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Feudalism in pre-colonial Malaya: the past as a colonial discourse.

What of the "feudalisms" throughout the world from China to the Greece of the beautifully greaved Achaeans? For the most part, they bear scarcely any resemblance to each other. That is because nearly every historian understands the word as he pleases.

- Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft(1)


The term "feudal" has been used by British writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to refer to the territories of Brunei, Sumatra, Java and the Malay peninsula. What were the factors which had led to its usage? Was it really an attempt to understand the cultures of these societies, or to prepare the ground for their eventual appropriation? Because Clifford, Maxwell and other British writers were colonial officials, should the truth value of their analyses on "Malay feudalism" be rejected out of hand as "colonial"? Should all writings on Malay feudalism be dismissed as "Western" and thus are not worthy of study?

Colonial analyses of pre-colonial societies, however, have much of value to say, and this paper proposes to consider some of the orientalist discourse and its context in the case of pre-colonial Malaya. It consists of three parts. The first part will deal with several other questions, one of which is whether, in constructing the term "Malay feudalism", British writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries displayed a Western ethnocentric bias. Were they also influenced by European theories which cast British society as "advanced" and "modern" in contrast to Malay society as "backward" and "traditional"? Did such knowledge have any deep complicity with British institutions of power, or help to explain the break-up of the Malay world into imperialist spheres of influence? The second part of the paper discusses the aptness of the term "feudal" to the pre-colonial Malay states, while the third part looks at the limited acceptance of the British concept of "Malay feudalism" in the writings of some local writers in the post-colonial period. Colonial discourse analysis - as pioneered by Edward Said in his work Orientalism (first published in 1978) - has proven one of the most fruitful and significant areas of research in recent years. Said extended his study to discursive forms, representations and practices regarding the Third World, with reference to the colonial past, to nineteenth century forms of knowledge, and to the language and idioms of colonial discourse. To quote Said:(2)

For the Orient idioms became frequent, and these idioms took firm hold in European discourse. Beneath the idioms there was a layer of doctrine about the Orient; this doctrine was fashioned out of the experiences of many Europeans, all of them converging upon such essential aspects of the Orient as the Oriental character, Oriental despotism, Oriental sensuality, and the like....

The terms "feudal" and "feudalism" are very recent creations. According to one source, they were clearly unknown to those who had lived under the so-called "feudal system".(3) The discovery of feudalism in France and in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is regarded as one of the most important landmarks in modern historical scholarship.(4) The seventeenth century antiquarian, Sir Henry Spelman, through his discovery of feudalism in England, is said to have brought about a "revolution" in English historiography.(5) In France, the works of the Renaissance scholars subsequently paved the way for the later philosophers to improve on the definition of feudalism. However, according to Marc Bloch, one of Europe's leading authorities on feudalism, the labelling was still loose and "rather awkward":(6)

"Feudal" and "feudalism" were originally legal jargon, taken over from the courts of the eighteenth century by Boulainvilliers, and then by Montesquieu, to become the rather awkward labels for a type of social structure which was itself rather ill-defined.

Like medieval European feudalism, Malay feudalism was invented by British historians and other European writers to describe a certain social system or a particular period in history. Clearly, the term "feudal" was unfamiliar or alien to the Malays who lived through that period. By the early twentieth century anyone who read the historical works of British colonial writers like Clifford, Winstedt and Wilkinson could not help but associate terms like "feudal", "fief", and "vassal", used in their works to describe conditions in Malaya, with comparable meanings within European history. These terms later entered the Malayan history books written for schools from the mid-1950s until the early 1960s. Very few attempts were made at a definition of Malay feudalism. Many Malaysians today use the terms "feudal" and "feudalism" rather loosely. In articles, books and in public speeches, their understanding of "feudalism" seems to be rather restricted, confined to certain features only, such as anything that pertains to Malay aristocratic titles, or Malay kingship.

"Feudalism" is a controversial term, to which many different meanings have been given. It came into popular use only in the eighteenth century after the French Revolution in 1789 when many "feudal" practices were abolished in France. It had been conceived as a form of society possessing well-marked features found in Western Europe from the ninth century onwards. The historian Marc Bloch has given what is generally regarded as the best description of the main features of "feudalism":(7)

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of a salary, which was out of the question; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and, within the warrior class, assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority - leading inevitably to disorder; and, in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State, of which the latter, during the second feudal age was to acquire renewed strength - such then seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism.

Analogies with this feudalism have been found by other scholars in ancient Egypt, China and India, in the Byzantine empire, in the Arab world, in the Turkish empire, in Russia, and in Japan. In this paper I have accepted the definition of feudalism within a social and political sense. There are some scholars who attempt to broaden the definition by merely stressing the economic factors, such as mode of production, land tenure, or economic exploitation of an agricultural population by a ruling group. Some assert that in feudalism, landholding is the source of political power, and status is determined by land tenure.(8) Ultimately, of course, each student has to make up his mind as to which definition he intends to adopt.

English Works on Malay Feudalism

Within British colonial historiography the early discoverers of Malay feudalism were a group of writers who appeared during the 1775-1830 period. Later writers would add in details to certain features of Malay feudalism, but the case for feudalism in the Malay peninsular states was not fully presented until 1895-99 by Hugh Clifford who wrote extensively on the subject. Based on his official missions and travels, Clifford presented first-hand observations on Pahang, Kelantan and Trengganu, which were still independent states. The English writers on Malay feudalism may be divided into three groups: (a) the early East India Company (EIC) officials like Marsden, Raffles and John Anderson; (b) the non-government writers like the journalist John Cameron and the travel-writer, Isabella Bird; and (c) the colonial administrators such as Maxwell, Clifford, Winstedt and Wilkinson. At the outset, it should be stated that this survey of colonial historiogoraphy on the Malay states is not comprehensive. I have only referred to some selected works in which the term appears; one reason is that I have been able to refer to only a limited number of nineteenth century works on Malaya in local libraries.

The first group of English writers on Malay feudalism had focused on the origins and structure of government in the Malay kingdoms of Brunei, Sumatra, Java and the Malay peninsula. Although this paper deals mainly with the states in the Malay peninsula, these early English historical writings on the other parts of the Malay world are pertinent in throwing light on the evolution of their ideas of "Malay feudalism". They took pains to consider aspects such as economy, land tenure, personal liberty, justice, and government. Feudalism was not the only form of social or political organization which they had found in the Malay world. Besides "feudalism", both Marsden and Raffles also discovered "patriarchalism" and "despotism" as well. Raffles' discovery of "feudalism" and the "feudal system" in Java owed greatly to Dutch officials, who had already used these terms in their reports. In their writings comparison was often made with feudal Europe of the "Medieval Ages".

By the mid-eighteenth century in western Europe, the dust of controversy in the debate on the origins of European feudalism had already settled down. A clearer understanding of European feudalism had emerged, so that the use of the term "feudalism" had become commonplace within historical writing. The early British writers on Malay feudalism must have had prior knowledge of this through their formal general education.(9) No one, however, knows who was the first British colonial writer to discover Malay feudalism. The earliest reference which I have come across is an extract of a letter written in 1775 by an English East India Company official, John Jesse, concerning Brunei. Jesse resorts to a European feudal analogy to describe the position of the Brunei Sultan, whose authority was said to be great but everywhere it was severely checked by his chiefs and aristocrats:(10)

I cannot better convey an Idea of this Form of Government, than to say it bears a near resemblance to our ancient Feudal System; for, although there is more respect paid to the Regal Power here, than in any other Malay Country I have been in, (for this obvious reason, that the Sultan has entirely the power of appointing the great Officers of State, and of course can always influence the publick Councils) yet, however, each Pangiran has the entire sway over his particular Dependents, whose cause they never fail to espouse, even where he may stand in Opposition to the Sovereign Authority.

