Just like its weather (a choice of rainy, or slightly less rainy), there are no “peak” travel periods for Kuala Lumpur, affectionately called ‘KL’. No, KL travel periods are peak and slightly less peak, with the difference too slight to bother mentioning. All the more so, in its busiest centres around the Twin Towers, and in downtown KL.

In the past, you could say that there is an off-peak time for visiting KL. This would be during major festivals, as the city’s denizens poured out to their hometowns all over Malaysia. But as the post-independence generations continued, the city folk’s hometowns are increasingly KL’s own suburbs. If anything, it’s even busier then. People go visiting and sightseeing, adding to the work commutes that continue to carry on.

Then, Covid19 happened.

In the brief lull when the chain of transmission broke in 2020, Malaysians were allowed to move about again, but only within our districts. Since most people only worked in the heart of KL but did not live there, the city centre was absent its usual heave of people. For a moment in time, KL was on a prolonged “off peak” period. And I found myself with the rare opportunity to venture through an “off peak” downtown KL.

The murals of Yap Ah Loy

I found myself at the series of murals, having been lured off Leboh Pasar Besar by the colourful street art. Think City, an urban regeneration consultancy established by Malaysia’s sovereign wealth investment body Khazanah Nasional, had been working in the downtown KL area to uplift the old alleys and laneways. I wandered through some of them, walls and pavement now in cheery colours and mural artwork, strategic benches and artful seating to encourage residents to linger as a community.

Off Jalan Yap Ah Loy, I turned into an alley and found the cartoon mural series that told the biography of the man the street was named after.

I reflected on his biography, noting that Yap Ah Loy led the rebuilding of KL at least twice, even taking on debt to have the city rise out of fire and flood like a phoenix. I thought that perhaps Selangor’s third British Resident Frank Swettenham, who only came in the 1880s, really could not have done the city-building he did without Yap Ah Loy’s ability to deliver local support.

How old was Frank Swettenham as British Resident of Selangor?

The thought got me to look up Swettenham, particularly since the murals had just told me how young Ah Loy was when he first came to Malaya. He was but 17. It put in my head to wonder how old Swettenham was, when he was assigned by the British to the Sultan of Selangor to advise the latter on how to govern a state.

I think most Malaysians tend to assume from our history syllabus, that the British Residents were about the same age. If we had to guess, we’d probably guess late 30s to early 40s. After all, these were officers who should – one would suppose – have the experience with which to advise a king. They were figures of authority, and had outsized influence in their Malay states.

To my surprise, Swettenham was but 32 when he became Resident Advisor of Selangor. He was only 25 when he became Resident for Perak.

The three most well-known British Residents in Malaya

I went down a rabbit hole that day, while still in downtown KL.

Discovering that the esteemed historical figure of Swettenham was not much more than a kid when he was first made Resident got me wondering about the other well-known Residents in our history books. Most particularly, Hugh Low who served in Perak, and Hugh Clifford in Pahang. It can’t have just been me, who assumed a sameness to the British Residents.

But today, as a grown person who has travelled abroad, studied in Britain, well-read in their literature and even married one for a time, I am more aware of the nuances of British history of that time, particularly the class struggle that dominated. So, in looking up the profiles of these three historical figures, I was struck by how their class did seem to influence the way they performed their role.

Frank Swettenham, the corporate high-flyer type?

My years in corporate life caused me to smirk at Frank Swettenham’s biography. The son of an attorney, with a brother already in colonial administration, I wondered whether nepotism played a part in getting him a role as high as deputy to the Perak Resident as his very first assignment following training in the colonial civil service. By 24, he was already part of the ‘Pacification of Larut’, the violent reprisal to the murder of the Resident by native nobility who revolted against the Sultan’s decision to take a British Resident Advisor. He then succeeded the murdered Resident*.

After spending time as Resident of Perak (twice) and Selangor (actually only for about 2 years), he put forward the consolidation of the Residency arrangements for both states, plus Negeri Sembilan and Pahang into a federation. This created the Federated Malay States, uniting four previously separate countries. It also simultaneously reduced their sovereignty below the sovereignty of their Advisors’ country of origin. Of course, the Resident-General for this new and more influential administrative department, was himself.

He then managed to get Siam to give over the northern Malay states, then under Siam’s tributary influence. These states remained unfederated though, for Swettenham was then ‘promoted’ to be the Governor of the Straits Settlements.

