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Colonial Records History: British Malaya

  • A. C. Milner (a1)


Although often well-written and carefully researched, many recent studies of the political history of Colonial Malaya seem dated. This is not to say that they are generally pro-British; nevertheless, when considered alongside historical work on many other areas of Southeast Asia, the ‘British Malayan’ histories appear ‘colonial’ in their preoccupations and perspectives. Why does so much Malayan history have this character? One cannot point to a lack of talent.



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1 (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1968; orig. pub. 1937.)

2 , B. W. and Andaya, L. Y., A History of Malaysia (London: Macmillan, 1982.)

3 Malaysia, p. 140 and passim.

4 Ibid., p. 211. See also pp. 145, 180, 251.

5 Ibid., p. 62.

6 Wright, A. and Reid, T. H., The Malay Peninsula. A Record of British Progress in the Middle East (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912.)

7 Ibid., p. 138.

8 Malaysia, pp. 176, 180, 251, 274, 348, 375.

9 Parkinson, C. N., British Intervention in Malaya 1867–1877 (Singapore: University of Malaya Press, 1960)

10 Cowan, C. D., Nineteenth-Century Malaya: The Origins of British Political Control (London: Oxford University Press, 1962)

11 McIntyre, D., The Imperial Frontier in the Tropics 1867–75 (London: Macmillan, 1967)

12 Thio, E., British Policy in the Malay Peninsula 1880–1910 (Singapore: University of Malaya Press, 1969)

13 (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1968.)

14 Ghosh, Kalyan Kumar, Twentieth-Century Malaysia: Politics of Decentralization of Power, 1920–1929 (Calcutta: Progressive Publishers, 1977)

15 The Politics of Decentralization: Colonial Controversy in Malaya 1920–1929 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1982)

16 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984.)

17 Tales from the South China Seas: Images of the British in South-East Asia in the Twentieth Century (London: André Deutsch, 1983.)

18 British Rule in Malaya: The Malayan Civil Service and Its Predecessors 1867–1942 (Oxford: Clio Press, 1981.)

19 Twentieth-century, p. 299.

20 Heussler, British Rule, ch. 9.

21 Ibid., p. 238.

22 Ibid., p. 245.

23 Ibid., p. 292.

24 Ibid., p. 289.

25 Tales, , p. 91.

26 Emergence, p. 148.

27 Decentralization, p. 327.

28 Protected Malay States, pp. 120, 176, 283, 379.

29 p. xvii.

30 Islam and Islamic Institutions in British Malaya. Policies and Implementation (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, p. 39).

31 Emergence, p. 169. See also p. 133.

32 Decentralization, p. 9.

33 Ibid., p. 50.

34 Ibid., p. 25.

35 Decentralization, p. 64.

36 Ibid., p. 65.

38 Ibid., p. 76.

39 Ibid., p. 328.

40 Ibid., p. 335. See also p. 211.

41 Ibid., p. 214.

42 Ibid., p. 215.

43 British Rule, p. 240.

45 These authors are by no means exceptional in adopting such a perspective. Thus, the recent general history by B. W. and L. Y. Andaya—evidently following Emerson—explains decentralization in terms of the desire among British officials for greater administrative economy; Malaysia, p. 241.

46 Emergence, p. 15.

47 Ibid., p. 17.

48 Ibid., p. 23.

49 Ibid., p. 22.

50 Decentralization, p. 161. This catalogue of ‘colonial records’ history is, of course, far from exhaustive. A recent study of Islam in colonial Malaya—Moshe Yegar, Islam and Islamic Institutions in British Malaya (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1979)—is a further example of that genre. Yegar, who has made diligent use of the British archives, presents the bureaucratization of Islamic religious institutions as emerging out of British colonial policy (see especially p. 267). It is possible, however, to portray this bureaucratization as a product of tension existing within Malay society even in the pre-colonial period. That is to say, British administrative models would have been of use to Malay rulers but they might nevertheless have been utilized to further Malay, not British, objectives. I begin to develop this argument in ‘Islam and Malay Kingship’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1981, no. 1, pp. 60ff.

51 For an introduction to that debate, see Legge, J. D., Indonesia (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1964), pp. 21–3, 64–6.

52 Roff, W. R., The Origins of Malay Nationalism (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1967.)

53 When Yeo (p. 67), for example, writes of administrators being aware of ‘Malay grouses over the relatively low positions and salaries of Malay administrators’, we see the extent to which the historian has entered the world of the colonial official. (‘Grouse’ is a slang word for grumble or complaint and is seldom used today.) In similar vein we learn (p. 25) that with the first world war nearing an end Governor Sir Arthur Young ‘decided to put things on a better footing in Trengganu before he retired’.

54 See, for example, Kahin, G. McT., Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1952); Benda, H. J., The Crescent and the Rising Sun (The Hague: van Hoeve, 1958); Niel, R. van, The Emergence of the Modern Indonesian Elite (The Hague, van Hoeve, 1960); Legge, J. D., Central Authority and Regional Autonomy in Indonesia 1950–1960 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1961); Feith, H., The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1961); and McVey, R. T., The Rise of Indonesian Communism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965.)

