Sunday, July 18, 2010

Malay Resistance Movement

Although the British were scrupulous of their legal status as vicarious rulers for the Sultans, the same could not be said of the general Malay population who generally felt and continue to label the British intervention in the Malay states as “British colonialism.” This is not surprising because in actual fact, the British administration became the effective Government, albeit under which the Malays and particularly the rulers enjoyed certain privileges.

This was not a state of affairs that the Malays took sitting down. They resisted. The reaction of these political casualties of the British intervention is now fast becoming the substance for constructing modern Malay lore. In most history books the status and positioning of the rulers are highlighted, often at the expense of elucidating the reaction of their antagonists who actually may be more representative of Malay grass root sentiment. There may be powerful cultural precedents that may have prevented an outright revolt against the sultans but the native resistance knew they risked everything if they succeeded in displacing a ruling sultan for they still had to deal with the British. And the British spared nothing in displaying their military superiority. Of course, the British also established a reputation of diplomatic savvy as well as being able administrators.

The resistance of the Malays to British rule in Malaya may be divided into two broad categories: political and religious. They are in the main, the traditional Malay chiefs and aristocrats known collectively in Malay as “orang besar” or “orang kaya” who lost their economic privileges along with their political status. In the traditional Malay feudal system, the chiefs were the aristocrats who controlled the local political allegiances and economic activity. Their main income came from the taxes collected from the peoples living in or passing through their territories. The British residential system undermined the political and economic position of the Malay chiefs and aristocrats by directly and immediately usurping the rights to tax. As a result a number of Malay armed struggles against the British were initiated. The uprisings took place, for instance, in Naning, Perak, Pahang, Kelantan and more tenaciously in Terengganu.

The most publicized armed Malay resistance took place in Perak immediately after J.W.W Birch, the first British Resident of Perak was appointed in November 1874. Although Birch was considered a man of impeccable morals he was seen by the Malays as an unnecessarily haughty person. However, in pursuing the British policy in their “forward movement” he announced and implemented the new tax regulation which prohibited the Perak people from paying their taxes to the Malay chiefs and aristocrats. It led to his assassination in November 1875.

The Malay chief Datuk Maharaja Lela of Pasir Salak and his co-conspirators Raja Ismail, Pandak Endut and Datuk Sagor were identified as the perpetrators of the crime for which the British felt compelled to showcase their resolute approach in their dealings in the Malay states. A British expedition to capture them was engaged, and although it was called the “Perak War” it involved a number of skirmishes in which both sides lost a number of lives. By December 1876, the British Governor found a number of chieftains in complicity that included the Raja Abdullah (the sultan-designate hitherto recognised by the British), Datuk Laksamana Muhamad Amin, Datuk Syahbandar, and Menteri Ngah Ibrahim. They were sent into exile in the Seychelles Island. Raja Ismail was exiled to Johore. In January, 1877, a court presided over by Raja Yusuf, the new sultan of Perak, and assisted by J.G. Davidson, the new British Resident of Perak, and his assistant William E. Maxwell, found Datuk Maharaja Leia, Pandak Endut and Datuk Sagor guilty and sentenced them to death for their leading role.

In Pahang the armed Malay resistance against British rule began in 1891. The Sultan of Pahang agreed to accept a British Resident in 1888. The resistance was led by Malay chiefs and aristocrats such as Datuk Bahaman who ruled the district of Semantan, Tok Gajah also known as Iman Perang Besar and Tok Gajah's sons Mat Kilau, Awang Nong, and Panglima Muda Jempul. Datuk Bahaman demanded that the British compensate his loss of income. He demanded that he should be given $6,000 yearly. When this demand was not fulfilled, he began a direct confrontation with the British officers in Semantan. He did not pay the taxes imposed and encouraged his people not to pay them. His rebellious act received support from some Malays living in Semantan. He then led an attack on the police stationed in Semantan. Other Malay chiefs mentioned above joined him to attack the British soldiers and officers. Many of the British soldiers and policemen were Sikhs. From their hideouts in Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu Datuk Bahaman and his supporters sporadically attacked English businessmen, soldiers and officers in Semantan.

It is an important fact to note that the resistance leaders in Pahang petitioned the Sultan to resist British rule and pleading that he declare a “jihad” (holy war) to drive the British out. The Sultan rejected the petition reasoning that the British were there at his request and consent. The Sultan, however went on to lend his resources to help the British to suppress the rebellion. Finally, the matter concluded in 1895 when their despirited leaders such as Datuk Bahaman, Mat Kilau and Tok Gajah managed to escape into a self imposed exile from Pahang. Their followers surrendered to the Government forces and were duly pardoned by the Sultan.

