Colonialist Literature on Malaysia 1 October 2018 – Posted in: Book Excerpts

Colonist literature on Malaysia really started with Joseph Conrad’s publication of Almayer’s Folly in 1895, twenty-eight years after Malacca, Penang and Singapore became a Crown Colony and three years before the Borneo setting of that novel became British Protectorates. Before Conrad, though there had already existed colonialist discourses in various non-fiction forms -reports, memoirs, autobiographies and travellers’ tales. From about the late seventeenth century, there were already accounts by explorers who had stumbled upon the land in the course of longer voyages, such as those found in William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World published in 1699. By mid-nineteenth century, hunters, botanists and more explorers came, saw and wrote on the flora and fauna, the custom and tradition of what Conrad was later to call “this lost comer of the earth” (Lord Jim 1986, 224). Conrad himself made extensive use of such “dull wise books” — the most important one being Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago published in 1858. The travel genre is really a part if not the forerunner of colonialist discourse in that it is there that we encounter the germ of the idea that is later to infect the psyche of colonialist writers in no small way. This is the idea of “difference”, between the familiar and the alien, between the traveller and object of travel, that essential distance that was later to position West and East, coloniser and colonised and other related binary oppositions into structure of inequalities.

The notion of the East as exotic and mysterious are found in other books such as A. B. Rathborne’s Camping and Tramping in Malaya (1898), Rounsevelle Wildman’s Tales of the Malayan Coast (1899), and Hunter S. Banner’s A Tropical Tapestry (1929). Perhaps John Cameron’s Preface to Our Tropical Possessions in Malayan India represents much of the impetus behind this particular genre of writing.

The following pages have been written under the believe that the possessions of which they treat are about to come under the direct control of Imperial government, and with a view to afford the people of England some glimpse of the great beauty, some conception of the valuable commerce, and some ground upon which to estimate the importance, in political point of view, of the tropical country to which they are about to be drawn in the ties of a near relationship.

(Cameron 1965, Preface)

By the end of the nineteenth century, colonial officials and other expatriates who had spent long years in villages and settlements took time off from the pressures of administration to reminisce over their “exotic immersions”. Frank Swettenham, British Resident of the FMS, wrote Malay Sketches (1895) which included such sundry topics as a tiger-hunt and a fishing picnic. The Resident of Pahang 1896-1905, Hugh Clifford, became a part-time fiction-writer dishing out slices of the country he knew so well in such works as Since the Beginning (1898), A Freelance of Today (1903) and A Prince of Malaya (1926) which he implied, in a now celebrated tiff with Conrad, to have exhibited a greater understanding and a more intimate knowledge of the Malay world than had hitherto been evident in Conrad. Conrad retorted that although Clifford had unusual knowledge, he had put it to indifferent use in his fiction (Fernando 1986, 36). It is true that the main source of Conrad’s Eastern novels was not his own first hand experiences. In fact, Norman Sherry, that indefatigable literary sleuth, has some incriminating evidences to show Conrad’s dependence on his reading for the material of the three Malaysian novels to be analysed in Chapter 2 (i.e. Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and Lord Jim).

Not all of Conrad’s Eastern fiction should concern us here except those that are specifically Malaysia-based. These consist of four novels and two short stories: Almayer’s Folly (1895), An Outcast of the Islands (1896), “Karain” and “The Lagoon” (1898), Lord Jim (1900), and The Rescue (1920). All of them have affinities with adventure stories of which R. L. Stevenson was arguably the pioneer (Fernando 1986, 19-22). But if there are romance, adventure and exoticism, typical prescriptions of that genre, there is also a sense of an undermining of those conventions in the shape of Conrad’s antiheroes, portrayed as disillusioned creatures trapped in alien circumstances beyond their control.

