British Empire Books

Out in the Midday Sun

The British in Malaya 1880 - 1960

AuthorMargaret Shennan
PublisherJohn Murray
First Published2000
ISBN No.071955716X

"We lived the life of Riley. We were looked after by servants. We had a nice garden. It was easy to get into clubs - Tanglin, Singapore Yacht Club... It was a very leisurely life. We knocked off at five o'clock. No overtime.... Every Saturday night we were dancing at Tanglin Club or the Swimming Club or somewhere, always in black tie, of course - we even wore blacktie to go to the cinema in those days in Singapore."

After a hard day...
Stengahs at Sundown
Imperial reminiscing makes a welcome return with this volume. Set in Malaya, the author has interviewed and researched a number of very interesting sources for this book. Of course, it is a book about the 'ruling class' and 'intelligentsia' of the colony of Malaya as the interviewees betray all the hallmarks of their privileged situations and lives their: Fancy dress parties; children despatched to boarding schools; Servants galore. Of course, it wasn't all Stengahs at sundown! Some work had to be done and the level of responsibility for the European there could be quite daunting. But there is no disguising the fact that the white 'Malayans' benefitted greatly from the imperial opportunities offered by this relatively wealthy colony.

Unfortunately for those Europeans living and working in Malaya, international events were to take a turn for the worst. 1930s Imperial Japan correctly surmised that the British were nothing more than a paper tiger as they waged war against Hitler at the expense of defences in the East. The author does not dwell on the political reasons for these failures, but she does relate how they made such enormous impacts on the lives of the people living out there.

However, it is the early pioneers that I particularly enjoyed reading about, Isabella Bird and Leopold Chasseriau (who seems to have combined an entrepreneurial spirit with an altogether ruthless individualism). It is an inevitable fact of history that it is easier to find sources for recent events than it is for earlier ones. The author is to be congratulated on finding such riveting and interesting sources as she did. I would have liked to have read more about Nineteenth Century life in Malaya, but am thankful for what there was.

As I mentioned before, this is a book about the 'ruling class'. Whilst it is a welcome addition to the library of imperial history, I wish that some author would tackle oral and personal histories of the servant classes of empire. Those natives or imported labourers who toiled under domineering Memsahibs or unforgiving Foremen. I have a feeling that a study along these lines would tell a very different, although no less riveting, story of British rule in far-off climes. But, beggars cannot be choosers. Any history is better than no history.

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by Stephen Luscombe