Malay Sketches presents a series of sketches of the lush landscape of Malaya and observations of the lives, customs, beliefs and superstitions of the locals by Frank Swettenham during his twenty-five years experience in Malaya. In 22 Chapters, Frank Swettenham gives us a vivid account of Malay life in the late 19th century. Most accounts of his residency in Perak, it reads more like a travel journal than an official, scientific or anthropological account, although it cannot be considered a travel journal.
According to the author, Malay Sketches is not a book of travels, nor is it, in even the smallest sense, the record of a traveller’s experiences in a foreign land. It is a series of sketches of Malay scenery and Malay character drawn by one who has spent the best part of his life in the scenes and amongst the people described.
These pages contain no statistics, no history, no geography, no science, real or spurious, no politics, no
moralising, no prophecy,— only an attempt to awaken an interest in an almost undescribed but deeply interesting people, the dwellers in one of the most beautiful and least known countries in the East.
The traveller will come in time, and he will publish his experiences of Malaya and the Malays; but while he may look upon the country with a higher appreciation and paint its features with a more artistic touch, he will see few of those characteristics of the people, none of that inner life which, the author make bold to say, is here faithfully portrayed.
And even though Swettenham was writing as a British, for a British audience, Malay Sketches manages to preserve some respect for Malay culture. For the most part, Swettenham did not ride on the high horse so typical of many colonial administrators, such as James Birch who was assassinated in 1875, also in Perak. (Swettenham, in fact, devotes a chapter to recounting the tale of James Birch.)
And the great thing about the book is that debunks many stereotypes that are still propagated today; stereotypes that give the reader the impression that Swettenham, along with all other colonial administrators, did not find any genuine culture or civilisation when they arrived in the region. This is not to say, of course, that Swettenham did not form his own judgements on the Malay race which must, like every other character analysis, be taken with a pinch of salt.