Almayer of Almayer’s Folly is an example of the Conradian hero facing multiple disillusionment. Through the course of the novel, he watches the progressive ruins of his friendship, his marriage, his hopes for his daughter, his dreams of getting gold, and his gun-powder trade. His hopes of a rich inheritance through marriage with Tom Lingard’s adopted Malay daughter does not in the end materialise; in fact, his adventurer-trader-mentor father-in-law abandons him for Europe to raise money for his many schemes. Almayer’s business rivals, the shrewd Arabs, seem to have taken over the trade of the region. His planned gold expedition with the exile prince from Celebes, Dain Maroola, comes to nothing because the local partner has problem with the Dutch authorities and escapes to Bali with Almayer’s own beloved daughter with whom he has madly fallen in love. This elopement is the unkindest cut of all for the father who has tried to raise the daughter according to western ideas so that she would prefer his civilisation to that of the mother. Having lost his daughter, his ally, his mentor and his dreams of ever returning to his home country a rich man, he turns to opium-smoking and dies the solitary death of a drug addict.

An Outcast of the Islands is a kind of sequel in reverse to Almayer’s Folly; it has the same setting and more or less the same characters, only the action is placed about twenty years earlier than Almayer’s Folly. Its hero, Willems, fares no better, either. After embezzlement is discovered, this pretentious confidential clerk of 3 merchant house is brought by Lingard to Sambir to start a new life. He lives close to the young Almayer whose business prospects he is later to destroy. He betrays the secret entrance to a river to Arab traders, knowing that it is the key to a country Lingard and Almayer hope to exploit. His passionate love affair with Aissa, the native woman, ends in tragedy with the arrival of his wife and child. His own lover stabs him to death for his betrayal of her.

The Rescue was intended to be the third after the two novels just mentioned, in what Frederick R. Karl calls “a special kind of trilogy in reverse chronological order” (Page 1986, 127) in which Lingard appeared. The young Lingard, already making a name for himself in the Eastern seas, is faced with a choice of either pushing on to fulfil a pledge to the exiled Malay princes or stopping to rescue a yacht caught in the sand-banks and captured by a local Chieftain. He chooses to save the stranded party among whom is a Mrs. Travers with whom he falls in love. His decision and subsequent infatuation lead him to ignore the plight of his native friends who perish as a result of his betrayal.

But it is in the portrayal of Lord Jim that we are asked to feel the romantic appeal of daring personal enterprise most keenly. For this story, Conrad drew heavily on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Like Brooke, Jim quickly establishes himself as the revered ruler of Patusan which he seems to govern single-handedly. Patusan becomes for Jim a place to regain self-respect lost in a moment of panic when, as chief mate of an overcrowded pilgrim ship, he abandons ship for his own safety and subsequently faces the public disgrace of an inquiry into his action.

However, another crucial decision in another moment of crisis in Patusan shatters whatever respect he may have gained. When a group of white pirates trespass his secret sanctuary, he vetoes the native decision to attack them and instead guarantees an incident-free passage out for the intruders. Contrary to what has been promised, the group leaves a trail of blood on their way out, and so Jim seeks a final way to salvation by forfeiting his own life in expiation of their perfidy.

Unlike the novels, the two short-stories revolve around the plight of two Malay characters communicated to us with the mediation of their white confidants. Karain is haunted by the ghost of the man he has killed, and Arsad in The Lagoon by the ghost of his brother, slain while helping him escape with the women he loves.

Conrad wrote his stories on Malaysia at a time when colonialism had just begun to be established in this part of the world. His works show many characteristics of the early colonial man — the obsession with the greatness of an idea, the need to have little “empires” of his own, the warring impulses, the divided loyalties. Jim’s quest for credibility and Almayer’s of respectability through wealth is fought on a personal scale just as ideological notions of the civilising mission are pushed on an international scale. Lingard’s one-man imperialism with all its expansionist and paternalistic tendencies is a microcosm of the Empire as a whole. And always, when the white man is confronted with a predicament, as are Jim and Lingard of The Rescue, the natives will be denied equal weight with the Europeans on the scales of the conflict.

What can be drawn from Conrad’s work about his own views on colonialism is that while he seems to endorse imperialistic enthusiasms as every self-respecting western man would in his time, he also wants to question its premises and its effects. Although empire-builders like Jim and Lingard become for a while saviour, counsellor and ally to their native dependents, in the long run they become betrayers to the very people they were supposed to save. There is also a sense in Almayer’s Folly that what the imperial nations do on a big scale, with their gunboat diplomacy and international rivalry for “spheres of influence”, is basically no different from what the “uncivilised” natives do on a small scale with their petty squabbles and intrigues in the jungle.

Unlike Conrad, Maugham wrote at a time when colonialism had already become an established system in Malaya. Its powerful administrations, with its network of Residents, Assistant Residents, District Officers and the Police Force, held unchallengeable authority. It was during the peaceful interwar years when the vast rolling rubber plantations brought economic prosperity and stability. And as a result the powerful economic motives and the raw power which supported colonial domination are able to be effaced under codes and manners of an artificially calm and ordered public life. This allows Maugham to bring in “manners” and rely on a very class-bound English literature of private rather than public affairs. As Burgess notes in his Introduction to Maugham’s Malaysian stories, most of Maugham’s fiction evolves around administrators and planters engaged in their own private struggles against “sexual jealousy, hatred, revenge, cowardice, failure” (Maugham 1969, xvii). Colonialism has become a settled affair to them, something already taken for granted. Nevertheless, the stories do provide an insight into the pretentious social milieu of colonial society before the Japanese descended on Malaya and shattered this complacent lifestyle.

A lot of Maugham’s stories have to do with the colonial concept of the prestige of the white man. Prestige must be upheld in all areas, in public as well as private lives. We have seen earlier in this chapter how Alban in “The Door of Opportunity” (1931) fails to be action oriented in his management and is therefore seen as not honourably discharging his duties as a top colonial administrator in the district. “The Outstation” (1924) also poses questions about what constitutes an efficient administration. In the private lives of the colonial administrators, strict codes of conduct must be seen to be upheld. No British administrator could have any liaison with native women without experiencing a fall from grace. This is what Doris’s husband, as we have seen earlier, goes through in “The Force of Circumstance” (1924). In “P & O” (1923) Gallaher has to pay for his indiscretion with his life, as does one of the seamen in “The Four Dutchmen” (1928).

In the same way, colonial wives must uphold Victorian morality. Maugham’s stories abound with unfaithful wives who have to face personal tragedies for flouting this code of conduct. The theme of infidelity on the part of the colonial wife is found in the following stories: “The Letter” (1924); “The Back of Beyond” (1933); “Neil MacAdam” (1923); “A Casual Affair” (1934); and “Flotsam and Jetsam” (1947); while that of incest between brother and sister is dealt with in “The Book-bag” (1932).

Although one can say in the best tradition of universalism that these stories deal with the extremes of human emotions, one must at the same time remember the specific colonial condition that engenders them. The vast distance between homeland and colony, the isolation of the planter’s life in the interior, cut the colonial society loose from the strict code of conduct in British society. Adultery, murder and incest have their own terrible logic in the peculiar circumstances at Empire’s periphery. At the same time, a sense of nostalgia for home hangs over this community trapped in the circumstances of an alien World from which it cannot get out. Maugham also presents a society committed to preserving its dignity and prestige in a threatening environment always ready to strip the white man of this birthright. The white man is forced to experience the indignity of having to deal with the natives on terms not commensurate with his superior status, as in liaisons with native women or in underhanded negotiations of the kind we get in “The Letter”. However, for the greater part of Maugham’s fiction, there is always the assurance that the boundaries of authority and submission between two unequal societies are safely in place.

Then the Japanese intervened.

