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Feudalism in Pre-Colonial Malaya: The Past as a Colonial Discourse

  • Cheah Boon Kheng


Colonial discourse analysis has proven one of the most fruitful and significant areas of research in recent years. This paper considers the orientalist discourse and its context in the case of pre-colonial Malaya. It discusses the concept of “feudalism” as employed by historians of western Europe, by those of precolonial Malaya and, thirdly, by selected post-colonial writers. In discussing the works of Clifford, Maxwell and other nineteenth-century British officials on Malay feudalism, the author argues that the truth value of their analyses should not be dismissed out of hand, for they have much of value to say, that would repay careful study.



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1 Bloch, Marc, The Historian's Craft (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), pp. 175–76.

2 Edward, Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), pp. 203204.

3 See the interesting discussion of how historians have been unable to avoid inventing general abstractions and terms to cover entire social systems and entire eras of human activity by Marwick, Arthur in his book, The Nature of History (London: MacMillan, 1971), p. 169.

4 See Kelly, Donald R., Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship: Language, Law, and History in the French Renaissance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970) and Pocock, J.G.A., The Ancient Constitution and The Feudal Law: English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (New York: WW. Norton and Co., 1957).

5 Pocock, The Ancient Constitution, p. 92.

6 Bloch, The Historian's Craft, pp. 169–70. Bloch here discusses the use of nomenclatures, and cites many examples where general labels and terms were invented by historians to facilitate their understanding of historical periods. He refers many times to “feudal” and “feudalism” as examples.

7 Bloch, Marc, Feudal Society, vol. 2 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 446.

8 Dobb, Maurice, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 33.

9 In this connection, John Gullick, in a personal communication of 18 July 1993, provides some interesting thoughts:

A point which interests me is how the European writers on Malay society, notably the prolific Clifford, picked up their conception of what was ‘feudal’. None of the pioneers, Maxwell, Swettenham and Clifford, went beyond the secondary stage, i.e. mid-Victorian English public schools, in their formal general education. But if they had gone on to university, it would not have been likely to enlarge their grasp of the subject, since they would in their time have been confined to classical studies, i.e. cultures which antedated medieval feudalism. At their schools they would have studied ‘English history’ as a subsidiary minor subject (see the case of Maxwell). Only Maxwell went on to professional training as a lawyer, which may account for his controversial view that ownership of all land vested in the ruler.

Gullick, is the well-known author of Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya (London: Athlone Press, 1958) and Malay Society in the Late Nineteenth Century (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1987).

10 Substance of a letter, to the Court of Directors, from Mr John Jessex, dated 20th July 1775, at Borneo Proper, in Dalrymple, Alexander, ed., Oriental Repertory, 17911797 [2 vols.], George Bigg, London, vol. II, 1:1–8, cited in Brown, D.E., Brunei: The Structure and History of A Bornean Malay Sultanate (Brunei: Monograph of the Brunei Museum Journal, 1970), pp. 90, 222.

11 For a brief biographical note on Marsden, see John Bastin's Introduction in Marsden, William, The History of Sumatra (1st ed. 1783; 2nd ed. 1784; 3rd rev. ed. 1811; reprint of 3rd. ed., Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. vx.

12 Ibid., p. 350; emphasis added.

13 Ibid., p. 210; emphasis added.

14 Ibid., p. 360.

15 Raffles, Thomas Stamford, The History of Java (1st ed. 1817; reprinted Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1978), I, p. 247; emphasis added.

16 See Raffles' Introduction to his History of Java, pp. xiii-xiiii.

17 Ibid., p. 270.

18 Ibid., p. 303; emphasis added. This passage has also been reproduced by Maxwell, W.E. in his article, “The Law and Customs of the Malays with reference to the Tenure of Land”, in Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 12 (June 1884): 75167. The quotation appears on pp. 112–13.

