HC Deb 01 November 1934 vol 293 cc506-18

Order for Second Reading read.

10.33 p.m.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I am glad to conclude with a Bill which the Leader of the Opposition has already said commands the unanimous support of the party opposite. This Bill, which has come to us from another place, where it was equally unanimously treated, asks for authorisation to confirm an agreement for the retrocession to the Federated Malay State of Perak of a small piece of land called the Dindings. Anybody who looks at the map will appreciate that it is an integral part of the State of Perak and very far away from the Settlement of Penang, but it has for many years been administered as part of the Straits Settlement of Penang. The only reason why it ever became separated administratively from Perak was that many years ago, in 1826, it was ceded by the then Sultan of Perak to the East India Company, because, as the Treaty said, the King of Perak had not the force or the means to drive out the pirates and robbers who infested those parts. The Dindings has long ceased to be a refuge for pirates and once that happened there was really every reason why this little bit of territory should once again become part of the State of Perak.

Every Colonial Secretary and every High Commissioner and Governor in the Straits from the time of Joseph Chamberlain, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery), and two Secretaries of State in Labour Administrations, were all agreed that this ought to be done, but, as usual in these matters, time did not permit. However, we now propose to do it. It is, as a matter of fact, to-day administratively most convenient that this should be done. It is inconvenient that the Dindings should be administered as part of a colony from which it is very distant instead of part of the Protected Federated States to which it naturally belongs. A sort of converse case has now arisen creating a reason for giving it back, which is rather parallel to the reason for which it was originally ceded. The Federated States to-day have a different tariff from the colony. They have a number of duties and preferences which do not apply in the colony of the Straits Settlements. We therefore get the ridiculous position that this little territory, which is part of the state of Perak, carries with it the tariff of the Straits Settlements colony many miles to the north. The only stuff which can come in is stuff that is going into Perak. The Perak authorities cannot levy the Perak duties upon it because it is part of the colony territory; therefore, the duties cease to be paid and the territory has become a slightly attractive place for smugglers. I hope the whole House will agree with this economical and sound piece of administration as an act of justice. I hope the House will not he less willing to approve of it when it is told that these Federated States, of which Perak is a most important one, have been more than generous in the loyal contributions which they have made to Imperial defence. They have made almost unparalleled financial grants to our defence strength.


What is the area involved in the proposal?


One hundred and eighty square miles.

10.38 p.m.


The right hon. Gentleman is very apt in his speeches to attribute agreement with most of the things with which lie deals to other Governments that have gone before. To-night in this matter he brings me in, although I have never heard of the Dindings before. I do not see any particular objection to the Bill, but there are one or two questions which one may ask in regard to a Measure of this kind. It deals with 20,000 people and covers an area of something like 200 square miles. It is quite -an important part of the Federation of the Malay Peninsula and it is a matter of concern as to whether it should handed back from the British Empire to the Sultan.


My hon. Friend says, "Back from the British Empire." He will appreciate that the Federated Malay States would be greatly insulted if they thought they were regarded as not part of the British Empire.


Up to now the Dindings have been regarded as more under the control of the British Empire than as being under the Sultan of Perak, and I want to know how far the sovereignty of this country is being removed in this matter, whether this is to become an. independent State and whether we have any control or not. Are we beginning to break up the Empire? It seems that what we are doing is selling out this particular quarter of the Federated States for £10,000. If that is the value of that part of the Empire I have nothing more to say, but we ought to be assured that the Empire is not being weakened by reason of this agreement and I think the right hon. Gentleman might give us that assurance. We know that the Malay States have come to the assistance of the Empire very generously on more than one occasion, and we ought to know whether or not there is ever any likelihood of that happening again by reason of the agreement we are now coming to, because it seems there will not be quite as close a connection with the Empire as before.

10.42 p.m.


If this matter raises no echo in the memory of my hon. Friend opposite it brings back familiar memories to me in connection with an old question. It was my privilege to come before the House some years ago and inform it of an extraordinarily generous donation of £2,000,000 which the rulers of the Malay States were willing to make, and have since made, in order to accelerate the development of the Singapore Base. Both then and before and since the rulers of the Federated Malay States, among whom the Sultan of Perak is certainly not the least progressive or the least generous, have shown themselves in every way loyal partners in the British Commonwealth, and I think we need have not the slightest fear in handing over from direct British administration to Federated Malay administration this small patch of territory, which can only be reasonably administered in the interests of its own inhabitants if it is included in the parent State. My recollection is that the frontier runs quite artificially between islands and creeks, and separates a piece of territory which, on both sides, could only be developed properly for plantation, irrigation and other purposes if it were under a single administration. I have not the slightest doubt that the actual property interests and other interests of the 20,000 inhabitants, Malay or European or others, have been fully safeguarded. They were safeguarded some years ago and no doubt they have been safeguarded since, so I assert that we need not have the slightest scruple about a transfer Which, I think, is a recognition of the Sultan of Perak's loyalty and generosity and would be greatly appreciated. It would certainly be in the interests of the inhabitants of the territory itself, and in the interests of Perak in so far as smuggling is diminished, and in the interests of this country, also, because the smuggling is to the detriment of the general system of Imperial Preference which is established in the Federated Malay States and is not established, for very good reasons, in a great entrepot like Singapore.