The next reference to Malay feudalism is found in William Marsden's History of Sumatra, the first edition of which appeared in 1783. An East India Company official like John Jesse, Marsden's observations were also comparative in nature: both his "feudal" and "patriarchal" ideas were derived from the European past. However, his observations were confined largely to the Bencoolen region of Sumatra due to his work in the secretariat there from 1771 to 1779. He also derived much information about other pans of Sumatra from European informants and native sources.(11) He described the governments of the old states of Singapura, Melaka, Johor, Minangkabau, Palembang and Aceh as having feudal features:(12)

The government, like that of all Malayan states, is founded on principles entirely feudal. The prince is styled raja, maha-raja, iang de pertuan, or sultan; the nobles have the appellation of orang kaya, or datu, which properly belongs to the chiefs of tribes, and implies their being at the head of a numerous train of immediate dependants or vassals, whose service they command. The heir apparent has the title of raja muda.... The immediate vassals of the king are called amba raja; and for the subjects in general the word rayet [sic] has been adopted.

All other governments throughout the island of Sumatra, Marsden observed, were a mixture of the "feudal" and the "patriarchal". However, in discussing the origins of both systems in the Rejang area, Marsden had put forward the theory that the "patriarchal" system had started from the private family. On the other hand, the "feudal" system had evolved sometimes from the "patriarchal" system and sometimes under foreign conquest:(13)

The domestic rule of a private family, beyond a doubt, suggested first the idea of government in society, and this people having made but small advances in civil society, theirs continues to retain a strong semblance of its original. It is connected also with the principle of the feudal system, into which it would probably settle, should it attain to a greater degree of refinement. All the other governments throughout the island [Sumatra] are likewise a mixture of the patriarchal and feudal; and it may be observed, that where a spirit of conquest has reduced the inhabitants under the subjection of another power, or has added foreign districts to their dominion, there the feudal maxim prevails; where the natives, from situation or disposition, have long remained undisturbed by revolutions, there the simplicity of patriarchal rule obtains; which is not only the first, and natural form of government, of all rude nations rising from imperceptible beginnings, but is perhaps also the highest state of perfection at which they can ultimately arrive.

In the same context, Marsden had described the Pangeran (a Javanese title) in Rejang as "feudal chief of the country". He also commented on the close relationship, or "fealty" between the dupati, or headmen, and the pangeran, and "of his ana buah (dependents) and himself". Originally, the Pangeran of Rejang was himself a chief dependent on the king of Bantam, but later he was given the government of the country. Thus invested, he laid claim to the absolute authority of the king whom he represented. Marsden also learned that the interior parts of the kingdom of Palembang were divided into provinces. Each was assigned as a "fief", or government, to one of the royal family or of the nobles, who committed the management to deputies, and gave themselves little concern about the treatment of their subjects.(14)

Following the footsteps of Marsden, whose book on Sumatra he used as a model, Stamford Raffles in his The History of Java, first published in 1817, paid some attention to the origins of government of the Javanese. Their government was described as "despotic" and "feudal" like the Sumatrans, but the Javanese were also considered a "patriarchal people".(15)

Notwithstanding the despotic nature of their government, and the feudal principles on which it rests, the Javan must be considered as a patriarchal people, still retaining many of the virtues, and all the simplicity, which distinguish that state of society.

In his perception of the "feudal system" in Java, Raffles appears to have been strongly influenced by Dutch officials, among whom was Dirk van Hogendorp, whose reports he had read after taking over Java's administration as Lt.-Governor from 1812 to 1816. Van Hogendorp had resided in Java for many years and had been a member of a commission appointed to inquire into the affairs of Java for the Dutch government before Java was captured by the British in 1812. In his book, published in 1799, Van Hogendorp had given a detailed description of the "feudal principles of the Javan government" and their practice of "feudal services" with the aim of bringing about changes to these local practices. Van Hogendorp argued that only when the "forced deliveries, the feudal services, in short, the whole system of feudal government" were ended by the Dutch government could increase of cultivation and trade result from the local population.(16) These were changes which Raffles himself later adopted during his period of administration. Van Hogendorp and Raffles clearly saw themselves as "modern" European mercantilists, who had emerged from an archaic "feudal" system; everything, therefore, had to make way for trade.

What is interesting, however, is that Van Hogendorp's views on the Javanese "feudal system of government" were quoted at great length by Raffles, giving the impression that he was in some agreement with them. In presenting Van Hogendorp's views on the Javanese "feudal" form of government, Raffles comments briefly and then cites four pages of text from Van Hogendorp's report, of which the following is a relevant extract:(17)

After remarking, in perhaps too broad and unqualified terms, that the structure of the government is feudal, he [Van Hogendorp] proceeds to state: 'The first principles of the feudal system, which form the basis of the whole edifice, are: that the land is the property of the sovereign; that the inhabitants are his slaves, and can therefore possess no property, all that they have and all that they can obtain belonging to the sovereign, who allows them to keep it no longer than he chooses; and that the will of the prince is the supreme law....

Van Hogendorp then goes on to refer to the feudal system under English and French kings, and states that the same system of government had been allowed to continue in Java by the Dutch Company. He then elaborates on the feudal nature of the Javanese land tenure system, in which the princes allotted land to the chiefs, and the chiefs in turn subdivided the lands among others of inferior rank, and so on, down to the poor peasant who cultivated the soil.

When discussing the Japanese practice of "feudal services", including forced deliveries and forced labour, Raffles again quotes at length from a Dutch official, in this case F.J. Rothenbuhler. The following extract shows why Rothenbuhler considered these "oppressive" services to be "feudal":(18)

But, alas! these are not all the vexations and oppressions which fall to the lot of the common people, who bear all without murmuring. The feudal service was as grievous as almost all the other charges united. The origin of those services must be sought for in the feudal system of the native government, long ago adopted throughout Java. It was considered that all the land was the property of the prince, who only made provisional assignments thereof to his subjects, in remuneration for military and other services rendered. This was the cause of all the lands being divided into as many allotments as could be cultivated, called hachas, each of a size to be cultivated by one man. A certain number of these was assigned to the different chiefs, according to his rank; the custom of the country fixing not only the amount of the contributions to be paid from the produce, but the number of men to be constantly kept in attendance upon him. The lands thus assigned to chiefs were exempt from service to them, and the inhabitants were only expected to watch the villages, to make and repair the roads, and to perform other general services of the state.... but the Regents, their relations, their Patehs, and the subordinate chiefs of every description, assume the right of disposing of the services of the common people as they think proper, and themselves employ many of them in menial labour of all descriptions....

More details concerning these "feudal services" will appear later on in the writings of William Maxwell, the Assistant Resident of Perak, when he describes Malay land tenure in the Malay states. In the meantime, it may be pertinent to summarize the foregoing observations of John Jesse, William Marsden, Stamford Raffles and Raffles' Dutch authorities regarding the Brunei, Sumatran and Javanese societies: (a) that these societies were not only "feudal", but also "despotic" and "patriarchal"; (b) that territorial chiefs were more powerful than the king; (c) that lands and territories were granted out in fief to chiefs in return for military and other services, and these in turn were subdivided further among others of inferior rank; (d) that "vexatious" demands for forced deliveries, menial labour and other "feudal services" were exacted from the chiefs followers; and (e) that fealty and ties of homage were paid all the way down the hierarchy, between lords and dependents (called anak buah). We shall see that these' "feudal characteristics" will be repeatedly emphasized by other British observers.

