The British Empire Library

Palace, Political Party And Power: A Story Of The Socio-Political Development Of Malay Kingship

by Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian

Courtesy of OSPA

Professor Simon C. Smith University of Hull
In an era when Asian monarchy has suffered many vicissitudes, the survival, even revival, of Malay kingship has been particularly noteworthy. Indeed, Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian's study is a welcome addition to the growing literature on this phenomenon. Suwannathat-Pian's book also has the merit of dealing with the full period from the onset of British rule in the late Nineteenth Century through to the political situation in contemporary Malaysia.

Challenging the concept of 'oriental despotism', Suwannathat-Pian argues that on the eve of colonial rule the Malay Ruler was 'obliged to rule with the assistance of his nobles and aristocrats for the good of his subjects, and in accordance with the will of God' (p. 19). The analysis moves rapidly to the colonial period inaugurated by the treaty of Pangkor in 1874 which witnessed the appointment of a British Resident to the state of Perak whose advice had to be asked and acted upon on all questions other than those touching Malay religion and custom. Suwannathat- Pian, however, portrays the residential system, which was subsequently extended to Selangor, Pahang, and Negri Sembilan, in negative terms, characterizing it as a 'self-serving British concoction for the furtherance of its imperial interests' (p. 22). She also questions the applicability of the term 'indirect rule' to British relations with those states brought within the residential system. Indeed, she argues that under this system 'power was increasingly transferred into the hands of the Resident, and later the Resident-General, all at the expense of the Ruler and the Malay ruling class' (p. 59). To underscore her point, Suwannathat-Pian observes that even areas of Malay custom, such as the succession to the thrones of the individual states, which in theory remained outside the purview of the colonial authorities, were frequently Interfered with by the Residents. If anything, Britain tightened its grip still further by the bringing together of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negri Sembilan into the Federated Malay States in 1895-6. The five Unfederated States which remained outside the Federation, by contrast, enjoyed much more genuine autonomy. 'Because of this different stand adopted by the Colonial Office', remarks Suwannathat-Pian, 'none of the UMS, prior to the postwar period, had to suffer the arrogance of power displayed by their British advisers in matters concerning Malay custom, including the question of succession to the throne' (p. 68).

Further depredations were suffered by the Rulers at the hands of the Japanese who by the beginning of 1942 had occupied the whole of the Malay Peninsula. According to Suwannathat-Pian, during the occupation the Rulers were 'stripped bare of all the trappings of royal dignity and grandeur that had been the magic cloak covering and enhancing the mystique and sacredness of majesty in the eyes of their subjects' (p. 109). In Suwannathat-Pian's interpretation, British attempts to foist a new constitution on Malaya, the Malayan Union, following Japan's defeat, added a new twist to the development of Malay monarchy. She argues that the Rulers and their Malay subjects joined hands in opposition to the Union and in so doing the 'purpose of the Rulers and rakyat [people] became one' (p. 171). She adds that the Rulers' acquiescence in the Pan-Malayan Congress' opposition to the Malayan Union witnessed a transformation in the political basis of Ruler-subject relations 'from unquestioning loyalty by subjects to the Rulers to a relationship in which the will of the subjects was held supreme and Rulers had the responsibility to bend to the collective will of the people' (p. 171).

Suwannathat-Pian is keen to point out that the 'united front of the Malay Rulers and the rakyat against the Malayan Union fell apart almost the minute it had secured victory from the British colonial authority and got the hated Malayan Union abolished' (p. 184). An improvement in relations between the Rulers and the politicians is identified by Suwannathat-Pian following the departure of Dato Onn from the leadership of the United Malays National Organization in 1951 and his replacement by Tunku Abdul Rahman, himself a scion of the royal house of Kedah. Despite this apparent change for the better, Suwannathat-Pian points out that the 'years between 1951 and independence ironically saw the continuing - hard, sometimes covert and sometimes overt - struggle between the Rulers and UMNO for the ultimate prize of being the undisputed protector and champion of the Malays' (p. 244).

Suwannathat-Pian has succeeded in producing a readable and wide-ranging account of Malay monarchy from the origins of colonial control, through the period of British rule, to the era of Independence. The superficial nature of British 'indirect rule' in the Malay States, especially the Federated Malay States, identified by Suwannathat-Pian, while apposite, is not especially original and Indeed was recognized as long ago as the late 1930s by Rupert Emerson in his classic study, Malaysia: A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule. Suwannathat-Pian's largely negative portrayal of British rule, moreover, does have a tendency to stray into the realms of polemics which serves to undermine the objectivity of her analysis. The relatively limited engagement with the historiography of modern Malay monarchy also places a limit on the lasting academic value of Suwannathat-Pian's work.

British Empire Book
Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian
NUS Press Singapore
978 9971 69 507 1


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