Day 10 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife through Asia and beyond. Join us as we explore history and culture. And after thirty years in Asia, we are now back in the UK. What next?

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 10 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

The story of the Chinese in Alor Setar has one thing wrong with it, it's all about the money and just isn't as cool as a fire breathing bird and a Persian Prince!


Todays video opens with a rather academic and wordy opening statement. I have obviously been reading some recent academic articles on the history of the Chinese in the region, dissing the way the old British colonials categorised the Chinese, as well as the manner in which modern political activists also distort the story for their own benefits. Academics do like to make statements that can be backed by reference to verifiable information, and it would seem that very little real scholarship has been applied to this part of Malaysia's history.

The British divided the Chinese into two groups, the few with a long history in the region and the many they considered "sojourners", people who came for the work and intended on taking their wealth back to China. Hence the British willingly supported the view that the Chinese are essentially foreigners. The British saw the Chinese as admirable, necessary and endless trouble! Their clan battles, power plays, and cavalier attitude towards British laws kept the Victorian British on their toes. And the later Emergency period with the struggle against the Chinese communist insurgents could not have improved Straits Colony attitudes towards the Chinese.

In Alor Setar you can find the
house of Tok Su, where people met before the British returned after the second world war, to found Barisan Pemuda, a political organisation of Malay resistance to the Communists. So despite Alor Setar having a sizeable Chinese community, one senses that given a history of local conflict they keep a low profile and their history has yet to emerge from the esoteric backwaters of academic papers into a popular form that would allow me to give a potted soundbite without immediate contradiction.

There are other communities lurking in the background of Kedah's history: those other foreign interlopers, the Bugis, who did a real number on Alor Setar in the 18th Century, and whose influence in Malaysian politics is still very prevalent. They, it would seem, are not sidelined in Modern Malaysia, but are still raising hell. If one takes a look at modern Malay politics, the somewhat high profile activity of public figures, is perhaps within the Bugis tradition of recognising five sexual identities.

One of course treads carefully in bandying around description of the Bugis, just as one treads carefully regarding Chinese Malay identity. None other than Dr Mahathir was accused of seditious utterances when suggesting that the then P.M. Najib Razak's ancestors were Bugis Pirates. He was forced to backtrack saying how he was not implying that all Bugis were pirates, but rather just wondering if Najib's ancestors were.

With regard to Alor Setar, Bugis mercenaries burnt down the Sultan's palace in 1771. The Bugis had already taken over Selangor next door, though their move into Kedah at this time failed. Largely it is thought because of the loyalty of the local Malays to this Sultan's line. Their founding myth of the Persian Prince, Mahawangsa, was particularly inspiring and still holds sway as a source of popular movie making, not to mention that the present Sultan claims to be of this lineage, which is thus the oldest continuous royal lineage in Asia, matched only by the Japanese Emperor. And one does find plenty of popular deference to the Sultan alongside of cynicism about ancient rights to rule.

Regarding the Bugis and their alleged piratical nature. The model I subscribe to is that their influence around the region developed in much the same way as any other powerful trading naval powers. In order to operate at all, you need to have colonies to rest up, collect your wares, protect your valuables, and await the winds that can take you onto your next port of call. It is hardly surprising that as your wealth increases, your enemies multiply and it is winner takes all. The Bugis were particularly good at taking all.

The weakening of Kedah that accompanied the Bugis expansion of the eighteenth century ended with the devastating attack of the Siamese in 1821, which not only saw the Sultan running off to Penang for the protection of the British, but also saw most of the population of Kedah rushing to Penang and Wellesley, the coastal region opposite Penang. Which incidentally is named after non other than the Duke of Wellington, who fixed up the defences of Penang before heading back to the UK to sort out Napoleon. I mention this because the Duke of Wellington's colonial training ground is often forgotten in the UK.

The attempt of the Siamese to re-populate the state with Siamese never really took, though there is a Siamese speaking population still in the area. Consequently the Sultan was allowed back into Kedah in 1841, under Siamese suzerainty, and some of the original population drifted back. Though British colonials of the time still considered the state a wasteland.

Which brings one back to the Chinese presence. The overall population of the region in the 1850's was said to be about six thousand people, most of whom I assume were peasant farmers of various kinds and immune to the delights of working down the mines for some colonial master. Hence, over the next thirty or so years, the influx of Chinese coolies and Kapitans bringing development in their wake. But, economic power they might have had, the fact is, they just did not have those cool stories that linked them to the land.

The Sultans of Kedah reference a Persian and Roman antecedent, which even sets them one above the other Sultans, who merely reference a shadow of Alexander the Great! And Kedah's early histories do not reference the Malay Annals but their own Kedah Annals, the
Hikayat Marong Mahawangsa.

Even their Islamic conversion story has a different edge to it, by referring to a Yemeni Sufi, Sheikh Abdullah, accompanied by the Devil, who somehow materialised from Raja Phra Ong Mahawangsa's drunken vision. He foreswore the demon drink, and miraculously Sheikh Abdullah popped up in his bedroom alongside of a much peeved Devil. Which, as you can imagine, sounds much more fun than an accountant's story of supply and demand.

The Chinese dominance of the 1880s has slowly been watered down to about fifteen percent of the modern population, as Malays slipped back from areas with less enticing stories to tell, and it has to be said, less pretty landscapes. Kedah, if nothing else, is a very attractive region.

In Kedah, those early struggles of Islam are presented as an ongoing struggle! In 1989 we find the National Fatwa Council of Kedah warning the National Museum of Kedah not to glorify the religious aspect of the pre-Islamic civilisation. Perhaps the museum had too many Chinese and Indian curators at the time. This, and probably other incidents I am not aware of, is no doubt a source of Chinese and Indian complaints of how the history of the country is "re-written" to exclude the contribution of various groups.

I don't really see this bias in the academic field, or the state museums, but rather find that regardless of the efforts of the archeologists, we still do not know how to discern facts from much of the fanciful stories that find their way into the old manuscripts and folk arts.

For more images at descriptions of places we visited, you can head of to
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