British Malaya, Singapore, and Borneo

   by Charles Kimball

Raffles hated giving Java back to the Dutch, and he looked for another colony as a replacement, one that would give Britain a dominant role in Far Eastern commerce. Eventually he decided on Singapore, an island just off the southern tip of Malaya. Singapore was perfect for what Raffles had in mind: it had a superb geographic location, it was underpopulated, and most of all, it was not controlled by a strong native government. The throne of the nearest Malay state, Johore, was vacant, and Raffles acquired Singapore by supporting a prince's claim to Johore and asking for the island as payment for his services afterwards. Then he turned Singapore's harbor into a free port where anyone could bring cargoes without paying the duties imposed at Batavia and other Dutch ports. Of course the Dutch got upset when they saw a British city being built in the middle of an area they had always considered theirs, but Raffles cooled their tempers by giving them Bencoolen, a British colony that had been set up on Sumatra a few years before.

The new colony was an immediate success: $4 million in trade goods passed through the port on Asian ships in the very first year. In 1823, four years after he founded the Singapore colony, Raffles sailed away to England, never to return, but already the colony was growing so fast that he could take pride in his accomplishment.

It was the adventures of another British army officer, James Brooke, that gave Britain a foothold on Borneo. In the early 19th century the sultan of Brunei claimed the whole island and the nearby Sulu islands for himself. However, when Brooke arrived on his personal yacht in 1839, he found the sultan in trouble on account of a rebellion in the southwest corner of his realm, Sarawak. Brooke called in the British navy to suppress the local pirates, who were on the side of the Sarawak rebels. The grateful sultan rewarded Brooke by crowning him prince of Sarawak, and he gave Britain the small offshore island of Labuan for use as a coaling station. Queen Victoria knighted Brooke, and he became known locally as "the White Rajah." Sarawak was governed by the Brooke family until 1946, when it was bequeathed to the British government.

At the same time a dispute arose over uncivilized North Borneo, or Sabah, which was claimed by many but occupied by none. The Netherlands, Spain, Britain, Brunei, Sarawak, and the sultan of Sulu (in the Philippines) all claimed it. So did three American merchants, who formed the American Trading Company of Borneo in 1865. They established a settlement about 60 miles north of Labuan, but it was a failure almost from the start. In 1876 the American Company was sold to a British trader. Then the British government moved in. Using negotiations (and some strategically placed bribes), Britain was able to persuade all other parties to drop their claims. The sultan of Brunei saw what was coming next. In 1888 he gave up his claim to Sarawak; what was left of his state became a British protectorate, barely avoiding outright colonization.

For over a generation Britain was not interested in any part of the Malay peninsula besides the ports of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, which it lumped together under the name of "the Straits Settlements." During this time huge deposits of tin were discovered on the mainland. Since the easygoing Malays were not interested in hard labor, Chinese immigrants went to work in the mines, and when they needed more workers, they imported large numbers of their fellow countrymen to fill the available jobs. Other Chinese moved into the British outposts, where they formed a middle class of merchants and moneylenders, just like they did in Manila, Batavia and Bangkok. Late in the century rubber trees were introduced from Brazil, just in time to support the world's new tire industry; a small but significant number of Indian immigrants moved in to work on the rubber plantations. As the 19th century ended, the Malays found themselves becoming a minority in their own country. In fact, they were already a minority, since some Indonesian immigrants came in as well; they were considered Malays as soon as they stepped off the boat because they shared the same language and religion with the natives. One European observer wrote that if the Chinese immigrants had brought women with them, they would have completely absorbed the Malay population within a few generations.

Malaya's nine sultans found the Chinese newcomers to be clannish and impossible to assimilate. The Chinese miners organized themselves into secret societies, which waged bloody feuds between each other for control of the mines. The British ignored these quarrels at first, but in 1874 the fighting spilled over into Penang. Britain immediately went to the nearest Malay state, Perak, and negotiated a truce, backing it up with Indian troops. The sultan of Perak was given a British advisor, who told him how to improve the local economy and made sure that the sultan did not forget Britain's interests in the area. The new system worked so well that by 1896 four states in central Malaya had British advisors. In that year the four states were organized into a federation, run by a British resident-general. The place chosen for the federation's capital, a mining camp named Kuala Lumpur, reflects where the land's real wealth came from. In 1909 the four northern sultans, who previously had been pro-Siamese, "asked" for British protection and joined the federation. The last holdout, the sultan of Johore, joined the federation in 1914.

Having British overlords did lessen the prestige of the sultans, but the British interfered as little as possible with Malay customs and practices. The peninsula's ethnic mixture, however, proved to be Malaya's biggest problem. Malays, Chinese and Indians did not trust each other; in fact, each group preferred British rule to domination by its rivals. Because of this situation, there was no nationalist movement before World War II, and after the war Britain offered independence before the natives asked for it.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball