A rough guide to British Malaya

September 13 2007

The British were in Malaya from 1786 to 1963. In the former year, the British East India Company established Georgetown on Penang, which belonged to the Sultan of Kedah. In the latter, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah joined independent Malaysia. If you count Brunei, they were in Malaya from 1786 to 1984.

The first Europeans on the peninsula had been the Portuguese, who in 1511, under Alfonso de Albuquerque, captured the Sultanate of Malacca. Portugal’s control of Malacca was frequently contested by the Sultanate of Aceh (Sumatra).

In 1641 the Dutch captured Malacca from the Portuguese after a long siege. They held it until 1824.

In 1786 Francis Light of the British East India Company established Georgetown on Penang (named after the future George IV; the name Prince of Wales Island never caught on). In 1791, after an unsuccessful attempt to retake the island, the Sultan of Kedah agreed on the settlement of an annual stipend from the British.

From 1795 to 1815 the East India Company occupied Dutch Malacca to forestall French action there.

In 1800 the Sultan of Kedah ceded an area – Province Wellesley – on the mainland opposite Penang to the Company.

In 1819 the Sultan of Johore was made to cede Singapore island to the British East India Company through the efforts of Sir Stamford Raffles.

In 1824 the Dutch formally transferred Malacca to the East India Company.

So the East India Company now has Malacca, Penang with Province Wellesley, and Singapore.

In 1826 these three British East India Company colonies of Malacca, Penang and Singapore were given a unified administration as the Straits Settlements, which were under British East India Company rule, ultimately from Calcutta, to 1858 (when the Crown replaced the East India Company in India); subordinated to British India from 1858 to 1867 (India Office); and from April 1 1867 a separate Crown Colony (Colonial Office).

The Straits Settlements lasted from 1826 to 1946. Immigrants arrived in large numbers from China and India.

In 1841 the Sultan of Brunei ceded Sarawak, on Borneo, to an Englishman, James Brooke, who became the first of the “White Rajahs of Sarawak”. Sarawak was never part of the Straits Settlements. In 1888 it became a British protectorate, but it remained under the control of the Brookes. There were three generations: Sir James Brooke, Sir Charles Johnson Brooke and Sir Charles Vyner Brooke. In 1946 Charles Vyner ceded it to the Crown. It remained a separate Crown Colony (not part of the Malayan Union or Federation) until 1963, when it joined Malaysia. The capital is Kuching.

In 1888 North Borneo, now Sabah, became a British protectorate. In 1865 the American Consul in Brunei had obtained a 10-year lease over the area from the Sultan of Brunei. Ownership then passed to an American trading company and some Chinese merchants. The company’s rights were sold to Baron von Overbeck, the Austrian Consul in Hong Kong, and he obtained a 10-year renewal of the lease. For a time this Gustav Freiherr von Overbeck had the title of Maharajah of Sabah. Then they were transferred to Alfred Dent, who in 1882 formed the British North Borneo Company. Although it became a protectorate, control remained in the hands of the Company until the Japanese invasion. In 1946 it became a separate Crown Colony (with a new capital at Jesselton, now Kota Kinabalu; previous capitals had been Kudat and then Sandakan). In 1963 colonial rule ended and it joined Malaysia as the state of Sabah.

In 1888 Brunei itself became a British protectorate, administered by a British resident, although the sultan retained formal authority. It remained thus until 1984, when it became independent. It has never been administratively linked to the mainland.

What was happening to the nine sultanates on the mainland? On July 1 1896 four of them – Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak and Selangor – became a protectorate known as the Federated Malay States, which lasted until 1946. Its capital, from 1896, was the new Selangor tin-mining town of Kuala Lumpur.

Five states – Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis – continued to have their own, individual relations with Britain and remained “unfederated”.

We then have, on the mainland, the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States, and the unfederated states; and on Borneo the protectorates of Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei.

All these territories were occupied by Japan between 1942 and 1945.

On April 1 1946 the Straits Settlements were dissolved. Singapore was made into a separate Crown Colony. The other peninsular possessions were established as a new colony, called the Malayan Union, consisting of both previously federated and unfederated Malay states plus Malacca and Penang.

The Malays vehemently opposed the Union. They feared that the admission of the large, immigrant Chinese and Indian populations of Penang and Malacca, who had been brought in by the British, to Malayan citizenship would end the special position Malays had always enjoyed, and they were unwilling to surrender the political power they enjoyed within the individual sultanates. In 1948 the British backed down. On February 1 the Federation of Malaya, headed by a British High Commissioner, took the place of the Union. Malacca and Penang became members in addition to the nine federated and unfederated states, but there was no common citizenship. Singapore, with its Chinese majority, remained a separate colony – it had been detached in 1946 precisely to avoid problems between Malays and Chinese.