I couldn’t help but see in him not a traditional emissary or diplomat, but the corporate ‘high flyer’ type. The management favourite, who climbs the hierarchy through a combination of real work, ‘cost saving measures’, mergers & acquisitions. (If you know, you know.) He was fairly competent, and learned enough about the ‘department’ (i.e., native culture) he managed. A careerist, though not without sentiment.

And I’ve known exactly such individuals, in my time working for a Western multinational company.

Victoria Fountain in downtown KL
Victoria Fountain

Hugh Low, the underrated one who did the actual heavy lifting

I developed my current appreciation for Hugh Low at this time. Unlike Swettenham, he was but the son of a horticulturalist. At 20, his dad sent him to collect plants in Southeast Asia, and… he didn’t come back! A gardener’s son doesn’t start as deputy Resident, of course. He starts his colonial career as the secretary for James Brooke** when the latter was appointed Governor of Labuan. By the time he was asked to be the Resident of Perak, he was already a mature 53, having acquired administrative experience in Labuan as Police Magistrate and Acting Governor.

If you ask me, the management types in Singapore only asked him because the better-born candidates didn’t want a position whose previous and only holder was murdered by the natives. So they gave it to someone who technically came from the working class.

It turned out well for Perak, though. For Low was fluent in Malay and learned Chinese, and was patient with the conflict stakeholders. In fact, not only did he turn Perak into a stable and prosperous state, he even managed to abolish Malay debt slavery. He did it so skilfully, that Malays today mostly forgot we ever practiced it. And he did all this while taking off into the jungle whenever he could, exploring geological formations and classifying plants. Some of those bear his name today.

Basically, he accomplished everything his predecessor Birch had boasted to do. But he succeeded because he approached it as part of the various communities. Not as a ‘social justice warrior’.

Had he been an aristocrat, volumes would be written to document his technique, later replicated in the other Malay states. We could all learn from his cultural diplomacy. Unfortunately, he was not part of the colonial country club set of Malaya.

Hugh Clifford, the ‘I’m not like other expats’

If Hugh Low came from a family of gardeners, Hugh Clifford was the (6th) son of a knight and grandson of a Baron. He represented the British in the Pahang court while still in his early 20s. Though to be fair, unlike Swettenham who received his training in Singapore, Clifford basically integrated into Pahang native society since he was 17. He eventually became Resident of Pahang at age 30.

His predecessor was the first Resident, and nothing whatsoever remarkable was remembered of him by people today, other than the Sultan hated being forced into protectorate status and left his son to rule, as he couldn’t stand having to be in proximity with the British Resident. So Rodger was probably that kind of expat who can spend years in a place and still know nothing whatsoever local.

So how did Clifford’s noble lineage influence him? From his writings in In Court and Kampong, he repeatedly implied an immediate recognition that the Malay society he encountered was identical to the European – but in the feudal Middle Ages. So he didn’t so much think of the culture as inferior, just delayed. He even seemed nostalgic for it, seeing in it an excitement that was lost in Europe, though he could not fault exchanging that for the peace of stability.

I’ll write more about Clifford when I get around to writing my Pahang road trip series.

Worldview makes a difference

The way Malaysians learn history predisposes us to think of the British Residents as a category, not as individuals. Yet the most remembered ones were quite individual in the way they governed.

Swettenham struck me as more of a career executive type. Managing the corporate machine, rather than administering a nation. He did oppose the Malayan Union, though, which would have completely erased all native sovereignty and severely erode native cultural representation. He thought it was a step too far. So perhaps the man did have an awareness of the difference.

Clifford and Low, on the other hand, tried to govern the state directly. Their careers couldn’t be described in corporate lingo without losing context. Clifford seemed to govern as though he were a feudal lord amongst other feudal lords, taking the time to deeply understand the people he was given to rule. Low instead seemed to be a troubleshooter, a problem solver, trying to keep the industries going, ‘getting down on the shop floor’ to talk to the workers and foremen and local leaders.

The ways that they are the same, brought British rule over Malaya. Just as it did for countless other colonies in the Empire. But the ways that they were their own persons, and more than just a Resident, was why it brought benefit to their states – and perhaps also in spite of Empire.

Swettenham’s mixed legacy

The dress code: Is it dignity, or classism?

