|The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (henceforth called the Society) is a learned society devoted to the task of collecting, recording and diffusing information about Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Its primary objective is to promote a greater interest in the study of the region, and to this end, it publishes a journal and carries out other scholarly activities.
A brainchild of a group of colonial administrators, the Society has since 4 November 1877 enjoyed the patronage of top-ranking officials like the Governors of the Straits Settlements, Prime Ministers of Malaysia and Singapore and the Sultan of Brunei. Among its council members are distinguished officials and academicians, ranging from Sir Frank Swettenham, Sir Richard Winstedt and H.N. Ridley of the colonial government to Tan Sri Nik Ahmed Kamil and Tun Mohamed Suffian bin Hashim of the Malaysian government and to academicians like Dr. Alastair Lamb, Professor Wang Gungwu and Professor S. Arasaratnam.
Apart from enjoying elite patronage, the Society during the colonial period received government grants, donations from the Sultans of the Malay States, franking privileges, government provision of premises and facilities for printing and map-making, free airing time from Radio Malaya and newspaper coverage. Even now, it receives grants from the governments of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei and other organizations. Undoubtedly such elite patronage and assistance is a major factor contributing to the society’s success. But more importantly, it indicates recognition of the Society’s role in contributing to knowledge and scholarship of the region.
In spite of government subventions and of modifications of the Society’s name to take account of political changes, “politics have never been allowed to impinge on the Society’s work”. It has always been an independent society, managing its own affairs and responsible for its own finances and editorial policy. Even affiliation with the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (henceforth called the R.A.S.) does not impose restrictions on its autonomy. In fact, the only practical evidence of its link with the R.A.S. is the R.A.S.’s permission to the Society’s members to use its library and attend its monthly meetings when in London.
The Society has an active existence. Indeed, few learned societies in this region can claim to have been equally successful. On record, up to date, it has published 303 Journals, 46 Monographs, 31 Reprints, 3 Indexes, a statistical gazetteer, a map of the Malay Peninsula and a textbook on Eastern Geography. Among its other scholarly activities are annual public lectures and sponsorship of academic conferences. But more significant than a qualitative achievement is the Society’s publication of numerous pioneer articles on a wide variety of subjects — Culture, History, Literature, Anthropology, Archaeology, Botany, Zoology and a score of other headings. Amongst its list of contributors are notable scholars like W.E. Maxwell, R.O. Winstedt, R.J. Wilkinson, R. Braddell and H.N. Ridley of the colonial period and eminent academicians like Professor John Bastin, Dr. Alastair Lamb, Dr. Ismail Hussein, Professor Khoo Kay Kim, John Gullick of the post-colonial period.
The Society and its Journal, being scholarly and specialized, have little appeal to the general public and consequently its membership size has always been small. Nevertheless, it has grown from 150 founder members in 1877 to over 800 members in 2012. Its members are drawn from all the States in Malaysia, the Republic of Singapore, Brunei and overseas.
Far from being complacent, the Society in its second century of existence hopes to widen its horizon. In 1977, at the Centenary Banquet, the President of the Society, the late Tan Sri Nik Ahmed Kamil, called for the expansion of the Society’s academic frontier to include neighbouring countries. Thus, on account of its objective of promoting interest and scholarship of the region and its composition of members from various countries, the Society takes on the additional role of fostering the development of regionalism and ASEAN solidarity. By so doing, it hopes to prove that it is “not only worthy to carry on the great traditions of the Society but is also moving steadily with the new times in South East Asia”. — John Gullick