From Our Archives

The Capture of Malacca, A.D. 1511 (NEW!)

The Malacca Sultanate

Meteorological Report, 1885

Notes on Names of Places in Singapore and its Vicinity

History of the Translation of the Bible into Malay

The Philippine Claim to Sabah





Making of "Coolie" Identities: Indian Plantation Communities in Malaysian History


Dr Arunima Datta

Date: 30 September (Saturday) 2017

Time: 5-7.30 p.m.

Venue: Asia Research Institute (ARI), Seminar Room
AS8 Level 4, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent,
Singapore 119260

  The Indian “coolies” have for years been an inseparable but anomalous part of Malaysian society – local yet outsiders, normal but different. The enduring stereotypical image emerges in which Indian male coolies have been regarded by the colonial planters, administrators and fellow Indians as prone to violence, immorality and toddy addiction, while the Indian coolie women have been perceived as the docile, passive victims of their fellow male (coolie) perpetrators. Such insidious stereotyping have continued to inform our understanding (past and present) of the Indian coolie community in Malaysia. Based on archival research, the talk will examine the history of how such insidious stereotypes were constructed in British Malaya. It unpacks the influence of gender, race, class, caste and market economics on the making of Indian coolie identity in British Malaya. In doing so, the talk will also show how Indian coolies engaged with and responded to such insidious stereotyping in their everyday life, particularly in British Malaya.

Arunima Datta is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (NUS) and simultaneously lectures at the South Asian Program, NUS. Datta received her PhD in Southeast Asian Studies from NUS and maintains an active interest in the related fields of Asian history/studies, women’s and gender history, race, gender and sexuality studies, colonial and postcolonial studies. She has authored a number of articles on colonial law, Indian coolie women in Malaya under both British rule and Japanese Occupation and on European planters’ wives in British Malaya. She is currently working on two new book projects, concerning Indian coolie women in Malaya and Indian travelling ayahs. Datta is an Assistant Editor of the JMBRAS and is also a member of the editorial board of Asian Journal of Social Science Studies.

The talk is open to the public at no charge. All MBRAS members, especially those in Singapore, are warmly invited to attend.

Please follow this LINK to register for the talk.



   Latest Journal Issue

JMBRAS June 2017


The eagerly-awaited June 2017 issue of the JMBRAS promises a feast of delights to members. However, a somewhat sombre note was struck with a brief tribute by our Hon. Editor Dr Kratoska on Nicholas Tarling, one of the Society's few remaining Life Members (and certainly one of its most distinguished), whose tragic demise in May 2017 robbed the field of Asian Studies, particularly Southeast Asian History, of one of its most eminent scholars who was also an undisputed authority on Malayan history.

In our June issue, readers will find a riveting article by royal curator Richard Scott Morel who examines a series of royal correspondence between Britain and some of Asia's potentates, with startling conclusions on the role of the Crown in diplomatic history. The results of a judicious attempt by Peter Borschberg, the foremost authority on the post-mediaeval history of the Straits of Malacca region, to apply Braudel's theoretical framework to the history of Singapore over five centuries can be seen in his thoroughly fascinating piece that looks at Singapore's history in a series of long-term cycles. A short article by Shapiza Sharif and Arba'iyah Mohd Noor on the brickmaking industry in 19th century Kuala Lumpur sets another brick in the wall where the history of the federal capital is concerned. Kenji Koike ploughs deep into the company archives of Harrisons & Crosfield in his highly compelling article which offers an intimate view into the workings of the highly influential agency firm and which illustrates the vital link between British capital and the Malayan rubber industry. A posthumously published article by Dutch art historian Robert Weebers critically examines the development of the township of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands and pays tribute to a formidable scholar whose life was tragically cut short by a fatal illness. Lastly Fang-Tze Hsu turns to the universal theme of exile and focuses on two films which examine the lives of communist partisans who have been barred from their former countries of residence.

Our Editor Dr Kratoska has chosen some very illuminating documents to highlight in Documents from Malaysian History. An extract of a report in a 1927 Colonial Office file provides more substance on the background history of Cameron Highlands and serves as effective counterpoint to Robert Weebers' earlier article. Readers will no doubt also be enchanted by the intimate account rendered by French explorer Hyacinthe de Bougainville of Malacca, as he visited it in 1824. The description originally in French - very deftly translated by Dr Colin Dyer of Queensland University - has lost none of its charm and piquancy and will no doubt whet readers' appetite for more material of this sort in the JMBRAS.