Mat Kilau died in 2007. (

The armed Malay resistance in Kelantan against British rule occurred in the district of Pasir Putih in 1915. It was led by the landlord Mat Hasan known as Tok Janggut and the traditional Malay leader Engku Besar Tuan Ahmad. The taxes imposed and implemented by the District Officer of Pasir Putih sparked the resistance. He imposed the poll taxes and taxes on agricultural lands, coconut and fruit trees, buffaloes and cows. The Malays in Pasir Putih who did not pay the taxes supported Tok Janggut who had himself also refused to pay the taxes to the British. He together with Engku Besar Tuan Ahmad, the chief of Jeram, and Penghulu Adam, the Malay headman, led the rebellion to defy the taxes. Tok Janggut killed the police sergeant who was ordered to arrest him. Tok Janggut and his men occupied the town of Pasir Putih and the European bungalows in Pasir Putih. The District Officer fled to Kota Bharu to report matters to the Sultan of Kelantan. The Sultan had to cast his lot with the British and this enabled Sir Arthur Young, the British Governor in Singapore to send about a hundred British soldiers consisting of Sikhs and Malays to contain the rebellion. In May 1915, British soldiers attacked Pasir Putih and killed many of the rebels including Tok Janggut. Engku Besar escaped and fled to the Siamese border. The corpse of Tok Janggut was sent to Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan, to be displayed for many days before it was buried as a grave reminder not to revolt against the Sultan and his officers.

This turn of events in Kelantan has a poignant side to it. Engku Besar was the “grandson of the grandson of Tengku Sri Mahkota who was said to have been the last of a dynasty which had administered the district (of Pasir Putih) during the nineteenth century more or less independently of Kota Bharu.” Tok Janggut became Engku Besar’s right-hand man who had intended “to drive out all Europeans and all foreigners of every nationality, to establish the old regime and ... to have taxes only once in every three years.”

The armed Malay resistance in Terengganu began in 1928. It was led by the landlords Haji Musa, Haji Abdul Rahman and Sayid Alsagof during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman. In 1924 a group of Malays led by Haji Abdul Rahman in Kampung Bukit Tanduk near Kuala Berang defied the Government regulation which prohibited them from cutting down the jungle trees and opening up the lands without permission from the Government - something which was hitherto granted by the local chief. This usurpation of authority was widely felt as an incursion into the traditional rights of the Malay chiefs. In 1928 some of the Malays instigated by Haji Musa, Sayid Alsagof and Penghulu Saleh refused to pay the land taxes imposed by the District Officer of Kuala Berang. The numbers of Malays who refused to pay the taxes increased rapidly. Haji Musa told them pointedly that they should not pay the taxes to the Government, which was administered by the British infidels. This disturbance prompted the Sultan to visit Kuala Berang on 7 May 1928 to reckon the matter for himself. On 26 May the Government ordered the rebels to surrender which they did, including Penghulu Saleh, Haji Abdul Rahman and Sayid Alsagof. The followers were pardoned while their leaders were tried and sentenced to be incarcerated for periods ranging from five to fifteen years and then sent to Singapore and pardoned after two years. Haji Abdul Rahman himself was sent from Singapore in exile to Mecca with a monthly pension of $50, where he died in November 1929. Sporadic uprising continued for some time and as late as the 1930s “there was still a clear ‘opposition’ party in Terengganu ...”

To the discomfiture of Malay myth-makers all the armed Malay resistance initiated and led by the traditional Malay chiefs and aristocrats against the British in Malaya failed. The resistance was neither well organized nor were they able to garner support of the Malay rulers with the exception of Perak (in which case, the Ruler was quickly deposed). The Malay rulers of all the other states supported the British to suppress the Malay rebels only because they were willing to accept British rule to secure their throne from the rather wasteful royal disputants.

This repeated theme of a royal opportunity to secure the throne with the assistance of an opportunistic British commercial colonial Government was presented (...if you like exasperating details.) in C. Northcote Parkinson’s British Intervention in Malaya. However, one element left largely unexplored by most authors is the connection between the rulers’ close attention to the suppression of Malay rebellion and his role as the protector of the faith. In all the treaties that the British signed with the rulers, the clause of non-interference in matters of Islam and Malay customs was recognized by both parties as vital to its honour. By claiming the custodian role the rulers had astutely made it treasonable for the dissident elements in his states to invoke Islamic sentiments against the British since it directly attacked the rulers position as the institutional guarantor of Islam. This had the inevitable consequence of bringing this role into sharp focus and watchful scrutiny. And so did the Christianity of the British who stood guarantor to the power and prestige of the rulers. Although, the British Administration and the Church continued to abide by the rule of non-interference in maters of Islam and Malay customs, the presence of Christianity (both in the form of the institutional Church and the form of Christian run Government) continued to fodder the notion of Islam as the basis for the separateness of the Malays from the rest of the population.

Recommended Reading
J. De Vere Alien, “The Kelantan Rising of 1915: Some Thoughts on the Concept of Resistance in British Malayan history,” JSEAH, 9(2), Sept. 1968.
J. De Vere Alien, “ The Ancient Regime Trengganu, “1909-1919,” JMBRAS Vol. 41(1), 1968.

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