Whilst there had been British administrators of conceivably great character and fortitude during the colonial years, there were those in colonial service that left much to be desired. In his description of the Straits Settlements officers, AJ Stockwell described them in the journal History Today as:
“… semi literate loafers; there were complaints about ‘insolent broken-down bankrupts or drunkards’ in the service of Perak.”
While, in Selangor, the Governor reported in 1882: “I have had to dismiss two-thirds of the staff of officials here… for inefficiency.“
In the examination of the failure of the British Officers, many unfavourable remarks and detailed description of the quality of officers sent to administer the state were questionable and laughable.
Being in a new state dominated by the Malays, many of them did not receive first hand information on these Malay states. Thinking that they might succeed doing the same during their rule in India, these ‘blank’ officers came to work in an area where the language and culture were totally different from what they perceived originally.
Stockwell further describe that the service in the Protectorate states:
“… attracted an odd assortment of people gleaned from the hedgerows and ditches of the English Society. There were mercenaries, solitaries, fanatics and also drifters. Some were consumed with reforming zeal and rode roughshod over Malay sensibilities; the first resident of Perak J.W.W. Birch, was one of these, and prompted contemporaries to pun on birches, brooms and clean-sweeps.”
An officer was also dismissed for flogging both a policeman and a Chinese barber. It was discovered he had nothing much to except to report on the daily weather.
Lords Stanley of Alderley reported this at the House of Lords:
“These Residents it was supposed were to inculcate lessons of order and economy in finance, but the Resident in Larut at once erects a residency worthy of a colonial Governor. The Penang Gazette speaks of its ‘noble proportions’ and centre room 70 feet in length. He then provides himself with a bodyguard of Chinese, dressed in blue satin tunics and red circular hats, and he appears to have no fewer than 17 elephants at his disposal for a picnic for his Penang friends. In his Report he invariably speaks as though he were the Ruler of the country, instead of the adviser of the Ruler.”
There was also an official in Upper Perak who boasted a more comprehensive harem than that of many Malay Sultan and ruled his fief from the back of an elephant.
Their luxurious lifestyle and lack of knowledge on the Malay culture attracted the wrath of the Malay rulers and the Malay populace. The hierarchy of the Malay society evolves around the Sultan as their leader. What these officials did was considered lese majeste to the Malays.
These acts portrayed by these colonial officers had, in part, led to the chain of events (citing to events leading to the Perak War in the late 1870s as an example) as we know them in Perak and other neighbouring states.
Footnote: lese majeste – an act of insulting the ruler
1. Stockwell, A. J. The Malayan Raj, History Today. May 77, Vol. 27 Issue 5, p306, 10p.
2. Lord Stanley of Alderley, HL. Deb 28 February 1876 vol 227 cc1000-18.