The British Empire Library

Hardly Ever a Dull Moment (History of Development Studies)

by Ernest (Fred) Fisk

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by David Lucas (South African High Commission Territories 1959-63, Basutoland 1963-6, Kenya 1966-8)
In the 1980's Rodney Cole (ex-Fiji) and I were planning a function for the handful of retreads from the Colonial Service who were engaged in a variety of occupations in Canberra. "Fred Fisk won't come" said Rodney. The reason appears early on in this book: by the age of six, Fred had decided that he disliked parties.

While at Geelong Grammar, Fred began to think about a career which combined service, adventure, and non-materialist values, and by reading books such as Lives of a Bengal Lancer, he formed the idea of becoming a district commissioner. However, Fred's father, the Chairman of Amalgamated Wireless (Australia) and subsequently the head of EMI, had decided that Fred should not go up to Oxford, but instead should start at the bottom in AWA, with a view to becoming a leader in commerce and industry. The war intervened, and chapters 5-6 cover the Japanese attack on Malaya and the battle for Singapore. The titles of Chapters 7-9 succinctly describe his escape to Australia: "Sunk in the South China Sea", "Crossing Sumatra" and "Avoiding the Japanese naval cordon". His adventures had not yet ended: in 1944 he was in a seaplane which stalled in Sydney Harbour and split in two where he was sitting.

After the war Fred did go up to Oxford. During this time he attended a number of interviews at the Colonial Office "conducted in a gracious and gentlemanly manner" which resulted in his appointment as a Cadet in 1947, and for the next eleven years was a member of the Malayan Civil Service. He comments on one aspect of service in Malaya that has been little understood; for almost the whole of this period his superior officers were Malays, more competent and experienced than himself. He passed the Standard II Malay exam on the assumption that this would speed up his posting to a Malay district only to discover that district postings were for those who needed to learn Malay. Consequently he was sent to the Establishment Office in Kuala Lumpur.

Fred was also one of a handful of officers to pass the much more difficult Standard III which covered literary and Court Malay. The less conventional Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange and the autobiographical Little Wilson and Big God, presents a totally different view of Malaya, claiming to have been hated by fellow-expatriates for passing Standard II in less than a year, and then again for passing Standard III. He and Fred overlapped in Malaya between 1954 and 1957, but make no mention of each other in their respective autobiographies.

In 1949 Fred was supposed to move to Perak on direct exchange with the District Officer there. Surprisingly to Fred (and perhaps to most former members of the service), the DO was able to resist this transfer, and Fred finished up in Ipoh District, parts of which were under the control of the communist terrorists. The situation subsequently improved with the establishment of protected villages and the arrival of the Royal Marine Commandos. On his return from overseas leave in 1951 he was posted to the Rural and Industrial Development Authority which was designed to bring Malays into the economic mainstream of the country.

This experience stood him in good stead when in 1960 he joined the Department of Economics of the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University, and branched into studies of the island nations of the South Pacific. After his retirement in 1982, he became disillusioned with consultancy work which resulted in small nations being swamped by specialist advice that could not be put to effective use. By changing direction once again, he found time to write this book.

British Empire Book
Ernest (Fred) Fisk
National Centre for Development Studies, The Australian National University


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe