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January 16, 2014

Somerset Maugham's Malaysia: Sarawak and Sabah, Part 1/2

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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To motivate my touring of the island of Borneo with temperature in the 30s and humidity in the 90s - just the thought of it moisten my face with drops of sweat that run off my forehead and over my glasses - I read the 1869 two-volume classic by Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace; The Malay Archipelago, the Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise.

Comprising the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, the independent Sultanate of Brunei and the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, the island of Borneo is a treasure house of natural beauty.

Described by Wallace’s friend and colleague Charles Darwin as ‘one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature herself’.

Borneo is home to a rich profusion of flora and fauna, including some 600 bird species; a diversity of mammals including the Proboscis monkey, the Bornean Pygmy Elephant and my favorite; the Orangutan; and an immense variety of marine life, invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles.

Borneo is also blessed by Sabah’s Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, and the worlds largest cave in Sarawak’s Mulu National Park.

I started touring Borneo by visiting Kuching, Sarawak’s capital, Malaysia.

From my hotel room in Kuching, I enjoyed the sunset over the Serapi Mountain, imagining English novelist Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) as he wrote The Letter in a cool evening overlooking the Sarawak River.

Maugham is as much associated with Malay as Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936) is with the British Raj. But unlike Kipling, who was born in India and spent much of his life there, Maugham visited Malaya only twice; for six months in 1921 and a farther four in 1925-26. Yet out of that short acquaintance came his most enduring achievement – a group of short stories bringing Malay so vividly to life that people named it Maugham Country.

The Letter is a play written by Maugham based on a real-life scandal involving the wife of a British headmaster of a school in Kuala Lumpur who was convicted in a murder trial after shooting dead her lover in April 1911.

Eric Lawlor wrote about the history of the same scandal in his 1999 book Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya: “During the first half of the century the British ruled Malay with an unhealthy blend of devout suburban aspiration and gross insensitivity to the native population, something far from the love-hate relationship that characterized the European in India. Petty, hypocritical and generally terribly unhappy, the British – as described by Somerset Maugham – never counted Malaya as home and spent their time wishing they weren’t there.

Sarawak's capital city, Kuching, a charming city built on the banks of the Sarawak River. The waterfront area is a very popular meeting place with restaurants, food stalls and entertainment. Eating out is a must at street stalls, noodle shops with a choice of Malay, Cantonese, Indian, Japanese, seafood, and even pizza places.

Kuching (meaning cat) has a very large white kitschy Kitty statue as the city's mascot and has a Cat Museum featuring famous cats of the world.

Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest province is part of the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world. Two thirds of Borneo is Indonesia’s, and the northern third are divided between Malaysia and Brunei.

East Malaysia consists of the states of Sarawak and Sabah, and the Federal (Malaysian) Territory of Labuan, a small island and international offshore financial centre, off the coast of Sabah. East Malaysia lies to the east of Peninsular Malaysia (West Malaysia), which is located on the Malay Peninsula. The two are separated by the South China Sea.

While East Malaysia is less populated and less developed than West Malaysia, its land mass is larger and it has notably more natural resources, chiefly oil and gas reserves. The total area of East Malaysia is 61% of the total land area of Malaysia and 27% of the total area of Borneo.

East Malaysia contains the five highest mountains in Malaysia, the highest being Mount Kinabalu at 4095 m, which is also the highest mountain in Borneo and the 10th highest mountain peak in Southeast Asia. It also contains the two longest rivers in Malaysia – Rajang River and Kinabatangan River.

Sarawak contains the Mulu Caves within Gunung Mulu National Park. Its Sarawak Chamber is the largest known cave chamber in the world. The Gunung Mulu National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 2000. Sabah's attractions include World Heritage Site Kinabalu Park (which includes Mount Kinabalu), and Sipadan Island (a diving and bio-diversity hot-spot).

Sarawak has an interesting colonial history with a Canadian connection.

Sarawak was the seat of the 'white rajahs' - the Brookes. The reign, which lasted three generations, started in 1839 with British adventurer and trader James Brookes who quelled a local rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, and was rewarded with the title of the Rajah of Sarawak in 1842.

James Brooke never married and was succeeded by his nephew, Charles Brooke. In her 1996 book The White Rajahs of Sarawak, Australian historian Cassandra Pyrus explores the bizarre history of the Brooke family and the English dynasty they established.

“Charles Brooke married a Malay woman according to the customs of her people and had a son named Esca,” wrote Pyrus, “But Rajah Charles excluded his first wife and child – born in 1867 - when he later married a rich English woman in 1869. The boy Esca was sent far away – to what was then a barely settled part of Canada.”

In 1890 Esca Brooke Daykin enters Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. His father Rajah Charles was recognized by King Edward in 1901 as the ruler of the independent state of Sarawak. In 1914 Esca Brooke Daykin moves to Toronto and makes a public appeal in 1927 for the recognition as the first son of Rajah Charles. But he died in Toronto in 1953.

Maugham’s portrait of Malay’s colonials is less than flattering. The planters and officials in his stories are dull and mediocre. ‘eaten up with envy of one another and devoured by spite’. Their wives are even worse: ‘The women, poor things, were obsessed by petty rivalries. They made a circle that was more provincial than any in the smallest town in England … They were sheep.’

Britain, in the shape of the East India Company, acquired Penang in 1786, Malacca in 1795, and Singapore in 1819. Seven years later, the three territories were amalgamated for administrative purposes. Called the Straits Settlements, it was ruled from India until 1867 when they became a crown colony.

Britain made protectorates of four territories; Perak, Selangor, Sungei Ujong (part of Negri Sembilang) and Pahang that became the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1896. It extended its rule again to embrace the four northern states of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah and Perlis, long controlled by Siam. When the lone hold-out – Johore – submitted to British rule in 1914, Britain fully controlled the Malay peninsula.

Both Sarawak and Sabah became British protectorates, and in 1946 both became separate British colonies.

The British employed a formula known as indirect rule, recruiting pliant elites – in this case the sultans – who became, in effect, the front-men for colonial rule. Each state had a Resident – a senior civil servant – who was said to ‘advice’ the sultan. The sultans had a choice: they would do as they were told or be replaced by someone who would. When in 1875, Malays assassinated the first Resident of Perak, the British mounted a punitive expedition that left scores of people dead.

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