The swashbuckling municipal president of Penang


Just who was John Sjovald Hoseason Cunyngham-Brown?

Civil servant? Soldier? Adventurer? Activist? Surely one could not be all four, and more. But one man indeed was, and left a significant mark on Penang. During Penang’s City Day celebrations in April, an exhibition was held at Gurney Plaza on Penang’s history, paying tribute to John Sjovald Hoseason Cunyngham-Brown, who, as president of the George Town Municipal Council, wrote a letter to the Queen in 1956 asking her to exercise her royal prerogative to command by Royal Charter that the status of George Town be raised to that of a city. This she did, and George Town became Malaysia’s first city on January 1, 1957.

But just who was Cunyngham-Brown?

Among his contributions were the following: he campaigned for various causes close to his heart, such as the resettling of ex-prisoners, education, Tamil culture and even the proper use of the Malay language; he was active in the now-defunct Penang Historical Society and was its vice-president in the early 1960s; he was a founding member of the Penang Heritage Trust; he served as honorary consul general for France in Penang in the 1960s and 1970s; and, in 1962, he founded the Penang branch of the Alliance Francaise, the international organisation that promotes French culture and language, which is still very active today.

On top of that, he was a keen amateur actor, playing “an impressive Othello” with the Penang Players. He hiked almost daily, and in the mornings one might find him sitting cross-legged under a boulder on Penang Hill reciting poetry in Telugu with a sadhu (priest), while that same afternoon he would be dressed in full colonial regalia taking afternoon tea at the governor’s residence.

Following his death in 1989, he was fondly remembered by his friends as one who “never passed his prime and lived each day, each hour to the full”, and who was generous to a fault, signing far more than his fair share of chits. He spoke fluent Tamil, Telugu, Malay, French, German, Russian, Spanish and Norwegian, knew sufficient Chinese characters to read the newspaper, and was still brushing up on his Japanese when he was in his 80s.

He found time to write, not only about his own adventurous life in his autobiography, Crowded Hour (1974), but also the widely-referenced The Traders – A Story of Britain’s South East Asian Commercial Adventure (1971). He prepared another book, The Penang Adventure, a history of Penang which was released posthumously by Raymond Flower. He also contributed to the 1963 collection of essays, A Tribute to Tunku Abdul Rahman, published to celebrate the Tunku’s 60th birthday, and wrote the introduction to Tales from The China Seas (1983), a portrayal of the lives of the British who lived and worked in the Straits Settlements, Malaya, Sumatra, Borneo and Sarawak, assembled from the recorded recollections of 50 men and women.

He appeared, memorably, in ITV’s Whicker’s World episode “Penang: I Haven't Taken My Own Shoes Off for 45 Years...!” (1976). He was not, however, the man who had not taken his own shoes off for 45 years, but rather the expert on Penang’s history, interviewed by Alan Whicker while strolling through the Protestant Cemetery on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.

The telling of his early days, beguilingly described in Crowded Hour, does indeed read like a romantic adventure story, at least until his imprisonment during World War II.

Born in 1905, of Shetland Isles descent, he grew up in France and the Isle of Wight. Marked by his family to study medicine at Oxford University, he ran away to sea instead, spending three years working his way up from deck hand to third mate. He lived hand-to-mouth for months in Australia, polishing apples and sleeping on park benches, while waiting for a crew to join for the voyage home. He surprised his parents with his rough appearance when he turned up two-anda- half years after his departure, his father laughing, “Your hands – they are like hams; and your fingers are carrots!”

He took the Civil Service exams in 1929 and immediately returned to the East, starting his career as private secretary to the resident commissioner of Penang. He went on to manage the migration of Tamil estate workers to Malaya, based in India, then returned to Malaya.

During the Great Depression, he was appointed deputy controller of rubber in KL, limiting rubber production in an attempt to stabilise prices. He was then transferred to the Magistrate’s bench in Singapore. When the Japanese invaded at the end of 1941, he joined the Malayan Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and was posted as sub-lieutenant aboard S.S. Hsiang Wo, hauling to safety survivors of torpedoed ships. He later survived for weeks in a dugout canoe with a single mast, hiding from the Japanese and keeping himself alive on a diet of fish, coconuts and sea-slugs, before his eventual capture and internment as a prisoner of war in Sumatra. En route from one jail to another the transport ship was torpedoed by the Royal Navy, but after 17 hours of exhausted swimming to try to escape he was re-captured by the Japanese.

His release from this prison camp in 1945 was equally dramatic; as recounted in Crowded Hour his loin cloth fell off at the moment he met Lady Mountbatten in the first relief plane to land at his camp. By the end of that same day he was enjoying a cigar in a chauffeur-driven car on his way back to work in Malaya. Postings in Johor, responsible for resettlement in the state, and Batu Gajah, Perak, the epicentre of the Malayan Emergency, were followed by his move Penang, where he served as municipal president (1954-1956), including a short stint as acting resident, the most senior post, in 1954. In that way, Penang “book-ended” his career, in a most satisfactory manner, as it was there that he chose to retire.

His legacy as municipal president is not only the elevation of George Town to city status, but also the saving of Suffolk House. This outstanding example of Anglo-Indian Georgian architecture, built within the pepper plantation that was once owned by Captain Francis Light and that had served as governor’s residence for over a century, was threatened with demolition in 1956 when the Methodist Church that then owned it wanted to build school buildings in its place.

Cunyngham-Brown succeeded in convincing them to preserve the building and erect the school next door, where it still remains. Renovation finally began in 2000, with the house re-opening to the public in late 2009. In 2014, it was used with great effect to portray the Simla Viceregal Lodge in Indian Summers, British Channel 4’s most successful – and most expensive – serial drama ever, and will continue to be used in Season Two, which began filming in April.

Karen Lai

Cunyngham-Brown during his Johor days just before the war. He was then the Commissioner for Lands and Mines.

His contribution is rightly acknowledged, together with the many others who campaigned ceaselessly to preserve this important element of Penang’s cultural heritage, on a plaque in the entrance hall of Suffolk House.

In his speech announcing George Town’s new city status, Cunyngham- Brown noted that “In congratulating George Town on its democratic progress and enhancement of status the first tribute should be paid to all those past commissioners and councillors – a 100-year-long band of hardworking and conscientious men (and one lady) who found time in their busy professional lives so successfully to steer the progress of the municipality, unrewarded by recognition or recompense and carried forward solely by a sense of public service and a knowledge of good work well done.”

Penang’s enhancement of status through elevation to city status in 2015 must also pay tribute to Cunyngham-Brown’s own very significant contributions to Penang’s recent history.

Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for six years.

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