The Malayan Trilogy

The Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess may be best known for A Clockwork Orange. But anyone with an interest in Southeast Asia should read The Malayan Trilogy.

Like all good novels, this big book about the early years of Malaysia is both timeless and of its time.

Set in the 1950s, it has its King-and-I moments. Take this episode, for example. When Wigmore, a British planter, is killed by the communist guerrillas, it is discovered he has left 20,000 dollars to the state for “the improvement of the lot of the people”.

But the money is not going to the people, Victor Crabbe, a British education officer, learns from his Malay colleague.

“The Sultan wants a Cadillac,” explains Nik Hassan.

“But damn it, he can’t do that,” protests Crabbe, the protagonist of the novel. “The terms of the will are clear, aren’t they? It says something about the good of the State, doesn’t it?”

Nik retorts: “They say the highest good is the Sultan’s good.”

“Who say that?” asks Crabbe.

“The Sultan and the Raja Perempuan and the Tungku Mahkota and the Mentri Besar,” replies Nik, naming the highest officials of the state.

Incredible, huh?

But the relationship between the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians described in the book could be right off current newspapers.


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.