British Colonial History in Penang

Penang is well-known throughout Southeast Asia and beyond as a pleasant spot to visit. Singapore before hyper-modernization, and big enough to feature both mountains and beaches. There are lots of things that might draw a comparativist or political economist with a special interest in Southeast Asia to it: its reputation as the Silicon Valley of the East, the exquisite local cuisine, and the fact that it has long been a hotbed for what used to be Malaysia’s opposition. But for my money, the most interesting spot on the island is St. George’s church, in George Town.

It is a lovely tropical church, boasting a brand new pipe organ inside and big open windows to move the air around. Residents are always careful to point it out that it is down the street from a Buddhist temple, a mosque, and a Hindu temple, signifying Penang’s multiethnic and multireligious character.

But much more interesting than that are the fascinating little bits of history in the church, each of which ought to please anyone interested in the region’s political history, WWII, the Cold War, and so forth. Two are worth noting. The first is a memorial to British soldiers killed during the Malayan Emergency.

The “struggle against terror” sounds awfully familiar. The Malayan Emergency is, interestingly enough, the source of modern counterinsurgency doctrine.

The second is the list of chaplains and vicars, which reveals that the first ethnic Chinese vicar of St. George’s was installed under the Japanese occupation.

I would love to know the story behind that.

In all, this is probably the best place on the island—besides Fort Cornwallis, perhaps—to think about the British colonial presence in what is today Malaysia. This is a shame, because Penang Hill ought to be the ideal place to learn about British colonialism. There is more information about Penang Hill’s history as a hill station at its Wikipedia page than there is at the place itself. Penang Hill might be developed into a heritage site that explains the country’s colonial history; the relationship between Europeans and the weather; labor, social, and political conditions in the Straits Settlements; and all the rest. As it is, it’s too close to a theme park.

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