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.
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.
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.
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.