the Ulu Pahang district, attacked Kuala Lipis on April 10, 1892, and looted Chinese shops for food supplies.

On May 21, 1892, Budu was attacked and burnt by the British after Mat Kilau refused to enter into peace negotiations with them. Mat Kilau, along with about 60 men and their women and children, escaped into the jungle.


On the perception created in the film that the Pahang Malays revolted against the British to uphold the sanctity of Islam, it must be noted that Islamic matters were under the control of the Pahang ruler.

Further, the British did not interfere in religious matters. Hence, it is inaccurate to suggest that the rebellious Malay chiefs fought to defend the sanctity of Islam.

However, it should be noted that in the later stages, the Pahang Malays, under the influence of Tok Ku Paloh (a Terengganu holy man), declared a holy war against the infidels in order to inject new enthusiasm into their struggle.

Another point to note about the Pahang Uprising is that it failed to gain popular support among ordinary Malays due to the lack of unity among the various Malay chiefs. At any one time, it only gained the maximum support of about 700–800 Malays.

A case in point is that Mat Kelubi, one of the Malay leaders who revolted against the British, was killed together with seven of his men by a Malay force led by Tok Raja and panglima garang Yusof, both who were Ulu Pahang chiefs, on June 16, 1894.

The composition of the Pahang police force at the beginning of 1890 comprised one European inspector (H Sumner), one Malay inspector (Tuan Kechut), 104 Sikhs, and 142 Malays, apart from some Dayaks who were recruited as constables around the same time.

The Malay police officers were largely recruited from Kelantan and Terengganu. Later during the same year, another 50 Sikhs were recruited.

Regarding the Sikh police, JP Rodger reported that “the Sikhs had behaved exceptionally well, not a single complaint having been made against them.”

To the best of my knowledge, there are no historical records indicating that the Sikh police officers behaved brutally towards the Malays during the Pahang Uprising. Any perception to the contrary is unfair to the community.

Regarding the perception that the 1891–95 Pahang Uprising was aimed at ending foreign domination of Pahang’s economy, it is worth noting that Sultan Ahmad in the 1880s – before British rule in Pahang – had sold large tracts of land in Kuantan, Lipis, Bentong, Raub, Semantan, and Jelai to European, Chinese, and Arab prospectors.

In doing so, the sultan angered several Malay chiefs, including the orang kaya of Lipis and maharaja Perba Tok Raja of Jelai. The Malay subjects, too, suffered severely as their gold workings were taken over by concessionaires without compensation.

To conclude, the film “Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan” certainly lives up to its disclaimer that it portrays fictionalised characters and events which do not conform to several historical truths.

RANJIT SINGH MALHI is an independent historian who has written 19 books on Malaysian, Asian and world history. He is highly committed to writing an inclusive and truthful history of Malaysia based on authoritative sources.