Remembrance of Things Past

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Gullick
Remembrance of Things Past
On 31 August 2007 Malaysia celebrated half a century of independence. The achievement of freedom (Merdeka) is a milestone on the road of Malaysian national progress that we can hardly match. When the Roman legions departed from Britain there was dismay followed by a dark age. Perhaps the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 has the same place in our tradition. Each successive 31 August had of course its celebration in Malaysia but half a century called for rejoicings on a larger scale.

The Malaysian Ministry of Culture set up a special unit under an energetic Malay lady journalist who had learnt her trade in London, where there were anniversary events in 2007 and of course much more in Malaysia itself. The unit wished to commission a number of retrospective articles for distribution to the local press, as the recollection of liberation in 1957 called for some appraisal of what had preceded it. Here the difficulty was that few Malaysians had been adult observers In 1957, and even fewer could remember what the last years of colonial rule had been like. So - faute de mieux - as a surviving expatriate official of that era I was invited to contribute.

In fact a great deal of what is remembered as the achievement of the first years of independence had its foundations in the final colonial decade of reconstruction after the war. One such case was the systematic replacement of old rubber trees and oil palms, the key element of the economy at that time, with new highyielding stock. My articles were not controversial - simply a recall of events and personalities In an era beyond the direct experience of the modern generation. To them it was like looking across a strait through the sea mist to a distant coastline, as in my boyhood on the Somerset coast one saw Wales across the water.

The accounts that reached me of the general reaction to my articles were patchy but interesting - they had not attracted much attention. The Malaysian public does not read the works of academic historians, some of them at British universities, who have trawled the abundant archives to present a selective picture in accordance with their established prejudices. In their schooldays modern Malaysians used history books, many written as educational texts by local teachers, which demonstrated the perceived iniquity of late 19th century British intervention in the Malay states - one must concede that the seminal Pangkor Engagement of 1874 with the Sultan of the Malay state of Perak was not properly explained to him and his advisers at the time and was misinterpreted thereafter. But what followed - the three quarters of a century to 1957 - was, with the exception of the Japanese invasion and occupation, hardly remembered. That occupation is indeed remembered as ‘the time of tapioca’ (zaman ubi kayu) when a dearth of imported rice enforced a diet of tapioca, very distasteful.

There is nothing unique in the historical retrospect of a nation being selective. In British history the carnage of 1914-18, to judge from the treatment of our history in television programmes, and the naval conflict of the Napoleonic period, as romanticised by novelists drawing on the actual derring-do of Cochrane’s career, are better remembered than say the Crimean and South African wars. People recall what interests them and are bored by the rest.

Remembrance of Things Past
Secretariat at Kuala Lumpur
So much for the general reaction In Malaysia to accounts of the preindependence period. Yet this period that had almost disappeared from view in the 21st century saw the construction of a foundation of a viable nation. The federation of the nine Malay states to make a single political unit of the Malay peninsula in 1948 had defied the efforts of the colonial regime for forty years up to the war. The introduction of a modern economic structure - central bank etc... - and an extensive modernisation of basic industries such as rubber and tin production also came in the post-war decade.

However there were also individual enquiries which illustrated how looking back to an earlier period prompts people to search for the lifestory of their forebears. In the fascinating TV series 'Who do you think you are’ we have a British parallel. My articles brought me an enquiry from a lady who said that she was the daughter of a British administrator and his Malay partner. Traditional Malay society describes its widows and divorcees as janda and gives them freedom to live as they wish - unions of that kind were not uncommon and enjoyed a measure of acceptance in modern society. Anyway at Malayan independence in 1957 her father (let us call him ‘S’) had made provision for his two dependants and then had simply disappeared into retirement in the UK. His partner never heard from him again. The daughter asked me if I could tell her anything about her father.

As it happened I could, as S had ended his Malayan career as British Adviser (the most senior post) in a large Malay state. Here he had to cope with a strong willed Malay ruler who expected to get his way, though he spent much of his time in London, preferring the dolce vita of Claridges to the tedium of a Malay capital. This Imperious figure was not a supporter of the Malayan Independence campaign since he suspected - quite correctly - that politicians with a popular mandate would be less complaisant than their British predecessors. He decided that his state would not be part of an independent Federation of Malaya. It fell to S to convince him that it was not in his power to opt out in that fashion. This - and other - episodes in the conventional rise to the upper level of the service are described in memoirs deposited by S at Rhodes House Library at Oxford. So I sent a copy to his daughter who was gratified to discover that her father had been a leading figure in the last years of colonial rule.

Remembrance of Things Past
Rubber Plantation
Another enquiry was from a Malay whose grandfather (let us call him ‘M’) had been a member of the Malayan Civil Service. The policy of promoting Malays to the senior administrative service had begun during the 1914-18 war to relieve staff shortage and by 1957 about one third of the MCS were Malayan. This correspondent asked whether as a contemporary in the service I had met his grandfather. As it happened I had. In 1948 HMG’s ill-starred attempt to impose unity and direct colonial rule in the form of the Malayan Union was replaced by a Federation of Malaya in which each state regained its own state government headed by Malay administrators as Chief Minister and State Secretary. Until then I had been secretary, i.e. staff officer, to the British Resident Commissioner of one of the smaller states. Working single-handed in dealing with post-war reconstruction and many new initiatives, in addition to the routine, it had been hard work. It was agreed that M, who was to take over from me as State Secretary, would begin a week before the formal handover. He arrived with a couple of Malay assistant secretaries, and M and I shared my office. He was a charming man but not a glutton for work. I suggested that I should pass over to him any new business at once since he, not I, would have to see it through to the end. But if I went out of the office I found on my return that the files I had passed to M had returned to my in tray. I told M’s grandson how much I had enjoyed working with M for a week, and left it at that.

Independence in 1957 had its lesser episodes as well as the ceremonial raising and lowering of flags. My favourite story came to me from the manager of a large rubber estate, owned by a British company. On his boundary was a Malay village whose headman was a friend as well as a neighbour. As independence day drew near the headman came to the manager to say that he understood that he would soon depart and the estate would be taken over. Would the manager set aside for the headman a choice part of the estate as a parting gift? Sadly no such largesse was in prospect and plantations remained in foreign ownership for another generation.

At any time the past is what the present makes of it. To Malaysians of the 21st century colonial rule is just something that happened beyond living memory and hardly matters any more. An Indian historian, writing of the centuries of European dominance of Asia, contemptuously sub-titled his book ‘the Vasco da Gama Epoch of Asian History'. In time British historians will find some other topic on which to found their output and their careers. We shall by then have passed over, but I doubt whether for us, like Bunyan’s Mr Valiant-for-Truth, the trumpets will sound on the other side.

British Colony Map
Map of Colonial Malaya
Colony Profile
Malaya Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 103: April 2012