Anthony Burgess on Malaysia

Malaysia celebrated its 52nd independence anniversary recently. So how much has it changed since Anthony Burgess wrote about it in The Malayan Trilogy?

The book is based on his experiences as an education officer in Malaysia in the 1950s.

In his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, he writes: “The Malays resented Chinese wealth and were determined to keep the Chinese out of politics.”

On the other side, says Burgess, were the “Chinese communist terrorists” who fought a guerrilla war throughout the 1950s.  “These were young men and women, possessed of weapons left over from the war (World War II) and animated by political ideals taken from Peking, who were determined to prevent Malaya’s emergence to parliamentary democracy and wished to see a communist state ruled by Chinese,”  he says.

Here is his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, which is worth reading in full.

Introduction (to The Malayan Trilogy)

Malaya, or the Federated Malay States, was the last major territory to  achieve total independence of British control, and I, as a colonial officer in Malaya nd Borneo from 1954 to 1960, was an eyewitness and also participant in the somewhat painful, somewhat comic, processes which brought it about.

Strictly speaking, Malaya was never a British colony in the sense that the North American territories were before 1776, or India was until its postwar partition. In the early nineteenth century, the British East India Company had a trading post on the island of Penang and a fort called Butterworth on the mainland. The true East Indian colonists were the Dutch, but, when the Dutch and their overseas possessions came under the rule of Napoleon, it became necessary for the British to extend their sway, for the protection of trade routes, in the coastal area of Malaya. Stamford Raffles, an East India Company clerk, exhibited the British gift for improvisation which had not yet been codified and solidified by a Colonial Office in London, and made out of an uninhabited mangrove swamp called Singapore a great port and trading depot. This, and Malacca – a decayed Portuguese colony whose harbour was silting up — and Penang became the only Malayan territories which flew the British flag, and their collective title was the Straits Settlements. The mainland of Malay was never ruled directly by the British at all.
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Malaya consisted of a number of sultanates or rajahdoms which, except for Negri Sembilan, professed Islamic law and, in a somewhat eccentric way, subscribed to the Islamic religion. The Malays, a brown, handsome, lazy, wholly attractive race, had been converted to Islam by Arab traders but had a very vague idea of the origins of this conversion. Malay history seems to think Alexander the Great, helped by Aristotle, had been the fount of it. The fact remained that, at the time of Raffles, Moslem sultans or rajahs ruled small kingdoms of Malays, but, because of the trouble caused by rebels, pirates and robber barons, they were anxious to have their authority stiffened by a British presence. This meant the availability of British soldiers and warships, as well as the setting up of a British Adviser in each of the Malay states. After the Second World War, during which the occupying Japanese ruled tyrannically, the Malays looked forward to a political independence for which, through training in the democratic processes, the British were very willing to prepare them. Kuala Lumpur, the centre of British administration, was to become the capital of a free federation of Malay states ruled over nominally by a sultan elected from the existing sultans. Singapore was to organise her own political future; Malacca and Penang were to join the federation. This is the situation as presented in my novel, which covers roughly the period from 1955 to 1957, the year of independence.

The Malays, who are mostly immigrants, historic or prehistoric, from such East Indian territories as Sumatra and Java, call themselves “the sons of the soil” and consider that they are the only rightful inhabitants of the Malay peninsula. Political rule is totally in their hands, but they show little talent for industry and commerce. These activities, as well as the running of offices and railways, have traditionally and gladly been assumed by immigrants from China and India. The wealth of Malaya was always in the hands of the Chinese; Tamils and Bengalis and Sikhs took on posts in the Civil Service or in communications and the police force. One of the most attractive aspects of Malayan life, in the period of which I write, was the profusion of race and culture and language. But the races did not always get on well together. The Malays resented Chinese wealth and were determined to keep the Chinese out of politics. They despised the Indians and had derisive names for them. They even despised the English, whom they called “Mat Salleh” or “Holy Joe”. The situation since independence has often been dangerous, and there have been odd eruptions of racial riot. But Malaya has to be accepted as a multiracial territory and, through language and culture, the former presence of the not unkindly British has been well remembered.

My story is about the races of Malaya, as exemplified in characters who have, or had, counterparts in real life. Acting as a somewhat ineffectual buffer between Sikhs, Tamils, Eurasians, Chinese and Malays is Victor Crabbe, an education officer who has come to Malaya after the death of his first wife and marriage to his second. He genuinely loves Malaya but seems powerless to help it along the peaceful road to self-determination. His progress is backward and leads to a death occasioned by a shocking revelation about his first wife. He is not untypical of the decent, well-equipped, well-meaning Englishmen who took on posts in the tropics. His second wife is not untypical of the British memsahib, who considered herself superior to the “natives”. The other characters may sometimes seem implausible, but the reader may be assured that such characters existed during the period of my term in Malaya.

The action takes place in Malay sultanates with invented names. I think it is now safe to declare identities. Crabbe starts off in Kuala Hantu (“Ghost Estuary”) in the state of Lanchap; this is really Kuala Kangsar, the site of the famous Malay College, in the state of Perak. He moves to the east coast for the second book – to what is really Kota Baharu in Kelantan. In the final third of his story he is in an unnamed territory which may be identified with any part of the federation the reader wishes: it is a kind of Malaya in microcosm.

Fictitious or not, all the Malay states that abutted on the jungle were, during the period described, plagued by the activities of Chinese communist terrorists. These were young men and women, possessed of weapons left over from the war and animated by political ideals taken from Peking, who were determined to prevent Malaya’s emergence to parliamentary democracy and wished to see a communist state ruled by Chinese. The situation was called dzarurat – Arabic for “emergency” – but it was really a war. The Malay Regiment, which combined British and Malay troops, was dedicated to ridding the jungles and villages of the terrorists, and the armed police did its own share in burning out pockets of dissidence and violence. The police force is mentioned often in this book. It was a specially augmented organisation equipped for war as well as for the keeping of civil order and it had a large number of police lieutenants, most of whom had served in the Palestine Police. The states were divided into police zones — circles and contingents — and titles of authority abounded with impressive initials. The conduct of the war was in the hands of so-called war committees, usually headed by the Mentri Besar or Prime Minister, the executive assistant of the ruler of the state. The war was resolved not in the Vietnam manner, with napalm and deforestation, but through the declaration of amnesties, the provision of free passages to communist China, the protection of rural Malaya throughout the creation of “new villages” away from the jungle and the systematic freezing of supplies from the terrorists.

We have to understan
d the nature of the East, and also of Islam; we can no longer, since Vietnam, regard those far regions as material for mere fairy tales, like the popular but regrettable Sandokan. It was considered in America that, if my book had appeared earlier, it might have had some small effect on the attitude towards Orientals which, during the Vietnam adventure, vitiated any hope of American success. The Americans understood neither their friends nor their enemies. To many, the Far East hardly exists, except as material for televisual diversion. It is hoped that this novel, which has its own elements of diversion, may, through tears and laughter, educate.

Anthony Burgess

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