The Japanese victory over the British in Malaya in 1942 relieved the white man of the burden of having to be constantly on show to display his dignity and prestige. British fallibility finally dawned on the disenchanted natives and Britain lost “the long struggle not to be laughed at”, as George Orwell would have put it. Ronald Hastain’s memoirs White Coolie (1947) record Malay response to the Surrender; there were “flashing of teeth”, “broad grins” and much “mocking laughter”, imagined or real (Hastain 1959, 55). The Indians, on seeing white prisoners-of-war on their journey north to work on the Burma-Siam Railroad, watched “our fallen state with sardonic sneers” (Hastain 1959, 120). Only the Chinese, with the Sino-Japanese war on their minds, “spoke words of encouragement” (Hastain 1950, 120). Many other writings of the war period reflect this changing relationship between coloniser and colonised.

There are also memoirs of organised British resistance to Japanese occupation, as represented by F. Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral (1949). Chapman was personally involved in such military exercise in liaison with guerrillas from the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).

Indeed, this part of the Malaysian history has engendered a dramatic outpourings of writings. In fact there are altogether 1225 entries found in a preliminary bibliography of literature relating to the Japanese period by both colonial (European and Japanese) and native writers (Corfield, 1988). Unlike the native version, however. colonial writings conceive the war as a military drama unfolding for themselves and seem obvious of its political implications to the natives. It was only long after the event that anybody realised the natives had all this while developed a coherent political programme of their own. The post-war colonial reaction as embodied in their literature shows some attempt to come to terms with this reality. This was accompanied by feelings of bitterness and betrayal directed at an incompetent, complacent, arrogant metropolis and a weak military leadership that had undermined the best efforts of the colonial society.

The process leading to decolonisation affected different colonialist writers in South-East Asia differently. While the violent process elsewhere in Dutch and French territories contributed to their respective literatures the romanticism of defeat as a recurrent theme (a necessary defence mechanism to play down the loss of dignity), the relatively painless decolonisation of British territories saved British colonialist literature from the indignity of resorting to such a face-saving device. In contrast to its French and Dutch counterparts, it shared none of their concerns with the Imperial project and was preoccupied instead with individual military exploits and glories (Christie 1986, 12).

The state of Emergency (1948-1960) in which the British government had to fight a jungle warfare with the MCP gave rise to numerous accounts of terrorist attacks on police stations and British plantations. The ambush became a site of tension and action, both necessary elements for war novels. John Slimming’s In Fear of Silence (1959) moves its entire plot around such a site albeit with an interesting difference. For instead of having the British ambushed by MCP, which would be what normally happened, Slimming’s has the British troops laying one on the enemy. Michael Keon’s The Durian Tree (1960), similarly set during the Emergency, deals with the communist plot to eliminate the Chief British Administrator of one of the Malayan states as well as the execution of a Eurasian under Emergency regulations for being an (unwilling) accomplice of a communist terrorist.

By the 1960s, of course, colonialism as a system could no longer be justified and the colonial situation is relegated to the background against which a more personal drama is to take place. The Emergency makes a dramatic backdrop to the theme of self-discovery. Hence, Brian Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s Key to the Door (1961) takes up National Service in Malaya to escape the working class drudgery in Nottingham. His military stint only changes him from an object of class oppression in Britain to an agent of colonial oppression in Malaya (Christie 1986, 14). This awareness, otherwise known as political education, fills him with great resentment against the British political and social system, but this is about all the awareness of colonialism as a political ideology there is in the novel. The country called Malaya is only incidental.

There is even less political awareness in a similar novel Virgin Soldiers (1967) by Leslie Thomas, set in the same class milieu and National Service situation. Novels such as these tell of a new military breed which never chose to be an active part of the colonial system in the first place. They were young boys out to have fun while they could but instead found themselves suddenly confronted with the possibility of death. Their private woes are different from the devastating political disillusionment found in French literature on the Indochina war written by professional, and therefore more committed, soldier-writers (Christie 1986, 15).