10.44 p.m.


These minor Colonial Measures usually pass their Second Reading virtually without any comment, the House leaving them to the good sense of the Minister and his advisers, but chance has placed this Measure in a somewhat different category. I ask the House to recall, going back to the period before the Summer Adjournment when the Lord President of the Council was announcing the business to be taken after the Recess, that when he came to the word "Dindings" on the Paper before him he could evidently hardly believe his eyes. He required considerable sotto voce reassurance from the Patronage Secretary before he would proceed with its pronunciation. Several newspapers seized upon this small human incident as a basis for paragraphs, and, constantly, for a short time the Dindings had greatness thrust upon them. By reason of having a comic name the Dindings became the subject of speculation for one week in July. Admittedly the Dindings is only a small area in Malaya of some 183 square miles. It is adjacent to the State of Perak and it is to be handed back to the Sultan of Perak.

But in spite of what has been said by the Minister and also by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery), and at the cost of being thought somewhat stubborn, I still ask, Why is this territory being handed back? Everyone is prepared to accept the Sultan of Perak as a most enlightened native ruler, but I for one desire to get behind the somewhat flowery Oriental language of the Treaty which assigns this transfer to "a token of the friendship which His Majesty's Government bears towards His Highness," and to ascertain exactly why the transfer is taking place. I was very interested to hear what my right hon. Friend the Minister had to say in explanation of the necessity of this transfer. He told us—it was very interesting to hear it—that the Treaties of 1826 and 1874 were in effect only intended to be temporary in their nature and related to the state of piracy at or before that time which this country was asked to suppress and which no longer exists. He also told us that the Dindings were integrally and geographically a part of the State of Perak and consequently ought to be returned to it, and that the State has subscribed largely to the Singapore base, while certain fiscal reasons were also introduced into his arguments—fiscal anomalies which, I think, could easily be altered.

In spite of all this I feel that such arguments do not really carry very much weight in the present stage of the Colonial development of our Empire. This area, small as it may be, whenall is said and done, is being transferred from the Sovereignty of the British Empire, which confers upon the native inhabitants of that district the benefits of a vast, enlightened and experienced administrative machine, to the Sovereignty of a native ruler who has no such machine at his command.


Of course he has.


Then I maintain that you are handing the inhabitants of the Dindings over to a rule which, of necessity, must be of less benefit to them than our own. I consider this to be a retrograde step. No doubt the Secretary of State for the Colonies, if he replies, will tell me that the British Government keeps a Resident in the State of Perak and that the Sultan is bound by Treaty to take the advice of the Resident. But it is common knowledge and I think very natural and right in these cases, that the Resident is always l0th to interfere with the native ruler unless major issues are involved. Minor oppressions are inclined to be overlooked. I believe it is now generally agreed by all parties in this House that the responsibilities of Empire, sometimes known as "the white man's burden," should be exercised if not primarily on their behalf at least to the best advantage of the native inhabitants in the district concerned. So far as I can see this main condition of our Imperial stewardship will not be complied with in this Bill. Even the Secretary of State, when he brought forward certain justifications for this Bill, did not presume to suggest that the Dindings would be better administered under the rule of the Sultan of Perak than they would be by the Government of the Straits Settlements. I think it stands to reason that would be unlikely. This is no ultra-Imperialism and no jingoism. My surprise at the inadequacy of the reasons which have caused the Government to take a step so little in accord with the present principles of Colonial administration is only equalled by my surprise at the complacency of the majority of the Opposition on this occasion. In the past Members of the Socialist party, and especially Members of the Liberal party, have been quick to arrogate to themselves the function of acting as protectors of the aborigines. On this occasion—I do not know the reason why—they seem content to let the Dindings pass by on the other side.

I would point out that there are certain wider issues involved which apparently have not yet been realised. I would ask the House to recognise that since the decision to create a naval base at Singapore all the territories in the Malay Peninsula have attained a far greater strategic importance than ever they possessed before. The Far East is to-day in a state that everybody regards as to put in mildly disquieting. Were it not so I presume we should not be making every effort to complete as quickly as we can a base at Singapore to strengthen our naval communications. But I would ask the House to realise this significant point —that in the extreme North, in Siamese Territory, the Malay Peninsula narrows at the Isthmus of Kra to a matter of some 60 miles. The project for the building of a canal at this point by the Siamese, often mooted, is as many of us know about to be introduced again and I understand on the best authority that it is seriously proposed to construct this canal if finances will allow it and there is a suggestion of financial assistance from the Japanese. Such a back-door enabling any battle fleet to sidetrack Singapore to provide, so to speak, a bypass by a much shorter route could not but have a profound effect on the local strategical situation.


