80 years ago in Negri Sembilan — Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin
JUNE 24 — There is a shelf in my library for books I’m supposed to read as a priority because they are highly recommended. Unfortunately, some wait for years before being read. One of them was the 419-page Return to Malaya by Bruce Lockhart published in 1936, which I finally devoured in one sitting earlier this week.
Bruce Lockhart was a British diplomat and spy who had served in Moscow. His 1932 book Memoirs of a British Agent was an international bestseller. As a young man, he lived in Negri Sembilan, joining his uncles who were rubber planters.
Sent to open a new rubber estate in Pantai (just north of Seremban) at the age of 21, he gained some notoriety for a romance with Amai, the ward of the Datuk Klana of Sungei Ujong, which ended abruptly when he contracted malaria: his relatives “bundled my emaciated body into a motor car and… packed me off home via Japan and America”.
This book is mainly about his emotional return to Negri Sembilan 27 years later.
He goes via Singapore where he reunites with Sir Andrew Caldecott, former Assistant District Officer of Jelebu and composer of the Negri Sembilan state anthem, and observes the massive enhancements to the island’s defences which were to crumble to the Japanese only six years later.
From there, via Malacca, he arrives in Port Dickson, where “with the rising sun, my heart warmed… There before me was the sea, pearl-coloured and calm till it lost itself in the horizon.”
On Tuesday, I was at Port Dickson to attend a breaking fast event with the Royal Electrical and Engineering Corps, of which the present Yam Tuan is colonel-in-chief. Eighty years ago, Lockhart witnessed an early stage of the town’s military connections.
Back in 1902, the then-Yam Tuan Tuanku Muhammad together with other rulers urged the formation of a locally raised regiment. In 1933 an Experimental Company was formed at Port Dickson, becoming the Malay Regiment in 1935.
Lockhart attended its first formal inspection. He describes the uniform as “a kit to melt hearts” and of the soldiers, he observes 30 per cent speak English, including one “good example of the new Malay princeling… trained at Kuala Kangsar, the Malay Eton”.
After Port Dickson, Lockhart embarks to the interior of the state, motoring via Seremban (which depressed him) and then Sikamat, a tin-mining settlement which he remembers as “the home of the worst scoundrels in the Chinese community of Negri Sembilan”, but by 1936, “the tin which gave the place its unattractive population has long since been exhausted … the tin-miners had left and … gone to seek their fortune elsewhere”.
Today, Sikamat is host to the Raja Melewar Campus of the Institute of Teacher Education, which I visited this week, where people crucial to the future fortunes of the country are trained.
Lockhart continues to Kuala Pilah, “a great Malay centre in the hills” where this Ramadan I have been spending many serene evenings in mosques that he would have passed (some new at the time)”.
It comforts him to see the “old Malay life”, although I wonder if the pantun he recalls still applies: “Jalan-jalan sa-panjang jalan/ Singgah menyinggah di-pagar orang/ Pura-pura menchari ayam/ Ekur mata di-anak orang.”
He visits the new English School, where among the students are my grand-aunts who travel “daily by motor-bus from the Istana at Sri Menanti.”
Then comes the emotional peak of the book: his brief reunification with his first love, Amai (now married to the local muezzin), where he finally gets closure.
Among the emotional recollections, superlative descriptions of physical geography and accidentally fascinating remarks (Bata shoes had already “conquered the whole peninsula” by 1936) are prophetic and ironic socio-political observations.
He writes of the Malay College Kuala Kangsar as potentially creating “great difficulties, for with education and travel will come inevitably national aspirations.” Indeed its alumni attest to that prediction.
Yet, he still writes (during his subsequent leg in Java where he meets a revolutionary akin to a Russian peasant of 1910) that in Malaya there was not “a whisper of discontent against British rule”.
In the decade after this book was published, Malay nationalism was raging unabated.
Foreign accounts of our country often remind us of the beauty and mystique that we often take for granted. Though many orientalists and soldiers have written keen observations of Malaya, few are as romantic as Lockhart’s, or as complimentary about Negri Sembilan, one of the “delectable corners of the earth to which I should retire.”
Certainly, I will see these places in a new idyllic light.
* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of Ideas.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.