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1870-1909 - The Malay States

Two statements of government policy, one within a year of the other, marked the rapid change in British policy in Malaya from noninterference to intervention or, as similar changes in India were described, from "masterly inactivity" to a "forward policy." In 1872 the Singapore Chamber of Commerce received this statement: "It is the policy of Her Majesty's Government not to interfere in the affairs of the Malay states unless where it becomes necessary for the suppression of piracy or the punishment of aggression on our people or territories."

Thirteen months later a London dispatch to the Governor of the Straits Settlements read: "Her Majesty's Government have, it need hardly be said, no desire to interfere in the internal affairs of the Malay States; but, looking to the long and continued connection between them and the British Government . . . Her Majesty's Government find it incumbent to employ such influence as they possess to rescue, if possible, these fertile and productive countries from the ruin which must befall them if the present disorders continue unchecked."

With the new policy came a new governor, Sir Andrew Clarke; within a year he had placed British advisers in Perak, Selangor and Sungei Ujong, the major state of Negri Sembilan. This change of policy was only an admission in London of the situation recognized locally for many years. Various events had contributed to the formation of a new relationship between Great Britain and the Malay states.

For years the Chambers of Commerce of the Straits Settlements had requested more protection and greater intervention in the interior of Malaya, and the wars between rival Chinese societies in the Larut tin-mining district of Perak in the 1860's dramatized the need. The advent of the steamship in the 1830's and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 made the northern route from the Red Sea to the Strait of Malacca once again the principal route to the East.

Gradually, the British Colonial and Foreign Offices made their policies conform to the needs of Great Britain's rapidly industrializing economy in which the exploitation of raw materials assumed signal importance Great Britain extended its influence over the Malay states by a combination of persuasion, pressure and an occasional show of force, rather than by actual conquest. In many instances the ruler of a state considered it a small price to accept a British adviser in return for secure tenure of office for himself and his heirs.

Perak was the first state to accept British protection when a claimant of the throne, whose claim was stronger than that of the de facto ruler, signed the Pangkor Treaty in 1874 by which he was installed as suZton in place of the actual ruler. Perak agreed to have no dealings with foreign powers except through Great Britain, and England guaranteed protection against outside attack. A British resident was appointed whose advice must be asked and followed except in matters concerning Malay religion and custom. (In these stipulations the Treaty became the model for agreements signed later with other states.) The Treaty also confirmed the cession of Pangkor Island, and the Bindings coastal area, both of which would come within the jurisdiction of Penang; further, the Chinese factions agreed to disarm and remain at peace.

Piracy against shipping in the Strait, long troublesome in Great Britain's relations with the states, led later in 1874, after the murder of several Malacca citizens, to intervention in Selangor. In 1876, British protection was reextended to the major state of Negri Sembilan, although at first the British resident was authorized only to collect taxes. In 1888, after the murder in the state of Pahang of a Chinese British subject, the British demanded that the Sultan either accept a resident or pay an indemnity; Sultan Wan Ahmed asked for a resident. In 1895 the Sultan of Johore gave control of his state's foreign policy to Great Britain.

Successful implementation of the new policy depended largely on the character of the men appointed to the residencies. In Perak the first resident attempted immediate wholesale reform and soon was murdered. Such men as Sir Frank Swettenham and Sir Hugh Clifford, however, were welcomed and their advice freely accepted by the rulers of the states to which they were assigned. A resident assumed a position similar to that of a powerful bendahara, and thus his presence did not greatly alter the process of government. A sultan and his chiefs received adequate compensation for the loss of hereditary privileges, and the chiefs remained advisers to the ruler, particularly in matters of Malay custom and religion. While theoretically respon- sible to the governor of the Straits Settlements, the residents in practice worked out reforms according to the conditions of their states.

Great Britain's major contribution to the protected states was, put simply, the substitution of peace for war, after which other reforms were instituted, particularly in regard to revenue collection, criminal law and slavery. The constant warfare had complicated the already chaotic system of taxation in the Malay states; the feudal taxes were abolished, and the rulers and chiefs were given allowances paid from government revenues. Criminal law had remained since the fifteenth century a complex mixture of old Malay, Hindu and Moslem practices, and its application had become more and more arbitrary. In the protected states the rulers came to accept the Penal Code worked out earlier by the British for application in India, even though this was a matter technically outside the sphere of the residents' control, and both European and Malay magistrates were appointed to the districts within the state. Slavery was abolished in the protected states in the 1870's and 1880's.

The successful institution in Perak of a state council modeled after those in India led to its introduction in the other protected states. Headed by the sultan, its membership included the resident, the major Malay chiefs and the leading Chinese businessmen. The council, to some extent a formalization of the Malay tradition of consultation between a sultan and the major chiefs, discussed all problems as they arose and approved estimates of revenue and expenditure and the appointments of lesser chiefs and village headmen.

By the 1890's it became apparent that greater coordination of policy in the several states was necessary if they were to develop similar institutions. Sir Frank Swettenham, the Resident in Perak, was largely responsible for developing a plan to federate the states and for gaining acceptance of it by the several sultans.

The federation came into effect in 1896. Included were the protected states of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and the confederation of Negri Sembilan which had been reformed with British advice the previous year but not the Straits Settlements, over which the British ruled directly. In the Federated Malay States each ruler retained a theoretical sovereignty, even if he surrendered many of his functions to the British residents.

Thus, the Malays in each state were subjects of the sultan, whereas residents of the Straits Settlements could become British subjects. Although the vaguely worded federation treaty had promised no lessening of the sultans' authority, it led, in effect, to considerable centralization. Under the first resident general of the Federation, Sir Frank Swettenham, a central administration was developed at Kuala Lumpur; the decisions of its departments were implemented in each of the states. Laws were often merely drafted by a British legal adviser, approved by the resident general and automatically passed by the state councils. During this era in Malaya the civil servants exercised much of the authority usually belonging to legislative or executive bodies.

Material prosperity increased tremendously in the next decade. Revenues nearly tripled; exports nearly doubled; population increased; and roads, railroads, hospitals, schools, postal services and savings banks appeared where none had been before. In 1900 the Institute of Medical Research was founded at Kuala Lumpur; within a few years a concerted campaign against malaria was under way. British capital began to be invested in the tin mines and in estate agriculture. A major innovation, one to play an important part in Malaya's future, was the introduction of rubber cultivation. The first seedlings had been smuggled from Brazil to Great Britain and brought to Malaya in the 1870's; by 1905 considerable acreage was planted in rubber; and from then on, with the continued increase in world demand, new land was put into rubber cultivation even faster. The estate owners faced a serious labor shortage, as had the owners of tin mines before them. Indian laborers were brought in to tap the rubber trees, as well as to work in railroad construction and on coffee plantations. By 1911, when the first census was taken, Malaya's plural society had been created; the population was composed of nearly 1.5 million Malays, over 900,000 Chinese and 267,000 Indians. No restrictions were placed on immigration until 1930, when the world depression led to serious unemployment among Malaya's alien workers.

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