In contrast to Marsden and Raffles, John Crawfurd detected only "Oriental despotism" in Java and the Celebes. "Feudal" is a word that is not to be found in his three-volume History of the Indian Archipelago, which appeared in 1820 - three years after Raffles' history of Java.(19) If there is any hint that Crawfurd did not subscribe to the idea of "Malay feudalism", it is in his remarks: "I make no reference to the shepherd state. Such a form of society could, in fact, never have existed in these countries, from the very nature of things."(20) In other words, Crawfurd held firmly to a rigid economic interpretation of "feudal society" as an agrarian-based society, especially when he described the terrain as jungled, abounding in rivers and narrow seas and lacking in pasture for rearing cattle and sheep. Characterizing Java's monarch as "among the most absolute of eastern potentates", Crawfurd added: "There is no hereditary nobility with privileges to control or limit his authority. He is himself first minister of religion, so that even religion has but trifling influence in restricting his authority."(21)

In 1824 in the context of an internal debate within the EIC on whether Kedah was a sovereign state, or a tributary of Siam, an EIC official, John Anderson, found the concept "feudalism" useful to support his faction's case that Kedah was a sovereign state. He used the word "feudal" and "feudatory" to describe the relationships between unequal states, and regarded Kedah as a weak state paying homage to Siam, a more powerful state, by either sending tributes or rendering services, or making some form of submission. Such a "feudal" relationship, he argued, by no means diminished the sovereignty of the weaker party. In fact, the whole aim of his book, Political and Commercial Considerations relative to the Malayan Peninsula, and the British Settlements in the Straits of Malacca was to demonstrate to the EIC the sovereignty of Kedah. On the definition of "Feudatory states" Anderson quotes from the work of one whom he described as the "celebrated Vattel":(22)

The Germanic Nations introduced another custom, that of requiring homage from a State either vanquished, or too weak to make resistance. Sometimes even a Prince has Sovereignties in fee, and Sovereigns have voluntarily rendered themselves feudatory to others. When the homage leaves independence and Sovereign authority in the Administration of the State, & only means certain duties to the Lord of the Fee, as some honorary acknowledgement, it does not prevent the State or the Feudatory Prince being strictly Sovereign. The King of Naples pays homage for his Kingdom to the Pope, and is nevertheless reckoned among the principal Sovereigns in Europe.

Throughout his work Anderson mentions "feudal obligations", "vassalage" and "paying homage" in Kedah's relations with either Ava or Siam, as well as Siam's relations with the Emperor of China.(23) Thus, according to this usage, "feudal" relations may also exist between states and are not necessarily confined to personal "lord-vassal" relationships within a feudal state. Such a usage was clearly derived from European history, where it applied to the relationships between superior kings and minor kings or princes.(24)

Again, in the 1820s, "feudalism" was used to explain the break-up of the Malay world into two spheres of influence under the Anglo-Dutch 1824 Treaty. Since the Malay kingdoms were "feudal" in character, they could be splintered into smaller political units. Using the concept in this way in 1839, T.J. Newbold regarded the peninsular states of Johor, Pahang and Negri Sembilan as all having been at one time "feudatory" to the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultan who had come under Dutch influence in 1784. However, Raffles' recognition of a separate breakaway Johor kingdom under a Riau prince caused the kingdom's break-up. Without referring to the older Johor-Riau-Lingga kingdom under the Dutch, Newbold described the British-appointed Sultan of Johor as "the feudal sovereign" and the pro-British Temenggong in Singapore as his "vassal".(25) Of Pahang, he said: "This state, though nominally feudatory to Johore [did he mean Johor-Riau-Lingga?], is virtually under a chief termed the Bendahara",(26) and again, "... it [Pahang] has frequently served as a place of refuge to the ex-sovereigns of Malacca and Johore, to whom, as before stated, it is nominally feudal, and not, as supposed by some, to the delegated princes of Rhio".(27) The term "nominally feudal" is clearly meant to lend legitimation to the British occupation of Singapore and recognition of the breakaway Johor kingdom.

There was also a tendency during this time for British writers in the nineteenth century to compare the feudal past of England with that of the Malay States. Similar features were observed in both societies. The journalist John Cameron, writing in 1865, identified the Malay hierarchical system as similar to England's earlier feudal structure:(28)

Unlike the nomadic tribes of the aborigines, the Malays of the peninsula have always been lovers of good order and an established government. In their independent states they have first a sultan, who is all powerful; under him there are datuhs, or governors, selected from among the men of rank, and under these again there are pangulus, or magistrates, all standing very much in their relation to the people as our own nobility stood in feudal times to the people of England.

J.F.A. McNair, an Army surveyor, wrote in 1878 about the "strong feudal pride" of the Perak Malays "arising from their principle of tribal associations under chiefs - a practice common to both Arab and Malay races - with its natural independence of spirit and love of liberty". He says that this "feudal pride" makes it "at all times a difficult task to render them tractable under coercion though capable under a patriarchal sway of readily yielding an implicit and cheerful obedience".(29) Clearly displaying a Western bias, McNair likened the taxation system of the chiefs to that of the feudal robber barons of Germany:(30)

This river system has made it very convenient for the chiefs of the country to obtain their dues; for no sampan or prau goes up or down the river without being squeezed by the followers of the chief, whose boats are ready at the campong at which the lord resides. One is strongly reminded of the robber chieftains, or barons of the Rhine, in the case of the Perak [River] and its tributaries; though here the enforced tribute has been exacted in a far milder way.

In 1883 the English lady traveller, Isabella Bird reported that the "independent" Malay states, not yet under British protection, possessed several "feudal" features such as fragmented authority, a subject peasantry, forced labour and military service:

Sultans, rajahs, maharajahs, datus, etc., under ordinary circumstances have been and still are in most of the unprotected States unable to control the chiefs under them, who have independently levied taxes and blackmail till the harassed cultivators came scarcely to possess property which might at any time be seized. Forced labour for a quarter of the labouring year was obligatory on all males, besides military service when called upon....(31)

The Malay sovereigns in most cases have come to be little more than the feudal heads of bodies of insubordinate chiefs, while even the headmen of the villages take upon themselves to levy taxes and administer a sort of justice.(32)

After British intervention in the state of Perak in 1874, land became an important commodity, which needed to be brought under British control for exploitation. Writing in 1884, Sir William Maxwell, who had served as Assistant Resident of Perak (1877-82), advocated the need to introduce a British system of land ownership, based on land titles and land-taxes. He examined what he regarded as the Malay feudal land system to arrive at a suitable rate of land-rent, which he concluded was one-tenth of the produce of the land. As for forced labour, or kerah, about which Isabella Bird had commented in her book, Maxwell described it as a feudal personal service which the free Malay cultivator had to render to his overlord as one of the conditions of tenancy. In a passage which has become famous due to being over-quoted, he shows not only the range of exactions imposed on the Malay peasants by the chiefs, but why the exactions, though oppressive, were subject to some degree of restraint. This illustrates what can be called the "moral economy" of the Malay peasantry:(33)

In a Malay state the exaction of personal service from the ra'ayat is limited only by the powers of the endurance of the latter. The superior authority is obliged from self-interest to stop short of the point at which oppression will compel the cultivator to abandon his land and emigrate. But within this limit the cultivator may be required to give his labour in making roads, bridges, drains and other works of public utility, to tend elephants, to pole boats, to carry letters and messages, to attend his chief when travelling, to cultivate his chief's fields as well as his own and to serve as a soldier when required. Local custom often regulates the kind of service exacted from the cultivator in a particular district. Thus in Perak one district used to supply the Raja with timber for building purposes, while rattans and other materials came from others; the people of one locality used to furnish the musicians for the Raja's band, while another had to provide nurses and attendants for his children.

