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THE British colonial administrators were impressed by the courtliness and established protocol, customs and traditions observed by the Malay sultanates. Apart from appreciating their courtly rearing and gentility, the British were pleased that many members of the Malay royal families and aristocracy were fairly well educated and fluent in English, both in the oral and written forms.
A good number of them had received tertiary education in leading academic institutions in England. This proved a major asset to the Malay states in handling matters of state, articulating policies, taking policy stances and conducting relations with the British colonial administrators.
Two revealing illustrations of this significant backdrop of diplomatic upbringing are the relations of Johor and of Perak with the British colonial administrators.
Going by legal definition, Johor was the last Malay state to come fully under British protection and administration. Unofficially, however, it had been under British influence far longer, and indeed more extensively, than the rest of the Malay states.
Johor's unique position vis-à-vis the British came about largely because of its geographical proximity to Singapore -- the fountainhead of British power and economic presence in the region.
The state's virtual contiguity with Singapore facilitated as well as hastened the expansion of its contacts and interchange with the commercially robust island. The rapid expansion of relations simultaneously deepened the relationship between Johor's ruling house and the British administrators in Singapore.
Notwithstanding the strong British political, administrative, commercial and economic presence, the sultans of Johor succeeded in remaining independent of British rule up till as late as 1914. It was with an eye to underscore Johor's independent status that, in 1868, Sultan Abu Bakar, the father of modernisation of Johor, invested in him the ancestral title of Maharaja of the Johor-Riau Empire.
In 1885, a treaty was entered into between Johor and Britain that placed the external relations of the state under British control and recognised the sultan as the ruler.
An unsung hero of Johor's success in remaining independent of British colonial control for such an extensive period was the ingenious and loyal diplomat Abdul Rahman bin Andak. It was his expert negotiation skills and adeptness in formulating Johor's foreign policy and conducting external relations that helped to safeguard the state's interests and simultaneously preserve its sovereignty in the face of British colonial ambitions.
An astute, London-educated government official, Abdul Rahman began his diplomatic career as the private secretary to Sultan Abu Bakar.
He proved a capable, conscientious official and steadily rose up the bureaucratic ladder to occupy the post of state secretary. He crowned his career as the secretary for foreign affairs in the Johor government.
It was Abdul Rahman who was responsible for advising Sultan Abu Bakar in 1895 to promulgate the first written constitution of any Malay state. Significantly, this landmark legal instrument became a model for the constitutions of the other Malay states.
He also played a vital role in the long-drawn negotiations with the British (1899 to 1904) for the construction of the Johor State Railway.
The British were far from enamoured with Abdul Rahman's capabilities. To the contrary, he was much disliked by them as they regarded him a major obstacle to achieving their colonial ambitions in Johor.
They were ever mindful of his abilities and found him a tough adversary. They knew that they had to remove him from his influential position as adviser and chief negotiator of Sultan Abu Bakar, if they were to bring the sultan under their control.
Despite their numerous manipulations and schemes, Abdul Rahman remained the expert and trusted adviser of Sultan Abu Bakar, and subsequently, of his son and successor, Sultan Ibrahim.
For a good two decades, Abdul Rahman continued to wield a strong influence in the sultans' dealings with the British in Singapore and in London. From his strategically perched position in government, coupled with his personal relationships with the two consecutive sultans, he was able to thwart British efforts to exert pressure on the state on various issues.
The British thus had to bide their time for a more opportune moment to intervene in the affairs and administration of Johor. Their long-awaited opportunity came in 1907 when British officials were able to pressure the sultan to strip Abdul Rahman of his high position and despatch him into a long "exile" in London.
Johor, however, continued to be ruled under its 1895 Constitution (which Abdul Rahman had helped to draw up) until 1914, when increasing pressures and complexities of government and administration led to the appointment of a British general adviser, at the request of the sultan.