The British Empire Library

Eastern Customs - The Customs Service in British Malaya and the Opium Trade

by Derek Mackay

Courtesy of OSPA

Simon Hutchinson (Malaya and Borneo 1948-67)
Mr Derek Mackay has produced a magisterial account of the Service replete with appendices, thorough notes and a useful index. It should appeal to two different readerships: people with a general interest in the Far East, particularly of course those who lived and worked there, and a more specialised readership who study the economic background to the British Empire. The latter will be absorbed by the factual information and the abundant detailed statistics. The former will certainly be interested in the more human side of the story.

The book has two intertwined themes: the methods used by the colonial administration to raise revenue and the changing attitude to the trade in opium. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as our influence in the Straits Settlements and the Malay States expanded revenue was raised by the grant of monopolies to syndicates of local merchants to trade in and supply opium chandu (opium prepared for smoking), liquor, and other delights. Government got its revenue, the syndicates made a good profit, and no one thought it wrong to trade in opium. But by the turn of the century reform was in the air. The opium trade, like the slave trade before it, was being condemned as immoral and by 1910 the old system of monopolies had been swept away and a Government Monopolies Department - the immediate predecessor of the Malayan Customs Service - had taken over the control of the opium/chandu market and the implementation of an increasing number of customs and excise regulations. The object was for Government to directly control and gradually reduce the importation, manufacture, sale and consumption of opium. Of course the illegal trade continued side by side with the official government trade but by 1942 opium smokers were licensed, their rations were reduced and there had been a sensible decline in opium smoking.

In 1946 reform triumphed and it became illegal to consume or possess opium or chandu. This at a time when the consumption of chandu had increased during the Japanese occupation and all customs records on illegal importation of opium had been lost. The entirely predictable result was a vast increase in smuggling and the illegal manufacture of chandu. The Malayan Customs Service had considerable success in its preventive work but however many battles it won it could not win the war.

The recruitment of a permanent staff of European officers for the Service did not begin until a decade or so before the war and they led varied and interesting lives. In Singapore work tended to be specialised - court work perhaps or full time preventive work combating smugglers and collating intelligence on big operators. In Malaya work was usually more varied. An officer and his small staff might be responsible for supervising a small port, keeping any eye on the local distillery, supervising licensed premises and organising preventive work along a stretch of coast - with occasional seagoing duties - and a large rural area. Prior to 1946 he would also have managed the local chandu monopoly.

Derek Mackay has covered every aspect of his former Service's work and has surely produced the definitive work on an important and neglected aspect of Malaysian history.

British Empire Book
Derek Mackay
The Radcliffe Press
1 85043 844 7


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