Graham Greene, on a journalistic visit to Malaya for three months in 1951 for Life magazine, was not impressed by the drama of the Emergency either. In his literary memoir Ways of Escape (1980) he found the country during the period “as dull as a beautiful woman” compared to the excitement of what he was going to get as a war correspondent in Indochina where he “drained a magic potion” (Greene 1980, 154). All in all, the Malayan Emergency seems to have no discursive existence as a literary topic to fire the imagination of either writer or reader of post-war Britain.

The post-war period was a period of rapid decolonisation in South-East Asia; and while some writers wrote on conditions of war in the colonies others more sensitive to the transition from colonial rule to Independence wrote about a colonial society in retreat and its consequently marginalised role in the affairs of the country.

Donald Moore’s Far Eastern Journal (1960) represents the typical expatriate sentiments in this transition period. While the old imperial nostalgia still lingers, there are real anxieties about the post’ imperial future. These sometimes take the shape of ambivalent attitudes to the metropolis perceived as both nerve-centre and ultimate destroyer of the colonial structure. There is also the conviction that the country the British would soon leave behind is ill-prepared to contain the communist onslaught from the north. This is seen as Britain’s failure to inculcate its liberal political views among the colonised, thereby betraying the faith of people like Moore who have justified colonialism on such a premise. The Chinese in Singapore, says Moore, are instinctively drawn to authoritarian rule and indifferent to liberalism, an attitude that will make the country vulnerable to communist ideology.

On the other hand, there are those like Patrick Anderson and James Kirkup, teaching in the Malayan universities, who were even indifferent to the new political and social order that their generation of students would bring to their country. In Snake Wine (1955), which is about university life in Singapore, Anderson seems satisfied to carry on with the exoticism of travel writing, taking the reader on dull visits to temples and Chinese operas. Kirkup similarly embarks on tedious tours through the Hindu temple at Batu Caves and the Chinese New Year celebrations in Kuala Lumpur, although the cultural melting pot that is Malaya or Singapore defies his attempt to fuse the disparate elements into some sense of aesthetic unity.

James Kirkup’s Tropical Temper (1963) has nothing uplifting to say about the university life of a newly independent Malaya. The European society is “Philistine, anti-intellectual, anti-creative, anti-egalitarian and plain snobbish” (Kirkup 1963, 41); his own job of teaching English Literature “meaningless” (Kirkup 1963, 190) and the country as a whole the “most prosaic of all tropical lands” (Kirkup 1963, 129).

In Eric Waugh’s Fuel For the Flames (1959), set in a fictitious British Protectorate that looks suspiciously like Brunei, there exists a conflict of interest between the colonial and the expatriate societies, symbolised by the location of colonial administration at one end of the island, and the British Oil company at the other. The two worlds become embroiled in a power-struggle through a complicated network of political, sexual and economic intrigues and manipulations. The nationalists too jump on the bandwagon to exploit the situation by manipulating both colonial and expatriate fear of communist threats to get concessions from both parties. The transitional expatriate condition is no better than the colonial milieu it is in the process of replacing.

By far the most comprehensive and absorbing study of the colonial situation at the wrong end of the colonial history is found in Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy (1956-9). Narratively, it is a collection of three novels, written at different times, each with its own separate setting and characters, but all loosely held together by the rather unfocussed story of Victor Crabbe, education officer of British Malaya in the twilight of colonial rule. Ideologically, the seemingly disparate, disjointed narrative elements in fact constitute a single continuum of the unfolding problematics of a plural society trying desperately to achieve a sense of unity before Independence, and of colonialist attitude in coming to terms with its progressively marginalised role in an era that has finally made colonialism redundant. So absorbing is this ideological preoccupation of the writer that at times the private tale seems to be lost in the over-crowded historically significant events of the narrative.

