LONDON: John Michael Gullick, one of the last surviving members of the British colonial service in Malaya, died here yesterday at the age of 96.
Gullick arrived in Malaya in 1945, on a transfer from Uganda where he started his life in the colonial service from 1939. He stayed in the Malayan Civil Service in Malaya until 1957, having seen in his career both the Emergency and preparations for Merdeka.
He was an astute observer of the colonial process and of local history, having, in his life, written prolifically on Malayan history -- its features and foibles. He said that the civil government restored after the war in April 1946 was the first central government the Malay peninsula ever had.
He called this postwar set-up "an over-reaction" and "unduly centralised" with a backlog of files in the Chief Secretary's office awaiting his attention. There were 11 separate states with three distinctly different administrative traditions in the postwar reconstruction years when the threat from communism was present. "This was asking for trouble," he said, reminding his audience that even the Chief Secretary called his own office "the graveyard" where files were left unattended too long.
Gullick would have been delighted by the transfer of the bulk of Colonial Office papers -- including Malayan papers thought to have gone missing -- to the National Archive in London this week, but he was too ill to have been part of the reception.
In his life, he wrote extensively about Malayan history, being a leading light of the Royal Asiatic Society and contributing to its journal. His book, They Came to Malaya, culled from writings of other people before his arrival in Malaya, and many by his contemporaries, too, is now still in print. It presents a delightful portrait of a country seen through colonial and native eyes. There are pieces in it by Skeats and Swettenham as well as by Munshi Abdullah and Za'aba.
After leaving the Malayan civil service, Gullick devoted his life to business and law, but the historian in him never faded away.
I was fortunate to have had access to him in the later years of his life, especially when I was writing my two growing up memoirs on Terengganu.
He was a shy man, but always eager to answer my enquiries on things that I was uncertain about and of his interpretation of events. He would always come back, sometimes within minutes of receiving my email with his informed reply. For a time he was columnist for the New Straits Times. By Wan A. Hulaimi