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In Rubber Lands
An Account of the Work of the Church in Malaya

Edited by C.E. Ferguson-Davie, M.D., B.S.

London: The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1921.

Chapter I. Malaya--The Country, Its History, and People

NOWHERE in the world can more beautiful scenery of a tropical character be found than in the country of Malaya. The Peninsula, which is roughly 500 miles long and 200 miles broad at its widest part, is divided lengthwise by a chain of mountains into a narrow western area on the one hand, where are most of the centres of industry and population, and where the thick natural jungle has in many places been cleared to make room for cultivation or plantation; and on the other hand the much less known and more sparsely populated region of Pahang on the east.

Besides the beauties of mountain and coast, and of numerous tree clothed islands dotted over a tropical sea of brilliant blue, the country is remarkable also for its magnificent rivers, long and broad, but usually too shallow for the passage of vessels of any great size. This characteristic, as well as the bars, which on the east coast are heaped up at their mouth by the violence of the north-east monsoon, greatly diminishes their value as means of traffic. The most important of these rivers are the Perak River, flowing southwest for 150 miles and navigable by shallow-draft boats for about fifty miles; the Kelantan River flowing north and the Pahang River flowing east, both these latter being similarly navigable by flat-bottomed boats for about half their length.

Thick forest covering the. hills; groves of coconuts bordering the sea, with Malay huts nestling beneath them; stretches of padi (rice) land in the plains; gardens of tapioca or sireh vine; orchards of plantain, mangosteen, rambutan or durian; rubber plantations or tin mines--such are a few of the scenes which meet the eye in passing through this rich and beautiful country.

In order to understand properly the peoples of Malaya, its mixture of races and the characteristics of its indigenous inhabitants, a study of its position on the map is of the first importance. Situated at the south-east corner of Asia, Singapore is the point round which all ships must turn on their way from Europe to China or Japan. Lying between India and Ceylon on the west, and China and Japan on the east, it is not surprising that we find in Malaya representatives of the inhabitants of all these countries, the most numerous being the Chinese from South China and the Tamils from South India. It is this cosmopolitan character, with its necessary adjunct of numerous vernaculars, which (as will be fully explained later on) makes missionary work in the Malay Peninsula of quite extraordinary difficulty.

Noticing again that Singapore lies only ninety miles north of the equator, it is natural that the Malay Peninsula should have a tropical climate, that tropical growth of palm and jungle should be its outstanding physical feature, and that the Malays should lack the enterprise and energy which are the product of cold or temperate climes.

The climate of the Malay Peninsula is extraordinarily equable, with very little seasonal variation and no extremes of temperature. Moist heat is its general characteristic, the shade temperature varying from about 74 to 94 degrees, with a mean temperature of 80 or 85 degrees. The average yearly rainful of the lowlands is 90 to 100 inches, fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, but in hilly districts this may be far exceeded, the fall being sometimes torrential--a truly tropical downpour.

The densely wooded hills abound in animal life. The seladang (or bison) is the acknowledged king of the Malayan jungle and a great prize to the big game hunter; but elephant, tiger, tapir, panther, rhinoceros, and crocodile are to be found, as well as wild pig and some varieties of deer. Of birds the beautiful argus pheasant is the most notable; and snipe, teal, and pigeon attract those in search of sport.

From the point of view of government, the country is divided into three parts--the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States, and the Non-federated States. The Straits Settlements comprise Singapore, an island situated at the extreme south, of the Peninsula, and containing1 the capital city and port of the same name; Malacca, a district and town on the western coast some 100 miles north of Singapore; and Penang, or Prince of Wales' Island, an island and town at the north-west of the Peninsula. Two strips of territory on the mainland are also included-- Province Wellesley, opposite Penang, which was originally annexed to protect that port from the depredations of the Malay pirates who infested the rivers and were ever on the look-out for trading vessels entering or leaving the harbour; and the Bindings further down the coast, a district which may come into greater prominence in the future if its harbour facilities are developed and made use of.

The Straits Settlements (S.S.) form a Crown Colony under the Colonial Office, and are administered by a Governor (who is also the High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States), assisted by an Executive and a Legislative Council. Their joint population is now about 1,000,000, and comprises Europeans, Eurasians, Chinese, Malays, and Indians, besides a sprinkling of other races. Except amongst the Eurasians and Malays, there is a large preponderance of males over females in each race.

The Federated Malay States (F.M.S.) are four in number--Perak, Selangor, Pahang, and Negri Sembilan; of these Pahang, though the largest in extent, occupying as it does most of the centre and east of the Peninsula, is at present the least developed. These States came under British protection at different dates, the most important of which is that of the Treaty of Pangkor in 1874. The federation was completed in 1896.

General control is exercised by the High Commissioner and the Federal Council, and a British Resident is attached to each State. Each State has, however, its own Malay Sultan, on whose State Council the Resident has a seat, and a number of English officials assist in the administration.

