Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Malcolm MacDonald and Brunei: Diplomacy with Intimacy

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Malcolm MacDonald and Brunei: Diplomacy with Intimacy

Article excerpt

One of the most important and colourful British officials to influence the course of modern Brunei history was Rt. Hon. Malcolm MacDonald (1901-81), Governor-General of the British dependencies of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo (now Sabah), and High Commissioner for the Sultanate of Brunei from 1946-1948. Subsequently he was appointed Commissioner-General for the United Kingdom in Southeast Asia and was based in Singapore from 1948-1955. (1) Even after leaving the region, he visited Brunei on several missions as a special envoy of the British government until 1979. During this long association with Brunei, he interacted with three successive rulers--Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin (r.1929-50), Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III (r. 1950-1967), and Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah (r.1967-). (2)

MacDonald's diplomatic involvement with the sultans did contribute to the survival of Brunei as an independent Malay sultanate. He was following in the footsteps, on a lesser scale, of Malcolm Stewart McArthur, a previous British consul and the first Resident of Brunei (1906-08). (3) If not for the latter's advice, Brunei would have been swallowed up by the White Rajahs of Sarawak. (4) In comparison, MacDonald's role was an indirect one--in 1946 he prevented Brunei from becoming a crown colony like its neighbouring states of Sarawak and Sabah which also came under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890. Moreover, when his original vision of a union of the three Borneo states could not be implemented due to reasons beyond his control, he seemed to have discreetly countenanced the Brunei sultans' intransigence in keeping out of the Malaysia Federation in August 1963 and thereafter.

This article seeks to find a common thread in the official correspondence, telegrams, memoranda, dispatches, minutes, and so on that linked MacDonald with Brunei while acknowledging the fact that there were many other factors and actors that determined the course of modern Brunei. (5) It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a comparative perspective of his service in several other colonial territories. (6) Brunei was the smallest state he dealt with during decolonisation. By highlighting MacDonald's dealings in Brunei, this article seeks modestly to add to the literature on his life and career, and also as another episode in the decolonisation of the British Empire.

I have consulted the relevant Malcolm MacDonald Papers at the library of Durham University, (7) as well as the Colonial and British Commonwealth Office files. The only extant biography, by Clyde Sanger, (8) is a useful source. It is based on material in MacDonald's draft autobiography 'Constant surprise', (9) written in his mid 70s, which contains interesting revelations about the Brunei royal family. Macdonald also published two quasi-autobiographical books--People and places: Random reminiscences of Malcolm MacDonald (1969) and Titans and others (1972). (10) As a long-serving public servant and a unique figure in British decolonisation, MacDonald's career and achievements deserve far more attention by scholars, and as his would-be biographer Peter Lyon states, MacDonald's role in history has been neglected for far too long. (11)

Malcolm John MacDonald was the second son of Ramsay MacDonald, Britain's first Labour prime minister. Malcolm MacDonald became a member of parliament at the age of 27, a minister by 29, and a cabinet minister by 33. (12) Away from mainstream British politics, he became successively high commissioner, governor-general, governor, commissioner-general, high commissioner again, ambassador-extraordinary, special envoy, and held a host of other positions as well. Apart from a stint of five years in Canada as Britain's high commissioner from 1941, he spent ten years in Southeast Asia, five years in India, and six years in Africa.

MacDonald had the experience to have a unique approach to the decolonisation of British territories in Asia and Africa. …

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