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The Resident System

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In 1873, Rajah Abdullah of Perak invited the new Governor of the Straits Settlements, Andrew Clarke, to appoint a Resident (colonial officer) to Perak, in exchange for recognizing Abdullah as the Sultan of Perak instead of his rival. This held some appeal for the British, whose involvement in Malay affairs had hitherto been unofficial, so on January 20, 1874, the two men signed the Pangkor. The idea was that the Resident – each state would have its own – would play an advisory role in Malay affairs in return for taking a sympathetic attitude to Malay customs and rituals.

The interpretation of the newly created post was in the hands of Hugh Low, whose jurisdiction of Perak (1877–89) was based in Kuala Kangsar. The personable Low lived modestly by British standards and his linguistic skills won him favour with local chiefs. Having spent nearly thirty years in Borneo, Low was great friends with Charles and James Brooke, and sought to emulate their relatively benign system of government.

The approval of the Malay nobility, vital to the success of the Residency scheme, was secured by compensating them for the income lost from taxes and property. This suited the sultans; they obtained financial security through healthy stipends, and also got political protection from rivals. As time went on, lesser figures were given positions within the bureaucracy, thus weaving the Malays into the fabric of the administration, of which the cornerstone was the State Council. Although the sultan was its ceremonial head, the Resident chose the constituent members and set the political agenda, in consultation with his deputies – the district officers – and the governor.

It is doubtful that the Malays understood the treaty’s long-term consequences, as initially the decision-making process was collective, much like the Malays’ own courts. As the power of central government increased, however, fewer meetings of the council were held, and the British involvement became less advisory and more reformatory. Sultan Abdullah, bent on acquiring local power and status, thereby inadvertently allowed the British a foot in the door, which ultimately led to their full political intervention in the Peninsula.

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