In this and other passages on "Malay feudalism", Maxwell echoes the position taken by Raffles in his A History of Java, regarding Javanese land tenure and "feudal services". In a number of places he cites Raffles' book as well as from Marsden's History of Sumatra, sometimes quoting very lengthy passages, so that in Maxwell we see a direct continuity of ideas on "Malay feudalism" from Marsden's time.

Maxwell, however, was sharply critical of "forced labour" and other "rapacious" exactions of the Malay Rajas and chiefs on their followers which he described as a "blight" on the Malay peasantry. He heartily applauded Raffles' abolition of these "feudal services" in Java. Raffles had replaced them by a levy in which the peasant cultivator paid land-revenue, and he directed that if the Javanese peasant cultivators were ever required by the rajas to perform certain public duties, their services had to be paid for.(34) What has been controversial is Maxwell's opinion that the ownership of the land in a Malay state was vested in the Sultan (in this he repeats the views of Marsden, Raffles and the Dutch authorities with regard to Sumatra and Java). Maxwell held the view that the Malay ruler thereby had the right to demand of the peasant cultivator certain obligations or a proportion of his produce, usually a tenth, on pain of forfeiture of the holding. He cites the levy of the tenths as a common practice in ancient China, Cambodia, Ceylon and even in Kedah during Siamese rule. In the Malay States this practice was observed mainly in the Krian district of Perak and in Melaka. In the latter case the Dutch had imposed the levy as a continuation of an earlier Malay practice. Critics, however, regard the evidence on the practice of reciprocal obligations as not conclusive enough.(35)

Maxwell also contended that another evidence of a feudal practice was the Raja's absolute proprietary right to the soil. Like medieval European kings, the Malay Sultan's attribution of superior ownership in land and his interest in territorial possession was not mere fiction, as it was frequently backed by military and poltitical authority. However, David Wong rejects this argument on the ground that the peasant cultivator's obligations to the ruler or chief were not linked to any bondage through "land". Wong argues instead for "Malay despotism", in which "the persons of the subject class ... were brought under the yoke of the kingly government and their labour and produce crops exposed to exploitation by the ruling class, while, in so far as their relationships in respect of land were concerned, their customary 'rights' and 'liberties' to carry on the acquisition and cultivation of land were presumably left almost intact".(36) Wong ignores fief-holding which has been observed by most colonial writers as an essential aspect of pre-colonial Malay political and social organization. Under fief-holding, the chiefs claimed effective control or personal proprietory rights over land in their respective territories. The absence of any clear evidence linking peasant bondage to land, however, does not mean it did not exist nor that some reciprocal obligations under lord-vassal arrangements also did not exist. Although Swettenham differed with Maxwell over the issue of the levy of the tenths, he shared Maxwell's view that pre-colonial Malay society was feudal. In a despatch in 1890, he indicated that rights held by chiefs or the sultan entailed obligations to subordinate groups:(37) "... a principal feature of Malay society has always been the feudal system ... the people look to their chiefs and especially to the Sultan for assistance whenever they are in difficulty and they expect to receive it". He had elsewhere spoken of kerah and other labour duties and obligations owed by the Malay peasants to their chiefs and Sultan.

In 1895 appeared the most detailed description of "feudal" arrangements in the Malay peninsula. Hugh Clifford's Report on the Expedition to Trengganu and Kelantan is an account of his journey to the two states, not yet under British rule. It gives interesting details of the "feudal system" which he claimed existed "in the form of Government of every Malay kingdom in the Peninsula with which I am acquainted, and it was to be found in full force in Pahang when that state was protected by the British Government in 1888". His description of the "Malay feudal system" in Trengganu repeats many of the points mentioned earlier by Marsden and Raffles in Sumatra and Java, and by Maxwell in regard to the Malay states. However, he exceeded them in his Western-centric use of feudal terms like "fief", "vassals" and "baronies". Focusing on Trengganu, Clifford asserted the state possessed European feudal features such as fragmented authority, military service, forced labour and a subject peasantry:(38)

In the reigns preceding that of Baginda Umar [1839-1876] a feudal system, as complete in its way as any recorded in the history of the Middle Ages, was in force in Trengganu. This system, which presents a curious parallel to that of medieval Europe, is to be traced in the form of Government of every Malay kingdom in the Peninsula with which I am acquainted, and it was to be found in full force in Pahang when that State was protected by the British Government in 1888. In Trengganu it has undergone considerable modification, and now been replaced by a wholly different form of Government. Under the Malay feudal system the country is divided into a number of districts, each of which is held in fief from the Sultan by a Dato' or District Chief. These districts are sub-divided into minor baronies, each of which is held by a Dato' Muda, or Chief of secondary importance, on a similar tenure from the District Chief. The villages of which these sub-districts are composed are held in a like manner by the Katua-an or Headmen from the Dato' Muda. In event of war the Sultan calls upon the District Chiefs to render the military service which they are bound to afford, and each Chief summons the Dato' Muda, who call the village Headmen, who bring with them the able-bodied raayat who dwell in their villages. In the same way the Sultan often levies money from a district through the agency of the local Chief, who, in common with the Headmen under him, takes care that the whole burden shall be borne by the raayat. The latter may be said to have practically no rights, whether of person or property, under this system. Not only does he pay all the taxes and exactions which the Raja, the District Chief, or his more immediate Headmen may exact; not only is he called upon to labour continuously that others may profit by his toil; not only is he required to perform any work that may be demanded of him by his superiors without recompense or reward, but the fruits of his labours, all the property of which he stands possessed, and the very persons of his women-folk only remain his so long as he is strong enough to resist the person by whom they are coveted.

According to Clifford, this Malay "feudal system" in Trengganu was broken up by the autocratic Baginda Umar, who took away the powers of the territorial chiefs and centralized them in his hands. Despite this centralization, however, a few "feudal" practices survived, such as the budak raja (the palace knights), the parcelling of districts to Rajas, relatives of the Sultan, as sources of their income (they were mostly absentee Chiefs, who would only descend from the capital into the districts to impose taxes and take whatever they needed), and the retention of the village chiefs (the penghulu) who could impose the forced labour (kerah) on the peasants.(39) Clifford, however, gave little information about "feudalism" in Kelantan on the grounds he was not well informed about that state.

On 14 December 1897, in a paper presented to the Royal Colonial Institute in London, Clifford presented a more detailed picture of the "Malay feudal system".(40) He argued that "a study of the organization of a State on the east coast of the Peninsula reveals to us more completely the whole theory of Malayan government than any examination of the history of the States of Perak and Selangor can be supposed to do". Focusing on the state of Pahang, he preceded his examination with a comparison between the European and Malay feudal systems. He expressed the view that "feudalism" was a phase that every human society had to pass through in its evolution from primitive beginnings. Finally, he asserted that the Malays, "in common with other more civilised folk, had worked out for themselves unaided a theory of government on feudal lines which bears a startling resemblance to the European models of a long-passed epoch".

