Reviewed by Rob Spence
The title of this book recalls Noel Coward’s jaunty song about the mad English, of course, and perhaps suggests that this will be a light-hearted romp through the colonial past. Nothing could be further from the truth: this is a well-researched, detailed and engrossing study of the British presence in the Malay peninsula and Singapore from its beginnings in the late nineteenth century to independence in 1957. First published in 2000, it is now reissued by the enterprising Singapore based publisher Monsoon. Margaret Shennan’s authority does not rest just on her vast experience as an academic historian: she was, although she makes nothing of this in the book, a child of empire, brought up in pre-war Malaya where her father was a dockyard manager, before evacuating to escape the Japanese in 1941.
Shennan’s technique in this absorbing history is to use as far as possible the testimony of the ordinary British people who came to Malaya and worked to establish industry, commerce and infrastructure in what had been, hitherto, a largely undeveloped land. This decision means that we are frequently presented with the authentic voice of the participants in what were often momentous events. Equally, we also learn about the trials and tribulations of colonial life (a sort of ‘Keeping up Appearances’ in the jungle) with some fascinating accounts of how far the Brits went in their attempts to reproduce the comforts of home on these distant shores. For this edition, the publishers have posted the endnotes giving the sources on their website. Whilst this removes some clutter from the text, I’m not sure if it’s completely successful: I did find that occasionally I wanted to pursue a source, and having to check online was mildly irritating. But that’s a minor quibble.
The book, although subtitled ‘The British in Malaya 1880 – 1960’ actually begins with some scene-setting courtesy of the intrepid Victorian traveller Isabella Bird, who visited what was then the Straits Settlements in 1879. Her descriptions of ‘a dream of tropic beauty’ in the remoter parts, and of the sleepy, decaying Penang, are used to show the kind of world that the British expats encountered when they first began to settle in the country.
As the book progresses, the reader becomes familiar with its cast of characters: rubber planters, civil servants, the ‘mems’, the cads and the eccentrics, all vividly evoked in the diaries, interviews and letters that Shennan draws on. We feel friends with recurring figures such as Guy Hutchinson, whose reminiscences include a Christmas Eve bachelor party for ‘waifs and strays’ in Johore and being bitten by bugs in the rattan chairs at the cinema; or Hugh Bryson, recalling the all-inclusive nature of organised sport where players from all races mingled freely; or Katherine Sim, amazed at the incredible daily growth of her sunflowers. Characters such as Capt. Tristram Speedy, who ‘stood six feet five, sported Abyssinian garb, played the bagpipes, and brought his own sepoys from India to quell the riotous miners of Larut’ are not to be encountered in the official histories. The fascination of the book lies in these quirky details, which are so skilfully organised by the author.
Shennan presents a more-or-less chronological account, taking in the pioneering days of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the First World War, the halcyon days of the twenties and thirties, the catastrophe of the Second World War, and the long retreat from empire in the post-war years. The author deals adroitly with the complex status of Malaya’s constituent parts, guiding the reader through the sometimes confusing transitions from Straits Settlements to Federated (and Unfederated) States, and explaining clearly the roles of British ‘Advisers’ and Governors. But this is not primarily a political history: its chief quality is representation of what colonial life was like for the people who often faced danger and hardship in the service of Empire.
The defeat of Malaya at the hands of the Japanese (‘an inexcusable betrayal’) is, rightly, given a lengthy chapter. Again, what distinguishes Shennan’s account from others is its reliance on the views of the ordinary people caught up in the debacle, with extraordinary detail, such as the story of the captured ‘mems’ and children singing ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ as they were marched off to jail by their Japanese captors.
Shennan’s perspective is, understandably, quite a nostalgic one, but she does not shrink from presenting some of the less palatable aspects of British rule. The summary executions that followed the mutiny of 1915 are dealt with in exemplary non-partisan fashion, and indeed throughout the text, she is careful to be non-judgmental about her sources. One can, however, note some careful implied commentary. The final sentence of the section dealing with the inter-war years is a quotation by an evidently nostalgic unnamed source: ‘…the wonderful carefree life on estates, the happiness of my childhood…Sunshine, servants, wonderful memories.’ That juxtaposition of ‘sunshine’ and ‘servants’ is telling.
The closing chapters of the book cover the years of the Emergency and the final phase of British rule leading up to Merdeka, or independence. Shennan chronicles the often brutal war between the British forces and the communist guerrillas, especially following the assassination of the High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, in 1951. Once again, however, the emphasis is on the the lives of ordinary people, so we get as much detail of the establishment of Women’s Institutes in the ‘New Villages’ as we do about the bloody campaign to eradicate the MPLA insurgents.
In a postcript, Shennan reflects on the legacy of British rule, and suggests that it should be seen, on the whole, as ‘constructive and humane.’ She concludes by quoting Malaysia’s first post-independence Prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman: ‘Whether we look east or west, we will always be friends with England.’ Since publication, it’s arguable that Malaysia’s relations with the UK have deteriorated, especially as the country becomes more aggressively fundamentalist in its outlook. In retrospect, Shennan seems over-optimistic about the country’s developing role.
Despite Shennan’s scrupulous approach to her material, the book was sharply criticised in some quarters on its original publication. One prominent Marxist historian devoted his entire review to listing what Shennan had not dealt with – the plight of the indigenous peoples, the capitalist exploitation of the land, and so on. He concluded his review with ‘This is a worthless book.’ As an example of getting the wrong end of the stick, this is difficult to beat. The book is specifically, as the sub-title announces, about the British in Malaya. So the concentration on the colonisers as opposed to the colonised is announced from the outset. That said, the testimony of the British often takes in their views of the Malays, Tamils, Chinese and others they encountered. Those views range from the deeply sympathetic to the arrogant, as one might expect.
I found this book engaging and illuminating. It is great to see that it has been reissued in this accessible form, as has Margaret Shennan’s biography of John Davis, who distinguished himself in the war as a leader of the resistance movement in Malaya. It is important that these stories are told.
Rob Spence blogs on books, music and anything else that appeals to him at robspence.co.uk
Margaret Shennan, Out in the Midday Sun: The British in Malaya 1880 – 1960 (Monsoon, 2015). 978-9814625319 486pp., paperback.
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