It is important to note that though the Treaty of Pangkor promises to the Malays the control of all matters connected with the Mohammedan religion, there is nothing in its provisions to restrict the work of missionary effort in the country.

The Non-federated States which make up the rest of the Peninsula are less closely attached to British rule, though each has a British Adviser to assist in the management of the State; they are Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu, and the small State of Perlis. Johore has always been an independent kingdom, but the other States have only of recent years (1909) been taken over by Britain from the suzerainty of Siam.

Though now somewhat thrown into the background by the more virile immigrant races, the Malays, as the natives of the country, are the people who first claim our notice. There is considerable doubt as to the source and original home of the Malays; a question on which their language, which is distinct from the Indo-European and Mongolian families, throws little light. Whatever their place of origin may have been, in the earliest historical times they inhabited the highlands of Sumatra, and from thence spread to the adjoining countries. They were not (so much we know) the original inhabitants of the Peninsula, but gradually supplanted the aboriginal tribes, remnants of which still remain as the Sakai, Semang, and other Negrite tribes of the interior. "These aborigines who lurk in the recesses of the forests, or on the thickly wooded mountain sides, can tell us nothing of the early days of the Peninsula." The Sakai are a shy harmless race, comparatively few in numbers, wearing little clothing, and killing their prey by means of arrows shot from long blow-pipes. They are found mostly in the more remote districts of Pahang, and come little into contact with civilization, only a few Europeans having succeeded in gaining any acquaintance with their language. "Unlike India, Ceylon, Burma, Siam, or Java, the Malay Peninsula has no ancient monuments, no archaeological remains of any value, no records of its early history." In the stories Of the first Malay princes it is difficult to disentangle history from legend, but it seems probable that somewhere about the middle of the fourteenth century a great war of conquest was carried on by the powerful Javanese empire of Majapahit, which resulted in the settlement of the Malays in Malacca. The religion of the Malays, from the time of the conversion of the first king of Malacca, has been Mohammedanism. Early in the fourteenth century Arab traders had brought their religion to Sumatra, from whence it spread to Java and to the Malay Peninsula, the method of propaganda being through the intercourse with Arab and Indian traders who settled amongst the people and intermarried with them. Only in the Island of Bali to the east of Java are still to be found a few thousand heathen whose religion is reminiscent of the previous Hindu period, while in Sumatra large numbers of the Batak tribes have clung to their primitive animistic beliefs, until the coming of Christian Missions has in the last few years pointed them to a more uplifting faith. During the periods of Portuguese and Dutch ascendancy the Mohammedan Sultans of the Malay States preserved their complete independence, and though towards the end of the nineteenth century British influence became supreme, the religion of the people remains free from Government interference. Malayan conquest has not stopped short at the Malay Peninsula; a seafaring folk, and long dreaded as intrepid and dangerous pirates, the Malays have spread to Borneo and the islands of the Malay Archipelago, and even so far afield as Ceylon and South Africa colonies of them are to be found. Their numbers in the Straits Settlements and Federated States, as given in the census of 1911, amount to 633,828, while in the Non-federated States, though no exact figures are obtainable, they probably number about 800,000. That they are not a dying race is proved by the increase of 27 per cent, since the previous census, while in Perak, which has the largest population of Malays, their number has practically doubled in the last twenty years. The characteristics of the Malays are such as we should expect to find in the dwellers of "a land where it is always afternoon," and an August afternoon at that. Polite, friendly, and easy going, they are very attractive to the casual traveller, but their best qualities are superficial. One such traveller describes them as follows:--"They are slow and circumlocutory of speech (indeed, they make of conversation a fine art), courteous and dignified, seldom quarrelsome, but jealous of any encroachment on personal freedom, domestic, and fond of children; they take life easily and seem to be free from care." For energy and industry I hey have little need, as a bounteous nature provides at their doors nearly all that is requisite for the maintenance of life. It is said that a Malay can find within the area of half a square mile all that he requires to build his house--wood for the posts and piles (on which it is raised above the ground); bamboo, which is split to form the floor and walls; rattan or cane to bind these together; and palm leaf to form the attap or thatch for the roof. A strip of padi (rice) land, a few coconut and plantain trees--these, with the fish which teem in sea and river, suffice for his simple needs. For two or three months while the rice is being transplanted, irrigated, and harvested there is indeed plenty of work to be done, the larger part of this falling to the share of the women; but for the rest of the year there is little but fishing that calls for activity, and where fish abound in every stream and pool, plenty of leisure is left for smoking and gossiping in the village meeting place.

