In the sixteenth century the Portuguese introduced the written treaty to the statecraft of
South-east Asia. The local rulers took to it with enthusiasm, as they already
exchanged elaborate and beautifully written formal letters, each bearing the impression
of the state seal, which as a royal heirloom passed from each ruler to his successor.
Malay seals of the old type are superb artefacts and often, like the coins of Roman
emperors, make political statements. The traditional seal is metal, sometimes silver, on
which the ruler's titles are inscribed by cutting into the surface, so that the text is left
white and the background is coloured, when the seal has been blacked in the flame of
a lamp and applied to the paper. In modern times however some rulers adopted an
embossed seal, with a hand press, to make an impression, or even a rubber stamp to be
used with an ink pad. Until, in the 20th century, the rulers were able to sign their names,
their 'mark' (a cross) was made on treaties with European powers.
Between 1946 and 1948 HMG retreated from an ill-conceived and highly unpopular
Malayan Union constitution and agreed to replace it with a federation of the Malay states.
Like all formal engagements with and by Malay rulers, the new regime was to be
inaugurated by treaty, ie a treaty with the ruler of each state and a collective federal treaty
with them all. As all parties had to be provided with an original of the treaties they had
sealed - and there are nine Malay states - they were going to seal a lot of documents.
The ceremony was to take place in the dining room of King's House, Kuala Lumpur
(Malay susceptibilities did not permit the governor's residence in a protected Malay state
to be designated 'Government House'). I was at the time secretary to the Resident
Commissioner of the state of Negri Sembilan, which is itself a federation, so that any
treaty to which it is party has to be executed by its six rulers. The royal dynasty and its
cadet branch provided two personages who considered themselves a cut above the nonroyal
ruling chiefs (known as Undang) of four districts, but all six had to play their part.
On all previous occasions of making a treaty to which several Malay states were parties,
the treaty had been taken round the royal capitals for each ruler to seal there. But in January
1948 it was decided that Mohamed would come to the mountain, and all the Malay rulers
would assemble in Kuala Lumpur for a simultaneous accession to the new arrangement.
My job was to get the four Undang 'to the church on time.' A formal letter of invitation to
each of them had asked them to bring with them their seals. They all turned up punctually at
the rendezvous and we went in to King's House in very good time. The dining room, with
the long table, was a scene of chaos. The ceremony was to be filmed and the room was full
of cameras and lights. Unless, like Agag in the book of Samuel, you 'came delicately', you
would trip over the cables amid the curses of the technicians. However we got the Undang
safely to their allotted places at the table. I then asked to see their seals. Three, who were
younger men fairly new in office, produced rubber stamps, with ink pads, to replace older
seals lost during the Japanese occupation. However the Undang of Johol was an elderly
man, long in office in a district that was regarded as a stronghold of ancient custom. He was
a real old fashioned type, courteous and most anxious to cooperate in this rather bewildering
tamasha. He produced a bundle wrapped in a sheet of a Malay newspaper to reveal a metal,
incised seal, and a lamp, filled with coconut oil, for blacking it.
An expert on the TV Antiques Road Show might have been ecstatic but I was in some
dismay, and took the old Undang back into the kitchen, where the cooks were preparing
bakemeats for the bunfight to follow the ceremony, and we lit his lamp and did a dummy run.
It was awful. Getting the seal blacked, for each impression, was messy, took time and
produced a very blurred outline. At the ceremony copies for sealing would be coming down
the table at speed, like a game of 'pass the parcel'. In despair I borrowed an ink pad from
one of the other Undang, and tried the Johol seal with that. The result was at least no more
of a smudge than resulted from the use of lamp black, and it was much more expeditious.
So we went back to the dining room where royal rulers and their attendant dignitaries had
now gathered, resplendent in Malay national dress of brightly coloured silk and satin. The
sealing began and the Negri Sembilan team did its part without a hitch, or delay. No one
commented on the imperfect Johol seal impression. I could not bear to think what the
assembled Rulers' reaction would have been if we had set the Johol lamp alight on the table
and blacked the seal with it. A plane was waiting to take back to London HMG's copies of
the treaties - meeting that deadline was all that mattered. After it was over everyone had his
nice cup of tea and a sugary cake, and went his way. So the new federation was born.
Somewhere the Foreign Office presumably keeps all the treaties to which Britain has
been a party - in a warehouse in the back of beyond, I suppose. Fortunately no one has
any reason to look at the smudge (and of course the signature) that records the accession
of the ruling chief of Johol to the Federation of Malaya in 1948.