According to Said, Orientalism tended to make more rigid the sense of difference between the European and Asian parts of the world.(41) Nowhere is this more evident than in Clifford's comparison of Malay and European feudalism, in which he judged the Malay states to have remained static and backward:(42)

Students of European history may note with interest the slow evolution of existing systems of government in our various countries from beginnings which, speaking broadly, are singularly alike. Throughout the Europe of the Middle Ages the feudal system embodied the principal theory upon which all governments were based, and the history of the white nations is merely the record of the changes and developments effected in this system which, after many centuries, have resulted in the various methods of government which we find extant in the European countries of today. The feudal system, in some form or another, would appear to be one of the inevitable phases through which the government of every civilised country must pass in the process of its evolution from more primitive beginnings to methods of administration based upon wider, nobler conceptions of the duty of the State to those whom it rules yet serves; and an examination of the modern history of the Malayan States of which I am speaking, shows us with great distinctness that the Malays, in common with other more civilised folk, had worked out for themselves unaided a theory of government on feudal lines which bears a startling resemblance to the European models of a long-passed epoch. But here they had halted. To live in independent Malaya [i.e. in pre-British rule Malay states] is to live in the Europe of the thirteenth century.

Examining Pahang's "feudal system", Clifford found it had more European feudal features than in Trengganu. In addition to "fief" and "barons", he also identified "vassals" and "fealty" and emphasized the fragmentation of authority among the chiefs, their relationship to one another as "lord" and "vassal", the powers of these "barons" and the services which they extracted from their "vassals". He gives the most convincing evidence of fief-holding in a Malay state:(43)

Thus in the Malayan States, as we found them when first we began to set about the task of moulding their history for ourselves, the Sultan was theoretically the owner of the whole country and everything that it contained, all others holding their possessions in fief from him, or from his vassals on his behalf. The country was divided up into a number of districts, each of which was held in fief from the Sultan by an Orang Besar, or great Baron. The power which each of these men held in his own district was practically unlimited. Thus in Pahang a dozen years ago each of the great chiefs, of whom there were four, had the power of life and death over all the people residing in his territories. But the unwritten law or custom went further than this, for it defined the exact manner in which each of these chiefs must carry out the executions which he might order....

Under the four great chiefs, or barons, there were the chiefs of the Council of Eight. These men were related to the greater barons in precisely the same manner as the latter were related to their Sultan - that is to say, that they owed them fealty, and were bound to follow them in time of war.

Under the eight chiefs, each of whom had his sub-district, the boundaries of which were clearly defined by his letter of authority, were the chiefs of the Council of Sixteen - squires who owned a few clusters of villages, holding them in fief from one or another of the Council of Eight. Under them again were the Thirty-Two and the Sixty-Four, who existed more in theory than in reality, for no man in all the country knew its internal economy with sufficient intimacy to be able to name more than a few of them, and the little village headmen who claimed to belong to one Council were probably not sufficiently numerous to make up the required total of Ninety-Six.

Clifford went on to discuss the relationship of the peasantry to the chiefs, their claims to land ownership and the chiefs' claims to their labour and military services. What is interesting is that Clifford held that although the Malay peasant had no rights to land, yet he could occupy any land he wished so long as it was not challenged. This was unlike in feudal Europe, where the grant of rights to land by a higher authority conferred and imposed on the recipient obligations of service. Maxwell, however, had held that the soil of a Malay state was vested in the Sultan, who had the right to demand a tenth of the produce of the peasant cultivator who used the land. Clifford claimed that his observations were based on two years residence in Pahang before British rule was established:

Under the village headmen, the Ka-tua-an, or elders, as they were usually termed, were the free Raayat, or villagers. These men held land of their own, upon which their houses stood. They also had a traditional right to select such forest land from time to time as they might require for the planting of temporary crops, and most of them cherished some legendary claims to certain plots of uncultivated land which were suppposed to have once been occupied by some of their ancestors, and were perennial sources of dispute and contention. All this land, however, was only in a sense the property of the owner. No man disputed the right of a villager to take up jungle and transform it into arable land; no man denied his right to sell it; no one questioned the right of his children to inherit it when his day was done; but the owner held no title for it, and if a stronger than he coveted it and elected to dispossess him he had no redress. He paid no rent for his land; he was under no obligations as to its cultivation; but, by an unwritten law, he was bound to follow his headman or his chief to the seat of war in the event of his presence being required; he was forced to pay a number of taxes, regular or irregular, such as we Europeans are wont to term "squeezes"; and he was further bound to give his labour to any of his superiors who might need it free of charge, and to follow his chief when he went to Court in order to swell the number of the mob of adherents which the noble's dignity found necessary for its support.

In 1899, in his first book, In Court and Kampong, again, Clifford wrote about the Malay feudal system, repeating many of the details from his Report and his talk.(44)

The colonial discourse at this period also revealed a tendency to treat as "feudal" those Malay states not yet brought under British control, such as Johor, Kelantan and Kedah. On 12 February, 1894 Harry Lake, an engineer in the service of the Sultan of Johor, in a talk on Johor's early history described Johor as "feudatory or tributary to the sovereignty of the Sultan of Malacca".(45) Similarly, in 1908, W.A. Graham, in his book on Kelantan referred repeatedly to the state's fragmentation into smaller units whose chiefs he termed "feudatory".(46) Later another British writer, Lady Lovat, described the Regent of Kedah as "a feudatory, half-vassal of the King of Siam".(47) In 1925 the British imperial historian L.A. Mills in a background chapter of his book, British Malaya, focused his attention on Malay piracy in the nineteenth century, prior to British intervention, and attributed its causes to the "semi-feudal conditions" of the Malay states:(48)

So deeply ingrained was piracy in the native character that any sea-coast Malay would engage in it if the opportunity seemed favourable. The ordinary Malay trader was merchant and pirate by turns, as opportunity served. In this as in so many other respects the semi-feudal conditions prevailing in Malaya in the nineteenth century resembled those of Europe in the Middle Ages.

In the 1930s several full-length histories of Malay states like Pahang and Perak which had come under British protection were published by colonial writers. These states were seen as feudal, badly governed and frequently torn by internal conflicts among the Malay chiefs. As these conflicts produced wars and anarchy, their economies were ruined, causing great misery and suffering to the people. British intervention restored law and order. Thus, "Malay feudalism" was a bad system which had to be replaced by a modern, that is, Western system of administration. The picture of the British as "advanced" and "modern" in contrast to the Malays as "backward" and "incapable of government" is clearly evident in Linehan's A History of Pahang, which was published in 1936. Echoing Clifford's views about Malay feudalism in Pahang, Linehan added in many more details on the powers of the Pahang chiefs in Lipis, their claims over the Malay peasantry, and the frequent internal feuds among the chiefs, adding, "Discontent was rife amongst the feudal Chiefs and headmen of Lipis".(49) He even went one step further. Discussing the forced labour service, kerah, he compared the fate of Malay peasants with that of serfs in medieval Europe under the feudal system:(50)

....Throughout many of the States in the Malay Peninsula the system of forced labour (kerah or corvee), whether in civil or war-like employment, was common and none suffered from this burden more than the Pahang peasants. During the internal struggles which preceded [Sultan] Ahmad's accession to power, they were engaged, now with one set of contestants, now with the other. Their position corresponded with that of the serfs in the Middle Ages in Europe: they were inarticulate and had few, if any rights.

