Two perspectives on late colonial life in Penang


THE RECENT REPUBLICATION OF The Sara Saga and Hail Penang!, with new introductions and illustrations, marks the beginning of Areca Books’ valuable eff orts to bring classic works on Malaysian history, society and politics to a contemporary readership. Both books had long been out of print but they remain relevant and evocative, providing essential reading for scholars and others engaged with the cultural heritage and history of Penang, Malaysia and South-East Asia.

The Sara Saga and Hail Penang! are autobiographical accounts writt en by journalists who both served, at diff #erent times, as editor of the Penang-based newspaper – Straits Echo – during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Th rough witt y anecdotes, Manicasothy Saravanamuttu and George Bilainkin related their experiences and encounters in early 20th century Penang. As journalists, they were able to observe many of the key moments that shaped Malaysia’s history. Th rough their eyes, the reader gains access to the intimate workings of Penang’s interwar colonial society, the horrors of the Japanese occupation, and later, the rapid changes brought about by Malaysian independence.

Manicasothy Saravanamuttu – affectionately known to many as “Uncle Sara” or simply “Sara” – was something of a local legend. Described by his sons in a moving foreword as a “global soul”, The Sara Saga narrates his wandering life course as he “knocked about the world more than the average individual”. Born to one of Ceylon’s most prominent political families, Sara left Ceylon in 1917 to take up his place at Oxford, though he, by his own admission, was more interested in cricket than in studying. Returning to Ceylon in 1922, he abandoned his early plans to join the church and embarked on a career in journalism. In 1930, he arrived in Penang to work as a sub-editor for the Straits Echo. Just a year later, he was made editor – the first non-European editor – of the newspaper. He held this post until 1941, when the Japanese invasion brought the newspaper’s publication to an abrupt halt. His local fame grew during the Japanese occupation, when he was placed in charge of the hastily-formed Penang Service Committ ee, which restored order to Penang aft er the clandestine evacuation of the British. Soon after, he was imprisoned by the Japanese and spent a gruelling nine months as a political prisoner. Aft er the war, Sara returned to his role as editor of the Straits Echo, but his career soon took a different path. In 1950 he was appointed the first Ceylon Commissioner in Singapore and Malaya, and a few years later he also became Ceylon Minister in Indonesia, which led to his involvement in the Bandung Conference in 1955.

Sara weaves together his encounters with politicians, community leaders, friends and acquaintances, his views on Malaya’s politics and society, and the radical political developments which occurred during his lifetime. At times, his reminiscences were comic. On one occasion, he was the victim of the “puckish sense of humour” of a Penangite:

Soon after I became editor, he [Lim Keong Lay] sent in a letter signed Pisang Beranggut, the Malay euphemism for the male organ, which I with my very limited knowledge of Malay published. Th e next day he sent in a reply signed Apong Manis, similarly the Malay slang for the female organ. Again I fell for the trap. Keong Lay promptly sent a complaint to the Protector of Chinese that the Straits Echo was publishing indecent matter! (p. 83)

Sara was part of a generation of Englisheducated Asian nationalists. He was not anti-colonial; indeed, many of his anecdotes hint at his privileged position among the colonial elite in Malaya. But as a respected public intellectual he was able to question and challenge injustices. In championing the agency of the local people, and advocating eventual independence for Malaya in his editorials in the 1930s, Sara carved out a role for himself at the heart of Penang’s emergent multi-ethnic civil society.

He lived his life across the ethnic lines which are often ruthlessly inscribed into other accounts of the period. Th is becomes poignantly clear as the book ends with an image of his 70th birthday party in 1965, which was held at the Penang Turf Club and att ended by nearly 600 guests, including his friend, Tunku Abdul Rahman. In Sara’s words, the “gathering of all races and creeds mixing so freely and in such a friendly manner seemed to me a reflection of my own way of living”.

For George Bilainkin, the politics of race were also a preoccupation. But where Sara saw free and friendly mixture, Bilainkin saw boundaries and exclusion. As a young British journalist newly arrived in Penang in 1929, he was enthralled and repelled by the exclusiveness of the European community and the gulf which seemed to separate them from the rest of Penang’s Asian society.

Bilainkin’s time in Penang was brief. He published an account of his experiences as editor of the Straits Echo in 1932, adding to the growing body of travel writing which documented the journeys of European travellers and sojourners in the region. When he arrived in Penang, Bilainkin had already worked in Jamaica and England, and he would go on to write of his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Japan.

During his time as editor of the Straits Echo, Bilainkin’s provocative opinions oft en left him open to criticism. But his frankness also made him a shrewd observer of the unfamiliar world around him. With acerbicwit, Bilainkin commented in acute detail on the people and places he encountered, beginning with the social snobbery aboard ship on his journey to Malaya, his arrival at the bustling docks in Penang and his interactions with his Malay, Chinese and Indian staff – of whom Sara, the new subeditor from Ceylon, was one. He met and interviewed celebrities, including Noel Coward, who visited Penang in the course of his world tour in 1929. He accessed areas few other Europeans dared go, as the detailed descriptions of the Th aipusam celebrations, Chinese funerals and his visit to the leper colony at Pulau Jerejak, reveal. 

Bilainkin wryly noted the colonial obsession with racial categories and the injustices created by the colour bar. He wrote sympathetically of the “white outcasts” who married outside their ethnic group, and faced social stigma and rejection. He even broke many of the unspoken social rules which kept Europeans at a distance from Penang’s Asian and Eurasian communities. He noted the loneliness of life in the tropics for Europeans, challenging accepted contemporary ideas of colonial society in Malaya – of irresponsible whisky-swilling planters and lifestyles characterised by ease and luxury. Although he was also a willing participant in this world, maintaining a firm belief in the importance of European prestige, he painted a picture of a society rather more fragile, uncertain and contradictory than it appeared, hinting at the delicate balance of power which sustained British rule. Inevitably, this made him look to the future. In his final chapter, “Malaya – for Whom?” Bilainkin anticipates many of the debates which would go on to shape the end of colonial rule.

Together, The Sara Saga and Hail Penang! offer two different, but equally captivating perspectives on a formative period in the history of Malaysia.

Kirsty Walker is a PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge.

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