The remark about Malaya being a first-rate country for second-rate people, attributed to Noel Coward (himself now generally regarded as a second-rate writer), was not a racist slur on the Malays, Chinese and Indians who lived and worked there but a judgement call on those who administered this part of the British empire.
Malaya, from the imperial point of view, included Singapore but not Sarawak and Sabah (which are now part of Malaysia). It never captured the colonialists’ imagination in the way that India, parts of Africa and China did. But it did attract writers like Joseph Conrad, Anthony Burgess, Paul Theroux and J.G. Farrell.
It also attracted – and this was the basis of the British desire to control the Malay peninsula – mercantile interests who realized there was profit to be made by exploiting the land’s natural resources with very little costs: imperialism’s bottom line.
In the early twentieth century, half the world’s tin was produced in Malaya and by the 1930s the mining industry was largely under British ownership.
The other great profitable concern was the production of rubber, introduced via Kew Gardens from South America.
Chinese and Indians provided manual labour while Malays were recruited for administrative posts. From Britain came civil servants, management for the mines and rubber estates, police and military.
The first wave of colonials were mostly from British public schools but after 1920 many of the expatriates had middle class or skilled working-class backgrounds.
Margaret Shennan, in “Out in the midday sun”, has written a tremendously good social history of British rule in Malaya. She writes engagingly and fairly about issues of race and two sections make compelling reading. One of these covers the halcyon years of the 1920s and ‘30s when colonials enjoyed a life of ease.
They had their gardeners, cooks, child-minders and white-only clubs to service all their needs; there were beaches fringed with coconut-palms; champagne and oysters in Singapore for special occasions.
There was no civil or ethnic unrest and the only problems were prickly heat and the humidity but hill stations were built as relief.
Prostitution was on hand to deal with a relative absence of women. The second superb section of this book covers events leading up to the Japanese invasion at the end of 1941 and consequent disintegration of British rule. Nearly everyone was blind to what was coming and the picnics and parties continued unabated up the eve of hostilities.
With the Japanese landing in the north of the country, panic set in and showed its ugly hand. White people fled Penang under cover of darkness, not to remain hidden from the Japanese but to keep their evacuation a secret from the Malays and Chinese and Indians that they abandoned to their fate.
The Penang débâcle would reach its final conclusion with the humiliating surrender of all British forces to the numerically smaller Japanese army in Singapore.
“Out in the midday sun”, by Margaret Shennan, is published by Monsoon Books