55 C. Geertz's concept of ‘Agricultural Involution’, for instance, provides a model for examining Dutch policy and its impact on colonial Java; Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia (Berkeley: University of California for Association of Asian Studies, 1963). This book has provoked considerable debate. See, for an introduction, Legge, J. D., Indonesia, third edition (Sydney: Prentice Hall, 1980), pp. 110ff; and Geertz, C., ‘Culture and Politics: The Indonesian Case’, Man, 19, 4, 12 1984, pp. 511–32. The concept of ‘Plural Society’, developed by J. S. Furnival, provided insights into the Netherlands Indies state at an early stage of English-language writing about modern Indonesia. See Furnival, J. S., Netherlands India: A Study of Rural Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939); see especially p. xv. The influence of Weber and other socialists on some Dutch Indonesianists is well known. See, in particular, Schrieke, B., Indonesian Sociological Studies, Part I (The Hague: van Hoeve, 1966); and Wertheim, W. F., Indonesian Society in Transition (The Hague: van Hoeve, 1959)

56 Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 15.

57 Ibid., p. 16.

58 Ibid., pp. 16–17.

59 Among studies in this general area are: Sarkisyanz, E., Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1965); Tambiah, S. J., World Conqueror and World Renouncer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); Geertz, C., Agricultural Involution; Dahm, B., Sukarno (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1966); and Anderson, B. R. O'G., ‘The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture’, in Holt, C. et al. (eds), Culture and Politics in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972.)

60 To what extent did the Malay elite, on the one hand, and commoners, on the other, share a cultural viewpoint? We cannot assume a complete ideological disjunction between the royal court and the Malay commoner community. On the contrary, there is evidence that even in the colonial period the kerajaan ideal continued to command the allegiance of considerable numbers of Malays at all social levels. For instance, L. Richmond Wheeler (writing in 1928), was well aware of the continuing importance of the Raja in Malay life; The Modern Malay (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1928), pp. 231, 233. But perhaps the best evidence of the resilience of the kerajaan ideal is to be found in the 1940s in the massive Malay protests against British ‘Malayan Union’ policy. This policy was the most serious threat faced by the Sultanate system during the whole colonial period. For a brief and introductory discussion see my ‘Malay Kingship in a Burmese perspective’, in Mabbett, I. W. (ed.), Patterns of Kingship and Authority in Traditional Asia (London: Croom Helm, 1985), pp. 176–7.

61 Twentieth-Century, p. 323.

62 Ibid., p. 220.

63 Decentralization, p. 50.

64 Twentieth-Century, p. 303.

65 Protector? An Analysis of the Concept and Practice of Loyally in Leader-Led Relationships within Malay Society (Pinang: Aliran, 1929.)

66 See especially his Modernisation and Social Change (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972.)

67 See my Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, Association for Asian Studies Monograph No. XL, 1982), pp. 45ff, 71, 92f, 101, 110.

68 Protected Malay States, p. 71.

69 Winstedt, R. O. (ed.), ‘The Malay Annals, etc’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 16, 1938, p. 95.

70 Roff, , Origins, pp. 69ff. The emphasis must be on ‘formal’, see Hooker, M. B., ‘Muhammadan Law and Islamic Law’, in Hooker, M. B. (ed.), Islam in South-East Asia (Leiden: Brill, 1983), pp. 171–2.

71 Ghosh, , Twentieth-Century, p. 53.

72 Sadka, , Protected Malay States, p. 406; Yeo, , Decentralization, p. 51.

73 Yegar, , Islam, p. 184; Sadka, , Protected Malay States, p. 260.

74 Exactly how Malays perceived the colonial period is difficult to determine. It may be fruitful to compare the Malay experience with that of other Southeast Asians who had been organized in kingship systems in the pre-colonial period. See, e.g., my ‘Malay Kingship in a Burmese Perspective’, pp. 158–83.

75 Quoted in Ibid., p. 174.

76 Swettenham, F., British Malaya (London: John Lane, 1907), p. 284. Also quoted in Johan, Khasnor, Emergence, p. 14.

77 Quoted in Emerson, , Malaysia, p. 210.

78 Gullick, J., Malaysia. Economic Expansion and National Unity (London, 1981) is an interesting document in this regard. As a former member of the Malayan Civil Service he knew ‘British Malaya’ from the inside. Gullick does not, for instance, present the establishment of the Malay College in 1905 in terms of British altruism but as one means of ‘conciliating’ the ‘Malay aristocratic class’ (pp. 36–7).

79 Yeo, , Decentralization, p. 12.

80 Emerson, , Malaysia, p. 113.

81 Thio, , British Policy, pp. 212–13.

82 Yeo, , Decentralization, p. 123.

83 Ghosh, , Twentieth-Century, p. 211.

84 Emerson, , Malaysia, pp. 234–37.

85 Ghosh, , Twentieth-Century, p. 212.

86 Stevenson, R., Cultivators and Administrators. British Educational Policy Towards the Malays 1875–1906 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 147.

87 Quoted in Roff, , Origins, p. 101.

88 Bawri, Fawzi and Haron, Hasrom, Sejarah Johor Maden 1855–1940 (Kuala Lumpur: Muzium Negara, 1978). See especially p. 33.

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Colonial Records History: British Malaya

  • A. C. Milner (a1)


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