The so-called Emergency began in June 1948. Communist terrorists (almost all Chinese, known to the British army as CTs and to themselves as the Min Yuen), who had previously worked with the British against the Japanese, attacked government posts and police and military patrols in the rubber plantations and tin-mining areas. Many Malayan officials were killed. They also intended to wreck the economy by killing planters and their managers and slashing rubber trees: one in ten rubber planters was killed during the course of the Emergency.

The British responded by gathering together the Chinese workers of the plantations and mines into “new villages”. About 300,000 squatters lived on the fringes of the plantations and provided the “sea” in which the CT “fish” could swim, under Mao’s prescription for guerilla war. These squatters were rounded up into secure and well organised government controlled villages. The policy worked, and was the model for the “strategic hamlets” policy that the Americans tried in Vietnam.

The British also responded by training their own conscript army in the techniques of guerilla warfare and combing the Malayan jungle, section by section, with the help of Dayak trackers from Borneo. By the time of independence most remaining CTs had been driven across the border into Thailand.

At the height of the Emergency there were 40,000 regular British troops in Malaya, including the Malay Regiment, 70,000 police who were almost entirely Malay, and perhaps 250,000 indigenous “Home Guards” who defended their own villages and communities.

On November 21 1954 Lee Kuan Yew founded the People’s Action Party in Singapore. At first, it existed in alliance with communist-led trade unions (Lim Chin Siong). Lee’s nickname for Fong Chong Pik, the head of the Singapore section of the Communist Party of Malaya, was “the Plen”. Fong wanted a united front with the PAP against the British.

On August 31 1957 – we have just had the 50th anniversary – the Federation of Malaya became an independent country. The insurrection was already subsiding.

In 1959 Singapore became self-governing in all matters except defence and foreign affairs. The PAP took power with Lee as prime minister and has ruled ever since.

On September 16 1963 the Federation of Malaya became the Federation of Malaysia, with the accession of Sabah (formerly North Borneo), Sarawak and Singapore. Brunei, not wishing to share its oil wealth, did not accede and remained under British protection until 1984.

The Singaporean communists (“the Plen”) were against the merger. Lee wanted it to prevent Singapore being eaten away by the communists.

1963-66: the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, an undeclared war fought mainly in Borneo. Indonesia opposed the formation and existence of Malaysia.

1962-90: communist insurgency in Sarawak. When the pro-communist Sukarno sent in guerillas during the confrontation phase, British troops helped to defeat them by the same methods that had beaten the Malayan communists in the ’50s.

On August 9 1965 Malaysia expelled Singapore from the Federation – an event which turned out to be profoundly invigorating for the Chinese. To the Chinese, independence had not felt like independence in 1963.

At what point did communism cease to be a potent force in Singapore? During the period of the merger or after 1965?

In 1967 Britain announced that it would close its military bases east of Suez. They closed in Singapore and Malaysia in 1971. It continues to support Brunei with a small presence.

Since its own independence, Malaya/Malaysia has been an elective kingdom, with the head of state, a paramount ruler with the title of yang di-pertuan agong, elected every five years from among the nine hereditary Malay sultans. The king’s power to veto legislation was removed after a constitutional crisis in 1983.

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16 Responses to “A rough guide to British Malaya”

  1. Soham Dasgupta Says:

    Very useful for briefing students of Post Graduate course especially for teachers who want to skip detailing on events of British take over and go on to more important matters of history.
    Thank you

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Thanks. It is just scaffolding, but I tried to create a summary which was more rigorous, within its tight limits, than one you would find anywhere else.

    Where do you teach?

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Johore was a Malay successor-state of Malacca, created after the Portuguese had occupied Malacca.

  4. […] under British administration (1811-16). The governor, Lieutenant Governor-General Thomas Stamford Raffles, collected Javanese antiques. On a tour of inspection in 1814, he was informed about a monument […]

  5. davidderrick Says:


    The Sultan of Brunei ceded the uninhabited island of Labuan to Britain in 1846, and it became a Crown Colony in 1848. James Brooke of Sarawak was appointed its first Governor. The British intended to use it as a base from which to control piracy.

    In 1890 it was made a part of British North Borneo, in 1906 joined to the Straits Settlements, then in 1946 re-joined to North Borneo, so passing to Malaysia as part of Sabah in 1963.

    In 1984, Sabah ceded it to the federal government and it became, and remains, a Federal Territory. In 1990 it was declared an international offshore financial centre and free trade zone.

  6. davidderrick Says:

    I find it strange to think that my first visit to Singapore was only 21 years after the British left (25 if you take 1959 as the independence date). Young people, in other words, could remember us.

  7. I have just published a book: “The White Rajahs – Myths Retold, the Massacre of the Bau Hakkas”.

    The Hakkas were the gold miners who initiated the so called Chinese Rebellion against the White Rajah. To the locals, we see the event differently. The whole Web is telling the wrong White Rajah story. Sir James Brooke ordered the termination of 3,500 Hakkas. In today’s term, it is world class genocide.

