By Samuel Loh

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Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ostensible desire to civilize or uplift lesser societies was the chronic refrain invoked by European and Japanese states to justify their respective imperial projects. The ideological foundations which sustained British rule in Malaya were in the most general sense no exception from this broad observation, although importantly the large and growing presence of overseas Chinese—which, in fact, long predated the arrival of the British—and their historical interactions with the indigenous Malay population gave rise to a qualitatively different set of circumstances that colonial administrators did not always encounter in other territories. Perturbed by anxieties relating to inter-ethnic hostilities and the perceived shortcomings of local governance, British officials in the colony, whose earliest and arguably most enduring interests in the Malay Peninsula had been predominantly commercial, gradually came to view themselves in the expanded role of custodians over human lives, a distinctly paternalistic approach that can be understood in terms of Michel Foucault’s formulation of “bio-power.” The bedrock of this bio-political regime in Malaya was the firm belief in the need for British supervision, often framed in both public and private writings as a form of political didacticism or arbitration rather than outright domination, in order to manage looming conflict between competing racial groups or the adverse effects arising from unenlightened rule. Drawing from a range of unpublished archival material, primarily official and semi-official correspondences between officials in the colony and in London, this article argues that British rule in late nineteenth-century Malaya represented a unique mode of colonial governmentality that was not commonly found in contemporary European or Japanese colonies. In doing so, it also takes Malaya as a useful vantage point from which to examine the complex interrelation of race and empire.

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