Launching of a Biography of Frank Swettenham by Henry Barlow, at Carcosa, Kuala Lumpur, 22 August 1995
It is somewhat ironical for me to be here today to launch a book largely in honour of a man closely linked with British imperialism. One may well ask why would a biography of Frank Swettenham be of interest to me, one who has been closely associated with the nationalist movement.
Fate had me born rather late that I missed the opportunity to participate in the great process of decolonization. Nonetheless our freedom fighters did leave something for me to accomplish, albeit a symbolic one. For the life of me, I wouldn't have chosen Carcosa to launch this book. If nothing else this building was a seat of colonial administration and had remained in the hands of the British long after colonialism had come to pass. Because of my association with UMNO Youth, I took it upon myself to bring it back to the country.
That I am here is largely on account of Mr. Henry Barlow, who is a very good friend mine and we have been friends for a very long time. I value this association even more so as it was forged at a time when I and my friends were branded as rebel rousers and anti-establishment. When I and a group of friends graduated from the University of Malaya we declined cozy jobs from the Government and chose instead to start a private school to cater to the needs of "dropout" students. When we needed a good English teacher, Henry came to our rescue.
Henry was an Orang Puteh planter in every sense of the world, managing the Barlow plantation from dawn to dusk. The only time he could teach was during his lunch break. So as principal of Yayasan Anda, I scheduled his classes between 12.45 and 1.30 in the afternoon and Henry would drive down from his beautiful estate at the foot of Genting Highlands to teach his English class with all the vigour and passion of a new-found love, and very much to the awe and suspicion of others. The colonial administrators, Swettenham I think one of them, always viewed the tropical weather, its heat and humidity, as some form of punishment, and regarded it as the prime cause of the laziness of the natives. But Henry never lost his energy and the so-called "lazy" natives have since multiplied in productivity, tropical weather notwithstanding.
Now, with regard to Swettenham, whatever maybe one's opinion of him, he is undoubtedly an important figure our of colonial history, having played a major role in the history of British intervention in the Malay Peninsula in the last quarter of the 19th century. As Henry put it "there can have been few colonial administrators who impressed their mould so forcibly on a single territory. Fewer still lived long enough subsequently to vindicate their role by imposing, as successfully as Swettenham did, for half a century their own interpretation of events in which they played such a major role."
Speaking for myself, it is Swettenham as a writer that interests me the most. I am glad Henry has devoted a chapter evaluating Swettenham as historian and Henry was not uncritical of his subject. Swettenham did not mince words in describing his aims for writing a book titled The Real Malay, a book I had read during my detention days at Kemunting. This quote appeared in Henry's book:
"I can speak with more authority than anyone else on that subject and it would appeal to the imperial spirit which is now awake both in England and America. I should call it "The White Man's Burden" (or the Englishman's Burden) in Malaya."
"The Englishman's Burden in Malaya" is what Henry described as the Swettenham doctrine. The first attack on the doctrine began in the 1930s with the publication of Rupert Emerson's Malaysia: A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule. Henry's book carries a few paragraphs of Swettenham's review of the work.
Finally, I would say this is the most exhaustive study yet on one of the most important administrators of the colonial era. And may I add that it is rather embarassing for our own historians that a seminal contribution to our understanding of Malaysian history has come from an individual who is neither a professional writer nor a historian. We are indebted to Henry Barlow for his painstaking efforts and we congratulate him on his success.