The Real Malay: Pen Pictures gives an overview of the various problems faced by the British in administering the Straits Settlements and the Malay States in the 1870s. They had to grapple with political intrigues and social problems whilst at the same time setting up infrastructure and learning about the customs, traditions and idiosyncrasies of the local population. He relates his experiences, observations of the different races, especially the Malays of all classes and relationships with them through stories of coolies, murders, village life, encounters with tigers and rhinoceroses during the time he lived in Penang and Singapore.
To begin to understand the Malay you must live in his country, speak his language, respect his faith, be interested in his interests, humour his prejudices, sympathise with and help him in trouble, and share his pleasures and possibly his risks. Only thus can you hope to win his confidence. Only through that confidence can you hope to understand the inner man, and this knowledge can therefore only come to those who have the opportunity and use it.
So far the means of studying Malays in their own country (where alone they are seen in their true character) have fallen to few Europeans and a very small proportion of them have shown an inclination get into the hearts of the people. There are a hundred thousand Malays in Perak and some more in other parts of the Peninsula; and the white man, whose interest in the race is strong enough, may not only win confidence but the devotion that is ready to give life itself in the cause of friendship. The Scripture says: “There is no greater thing than this,” and at the end of the nineteenth century that is a form of friendship all too rare. Fortunately this. is a thing you cannot buy, but to gain it is worth some effort.
The real Malay is short, thick-set. well-built man, with straight black hair, a dark brown complexion, thick nose and lips, and bright intelligent eyes. His disposition is generally kindly, his manners are polite and easy. Never cringing, he is reserved with strangers and suspicious, though he does not show it. He is courageous and trustworthy in the discharge of an undertaking; but he is extravagant, fond of borrowing money, and very slow in repaying it. He is a good talker, speaks in parables, quotes proverbs and wise saws have a strong sense of humour and are very fond of a good joke. He takes an interest in the affairs of his neighbours and is consequently a gossip. He is a Muhammadan and a fatalist but he is also very superstitious. He never drinks intoxicants, he is rarely an opium-smoker. But he is fond of gambling, cock-fighting, and kindred sports. He is by nature a sportsman; catches and tames elephants; is a skilful fisherman, and thoroughly at home in a boat.
Above all things, he is conservative to a degree, is proud and fond of the country and his people, venerates his ancient customs and traditions, fears his Rajas, and has a proper respect for constituted authority—while he looks askance on all innovations, and will resist their sudden introduction. But if he has time to examine them carefully, and they are not thrust upon him, he is willing to be convinced of their advantage. At the same time he is a good imitative learner, and, when he has energy and ambition enough for the task, makes a good mechanic. He is however lazy to a degree, is without method or order of any kind. knows no regularity even in the hours of his meals, and considers time as of no importance. His house is untidy, even dirty but he bathes twice a day and is very fond of personal adornment in the shape of smart clothes.