Treaty of Federation and the Malay States (1895)

Treaty of Federation and the Malay States (1895)
Treaty of Federation and the Malay States (1895)

The first British base in Southeast Asia was Bencoolen (now Bengkulu) in Sumatra in 1685, and this was followed by Penang Island, off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula in 1786 (this grew to include part of the nearby coastline in 1800).

Both were established by the English East India Company. During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain also conquered the Netherlands East Indies, but it was returned to the Dutch in 1815 at the end of the war. In 1819, the British also purchased Singapore at the southern tip of Malaya.

This gave the British the ports of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, through which went much of the commerce from the Malay Peninsula. Exports of pepper and gambier (used in the treatment of leather), rice, coconuts, and spices ensured the prosperity of the region.

The Malay Peninsula consisted of a number of sultanates, most of which entered into treaties with the British authorities. Initially, the northern ones had been subjects of the King of Siam (Thailand), but the larger southern states of Johore, Pahang, Perak, and Selangor, as well as many minor states such as Jelebu and Sungei Ujong all signed treaties with the British.

In the late 19th century tin was found in Malaya, especially in Perak. In addition, the successful introduction of the rubber plantation made it extremely wealthy. The growth in the economy led to a massive influx of Chinese, which later created political problems for the indigenous Malay rulers. The British Colonial Office gradually moved the whole of Malaya under British rule.

Britain proposed the creation of the Federated Malay States (F.M.S.), with its capital at Kuala Lumpur (in Selangor), to consist of Pahang, Perak, Selangor, and nine small states. Johore retained seperate privileges and did not join the F.M.S. The northern states of Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, and Trengganu did not join and were called the Unfederated Malay States.

Treaty of Federation
Treaty of Federation

Many British civil servants who had worked in the Malay States favored a federation to standardize the rules between the states and to allow greater efficiency in administration and in business.

In July 1895 the Federation Treaty was signed by the sultans of Pahang, Perak, Selangor, and Negri Sembilan, and the Federation of the Malay States of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang formally came into existence.

The Federation Treaty consisted of six articles. The first confirmed all previous treaties between the British and the Malay sultans who had “severally placed themselves and their States under the protection of the British Government.”

In other articles, the states agreed that they were entering into a federation “to be known as the Protected Malay States to be administered under the advice of the British Government,” and restricted the authority of each ruler to his own state and to acceptance of British authority.

The rulers also accepted the advice of the residents-general on all matters of administration except those relating to Islam. Another article mandated economic and military cooperation between the states.

This new agreement established the position of resident-general, who was responsible to the governor of the Straits Settlements (Malacca, Singapore, and Penang), based in Singapore.

The Federation Treaty also allowed for the establishment of the Malayan civil service, with members serving throughout the Malay Peninsula (including the Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlements). It also helped with the coordination of communications through unified railway and postal services.

Natural Extension

For most of its existence the F.M.S. was extremely successful. The first resident-general was Frank Swettenham. A conference of rulers was held in 1897, and it was agreed that future conferences would take place on a regular basis.

Swettenham remained in office until 1901. During World War I, the F.M.S. took an active part in the war effort with hundreds of Britons from Malaya enlisting, along with some Malays who served in Aden. Rubber and tin production also helped the British war effort.

In post–World War I decades, prosperity came from rubber, tin, palm oil, coconuts, and fruit exports. Many towns built civic amenities like swimming pools, dance halls, cinemas, private schools, and clubs. With the depression starting in 1929, the price of rubber fell as demand crashed. A number of plantation businesses collapsed and managers lost their jobs.

The F.M.S. continued until the Japanese invasion of December 1941. The British, unable to hold back the Japanese, were forced to withdraw to Singapore where they surrendered on February 15, 1942. In response to a Thai request, the Unfederated Malay States became part of Thailand, with the other states and the Straits Settlements run by the Japanese for the duration of World War II.

During the Japanese occupation, the British government drew up the Malayan Union plan which would formally end the F.M.S. once the Japanese were defeated. It envisaged the uniting of the F.M.S., the Unfederated Malay States, Johore, and the Straits Settlements into one political entity.

When the British returned in December 1945, they put extreme pressure on the Malay Sultans to sign the Malayan Union Treaty, which formally ended the F.M.S. in 1946. In 1957 the Federation of Malaya gained full self-government from Britain, but remained a member of the Commonwealth.