On the cover of this month's issue is the mock-Gothic facade of the Convent School in the township of Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, one of Malaya's first hill resorts whose history features very prominently in our June issue. The pre-war building was originally a Catholic boarding school that was subsequently used as a hospital by the Japanese during their brief occupation of this country. Following the Japanese surrender, it was further requisitioned by the British forces for use as a convalescent depot till 1971, during which time it was known as the British Military Hospital. After the British forces finally vacated the building following their withdrawal from Southeast Asia in 1971, the building reverted to its former use as a Catholic school and is now known as Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) Convent Tanah Rata.

CLICK HERE to view the list of contents of the June issue.



   In Memoriam

Nicholas Tarling (1931-2017)

  It is with the greatest sorrow that the Society brings to attention the tragic passing of one of the foremost scholars on Southeast Asian studies, Dr Peter Nicholas Tarling, known to all as Nicholas Tarling. Dr Tarling, who was 86, had perished in a swimming accident on Saturday, 13 May 2017 at Narrow Neck near his home in Auckland's North Shore. A private service for family and friends was held Friday, 26 May 2017 at the University of Auckland.

Dr Tarling's association with the Society was long standing and highly felicitous. His enduring relationship with the JMBRAS was equally distinguished by scholarly contribution of the highest order and extraordinary erudition, with no less than 17 articles appearing in the JMBRAS, including reviews. Dr Tarling was one of the Society's few remaining Life Members, having been elected as far back as 1961.

Among Dr Tarling's voluminous written legacy, the Society would like to single out a special volume, deftly edited in conjunction with the Society's centenary celebration in 2007, Historians & Their Disciplines: The Call of Southeast Asian History , a unique compilation of brief sketches of an autobiographical nature penned by leading scholars of Southeast Asian history detailing their involvement in their chosen field of study. The Society is also proud to proclaim that Dr Tarling's groundbreaking study on British policy in the Malay Archipelago, 1824-1871, had been published by the Society as early as 1957. This had been Dr Tarling's doctoral thesis submitted to Cambridge University in 1956 where he was supervised by the legendary Dr Victor Purcell, the colonial authority on all things Chinese at the time. Copies of both publications are still available for sale from the Society's office.

A short obituary notice on Dr Tarling's passing written by a colleague may be found HERE.

Dr Tarling's unique and sympathetic voice in the field of Southeast Asian history will be sorely missed. The Council would like to extend its deepest condolences to his family and its appreciation for the invaluable services rendered by Dr Tarling towards the Society in all his 56 years of association with the Society.




A Fund to Commemorate the Life and Work of Dr Cheah Boon Kheng (1939-2015), Editor Emeritus, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and Historian

  Dr Cheah Boon Kheng, former Vice-President of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, passed away on 27 July 2015. He first joined the Society in 1976 and became its Vice-President in 1991, a post he relinquished in 2014 upon being diagnosed with cancer. Boon Kheng also served as editor of the JMBRAS for nearly two decades, and handled the production of a large number of Monographs and Reprints.

The Society announces the creation of a Cheah Boon Kheng Memorial Fund, to be used to support MBRAS publications. The first volume financed by the Fund will be a selection of Boon Kheng’s articles that will reflect his major scholarly concerns.

The Society is inviting contributions to this fund. Remittances can be sent through PayPal, or by a bank transfer or a cheque payable to the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Details for a bank transfer are as follows:

Name of Bank : Maybank
Address : 66, 68 & 70 Jalan Maarof, Bangsar Baru, 59000 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Account number: 514123165660
Account name : Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society
Swiftcode : MBBEMYKL

For payments made by bank transfer, we ask that donors send MBRAS a scanned copy of the receipt by e-mail at along with their postal mailing address so that we can publicly acknowledge the donation and send a receipt.



   Our New Patron

Chan Sek Keong, Esq.

  Since the lamentable passing of our former Singapore patron Mr Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015, a new Patron for the MBRAS has been found in the eminent person of Mr Chan Sek Keong, the former Chief Justice of Singapore and one of the region's most respected legal minds. Mr Chan hails from Ipoh where he was born in November 1937. When he graduated in 1961 from the University of Malaya (then in Singapore), Mr Chan became among the first batch of 22 locally-trained law graduates who had completed the inaugural law degree programme.

Mr Chan has had wide-ranging experience in the legal and judicial services, coupled with a successful private practice. As the Attorney-General of Singapore, Mr Chan served in this capacity for 14 years. A considerable part of his life was spent on the Bench, first as Supreme Court judge before being elevated as Chief Justice in 2006, in which capacity he served for three terms before retiring in 2012. Mr Chan is married to Elisabeth Eber, herself a foremost legal practitioner and a cousin of Cambridge-educated lawyer-activist John Eber, a colourful figure in the post-war political landscape of Singapore. A rather more detailed biography of Mr Chan may be accessed HERE

Mr Chan was formally introduced to the Council during the Singapore round of the meeting in September 2016 when, together with Mrs Chan, he attended the MBRAS Lecture by Dr Tim Barnard on H.N. Ridley at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Council feels privileged to obtain the patronage of such an illustrious personality as Mr Chan and would like to extend a warm and sincere welcome to him.