    In today’s term, the colonists were institutionalized plunderers. Therefore their victims had every reason to retaliate until their legitimate rights were restored. In this light, fighters against the Brookes should not be “rebels.” In reality, the invaders were the thieves and the locals the masters of the land. West biased stereotype discourses on the White Rajahs describe them as “atypical”, not even colonists.

    Most books blatantly lie. They say James Brooke was rewarded with the state of Sarawak peacefully. They close their eyes to history saying Sarawak was founded after the Brunei capital was razed to the ground before the Sultan ceded our state to him. Many books give the impression that the Sarawak and Brunei were always on friendly terms. Nothing is further from the truth.

    The Rajah did lots of killings here. Robert Payne, in The White Rajahs of Sarawak, reveals James Brooke questioning himself in his diary: “Am I, then, really fond of war?” And I answer – “Certainly.” However, he said he would not fight an “unjust war.” He attacked tens of longhouses during his first six to seven years in Sarawak. Payne observes: “For the rest of his life he was to be haunted by the nightmare of the Chinese rebellion, which plagued him like guilt.”

    Below is one of many imaginative “history” stories we read today in cyberspace:

    “After a long period of wandering, Brooke met the Sultan of Brunei who told him of the myriad tribes living in the south of his kingdom that were constantly warring with each other in his small sultanate. This ceaseless fighting disrupted the peace of the sultan’s kingdom, but he could not control them.

    “Brooke came up with a clever solution in which he aligned some of the tribes with the sultan and convinced them to conquer the others. This plan worked, resulting in lasting peace for the region. Brunei’s sultan was so pleased that he gave Kuching to Brooke in 1841, naming him raja over the lands which are now Sarawak.”

    Here is another cock and bull story:

    “In the 1840s, a British man and failed merchant by the name of James Brooke arrived in Brunei and offered to assist the Sultan keep order in an uprising that was flaring up in Sarawak, the southern portion of the realm. Brooke was successful in arranging a peaceful settlement, but the Sultan refused to pay him, and Brooke responded by threatening the rule of Brunei with his makeshift yet professional military force. The Sultan responded by granting Brooke the title of Rajah of Sarawak.”

    A prevalent lie is James Brooke was appointed as the Rajah of Sarawak by Mudah Hashim [member of the court of Brunei] who had no power to do so. Brooke knew it. His own Journal disclosed that the idea of making him a Bruneian Resident only came after he resolved the Siniawan rebellion problem. Writing to his mother from Kuchin he says: “… at the end of the war he (Mudah Hashim) professed that my assistance had alone saved the country and that my support absolutely necessary to him. He concluded by offering the government of the country of Sarawak.”

    The two then discussed in detail whether, under Brunei law, he could be one of the district governors entrusted with the duty of collecting taxes from the people. For this appointment, he had to patiently wait for five long months. He wrote home that for weeks on end, he never even got the chance to talk to his host.

    Could a local raja give away Sarawak to a foreigner merely for quelling a rebellion? Let us take this analogy. A man summoned the police when he found an intruder had broken into his house. After the police chased away the house breaker, the house owner “gratefully rewarded” the cop by giving him the house. Like robots, our local writers are “cut and pasting” this naive “reward” myth into their books and web blogs.

    Desmond Leong

    • viviena teng Says:

      Mr Desmond Leong,

      If you are in Kuching, Sarawak. I would like to meet up with you in regards to your book.

  8. davidderrick Says:

    Desmond Leong (last comment) recommends a review of another book on this subject at Borneo Post, November 6:


  9. Desmond Leong is in Singapore, trying to disprove more myths. I am not sure when I would be back in Kuching. You can email me at leongdesmond@Yahoo.com. I am most happy that this website could provide the platform to take a closer look at our own history.

  10. Warta Malaya Says:

    Very interesting article. History has always been defined by the victors.

  11. davidderrick Says:

    From the British point of view, see books by Frank Swettenham:


  12. davidderrick Says:

    The British brought in Indians and Chinese because they did not think the Malay population would work. European colonists in the Americas brought in Africans because they did not think the indigenous populations there would work. European colonists in Africa brought in Indians and Chinese. Easier to import slaves or indentured labour than to force a defeated local population to do your bidding.

    The Chinese are now bringing their own people into Africa rather than employing Africans.

  13. […] A rough guide to British Malaya (old post). Singapore became self-governing in 1959, joined the new Federation of Malaysia in 1963, seceded from it on August 9 1965. […]

  14. […] him in the context of nation-builders. I gave a skeletal history of British Malaya, 1786-1963 here, which was useful enough to have been used in a postgraduate class in Malaysia or India. I […]

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