The Road to Merdeka: British-Malaya

In the Ashburton Guardian, Volume XIV, Issue 3126 dated 10 November 1893, there was a column entitled: A BRIGHTON SCANDAL. BREACH OF PROMISE SUIT AGAINST A SULTAN. It tells of a certain Miss Jenny Mighell suing a Mr Albert Baker for breaching a promise to marry her. Albert Baker was the name assumed by HRH Sultan Sir Abu Bakar ibni Daing Ibrahim, the Sultan of Johor from 1862 to 1895.

The case set a legal precedence in nations belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations that the ruler of a sovereign state or nation that is a protectorate of the British Empire cannot be tried in a court of law. Johor, in 1885, had signed a treaty of protection with the United Kingdom.

Collectively known as “British Malaya” the Malay states were unlike “British India.” British India started off as a business venture by the East India Company when it established a factory in Bengal in 1612. However, the “company rule” by the East India Company ended with the Government of India Act in 1858 following the Indian rebellion a year earlier. It was ruled directly by the Crown as a Colonial Possession and known thereafter as the Empire of India. The Indian princely states were allowed some measure autonomy in exchange for British suzerainty.

The Malay states comprised of three groups namely the:

1) Federated Malay States: a group of four states – Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Perak, that formed a federation that enjoyed the protection of the British in exchange for an “Advisor;”
2) Unfederated Malay States: Johor, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah (and later Perlis after it was independent of Kedah) that did not form a single grouping. Johor signed a treaty of protection with the British in 1885, while the rest became the British Protected States after Bangkok transferred its rights over these states to the British via the Bangkok Treaty of 1909. The Unfederated Malay States lacked common institutions and were not recognised as a single state under International Law.

3) The Straits Settlements – areas along the Malay Peninsula that came under direct British Crown rule (Pulau Pinang, Melaka and Singapore) after being taken over from the East India Company. Initially, the Dindings and Pangkor islands formed part of the Straits Settlements via the Treaty of Pangkor in 1874, but the British gave it up as Pangkor did not serve the British’s economic interest. It was established in 1826 by the East India Company following the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, but became a Crown Colony on 1st April 1867.

Therefore, the Malay states were never colonies save for Pulau Pinang, Melaka and Singapore that came under direct British rule.

Both the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Malay States had an “Advisor” appointed who came under the respective Sultan’s or Raja’s payroll to advise on the management of the state’s day-to-day affairs. They were called the “Residents.” They were there in exchange for the protection provided by Britain and do represent an indirect rule by the Crown. While it may be argued that the real rulers were the Advisors, but that is more on a case-to-case basis. Some may be pushy, like Birch who was subsequently murdered for his overwhelming influence in the Perak courts, while some are loyal to their paymaster(s).

One such person was Frank Athelstane Swettenham who first became the Resident of Selangor before convincing the Rulers of Selangor, Pahang, Perak and Negeri Sembilan to form a federation and became the first Resident-General of the Federated Malay States, serving from 1896 to 1901. Swettenham brought about development to the four states and introduced better civil administration. He was one of close to 40 former British Empire officials who were OPPOSED to the Malayan Union on the grounds that the Malayan Union went against the Atlantic Charter (the Atlantic Charter among others stated that there was to be NO territorial aggrandizement after the Second World War). Swettenham, as other Advisors, were on the payroll of the Sultans. There were other British officers who were on the payroll of the Sultans. One example is Major L.Vears, who was the aide-de-camp to Almarhum Sultan Iskandar of Perak.

If you remember the first paragraph, the United Kingdom recognised Sultan Abu Bakar as the reigning sovereign of the country of Johor, a protectorate of the Crown of the United Kingdom, and thus enjoyed the privileges extended to members of royal families. Johor, as other Malay states were at that time, sovereign states, ruled by its own rulers albeit with an appointed Advisor (Johor accepted an Advisor only in 1904). Sultan Abu Bakar and Queen Victoria became lifetime friends; not as a subject, but as real friends who corresponded with each other on a frequent basis.

Another example of “British-Malaya” being a collection of independent states is the donation of the people of Malaya towards the construction of a battleship aptly named “HMS Malaya” during the First World War. Launched in 1915, HMS Malaya served during the Battle of Jutland, and throughout the Second World War before she was sold for scrap in 1948. Her bell can be seen at the East India Club in St James’s Square, London. Among the battleships that served the Royal Navy, only HMS Malaya flew a different ensign: the red-white-black-yellow ensign of the Federated Malay States!

We have now established the fact that the Malay states were never colonised by the British, and that the Residents (Advisors) were appointed and on the payroll of the Malay Sultans. Therefore, those who waged war on the Malayan, and subsequently Malaysian, people are nothing less than traitors to their homeland.

Whether or not the Advisors were the real rulers of the Malay states, we must keep an open mind. Some may have spoken with condescending tone, some may have been more polite. Comments on history are often made by people who are emotionally-scarred, and may be biased as to how they see things, but history cannot be based on emotions – it must be based on facts.

You may now ask, if we were not colonised, then whose flag did we bring down on 31st August 1957, and what are we independent of?


On 31st August 1957, the Rulers of the Malay States handed over power to the people of the Federation of Malaya through its Chief Minister, thus ending the need to be dependent on the Advisors from the British Empire, turning this land into one with democratic principles with Constitutional Monarchy.

Now that we are independent, perhaps the Department of Museums and Antiquities would like to ask for the bell of HMS Malaya to be brought back to the country that sponsored the ship.