   New From MBRAS

MBRAS Index 1878-2016

  The fully updated Index to the JMBRAS, between the first issue of its precursor the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JSBRAS) in 1878 and the latest issue of December 2016 can now be accessed on this site. The Index - virtually an extension of the Index Malaysiana and its Supplements, of which printed copies are still available - has now been published in PDF format and will enable users to refer to all published JSBRAS/JMBRAS articles under relevant headings.

Please click on the title above to download the entire Index.




Dr KG Tregonning MBE (1923-2015)

  Dr Kennedy Gordon Phillip Tregonning MBE, historian, educationist and the oldest Life Member of of the Society, passed away peacefully on Monday, 20 July 2015 at the age of 92. Dr Tregonning's memorial service was held on Tuesday, 28 July 2015 at The Memorial Hall, Hale School, Wembley Downs, West Australia.

Born in 1923, Dr Tregonning attended first Christ Church Primary School and later Hale School, then located at West Perth. At Hale he proved an ardent sportsman, excelling among others in swimming, cricket and athletics. Upon leaving school in 1941 - a period which coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War - Dr Tregonning joined the Army to serve in the 109th Tank Regiment briefly before being transferred to the RAAF where he was commissioned and eventually sent to the UK via the USA.

Dr Tregonning resumed his studies after the war at Adelaide University on the Tinline Scholarship, graduating with highest honours in Political Science and History. His athletic prowess shone equally as in Hale when he was made captain of the varsity rugby team. Dr Tregonning lectured for a time at the university and was even employed briefly as a reporter with the West Australian but by this time it was evident that Dr Tregonning's scholastic attainments would mark him out for greater things in future. In 1950, Dr Tregonning went up to New College, Oxford as a Gowrie Scholar where he earned a Bachelor of Literature. He married his wife Judy Manford that same year and was blessed with five daughters.

Upon coming down from Oxford, Dr Tregonning found himself in Singapore where, after joining the University of Malaya (then in Singapore) as lecturer in 1953, he succeeded C.N. Parkinson as Raffles Professor in History in July 1959 following the latter's resignation. Dr Tregonning's PhD - on the first forty years of British occupation in Malaya - had the singular honour of being the first degree awarded at the first convocation ceremony of the university in Kuala Lumpur in 1958. His Singapore spell - a tenure lasting some 14 years - counted among the happiest periods of his life, according to his daughter. Away in a foreign land for 14 years and with five growing daughters, Dr Tregonning soon decided to return to Australia. He was fortunate as it was during this time that the headmastership of Hale became vacant. Dr Tregonning, at a friend's suggestion, decided to apply for the position despite having no previous experience managing a school. Nevertheless, the school's Board of Governors to their eternal credit, decided to appoint Dr Tregonning - an Old Haleian - to the post, marking an exceptionally brilliant 22-year period when Hale flourished under Dr Tregonning's able stewardship.

Dr Tregonning's direct involvement with the Society went as far back as 1954 when he was made its Life Member. At the time of his demise, Dr Tregonning, at 92, was its oldest Life Member. However, Dr Russell Jones of Cornwall - the eminent Orientalist - has the honour of being Life Member for even longer than even Dr Tregonning, as the former was elected in 1949. Dr Tregonning's scholastic contributions to the Society's Journal amounted to no less than eleven significant articles over a period of 47 years on subjects as diverse as the elimination of slavery in North Borneo, a historical account of the Straits Trading Company and a bird's eye view of tertiary education in Malaya during the colonial period. In these terms, few can match Dr Tregonning's brilliant output with the exception of earlier scholars associated with the Society such as R.O. Winstedt or R.J. Wilkinson.

In a 1988 interview, Dr Tregonning admitted to having vague notions of being a writer when young. In fact, he was a gifted writer armed with a razor-sharp intellect as evinced by his prodigious literary output, all of which were characterised by a distinctive style in which clarity, brevity and smooth flow of narrative were paramount. Among them we may especially mention North Borneo Under Chartered Company Rule, A History of Modern Sabah 1881-1963 and Home Port Singapore, a history of the Straits Steamship Company, all of which were written during his years as Raffles Professor of History. Much less known were Dr Tregonning's output after his retirement years, namely The Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club 1896-1996, a centennial account of the local yacht club; Young Hearts Run Free, a history of his alma mater Hale School and also Merdeka and Much More, a brief memoir of his years in Singapore as Raffles Professor of History between 1953 and 1967, which was probably among his last works to be published.