Their dress, like their houses, is simple, consisting for the men of loose trousers, a loose jacket, the sarong or skirt, a coloured kerchief deftly twisted into a head-dress, and, in full dress, a kris or dagger stuck into the belt. The women wear the sarong without the trousers, and sometimes use a second one to cover the head or to conceal the face when walking out of doors. This sarong, the characteristic article of Malay dress, consists of a strip of coloured material, usually cotton, two yards long and one wide, which is sewn up into a skirt, drawn round the waist, and twisted in with the fulness in front. Even the cheapest are of good colour and pattern, with a panel design at the back; while those used for festivals or state occasions are often extremely beautiful, some being dyed by an elaborate process peculiar to Java; others, woven on the looms of Trengganu, Kelantan, or Pahang, are of richest silk sometimes interwoven with gold thread. Very few Malays can be engaged as household servants; they prefer an outdoor life and will work in the police, as peons or messengers, as gardeners, or in the thoroughly aristocratic occupation of a chauffeur, while in anything connected with boats they are completely at home. Formerly clever hunters and trackers of game, they now engage little in such occupations. "The older generation of Malays is passing away and the younger men are not as their fathers, where hunting and woodcraft are concerned."

In education they are backward, though by vernacular schools the Government do all in their power to advance it. Of the girls a small proportion can read or write. Until their conversion to the Mohammedan religion the Malays had no script; with the religion they adopted the Arabic character, which by a few modifications has been adapted to express the sounds of the Malay language.

Of special importance for our present consideration is a study of the religious beliefs of the Malays. "For close on a hundred years the Straits Settlements have belonged to the British Crown, and yet not even the first beginnings of a Christian Church have been gathered in from amongst the native inhabitants of that land. Why, one wonders, while China and Japan have been the objects of constant interest and activity, has this portion of our own empire remained (so far as its indigenous people are concerned) to so large an extent outside the purview of all missionary agencies?" Several reasons may be suggested:--

1. The official and the traveller have, as a rule, little sympathy with efforts to Christianize the Moslem. "Many Europeans who know Islam only from the outside are impressed by Mohammedan piety, the superficiality of which they do not gauge at all. They idealize this mysterious religion which they know only from a distance," while the evils of Islam are, on the other hand, felt more and more by those who come into intimate contact with it.

2. The difficulties of reaching Mohammedans are strongly felt by all missionary workers, and it is, therefore, not unnatural that, when these workers are so lamentably few, they should turn to the more promising fields amongst the Chinese or Tamils, where an existing Christian community gives a nucleus to work on, and should leave on one side the claims of the Mohammedans.

3. The Malays themselves, from their racial characteristics, no less than from their religious beliefs, seem a peculiarly difficult people to deal with. The spirit that can leave all to follow Christ, or that is willing to suffer hardship for His sake, is so alien to the naturally indolent and easy-going temper of the Malay, that only the miracle working Spirit of God can produce the change.

The special characteristics of Mohammedanism as if appears in Malaya have been fully discussed in a pamphlet called "Mohammedanism in Malaya," and need only be briefly summarized here. The most striking is the persistence beneath a veneer of Mohammedanism of the belief in spirits of earth or air or water which the Malay inherits from his animistic forefathers, so that the pawang or witch-doctor is a person of enormous power in every kampong (i.e., village community) and drives a thriving trade in the sale of charms and amulets, or the exorcism of evil spirits.

Though the purdah system, which elsewhere characterizes Mohammedan countries, has never been introduced into the Malay Archipelago, the Malay wife has frequently to endure the ignominy of being superseded by a second wife, and among the rich polygamy may be carried to a greater extent than this. She is not often divorced, because she is frequently the owner of the house occupied by the family, a position which she owes, not to Mohammedanism, but to a survival of the pre-Mohammedan matriarchal system of the country. Large numbers from the Malay Peninsula and from the Dutch Indies take part in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hadj, and imbibe there the fuller knowledge of the tenets of their faith and a conception of the Pan-Moslem ideals, which spread from them throughout the community on their return to their native country.

What then has the Church been doing to bring these people to the knowledge of Christ?

About the middle of the last century Rev. B. Keasberry, of the Baptist Mission, carried on for many years zealous work amongst the Malays of Singapore, but as no successor followed up his labours, only few traces of his work now remain. The same may be said of the once flourishing Malay Mission of the Roman Catholics in Malacca. Later on the Rev. W. Shellabear, of the American Methodist Mission, did much for the Malays, especially in the important province of literature, having translated and printed many books and pamphlets which will be of the greatest value to all future workers in this field. The Medical Mission in Malacca, which will be fully described in a subsequent chapter, is up to the present the only effort of our own Church to reach the Malay. But the Medical Mission was meant to be a pioneer agency to open the way for other methods of work; how grievous then that nothing has yet been done to follow it up! Evangelists, both men and women; teachers, especially of industrial work to attract the women and girls; students of Islam who can meet and answer the Arab teachers--all these are needed if a strong Mission to the Mohammedans of Malaya is to be established. The agents of the Bible Society, who go about amongst the villages selling portions of the Bible which have been translated by that Society into their language, report that these books are now more readily saleable than ever before. Is it not a reproach to our Church that there are no missionaries living amongst these people--our own fellow subjects--to explain to them the meaning of the books which are thus put into their hands? "Whom shall we send, or who will go for us?" Do we not seem to hear the question asked? Is there none to reply, "Here am I, send me."

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