Earlier both Winstedt and Wilkinson in a collaborative work had blamed the Malay feudal system in Perak for much of the anarchy and civil conflict which had occurred in the state prior to British intervention in 1874. In A History of Perak (1934), they surveyed Perak's early transition from Malay to British rule under the 1874-75 administration of J.W.W. Birch, the first British Resident. He was murdered because of the Malay chiefs' resistance to his efforts to modernize the state. The meaning of Winstedt and Wilkinson's narrative becomes clearer if it is read as "J.W.W. Birch's attempts at the abolition of the Malay feudal regime", as the following extracts show:(51)

The Resident's task was of immense and novel difficulty. To the half-feudal, half-robber financial system he had seen no counterpart.... (p. 102)

....Blind to the shattering effect of this programme (to take over collection of taxes) on his feudal audience he went upriver to Kuala Kangsar.... (p. 104)

....With the headmaster (the Governor) behind him, he seems to have anticipated no recalcitrancy in his feudal pupils at the loss of their age-long pocket money!... (p. 104)

....They wanted His Excellency's (the Governor's) sympathetic intervention to prevent the Resident from interfering with religion and custom, from acting without consulting Sultan and chiefs, from depriving them of the feudal dues that were the only source of their income and from harbouring refugee slaves their property. (p. 108)

The Resident saw that toll-stations at intervals of every few miles along the Perak river must limit the output of tin and damage trade. But his proposals for a state revenue made a clean sweep of feudal dues, he made the chiefs no firm offer of compensation: in his eyes, they were robbers from the Sultan downwards. (p. 109)

....The Maharaja Lela seated in his open hall of audience declared that he would submit to no one but the Sultan, and he sat waiting to hear if the Resident would post those proclamations about taxation which boded the end of feudal rights and feudal rule; he had ordered his men to tear them down and, if they were posted again, to run amuck and kill. (p. 114)

....He (Hugh Low, the new Resident of Perak) settled the question of the feudal revenues of the chiefs by making them local headmen and giving them a substantial percentage of all Government dues collected by them in their districts. He secured a very useful addition to the revenue by substituting a definite land-tax for the indefinite right possessed by the State to the forced labour of its people.(52) (p. 117)

Within the context of Winstedt and Wilkinson's story, Malay feudalism served as a convenient ploy for British intervention. The Malay chiefs are seen as backward, degenerate, uncivilized and retarded. Birch's efforts in ending Malay feudalism and bringing about modernization in Perak, therefore, take on a heroic aspect.

Winstedt's predecessor Wilkinson was not a full-time scholar, but he was nevertheless an expert who translated Malay texts and whose job was to interpret the Malay states for his compatriots. He was one of the earliest writers to study the Melaka Sultanate through the use of Malay literary texts like the Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals). Through his studies, he had concluded that Melaka was a feudal society. He used terms like "vassal" and "fief" to describe its features:(53)

....he bestowed Kampar as a fief on its conqueror, Seri Nara di Raja....

....At its head he put the Dato Seri Udani, feudal Chief of Perba....

....The new vassal-state was to cover the whole coast from the River Sedili in the south to Trengganu in the North.

In many of his summaries of the Sejarah Melayu, Wilkinson depicted Melaka society and its government in feudal terms. This perspective seems to have influenced later British scholars like C.C. Brown, whose English translation of the Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) also presents the Melaka Sultanate as a feudal society. Brown uses the terms "fief" and "vassal" throughout his translation.(54)

Representation and Reality

The foregoing discussion has shown that a variety of factors had motivated British writers in the nineteenth century to use the term "feudal" to describe the Malay states in the pre-colonial period. These states were thereby consigned to a "feudal" stage identical to that in the history of Western Europe. At this point, Clifford concluded, they had stopped. The evidence to support these allegations came from the following sources: European history, the writers' personal observations of the Malay states, travellers' accounts, native informants and Malay literary and historical texts. Undeniably, they searched for the truth and the reality of the Malay past; but they did so by looking to something which had existed in the European past. The writing of history necessarily entails selection and interpretation of facts; they, therefore, tried to present a coherent account of what seemed an inchoate past by placing it within a Western mould. It is clear that idiom or language has been used to describe and explicate as well as to "invent" the historical reality of Malay feudalism. In order words, their knowledge of the Malay pre-colonial past is primarily presented to us in textual form. However, this does not mean as some post-modernist literary theorists claim, that there is no reality outside our textual representations of it. The question of historical truth remains a controversial issue among historians, and it is the alloted task of all historians always to seek it. In this respect we should regard the earlier colonial representation of Malay feudalism as one of several representations of reality.

Let us evaluate the colonial evidence on Malay feudalism. Firstly, the British writers do not claim that all the elements of European feudalism are found within "Malay feudalism". They were aware that a large-scale agricultural economy in the pre-colonial Malay peninsular states was absent, as observed by Crawfurd, yet despite this, they kept describing the majority of Malays as "peasants". In persisting with this notion, did they defy the facts, or were they governed by a theory or a belief that the world everywhere was socially composed of "peasants" and others? In their eyes, "peasants" simply connote a subordinate class of followers, poor, rural, and land-based, always eking out a subsistance agriculture livelihood, linked together by kinship ties, who resided in a village, and whose surpluses were always appropriated by their chiefs. Malays in states like Kedah, Melaka, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Kelantan and other east coast states grew rice, yam, bananas, coconuts and other subsistence crops. This was why writers like Maxwell, Clifford, Wilkinson, Winstedt and Linehan had not hesitated to regard the activities of the bulk of Malay population as rural and land-based peasants. Repeatedly, they identified the following evidence to justify "feudalism" in the Malay states: (a) ties of obedience and protection which bind rulers and chiefs, between greater chiefs and lower chiefs, between lower chiefs and peasants; (b) "fief-holding" among the chiefs, and (c) the district chiefs had rights of government, and the rights to impose taxes, forced labour and military service on the peasantry.

The British writers observed that under "Malay feudalism" not only was fief-holding widely practised, but authority was also frequently fragmented, as in Pahang, with the alleged division of fiefs among 96 chiefs. In each "fief" the chief is said to have ruled like the king, unless someone more powerful successfully challenged his position. Loyalty to the State as such did not exist among the population. Everyone had to owe loyalty to a chief, who in turn had to owe loyalty to a greater chief. This meant that a king could not easily command the loyalties of the followers of a district chief without first obtaining that chief's approval. The peasant provided labour services and served as servant, labourer, soldier, ceremonial escort, or as a member of the retinue of followers to enhance the dignity of his chief.

The British writers also observed that the "feudal" Malay chiefs were more powerful than the Sultans. There was an occasional autocratic Malay king like Baginda Omar of Trengganu, but even in such a case the powers of the chiefs were not completely wiped out. Vassalage sanctioned by written contracts or ceremonial oaths did not exist, yet lower chiefs were expected to pay homage to greater chiefs, and all chiefs to the king. There was also no manor or manorial economy as in Europe, yet peasants who lived within the subsistence economy of the village all bound themselves to some ties of obedience and protection under a chief. Like medieval European peasants, Malay peasants, too, had to perform forced labour and military service. While the actual conditions in the Malay states did not approximate to those in feudal Europe, several features and practices of both Malay and European feudalism were indeed comparable.