Class distinctions were still on my mind when I came upon the KL Library. The most prominent library in the downtown KL area, the vibe was surprisingly not very welcoming. Upon entering, you’re accosted by security guards several times. Leave hats at the entrance. Do not bring water inside, not even empty water bottles. No skintight pants. No this, no that.

None of these rules appear in any signage, mind you. You just learn them as you run the gauntlet of security guards and are told of all the ways you have sinned.

Once you run the protocol gauntlet though, you’re left alone. The book selection was decent, and there were iMac equipped workstations and self-checkout kiosks. You could even borrow movie DVDs. There might have been a cafe on the first floor, in non-Covid19 times.

But I thought, the kids skateboarding in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building wouldn’t be able to just pop in after their exercise. Their board shorts wouldn’t qualify. This isn’t a library you can just stroll in casually, like you’re in your own friendly neighbourhood. And indeed, the people inside using the facilities seemed to be mostly university students.

Outside, I saw a Chinese family in casual day wear decide against coming in. I thought of the Sabah girl in her Kadazan dress taking patriotic-themed pictures nearby. Her sleeveless traditional dress wouldn’t pass muster either.

You could make a point about setting a standard of dignity, by having a dress code. But if it excludes entire segments of the population, surely something is broken.

Sometimes, I think we seem in danger of returning to feudalism. But we disguise it as culture and religion.

KL Library in Merdeka Square

Chinese in downtown KL

I walked back to the hotel, weaving my way through the streets of Chinatown. The night was still early, but the streets were empty. It would be another couple of years until the traffic of downtown KL fully revived.

A young couple zipped past on a single Beam e-scooter. I thought I recognised them from earlier in the day, taking wedding photos in Merdeka Square. The girl was still wearing the same maroon kebaya. Elsewhere, a cyclist couple wended through the carless roads on a tandem bike.

Away from the main streets, the burden of the pandemic was more palpable. I passed by homeless old Chinese men, asleep in a row on the five-foot way. And a cluster of elderly, crouched, waiting in front of a coin laundry.

The Chinese are stereotyped as being the wealthy race. The Chinese community*** in Penang and Melaka remained wealthy even after those trading ports were lost to the native kings. Many of the latecomers also became wealthy from mining. But though Chinese are some of the wealthiest in Malaysia, that doesn’t mean that they all are. And though they’re seen as latecomers in older parts of the country, they were part of the founding of Kuala Lumpur, which was multi-cultural from the beginning.

Mass immigration: between agency and assimilation

This KL worldview was taken as the identity of Malaysia. Our founding fathers thought it had to be, to hold together a new country suddenly more multi-ethnic than we knew in all our past history, with the exception of Melaka.

Today, the heartland states increasingly resent this eclipsing of their monocultures. But urban migration from the heartland to the Klang Valley is also beginning to challenge KL’s culture of preferring a diverse metropolitan population.

In both phenomena is the question, to what extent does the newcomer get to change the values and ways of life in the places they migrate to, to make it the same as what they had left behind. And to what extent should the migrants be expected to assimilate, even though they come in numbers. 


*I remark with some degree of cynicism that the British picked a guy in his 20s to advise a king. However, to be fair, despite his youth Swettenham had miles more social intelligence than Birch, who was 48 when he became Resident of Perak. Despite having been in Asia for much of his adult life, it seemed Birch never bothered to learn any local languages wherever he served, and disdained local cultures. Both of them were in Perak when the murder plot went down. If you ask me, based on his account in Malay Sketches, social intelligence was why Swettenham survived.

**At the time, Brooke had already found himself a King of Sarawak through helping the Sultan of Brunei put down insurgency. Sarawak, then a vassal of Brunei, was given to him as reward. Labuan is an island off of the north coast of Sarawak.

***The colonial era immigration from China consisted of poor labourers, rather than the merchants and diplomats of antiquity. And the reason, of course, was because back then they migrated from one sovereign state to another. But in colonial times, the immigrants were fleeing a failing state being carved up between colonial powers, to similarly unsovereign states. Ethnic divisions arising from this phenomenon are still sources of conflict today.

Recommended reading

Sir Frank Athelestane Swettenham. Malay Sketches. Silverfish Malaysian Classics Series. 2016 (reprint; original published in 1895).

