Malay for colonials

September 24, 2011

malay grammar inside cover by Brian Spittle

A nice illustration of Changi POW humour on the inside cover of Maxwell’s Manual of the Malay Language, one of the Malay primers my father brought back from Singapore. Books were widely circulated in the camp and in this case it’s clear that at least three others had taken a crack at Maxwell — there’s another name on the facing page — before passing him on.

As I surmised in the previous post, the intended readership of these language primers would have been the British colonial elite. But I’ve only just pieced together how important this must have been in Maxwell’s case. As indicated on the title page, he had been both a barrister in London and Assistant Resident in Perak, northern Malaya. Reading this I couldn’t help forming the stereotypical image of a Victorian gentleman-scholar somehow transplanted as colonial administrator. And for all I know that may have been the case. But there’s a little more to it than that. Perak was a pretty volatile place in the early 1880s when Maxwell took up his post. The previous Resident had been assassinated only a few years previously, his local unpopularity magnified by a spectacular disinterest in learning Malay. Pointedly, the resident who replaced him was fluent in Malay, as was Maxwell clearly. Presumably he represented a new breed of administrator.  If so, his book was not simply the work of an amateur linguist but part of a concerted strategy to instill the administrative class with at least a basic knowledge of Malay.

All the same, expressions such as “Bring me my hat and riding whip” and “Are you deaf? Can’t you hear what I’m saying to you?” would seem to indicate that this more enlightened approach to colonial relations still had its limits.