Has my hon. and gallant Friend really found out all about this canal, and the absolute impossibility of making it owing to the sand-bars outside?


I can only say that I am rather interested in this subject because quite recently I have visited that part of the world, and have all this information at first-hand. The comparison with what I am suggesting—and it is not, perhaps, such a complete fabrication as might be thought—is the example of the construction of the Panama Canal, which completely altered naval strategy in the Western Hemisphere, and I think I have a right to draw the attention of the House to these facts so that it may have an opportunity of looking ahead. I do not intend to be an alarmist, or, for that matter, to asperse the good intentions of a Foreign Power, anyhow, if we desired to prevent the building of such a canal, it would be impossible for us to do so. But the proposal to transfer about 200 miles of territory in that vicinity demands, I think, consideration of these factors.

Our situation in Malaya to-day can be compared somewhat to a pyramid resting rather uneasily upon its apex, the apex being Singapore. Above the comparatively small area of the Straits Settlements themselves lie the Federated Malay States. Most of these States have been under the rule of Siam at various times in their history, and authorities on all hands seem to agree that their international sympathies are still with Siam. The Siamese have much in common with the Japanese. Siam, as we all know from recent events, is very discontented to-day.

Beyond the Federated Malay States come the Unfederated Malay States, and it may surprise the House to be reminded that until 1919 these Unfederated Malay States had for centuries been de- pendencies of Siam, and that they were reluctant to depart from their old allegiance. I admit that Siam by herself is unlikely to prove to be any danger to the Empire, but I think we have the right to consider that Siam, as the catspaw of some greater Power, could very easily prove to be a serious menace, especially in view of the influence that she has throughout the Malay States. That being so, it would in my opinion appear to be scarcely a happy moment for this country to divest itself of one of the few areas in the Straits Settlements which are under direct British control, and, therefore, I trust that I have made out on two points a case based on admitted principles, and one that is worthy of some consideration from the Minister.

10.59 p.m.


As one who has lived in these parts, I rather regret the sentiments which have been expressed by one of our colleagues in the House who has merely paid a visit there. The other day I was in Athens, also for the first time, and when I got on board again an old lady came up to me and said: "Sir Edward, I am very disappointed. My friends at home told me that I should go and see the Acropolis. I went to see it, but I found nothing but a ruin." She had evidently expected to find other things. As we who have lived in these parts know, the Sultan of Perak is one of the most enlightened, patriotic men in the Empire. The natives also are loyal to the British Crown and no other. It is a very great pity that it should get about that any Member of the House of Commons who has been on a short visit should have come back with the impression that subjects of the British realm are not perfectly loyal but are harking back to loyalty to Siam, from which, I think, he said they originated.


If my hon. Friend reads my remarks to-morrow he will find that I made no mention of the inhabitants of Perak being disloyal in any way to our Empire.


I shall be very pleased, if I have time, to read the report but I hope more sincerely that the people at the other end of the world will not read it, which is still more important. I am rather sensitive on these matters and the impression that I got was that that speech was not in the best interests of the Empire or of the people in the Malay States. One hears people in those parts making a complaint about this, that or the other, but a great number of people who live in those countries and know very little about what is going on and are apt to. complain about things that do not really exist. I believe this Measure is in the best interests of all concerned.

11.2 p.m.


I got a somewhat different impression of my hon. and gallant Friend's speech. I think he made it very clear that he considered that the Sultan of Perak is a most enlightened ruler and a very loyal subject, and has proved it on many occasions. I think my hon. and gallant Friend was quite right to raise the points he did. We are apt late at night to pass things through without much discussion which arc well worth a certain amount of thinking over. Here we are taking a fairly important step. It may be only on a small scale, but it applies to 20,000 people who are at present controlled direct through the Colonial Office. They are being handed over, as I think quite rightly, to an admittedly friendly State, but before we definitely decide to take that step, I think it is advisable to get a little clearer information from the Secretary of State on one or two matters. I understand that it is the custom in the Malay States to rule sometimes through the smaller chieftains in the various States. Of course, the administration is under the Sultan and his Council and the Resident Commissioner, but what exactly is the situation in the case of the Dindings? For instance, will there be any intermediate ruler over them or will they be governed direct from headquarters? Will there be any petty chieftain? Furthermore, has my right hon. Friend any information as to what are the feelings of the people of the territory to be receded to Perak? Has he any idea as to whether they feel they will be quite happy and contented after the country has been ceded to Perak?