Time for a Tiger (1956), it is true, chronicles Crabbe’s difficult relationships with his second wife and Malay mistress while the ghost of his first wife from some guilt-ridden past hangs over him. But what seems to come through more strongly is the image of a colonial administration losing its control and credibility, expressed by the sloppiness of the constabulary, the unprofessionalism of a school headmaster, the constant fear of communist attacks, the infiltration of communist ideas into the classroom, and open anti-British sentiments.

The thread of Crabbe’s private story is picked up again in The Enemy in the Blanket (1958) which sees the partial exorcism of his hang-ups via another act of infidelity with his superior officer’s wife, ending in the parting of ways with his own. On the political level, the parting of ways between coloniser and colonised is signalled by the increasing sense of irrelevance of colonial presence and the united cry by Malayans for Malayanisation in the civil service. It must be a new experience for a colonial officer like Crabbe, whose special privilege is always taken for granted, to find himself for the first time confronted with fierce open rivalry from a Malayan colleague impatient for change. Another jolt to colonial sensibility must be the marriage of a struggling, parasitic English lawyer to a wealthy Malay widow for money and his hypocritical conversion to Islam for that purpose; or more humiliating still, her complete physical and emotional domination over him in the end.

It is Beds in the East (1959) that finally integrates the personal into the political themes, as Crabbe attempts to make sense of his role in a country that obviously does not need him. All that remains for expatriates like him is as a transmitter of “values” to the emerging society. This is the only way he can see his conscious effort to promote inter-racial solidarity through the unconscious and neutral ground of culture and music, while all around him, his Malayan friends — Malays, Chinese, Indians, Punjabis, Eurasians — bicker and fight, make up and make love, until shouts of Independence finally bring the story to an uneasy, open-ended close. By then the confusion and the disillusionment have already overtaken Crabbe whose symbolic death just before Independence anticipates the final demise of colonial involvement in Malaysian history.

Certain broad themes can be gleaned from this motley corpus of colonialist outpourings, although these are given different treatment and emphasis in the progressively changing colonial milieu from its teething phase to its last dying twitches. The most common theme is the inequality of coloniser and colonised, and the need for those in power to preserve their prestige and dignity at all costs in the eye of those they rule. At the same time, there is a considerable measure of anxiety to rationalise and justify the colonial project expressed obliquely in the comparisons between colonial form and native formlessness, colonial order and native chaos. Later, these comparisons are extended to justify colonial presence in defiance of its increasing irrelevance in countries moving towards self-rule. And until the end, colonialist literature never seems to be able to outgrow the temptation of turning the colonies into an exotic stage on which the human drama of white individuals is managed. If we accept that trends in Malay literature are reflective of mounting social unrest and anti-colonial feelings, then few colonialists, except Anthony Burgess, are aware of them. Most writers seem to be out of touch with the realities of Malay society and seem to be content with using the externalities of its milieu or the more exotic aspects of its culture merely for background effect.

This chapter has taken us on a long journey through an intertextual maze. It is necessary for the ground to be cleared for us to manoeuvre into the next phase of our project in the next three chapters. More importantly, it is necessary for a materialist approach taken by the present project to focus on one particular colonial terrain and history and on colonial fiction’s engagement with that terrain. It is necessary to historicise and contextualise both the reading subject and the shadowy “native” figures who are marginalised by these writers. Only then can we provide a useful counterpoint to the all too often globalising tendencies of post-colonial theory.

Excerpt Source

“Chapter 2: Understanding the Colonial Context.” 2003. Resisting Colonialist Discourse. By Zawiah Yahya. 2nd ed. Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 1994. 70-81. Print.


Zawiah Yahya had served at different times between 1979 and 2004 as head of department, faculty dean, professor of postcolonial literature and critical theory, and guest scholar, at the Faculty of Language Studies (now School of Language Studies and Linguistics), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). She was an Asian Public Intellectuals (API) Senior Fellow before taking up the present position at the Institute of Occidental Studies (IKON), UKM in 2012.

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