In this sense, British writers who used the expression "semi-feudal Malay states" were cautiously nearer the truth. The Malay states seemed to be "feudal" states only in their social and political organization, but not in economic terms. Because of this, the British colonial writers have used the term "feudalism" rather loosely, making its meaning vague. With the exception of Clifford, who commented in great detail on Pahang and Trengganu's "feudal system", no British writer ever attempted to study the "feudal system" in any Malay state in great depth. Although Wilkinson and Winstedt interpreted the Malay opposition to J.W.W. Birch in Perak as a defence of the "Malay feudal system", yet they did not describe and analyse the features of this system. Similarly, Wilkinson's study of the Melaka Sultanate is a chronological study of its kings, based on the Sejarah Melayu, and not an account of Melaka feudalism. Maxwell studied Malay land tenure, but confined it mainly to Krian district in Perak and the British settlement of Melaka. He did not examine the whole "Malay feudal system" as such, apart from compiling numerous sources relating to land tenure in Ceylon, Java and Sumatra.

Yet, it may be asked, why did the British writers not attempt to look within the Malay states themselves, the way anthropologists do, to describe and understand their societies on their own indigenous terms, instead of using Western terms like "feudal" or "feudalism"? One explanation is that they regarded "feudalism" as an evolutionary phase of human development, one which was "backward", if not "primitive", representing an earlier phase of Western historical development. Clifford especially considered it as a universal phenomenon which every society had to pass through. This was also largely due to the influence of Social Darwinism on the British colonial writers which has been perceptively observed by John Gullick:(55)

... the administrators had grown up in a Victorian middle class much preoccupied and disturbed by the Darwinian theory of evolution of natural species, with 'higher' and 'lower' orders, and the convenient view in the high noon of imperialism that human society was similarly making 'progress' from feudalism to enlightened (a favourite buzz word in their vocabulary) 19th century European civilised values.

They were also not interested in the immediate past of the Malay states for its own sake, but primarily to possess it as knowledge which could be understood. The Malay past had to be mastered even if the keys to unlock their mysteries had to be found within the European past. They also needed to make a distinction between the form of independent Malay rule and their own type of colonial administration. In this respect, there is a striking resemblance between Western historical writings on the Middle East and the Malay states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is obvious from a reading of Edward Said's Orientalism, wherein he observes that Orientalist writers on the Middle East,(56)

have always been inclined to impose complete transformations on other cultures, receiving these other cultures not as they are but as, for the benefit of the receiver, they ought to be. To the Westerner, however, the Oriental was always like some aspect of the West; to some of the German Romantics, for example, Indian religion was essentially an Oriental version of Germano-Christian pantheism. Yet the Orientalist makes it his work to be always converting the Orient from something into something else....

In short, a major critique of such Western historical writings is that they do not attempt to see the non-Western societies which they write about on their own terms. By using Western terms to describe Malay societies of the past, the British writers, too, were inevitably involved in a Western discourse and tended to look at the early Malay societies as a familiar type of society which had existed in the Western past.

Post-independence Discourse on Malay Feudalism

Having identified some of the problems and weaknesses in the British colonial usage of "Malay feudalism", the question may be asked: Is the theory of "feudalism" of no sociological value? Does its being a Western term and the fact that it was discovered and used by British colonial writers negate its usefulness? If we look at the post-independence discourse on feudalism among local writers in peninsular Malaysia since independence in 1957, we have to admit that they have found the term useful. I have used the term "post-independence" discourse, and not "post-colonial" discourse in the discussion that follows deliberately because "post-colonial" critique, as it is understood by some post-modernist writers like Edward Said, means an interrogation of colonial discourse, or colonial history aimed at "deconstructing" the centrality of the West within culture, politics and economics. What follows is not a "post-colonial" critique of the earlier colonial discourse on the Malay pre-colonial past, but a critique from a nationalist, Marxist or a secular academic perspective. Although they do not refer to the earlier British colonial historiography, anti-imperialist or nationalist writers like Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussein Alatas and Mahathir Mohamad also term the pre-colonial period of Malay history as "feudal", meaning "decadent", "unenlightened", or "oppressive". They have used these terms in defence of the downtrodden and exploited Malay masses, whose cause they champion. In this respect, their perspective is almost identical to that of the earlier colonial writers, who had used a similar chronology, idiom and meaning as contained in the phrase Malay feudalism. First Kassim Ahmad and then Syed Hussein Alatas were involved in the early discussions of post-independence discourse on Malay feudalism. Since then, however, only a handful of Malaysian scholars have become interested in feudalism as a way of understanding the Malay pre-colonial past. Kassim used his own reading of the general theory of feudalism to study the character of early Melaka society as found in the text of the Malay literary classic, Hikayat Hang Tuah. According to his interpretation (1959), the Hikayat Hang Tuah portrayed a conflict between traditional and modern values within a certain historical period in the Melaka Sultanate, i.e., between the "feudal" concept of absolute/blind loyalty to the ruler and that of justice. Kassim regarded the warrior Hang Tuah as a symbol of the former, and his friend and fellow-warrior Hang Jebat as a symbol of the latter. "Jebat is a rebel", writes Kassim. "He rebels against the existing feudal order."(57) To demonstrate his loyalty to the Sultan, Hang Tuah killed his friend when ordered to do so by the ruler. Hang Jebat, on the other hand, had risen against his ruler in defence of "justice" for Hang Tuah, believing him to have been put to death on a false charge and without a trial. Kassim describes Melaka society as "a feudal-agricultural structure based on a servant-master relationship".(58)

Alatas, however, focused on the historical continuity of certain features of Malay feudalism up to the present day. In a 1966 article, "Feudalism in Malaysian Society",(59) Alatas observed that the institutional and judicial system of feudalism had gradually disappeared in the peninsular Malay states since the beginning of modernization during the latter part of the nineteenth century. However, the psychological traits of feudalism had remained. He called this "psychological feudalism". In 1972, he expanded his views further by stating:(60)

The description of feudalism derived from Western history should not be applied too literally to Southeast Asia. A comparative form of relationship existed. In Southeast Asia there was the equivalent of the feudal lord - the chief, or raja, of a small area. He was the immediate fountain of authority. He performed many of the functions of the European feudal lord though his position was not entirely identical....

He defined seven broad and general structures said to have been found in "the feudal societies of the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians". "Unfortunately", he adds, "the terminology has to be borrowed from European history. But nevertheless it should not be understood as portraying identical phenomena."(61) By "psychological feudalism", Alatas meant an attitude or relationship characterized by personal attachment to the leader, in which the subordinate is expected to be loyal and faithful under all circumstances in a manner that sometimes comes into conflict with the norms and ethics of his work, or religious values.