There are two points of a somewhat technical nature. In the Schedule to the Bill, which contains the agreement, I notice in Clause 2 it says that nothing in the agreement shall operate to affect the nationality of any persons domiciled in the Dindings. Does that mean that they still remain direct British subjects and not Protected British subjects? If so, it seems rather a curious arrangement, which I do not quite understand. If they are in future to be under the rule of the Sultan of Perak, that is to say, subjects of a British Protectorate, it seems a very odd arrangement that they should at the same time remain British subjects direct. The second point is in Clause 5 which says that the Government of Perak will pass such legislation as may be necessary to make the law of Perak applicable as from the date of the entering into force of the agreement. That is only to be expected, but can my right hon. Friend reassure us that a change over from the ordinary law applicable in the Straits Settlements to the law of Perak will not entail any hardship on the inhabitants of the district which is being handed over?

11.7 p.m.


I am very glad to answer these questions. I think there is rather a misconception in the minds of one or two Members who have spoken as to what is the type of administration existing in the Federated Malay States. The hon. and gallant Member for Marylebone (Captain Cunningham-Reid) spoke of a sort of alien administration of a very inferior character. It is nothing of the sort, and anybody with any knowledge of the administration of the Federated Malay States, particularly a State like Perak, in which great businesses are carried on, knows that it is a unified service, the same Civil Service, changed about from the Colony to the Malay States, with an able Resident and an efficient Civil Service. If I had put to me by the hon. Member the invidious question as to whether I thought the administration was better in the Malay States than in a Crown Colony, upon my soul I should find it very difficult to answer. The only answer is that it is equally good in both.


It is the same.


It is the same, and therefore it is the same standard. The man who is the Governor of the Straits Settlements is the High Commissioner for the States. It is the same person and the policy is the same throughout. I wish before the hon. Gentleman speaks on the matter he would become a little acquainted with the case. Under the Treaty by which the Federated Malay States come under the protection and become part of the British Empire, it is the duty and the obligation of the Sultan to take the advice and to act upon the advice of the Resident, who takes his instructions from the High Commissioner on every single question, except Malay religion and custom. What in effect does happen is that a most admirable system of administration, with social services, schools and so on, exists in the Federated States exactly as in any of the Crown Colonies. Therefore, the suggestion that what is being done is putting people away from the benefits of British rule and placing them under alien domination is utterly beside the point. I agree with everything that has been said on the question of loyalty by my hon. Friend who has had so much experience in these parts. In regard to the other point, as to what the administration is likely to be in the future, there is a sort of District Council at the present time, and I have not the least doubt that the District Council will act in the future, but what will happen further will he that there will now be some incentive to develop a little more, because it will be linked up with the State of which it is naturally and geographically a part, and it will be much more convenient that it should be linked up in that way and worked directly through the Resident than through an officer in Penang, a very long way off.

With regard to Article II I shall not go into the very subtle distinction between a British subject and a British protected person, but the Article does what it says. Everybody who is there at the present time and who is a British subject, will remain a British subject in the technical sense of the term. Lastly, from the point of view of the great strategic danger which we are encountering, I assure the House that this proposal was not introduced without the full approval of the Defence Services, who are quite satisfied. We have effective control over any strategic measures that may be necessary. From all that we know of the past we can rely not only on our legal position but on the intense loyalty of the Sultan and inhabitants to give us the greatest assistance in any matter of defence.

11.13 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir WILLIAM ALLEN

There is one question which has not been answered, and that is, what are the feelings of the people who are being handed over?


I have every reason to believe, from all that I have heard from the High Commissioner, that they are perfectly content. In fact they will find no difference at all because really it will be the same administration under which they live now.


It is important that we should be certain on this point because we have had previous experience of territories of the British Empire being handed over under the delusion that the people desired it.


I cannot pretend that there has been a plebiscite, but every High Commissioner for a very long time past has most strongly recommended this step as in the best interests of the people themselves.


I appreciate that we were going to do the same thing in India and Egypt simply because the Government were under the impression that the people of India and Egypt desired it. We must be very particular about this portion of the Empire as to whether the residents there require this change to be made. The Debate has raised a number of anomalies. We find great Imperialists among hon. Members opposite; a great desire to retain the integrity of the Empire. That has not happened before. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] The distinguished Leader of the Opposition has repeatedly referred to himself as an anti-Imperialist. That has been their attitude in the past. Now we have their detestation of the idea of breaking up the Empire. The present Government who appeared at one time to be following the ideas of hon. Members opposite in trying to break up the British Empire are now trying to consolidate the Empire. I want to be sure that the inhabitants of this portion of the British Empire really desire this change, and all that the right hon. Gentleman can tell us is that the information from the High Commissioner is that it is quite desired by them. I do not know whether the House is satisfied, but I am not.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next.—[Sir P. Cunliffe-Lister.]

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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