British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Gullick
An Experiment in Democracy
Sir Hugh Clifford
On the colonial probationers’ course (later the First Devonshire) in 1938-39 we were warned that we might have some unusual things to do. Indeed the curriculum included elementary surveying, how to quell a riot with the minimum of bloodshed, and how to build and launch a pontoon bridge. This last item saw some 50 of us in March 1939 splashing about in the shallows on the banks of the Cam. Our instructor (Sergeant RE) looking on in despair, said, ‘if Hitler could see you, he’d declare war at once’.

Fortunately my ability to make a pontoon bridge was never put to the test. But even the Colonial Office in its wisdom did not prepare us for the conduct of parliamentary elections. It did not seem part of the imperial mission. The Malay States were particularly stony ground for the seeds of democracy as the theoretical basis of the ‘Residential system’, under which they were administered, was that a treaty provided for a British adviser to assist an absolute monarch in the government of his state. When the first murmurings were made against an FMS Federal Council of ex-officio and nominated members only. Sir Hugh Clifford, returning from Lugardland in West Africa to the post of High Commissioner for the Malay States, told the Council in 1927 that Britain had ‘no mandate’ to vary ‘a system of government that had existed since time immemorial’.

However the war changed all that, and by the early 1950’s competing political parties were demanding an elected legislature as a step towards self government in the near future. Except for some recent elections to municipal and state bodies, an election would be a complete novelty. But it was a question now of when it would come to pass. It would at least demonstrate which party had the greatest support, and so it was agreed that in July 1955 there would be a nationwide election to choose a majority of the members of the Federal Council. British officials had no long term interest in the choice, and they were to provide supervisors to ensure that the election was properly conducted.

A suitable number of ‘presiding officers’ for the main polling stations was selected for training in the rudiments of the job. I was not one of the original selection, but at the last moment someone dropped out and I became his substitute. Not for the first or last time in my career, there were misgivings. The man doesn’t know the difference between a ballot box and a balloon. Better send him to somewhere beyond the critical eye of the local press. So - to my delight - I quit my Secretariat desk and went off by light aircraft to Kemaman, on the east coast - the Malayan equivalent of a temporary posting to the Outer Hebrides, though offshore oil has made it a very different area now.

An Experiment in Democracy
Tunku Abdul Rahman
There were only two political parties in serious contention. One was led by some political heavyweights who were a little past their ‘sell by’ date but they had the (discreetly veiled) support of the colonial government as likely to provide some ‘safe pairs of hands’. The other was a coalition of communal parties, called the Alliance and led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, son of a former Sultan, but regarded as rather a playboy. It was said that at Cambridge many years before, his fast cars led to the creation of the additional post of vice-proctor in charge of undergraduate motor vehicles. But what escaped the official view was that the Alliance had the support of the emerging middle class, from which came many of what in the UK we call ‘party activists’, the people who sit on constituency association committees, turn out to canvass and get out the vote on polling day. Most of the natural leaders of village communities, the headman, schoolmaster and some of the mosque officials were also in this camp. It was to be a decisive factor, for some of these elements were politically sophisticated and aware of what an election campaign demanded.

An Experiment in Democracy
Polling Station
Kemaman was then a small fishing port and centre of Malay smallholdings, with a significant Chinese town population of shopkeepers and traders. The polling station was a large Malay school on the outskirts of the town. Like many Malay buildings its floor was about six feet above ground level, on stilts, with steps to give access. The school compound had a ring fence, marking the limit beyond which political parties might not penetrate. Only voters might come in to the school.

The returning officer for the constituency was a senior local Malay official who put in my charge a stock of sealed empty ballot boxes. The interior had been fitted up with openbacked voting stalls on the English model. With all prepared we opened the polling station at the appointed hour and I sat inside where I could see both what was going on within and, through the doorway, the entrance to the compound beyond. Representatives of the Alliance, but none of their opponents, had set up shop just outside the entrance, with a copy of the electoral register. Some voters, women as well as men, arrived on foot, but those from a distance were ferried in by relays of motor cars lent by party supporters. The voters were simple people, many of them illiterate, and mostly Malay. A Malay has, as his or her full name, a personal name, then ‘bin’ (son of) or ‘binte’ (daughter of) and the father’s name. But the range of Malay names is limited, and so there were many with the same full name, and it had not been possible to issue official voting cards. If they declared themselves Alliance supporters, the party reps questioned them gently in the local patois, to identify them in the register. Then they came on alone to their ordeal, clutching a slip of paper on which their distinguishing serial number in the register had been written, and muttering something. The word they were trying to memorise was ‘kapal’, the Malay for ‘ship’, which was the symbol on the voting paper against which to put their cross. With their slips bearing an identifying number in the register there was no intimidating fuss while the clerk found the name in the register, and they moved quietly on, ballot paper in hand, to a booth, to make their cross. I could see into the back of the booths, from a distance, and I saw one elderly and bewildered voter put a bold cross on the wall of the booth. He knew the damn thing had to go somewhere. But in the event comparatively few blank or spoiled papers were found in the count later on.

An Experiment in Democracy
The Count
When the polling station closed and the returning officer had taken over the ballot boxes, my Job was over. The next day I flew back over the endless jungle to see what had accumulated in my 'In' tray. In those days Kuala Lumpur had no more than an airfield, and getting a plane up or down had the excitement that not far beyond the end of the runway a railway line, on a raised embankment, ran across the line of the flight path. You always held your breath as you crossed the line.

The Alliance won an almost complete landslide, getting 51 out of 52 contested seats. It was the basis upon which a governing coalition has been maintained ever since. In the course of many later elections, some much more closely contested, new generations of electors have found no difficulty in performing their role. By and large Malaysian elections are fair and honest, but there has never been any real threat to the hold on office of the central coalition, and the temperature rises whenever the risk of such a change is perceived.

Although it is history now the 1955 election was a milestone. Back in 1874, Swettenham, one of the architects of the Residential system, perceived ‘a very broad line indeed’ between the ruling classes and the people, who ‘had no initiative whatever’, certainly not in choosing who should govern them. But Swettenham also recognised that change, if the pace was deliberate, would be accepted. This was an electorate which had adopted rubber, a South American tree Qievea Brasiliensis), as its main cash crop, and had sent their sons — and with some hesitation - their daughters also to school. Class mobility, unthinkable in days of old, has spread. Even in 1957 one member of the cabinet of an independent Malaya was the son of a fisheries inspector, one of the petit bourgeoisie, and a leading figure in the 1955 election had said that the rulers had become subjects and the subjects rulers. Clifford’s ‘no mandate’ declaration was King Canute facing the incoming tide.

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Originally Published
OSPA Journal 92: October 2006


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