Alatas' views influenced two of his students, Chandra Muzaffar and Shaharuddin b. Maaruf, who in their respective works have expressed almost identical views on Malay feudalism. Chandra Muzaffar accepts R. Coulborn and J.R. Strayer's definition that feudalism is "a method of government, a certain relationship between the protector (the feudal lord) and the protected (his vassal)". In his book Protector?,(62) he is concerned with the "Malay protector-protected relationship", whose origins he traced to the Melaka Sultanate. Chandra explains in the book that he had used "a political, rather than an economic conception of feudalism". On the other hand, Shaharuddin Maaruf states:(63) "By 'feudalism' I mean both a method of social organization as well as the corresponding psychological elements." While Chandra has paid more attention to ties of loyalty between Malay protector and protected through the centuries, Shaharuddin has focused on the persistence of Malay feudal values within concepts of heroes and hero-worship, nationalism and economic development in present-day Malaysian society.(64)

When these studies were being made by Kassim and the others, writers and public figures were also expressing their personal views on Malay feudalism. As an example, in 1970 a leading political figure, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, (now the Malaysian Prime Minister), briefly discussed "the feudal nature of Malay society" in his book, The Malay Dilemma.(65) Observing that rank and privileges placed the Malay rajas and princes at the top of present-day Malay society, Mahathir commented that the "feudalist" inclination of the Malays was not damaging because "feudalism can be beneficial if it facilitates changes". However, with regard to the Malay value system under which the Malays followed their leaders, Mahathir asserted that Malay leaders like the rajas must be willing to change and to institute changes, otherwise there was little hope for the Malay masses. Mahathir's interest in Malay feudalism was apparently of long standing, but it is not known what authors or books influenced his ideas. However, on 2 December 1990 in a speech as president of the leading Malay political party, UMNO, to the UMNO general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir delivered a scatching criticism of the Malay rulers and the Malay "feudal period" in history:(66)

Before being colonised, the Malay states were under the feudal system of Government where only the royal household and territorial chiefs were involved in politics. The Malay masses had no role whatsoever. The political situation was seldom stable. Attempts to topple the rulers of the Malay states were made all the time. This inevitably weakened the Malay sultanates and lawlessness was the order of the day. That was why colonisers had an easy time intervening, influencing and eventually taking over the administration.

Like Kassim Ahmad's and Alatas' studies, these observations also focused on the reciprocal relations between Malay rulers and their subjects. These writers have not noticed or commented on other aspects of Malay feudalism which have been observed by British colonial writers. Other Malaysian scholars who have also identified "feudal" Malay states are: historian Lim Teck Ghee (Perak),(67) sociologist Syed Husin Ali (Melaka Sultanate),(68) and historian Rahmat Saripan (Kelantan).(69)

There are, of course, detractors of Malay feudalism. Sociologist Wan Hashim of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, takes a strictly Marxist perspective of feudalism as a social formation or "mode of production". Wan Hashim also doubts that feudalism existed in pre-colonial Perak state.(70) Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia historian, Mohamed Yusof Ibrahim, is also sceptical concerning whether feudalism existed in the Melaka Sultanate. To him, Melaka thrived on trade instead of agriculture, practised a money economy, had slavery and accorded women a high social status - all of which, he insists, do not point to feudalism.(71) Although the legal digest of Melaka, the Undang-Undang Melaka,(72) proves that Melaka Malays practised agriculture, this has not been given much credence by Mohamed; he also regards the city-port of Melaka as representing the whole territory of Melaka, although its size in the fifteenth century was rather extensive, beginning from Kedah state in the north of the Malay peninsula to the Riau islands at the extreme south. While trade had taken place in the port-city of Melaka only, the entire bulk of Melaka population would have been involved in some form of subsistance cultivation.(73) As for slavery, medieval "feudal" Europe from the ninth to the twelfth centuries also practised slavery, which gradually died out by the fourteenth century. Sweden was the last feudal European state to abolish slavery in the fourteenth century.(74) A money economy had also penetrated feudal Europe. The status of women was never a litmus test anywhere for feudalism.

A recent critic of "Malay feudalism" is another historian, Khoo Kay Kim, who claims that pre-colonial Malay societies were initially maritime and trading societies. Later, these societies became riverine, but not agricultural. Referring to the colonial historiography, Khoo cites the works of Clifford and John Anderson, using the latter to disprove the former's view that precolonial Malay society was feudal. Because more and more riverine districts came under Malay chiefs and princes in the late nineteenth century, Khoo argued, Clifford (in his 1895 report of his expedition to Terengganu and Kelantan) had been prompted to describe Malay society as feudal, while John Anderson had seen such river settlements earlier, but did not describe them as feudal. This view is in contrast to Khoo's position in 1974, when, in evaluating the Pangkor Treaty of 1874, under which the Perak Sultan asked for British protection, on the occasion of its centenary he described Malay ruler-ruled relations as "feudal": "contrary to British claims that Malay society was rendered more egalitarian since the Pangkor Engagement by the abolition of slavery and the corvee system, the traditional feudal bond between the masses and the ruler was, in effect, strengthened".(75) However, in his reference to British colonial historical writings on Malay feudal society, he is mistaken in saying that they confined their discourse to only the relationship between the Malay ruler and his subjects:(76)

Malay society in the past (before the British administration) has often been described as feudal. The term 'feudal' was first used by British officials in the 19th century in reference to the relationship between the ruler and the subject class. It is a moot point whether the term accurately describes the situation which prevailed. 'Feudal' has a specific historical context. Derived from the situation which existed in Europe, it described the medieval European form of government based on the relation between vassal and superior arising from the holding of lands on condition of homage and service....

Bearing in mind that Malay society was, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, maritime and in the nineteenth century, riverine in character, it must be seriously considered whether it is at all appropriate to describe Malay society in those days as feudal which was, as pointed out earlier, a situation which prevailed in medieval Europe. For one thing, it would be difficult to speak in terms of the means of production where little was "produced".

Although Khoo dislikes model-construction, theory or a priorism in history, and is a true Rankean who believes the historian's duty is to tell "how it really was",(77) yet in holding to the view that pre-colonial Malay society was not agricultural, but maritime and trading in nature, he himself has now put forward a theory which is open to challenge.(78)


The discourse on Malay feudalism has shown that writers and scholars have found the term "feudalism" useful and made of it what they will. The seventeenth-century European historian had to invent the term "feudal" to represent a period (ninth-twelfth century) in European history, although Europeans who lived through the period hardly knew of its existence. Likewise, the colonial writer, or the Malaysian politician or scholar, has interpreted "Malay feudalism" according to his understanding of the term. Despite being motivated by a variety of factors to use the term "feudalism", the British colonial writers identified certain identical features in Malay and European feudalism, such as social hierarchy, fief-holding and fragmentation of authority. The Malaysian politician or scholar has, however, seen fit to identify only one or two surviving features in present-day Malay society such as "blind loyalty" (Kassim Ahmad), "psychological feudalism" (Alatas) and rank-consciousness (Mahathir). We should realise that no resemblance can be exact. On the other hand, the detractors of "Malay feudalism" have found no evidence of "feudal society", or from their theoretical understanding of the term consider it inapplicable to the pre-colonial Malay states.

There are, of course, alternative approaches for the study of the pre-colonial past of non-Western societies. The scholar Michael Adas has invented a new term, the "contest state", to describe many of the pre-colonial states in Southeast Asia, which frequently suffered from internal successsion disputes.(79) Others like John Gullick have scrupulously avoided the use of any terminology to describe the pre-colonial Malay state. In a highly-acclaimed study, he has emphasized that control of land was less important than control of people in nineteenth century Malaya: "Where land is not a scarce commodity, however, and this was the case in the Malay States, political power even though it is exercised in respect of defined territorial areas is based on control of people."(80) Gullick's impact on many scholars today is$great. His different point of view leads me to the question: Why, then, did Clifford, Maxwell, and other British writers continually repeat the notion that Malay "feudalism" involved the raja's control over land rather than of people? We have already discussed the British writers' emphasis on fief-holding as an important feature of Malay feudalism; in addition, they were motivated to give land a greater economic value. While land resources were abundant, human resources were scarce. Territory was important but it had to have population available for control of labour, agricultural supplies, military services, and the collection of taxes. Seen in this light, fief-holding was as important as the size of a chief's following. Gullick's observation does not, however, negate the validity of the British colonial writers' view, but the difference between his point of view and theirs ought
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Author:Kheng, Cheah Boon
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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