19 Crawfurd, John, History of the Indian Archipelago containing An Account of the Manners, Arts, Languages, Religions, Institutions, and Commerce of Its Inhabitants, 3 vols. (1st ed., 1820; reprinted London: Frank Cass, 1967). See chapter entitled “Government”, vol. III, pp. 1–28.

20 Ibid., p. 8.

21 Ibid., p. 15.

22 Anderson, John, Political and Commercial Considerations relative to the Malayan Peninsula and the British Settlements in the Straits of Malacca (1st ed. 1824; reprinted with an introduction by J.S. Bastin, Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society [MBRAS], 1965), p. 42. In a communication to me dated 17 July 1993, Bastin provided the following brief note on Vattel: “The celebrated Vattel' is a reference to the Swiss-German jurist and diplomat Emmerich (or Emeric) de Vattel (1714–67). I don't know which of his works Anderson refers to. He codified the doctrines of Grotius, Puffendorf and Wolf in his Droits des Gens of 1758, trans. 1834.”

23 See Anderson, Political and Commercial Considerations, pp. 30, 45, 52, 84, and 157.

24 For such usage, refer to the Portuguese writer Tome Pires who in his book Suma Oriental (1512–15), wrote: “When this king Xaquem Darxa (Iskandar Shah) was forty-five years old, he wanted to go to China in person to see the king of China, and he left the kingdom in the hands of the mandarins, saying that he wanted to go and see the king to whom Java and Siam were obedient… And he went where the king was and talked to him, and made himself his tributary vassal, and as a sign of vassalage he took the seal of China with Malacca in the centre…” Emphasis added. See Pires, Tomé, Suma Oriental, trans. A. Cortesao, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1944), II, p. 242.

25 See Newbold, T.J., Political and Statistical Account of the Straits Settlements in the Straits of Malacca (1st ed. 1839; reprinted Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1965), vol. I, p. 235 and vol. II, pp. 154–55, 159.

26 lbid., p. 55.

27 Ibid., p. 56.

28 Cameron, John, Our Tropical Possessions in Malayan India (first published in 1865; reprinted Kuala Lumpur; Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 127–28.

29 McNair, J.F.A., Perak and the Malays (London: 1878; reprinted Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 202; emphasis added. Major McNair was involved in the British military expedition to suppress the Malay uprising in Perak in 1875–76.

30 Ibid., p. 158.

31 Bird, Isabella, The Golden Chersonese (1st ed. 1883; reprinted Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 25.

32 Ibid., p. 26; emphasis added.

33 Sir W.E. Maxwell, “Law and Customs”, pp. 75–167.

34 A different practice, however, was imposed in Perak after British rule in 1874. Winstedt, R.O. in his The Malays: A Cultural History (first published 1947 and revised 1950; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), p. 56 recalls: “And when the British first went into Perak the difficulty of finding labour for public works led them to require gratuitous labour for six days every year from all Malay males above 15 and below 50 except Rajas, farmers paying rent to the State or one official of each kind attached to a mosque (Imam, Khatib, Bilal, Siak). Exemption might be bought at the rate of 25 cents a day. But even before forced labour was abolished, British influence had led to a general strike by the peasantry against a system they had formerly accepted.”

35 For a critique of Maxwell's theory, see Wong, David, Tenure and Land Dealings in the Malay States (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1977), pp. 820, and Sundaram, Jomo Kwame, A Question of Class: Capital, the State and Uneven Development in Malaya (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988), pp. 911.

36 Wong, Tenure and Land Dealings, p. 14.

37 Straits Settlements Despatches, 24 Sep. 1890, cited in Gullick, Malay Society, p. 61. 1 am grateful to John Gullick for drawing my attention to this reference.

38 Clifford, Hugh, “Report on an Expedition to Trengganu and Kelantan, 7 August 1895”, JMBRAS 34,1 (reprint May 1961), pp. 6869; emphasis added.

39 Ibid., pp. 69–73.

40 See Clifford, Hugh, “Life in the Malay Peninsula: As it was and is”, in Honourable Intentions: Talks on the British Empire in Southeast Asia delivered at the Royal Colonial Institute, 1874–1928, (ed.) Kratoska, Paul H. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 224–56.