In private life, Dr Tregonning was known as a quiet, unassuming gentleman with a sense of humour coupled with a modest demeanour. He was a dedicated yachstman all his life, having joined the Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club in 1938 and at his demise, also its longest serving member. He continued to retain a lifelong affection for Hale by being an active member of the Old Haleians and was frequently invited to its annual functions.

The Council extends its sincere condolences to his family members and notes with gratitude and humility his immeasurable contributions to the Society in particular, and to the discipline of History, in general. May his soul rest in peace.

The Council also notes with sorrow the tragic passing of three very eminent historians, all torchbearers of the Society, in quick succession one after the other, in the month of July 2015. The death of Dr Badriyah Haji Salleh on 2 July 2015 was followed by that of Dr KGP Tregonning on 20 July 2015 and Dr Cheah Boon Kheng on 27 July 2015, a week after Dr Tregonning's death. May their deeds and thoughts live on eternally to shine a beacon on Malaysian history and guide future historians to tread in their illustrious footsteps.

An obituary notice on Dr Tregonning may be published in the upcoming JMBRAS issue. Meanwhile the Society welcomes any of its members, or indeed anybody at all, who have had the good fortune to be acquainted with the late Dr Tregonning to write in and supply us with anecdotes or recollections that will help celebrate his memory and his outstanding scholarship as historian.



   NEW Featured Article : The Capture of Malacca, A.D. 1511    

  The rise and fall of nations and governments are usually of mere passing interest to most of us. However when a formidable regional power like the Malacca Sultanante crumbles to the ground after holding sway for over a century, it represented a turning point that triggered a major political realignment in Southeast Asia in the 16th century and had far-reaching geopolitical consesequences for the region at the time and for several centuries thereafter.

The second part to our earlier featured article on "The Malacca Sultanate" offers an engaging account of the military campaign to capture Malacca by the Portuguese in July 1511. Its author, R.J. Wilkinson, was one of the finest scholar-administrators that British Malaya ever produced whose works on Malay subjects continue to be standard reference to this day. In this article, Wilkinson takes the reader through developments which set in motion events that eventually led to Malacca's rapid decline and spectacular downfall. Wilkinson's article illustrates the fate that awaits a major regional actor like Malacca when an emerging naval power like Portugal takes advantage of its weakness brought about by administrative decay, incompetence, internal dissent and damaging games of court intrigue.

CLICK HERE to view the article and summary.

As usual, comments and corrections are much sought after. Meanwhile we hope readers will enjoy this rather short article and our brief notes accompanying the article.




Monograph 48: Perniagaan Haji dan Dokumentasi Sultan Kedah

  The Society's latest publication is Monograph No. 48: 'Perniagaan Haji di Pulau Pinang dan Dokumentasi Sultan Kedah', two joint winners of the Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard Memorial Prize for the best-written academic essays from Malaysian and Singaporean universities.

Both essays are written in Bahasa Malaysia. The first one describes the Haj trade in Penang between the 19th century and its decline in the 1970s. The second essay builds on earlier scholarly efforts to study the Royal Correspondence of Sultan Abdul Hamid of Kedah (1864-1943, r. 1882-1943) while attempting a socio-economic survey of Kedah under his reign. The volume has been deftly edited by MBRAS Council member Dato Prof Abu Talib Ahmad, who also introduces the subject matters to readers.

CLICK HERE for more details.

Edited and introduced by Abu Talib Ahmad
RM40, inclusive of postage, within Malaysia only
For other postage options, please contact us for details.




Reprint 33: Glimpses of Penang's Past

  Latest in the series of MBRAS Reprints, Reprint No. 33: 'Glimpses of Penang's Past' offers a collection of 14 mostly rare pioneering studies of Penang's history, specially selected and painstakingly prepared for easy reference with present-day readers in mind. Reprint No. 33 has been made possible through the generous support extended by urban regeneration vehicle Think City.

Fourteen articles have been judiciously handpicked by scholars Loh Wei Leng and Badriyah Haji Salleh - both specialists to some extent on certain aspects of the island's history - from back issues of the JSBRAS and the JMBRAS, articles long unobtainable and mostly inaccessible to the general public. This engaging collection of mostly rare articles - many inexcusably overlooked and forgotten - have been made available to the public yet again in an attempt to provoke a fresh reinterpretation of Penang history and to supplement, wherever possible, existing gaps in current Penang historiography. The new MBRAS reprint is expected to fulfill the growing public appetite for historical material on Penang, particularly during its 170 years of eventful colonial occupation.

CLICK HERE for more details.

Selected and introduced by Loh Wei Leng and Badriyah Haji Salleh
RM35, inclusive of postage, within Malaysia only
For other postage options, please contact us for details.

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