That pre-colonial Malaya was a feudal civilisation is a fact that Malaysians don’t fully grasp in associating it with the dignity of when our kingdoms were last independent (at least from forces from outside Asia). Except for Penang and Melaka, this was not much longer than 100 years ago. By contrast, Europe had left theirs for at least a couple hundred years. And China had united under an imperial system for longer than that.
Indeed, the most emotionally resonant parts of Malay culture had its genesis in this era that seems almost out of time. But I am also aware that common features of feudalism across cultures include serfdom of the peasantry, and a precarious life and death situation due to the whims of your local lords, or their warring with other lords. So I’m more charitable than the publisher’s notes on this book. I think the writer was actually sincere rather than writing to justify British imperialism.
While there certainly are Orientalist writers who describe Eastern cultures as inferior, Swettenham – like Clifford – recognised in Malaya the patterns of their own past. If they insinuated any inferiority, it’s less in comparison to Europe, and more in the same respect as their medieval culture being inferior to their contemporary culture.
I give him this benefit of the doubt. Adjusting for inevitable judgments due to having come from another culture, and noting that the most bizarre experiences are remembered the longest, his sketches offer a useful glimpse of Malay society of not too long ago. And therefore an appreciation for how much change the people have had to absorb in such a short time.
Perhaps, it would cause us to go easy on ourselves more.

Mohamad Rashidi Pakri. The Fiction of Colonial Malaya. 2014.

This seminal study on colonial-era literature related to Malaya is a handy companion to the book above. The writer, a Malaysian academic specialising in colonial history and literature, discusses the fictional literature written by several colonial officers to Malaya, including the Residents Swettenham and Clifford. (Apparently, aside from writing memoirs and “travelogues”, they also dabbled in creative fiction.)
I am by no means well-read in colonial literature. In part this is due to the prevalence of insufferable themes of colonial superiority, which must have been very flattering to its intended audience, but not so much to the ‘native’ in the stories. Those written by the Europeans who actually really did know us (and therefore even if some depictions are unflattering, they are at least true in the way that your neighbour generally knows your least flattering habits), are a distinct minority in the genre. One can only tolerate so much vanity.
I won’t pre-empt a thorough reading of Rashidi’s work, which is worthwhile to illuminate the clash of ideas that were taking place during the time that the authors lived, but my insights are that firstly, the selected authors were not completely like their peers whose worldview of ‘the East’ extended no further than imperialist tropes. And secondly, even among these, the difference between their fiction works and their ‘travelogues’ is basically the colonial era prose version of ‘Instagram vs reality’.

2 Responses

  1. This is a very powerful and personal article that reflects on the scars of colonialism and racism in Malaysia. You have written with honesty and courage, and I admire your ability to see beyond the surface and question the narratives that shape our identities. You have also captured the beauty and diversity of downtown KL, and how it reflects the complexity and richness of Malaysian culture. I have learned a lot from your perspective, and I hope you continue to share your stories and insights with the world. Thank you for this inspiring and eye-opening article.

    • Teja says:

      I guess it comes (or should come) with maturity. I think that most historians and even literature reviewers like Rashidi, have a tendency to assume that the information that happens to be in the document, is enough context. But documents are produced by people, and the lives of those people is also context. That’s what gives culture and people their complexity, particularly if there is a high diversity.

      For example, you’ll find a theme that Rashidi notes in Swettenham’s stories, where he exalts romantic attachment of mutual love, and contrasts it with the ‘primitive’ traditional marriages which were more society-determined in his time, in Malaya. From his writings alone, you might be forgiven for assuming that he is objectively comparing between Malayan relationship norms vs European post-enlightenment romance, belonging to the latter. But if you knew that his own marriage was to a 19-year-old he returned to England briefly to wed, and then spent the next 60 years of unhappy marriage trying to get rid of her (because divorce wasn’t legal until later in his life), you might start to wonder if there’s a bit of projection in his writings, that perhaps he was actually in a societally determined marriage himself, only that because of the dogma of imperialism that he lived in, he was not able to criticise his European culture publicly and thus projected it onto another culture which had the same problem. Wouldn’t you say that a literature criticism of his works could not be properly undertaken without knowing this context? Knowing this can change a Malaysian reader’s sentiment from feeling inferior for a perceived inadequacy of cultural structure to acknowledge romantic love, to sympathy with someone from another culture who personally understood what it was to have similar cultural barriers keeping them in an unhappy marriage. Perhaps, even pity, because that person was not even able to articulate the criticism for their own culture, and had to project it.

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