41 Said, Orientalism, p. 204.

42 Ibid., p. 227; emphasis added.

43 Ibid.; emphasis added.

44 See Clifford, Hugh, In Court and Kampong (reprinted; Singapore: Graham Brash, 1989), chap. 1, “The East Coast”.

45 See Lake, Harry, “Johore”, in The Geographical Journal 3 (Jan.-Jun. 1894): 281302.

46 Graham, W.A., Kelantan: A State in the Malay Peninsula (Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1908), pp. 41, 43.

47 Lovat, Lady, The Life of Sir Frederick Weld: A Pioneer of Empire (London: John Murray, 1914), p. 302.

48 See Mills, L.A., British Malaya, 1824–1837 (first published in JMBRAS in 1925; reprinted Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 223; emphasis added.

49 Linehan, W., A History of Pahang (previously published as JMBRAS 14, May 1936; reprinted MBRAS monograph No. 2, 1973): 108; emphasis added.

50 Ibid., p. 128; emphasis added.

51 Winstedt, R.O. and Wilkinson, R.J., A History of Perak (first published as JMBRAS, vol. 12, June, 1934; reprinted by MBRAS, 1974). The following quotations are all taken from this work; emphasis added.

52 Writing in 1947, Winstedt described kerah as “a feudal service” of the Malay peasant to his overlord in return for occupation of land. See Winstedt, Richard, The Malays: A Cultural History (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958; first published in 1947), p. 56.

53 See Wilkinson, R.J., “The Malacca Sultanate”, in JMBRAS, 13 2(Oct. 1935): 2269, passim; emphasis added.

54 Sejarah Melayu: The Malay Annals, trans. Brown, C.C. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1976). For uses of the term “fief”, see pp. 60, 77, 100, 118, 121, and 150.

55 Gullick's comments in a personal communication, dated 18 July 1993.

56 Ibid., p. 67.

57 Ahmad, Kassim, Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1966), p. 33. Kassim's study was submitted as an academic exercise to the Malay Studies Department at the University of Malaya in 1959.

58 Ibid., p. 6.

59 Alatas, Syed Hussein, “Feudalism in Malaysian Society: A Study in Historical Continuity”, Civilisations 43, 4 (1968).

60 See Introduction in Alatas, Syed Hussein, Modernization and Social Change: Studies in Social Change in Southeast Asia (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972).

61 Ibid., Introduction.

62 Published Penang: Aliran, 1979. See pp. vii, 1.

63 Maaruf, Shaharuddin b., Concept of a Hero in Malay Society (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1984), p. 6.

64 These ideas have been developed in his Concept of a Hero in Malay Society, and in his second book Malay Ideas on Development: From Feudal Lord to Capitalist (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988).

65 Mohamad, Mahathir bin, The Malay Dilemma (Singapore: Federal Publications, 1981), pp. 169–73. This work was written when Mahathir was in the political wilderness in the late 1960s. On its first publication, the book was banned by the Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, but the ban was later lifted when Mahathir became Prime Minister. The reasons for the ban are believed to have been related to the author's outspoken views on policies concerning the Malays during the Tunku's regime. In fact, in 1968 Mahathir spoke favourably of the European feudal system of the past, and also of Malay hereditary titles and the Malay Sultans. He said the feudal system “permitted an orderly society” and particularly praised the undertaking by the vassals of a feudal lord to serve and defend the lord's fief in return for protection for himself and his land as “not only just but necessary”. He added, “But it is impossible to accuse the Sultans of oppression.” See Dr. Mohd., Mahathir MP, “In Defence of Feudalism”, Opinion 2, 1 (November 1968): 183–84. I am grateful to Dr. P. Arudsothy for drawing my attention to this article.

66 See the full speech of Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir, in Utusan Malaysia, 4 Dec. 1990. The quotation is my translation.

67 Ghee, Lim Teck, Peasants and Their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya, 1874–1941 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 34.

68 Ali, S. Husin, The Malays: Their Problems and Future (Kuala Lumpur: Longmans, 1981), pp. 1112.

69 Saripan, Rahmat, Perkembangan Politik Melayu Tradisional Kelantan, 1776–1842 (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1979), p.46. He agrees with Graham's description of early Kelantan as comprising “feudatory” districts and territories. See Graham, W.A., Kelantan: A State in the Malay Peninsula (Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1908), pp. 41, 43. Graham served as Resident Commissioner for Siam on the recommendation of the British government.

70 Hashim, Wan, Peasants Under Peripheral Capitalism (Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 1988), pp. 45, 53.

71 Ibrahim, Mohd. Yusof, “Melaka 1400–1500: Beberapa Aspek Sejarah Kemasyarakatannya”, in Dokumentasi Seminar Sejarah Melaka (14–18 December 1976), (ed.) Asmad, (Melaka: Kerajaan Melaka, 1983), pp. 79100.

72 See Fang, Liaw Yock, Undang-Undang Melaka (Leiden: Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1975).

73 See Tomé Pires, Suma Oriental, pp. 259–60, for this geographical description of Melaka.

74 Anderson, Perry, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London: Verso, 1981), p. 180.

75 Kim, Khoo Kay, “The Pangkor Engagement of 1874”, JMBRAS,47 1 (July 1974): 114; emphasis added.

76 See Khoo Kay Kim and Ranjit Singh Malhi, “Early Malay Society Was Not Feudal”, Sunday Star, weekend newspaper, 11 April 1993. Although the weekly column “History Alive” bears the names of two persons, it is believed that the author of the above article is Khoo, who writes mainly on Malaysian history. See his articles “Malays were traders not peasant farmers” (Sunday Star, 28 March 1993) and “Little Evidence that Malays Tilled the Land” (Sunday Star, 6 June 1993). Writing of British colonial historians, Khoo has said: “Although colonial officials such as Winstedt, Wilkinson and others did write the history, individually, of the peninsular states, the results have not been satisfactory. The writings of the British colonial officials were also oriented towards the activities of Western powers and, being part-time historians, their research was somewhat superficial.” See his article, “United and Yet Diverse” (Sunday Star, 25 April 1993).

77 In a recent article, Khoo has taken to task younger Malaysian historians who have studied Malaysian history from a perspective different from the conventional/narrative approach by using theory and by following trends in Europe and America. See his article, “Malaysian Historiography: A Further Look”, Kajian Malaysia,10 1(June 1992): 3762.

78 See D.J.M. Tate's letter in Sunday Star, 30 May 1993. late wrote that he was one of those who believed that “agriculture has for centuries played a very important part in the life of Malay communities and that in common with the other traditional inhabitants of this region agriculture forms one of the basic characteristics of Malay culture and society”. He also remarked that “no society, of course, started off as peasants. We all began as hunters, then farmers, then traders”.

79 Adas, Michael, “From Avoidance to Confrontation: Peasant Protest in Precolonial and Colonial Southeast Asia”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 23,2 (1981): 217–47.

80 Gullick, J.M., Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya (London: Athlone Press, 1958), p. 113. For earlier reference to the size of a chief's following as an index of his status and power, see p. 98.

81 Personal communication, 18 Jul. 1993.

82 Finley, M.I., Ancient History: Evidence and Models (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 66.

83 Ibid., p. 59.

84 See the following interesting essays: (a) “Feudalism as a Trope or Discourse for the Asian Past with special reference to Thailand” by Craig Reynolds, pp. 136–54, and (b) “From Harbour Autocracies to ‘Feudal’ Diffusion in Seventeenth Century Indonesia: the case of Aceh” by Takeshi Ito and AnthonyReid, pp. 197–213, both published in Feudalism: Comparative Studies, (ed.) Leach, Edmundet al. (Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, 1985).

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Feudalism in Pre-Colonial Malaya: The Past as a Colonial Discourse

  • Cheah Boon Kheng


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