Life after the Regiment

A Malay in the fire-brigade uniform (seated) flanked by sons in jail-guard uniform in the 1920s.

The Malays in Sri Lanka gradually began to shun military service, the mainstay of their sustenance, after 1850.

Nearly one third of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) positions, some 500 out of 1600 positions fell vacant by 1860. Unable to enlist Malays from the Peninsula, the military authorities extended their search in vain for recruits from as far as the Cape of Good Hope among the Hottentos, Sepoys of Mysore, Arraccanese from Burma, and even Bajaus from Borneo.
Malay antipathy to military profession arose due to several reasons. First, they resented the fact that some non-Malay Companies of Indian Sepoys and African Kaffirs were attached to the Malay battalion when the CRR was restructured. Second, Malays were no longer engaged in combat duties, but in civilian pursuits like guard duties and providing security services in government offices.

As all resistance to British rule in Sri Lanka ended after 1848, there were no more wars to fight.
Malays also disliked foreign service when six companies were sent to garrison Hong Kong from 1847 to 1854. Many died in the insalubrious conditions in Hong Kong. Labuan also received a contingent of Sri Lankan Malay soldiers from 1869 to1871 which they did not mind. They appeared to have fraternised with Malays of Brunei who lived not far away. (Some soldiers went to collect Malay manuscripts from Brunei.)

Many opted for early retirement under the new military regulations of 1847 that allowed soldiers to retire after 10 years of service instead of being recruited for life. The pensioners were welcomed in the expanding Police Department. With regiment experience, a number of them also filled fire-brigade services as well as security related employment such as jail-guards in the country's Prisons.

With the expansion in plantations of export crops such as coffee, tea, cocoa and rubber under colonial stimulus, increased job opportunities became available in the estate sector.
While another class of immigrants - the Indian Tamils from Tamil Nadu - flocked in as estate labourers, Malays with rudimentary English education availed themselves of the opportunities for supervisory roles in the hill country estates and office jobs in the European agency houses.
In 1873, the Ceylon Rifle Regiment, the principal arm of the British colonial military establishment was disbanded due to operational reasons. Governor Sir William Gregory justified the action as Sri Lanka enjoyed times of peace and prosperity that had reduced the need for any substantial native military force.

The governor also justified the decision by reference to Tamil population in northern Jaffna region whom he opined were by nature a docile people more prone to agricultural pursuits and not capable of bearing arms to require any policing by the army. Later the history would prove otherwise as armed Tamil youths, the Liberation Tigers of Sri Lanka did build one of the ferocious guerrilla fighting force the world has ever seen!

After the Regiment, it was the Ceylon Police Department that absorbed most number of Malays. In 1879 they formed nearly one third of the force, some 493 out of strength of 1692 men. The police took over the civilian duties of the disbanded CRR, and the Malays moved into the vacated barracks of the CRR soldiers built in outstations like Badulla, Kurunegalle and Trincomalee where the Malays continued their own kampong life. The Fire-Brigade and Prison services also provided steady sources of employment to the Malays.

The disbandment of the CRR in 1873 indeed ended a most remarkable era in the history of the community. Apart from acting as their major employer, the CRR contributed in other significant ways by reinforcing social cum cultural cohesion among the Malays who lived in large clusters in the cantonments. In contrast, the Malays who entered other occupations became scattered in isolated parts of the island, although a substantial civilian Malay population, known as Priman (Malay Freemen) lived in the major towns of Colombo and Kandy.

The disbandment of the CRR also meant loss of other facilities which countenanced educational and cultural life of the community. For example, the Regimental schools which provided valuable free education for Malay children had to be closed down along with the CRR library which housed Malay books and manuscripts.

It was the CRR that had linked the community with their Malay fatherland. Local Malays who went on recruitment duty to Malaya refreshed ties with their long-lost cousins. They brought back Malay educational and literary material, which helped in keeping alive in Sri Lanka a vibrant indigenous Malay literary tradition during most part of the 19th century. The colophon of a Sri Lankan Malay manuscript described how a CRR Sergeant Shamsuddin, while on duty in Singapore in 1847, spent time in the Malay royal Kampung Gelam to copy down famous Malay literary works which he brought back to Sri Lanka. Such opportunities vanished once the Regiment was disbanded.

The military men, as distinguished pensioners, no longer enjoyed elite or privileged status in the community. Civilians took over the management of Malay regimental mosques in the cantonments, especially in Colombo's Slave Island and Kandy's Bogambara wards.The documents of the period indicate emerging conflicts, tensions and legal disputes between the civilians on the one side and proud soldiers on the other who insisted on their special status for elitism.
The literary life of the Malays suffered most following the disbandment of the Regiment. Malay language had been taught as a compulsory subject in the regimental schools. In the new occupations there was hardly any need for the Malays to pursue their vernacular. As a result the indigenous literary activities slowly faded away when Malays could no longer read Jawi script, known among them as Gundul.

Furthermore, it became difficult to sustain a refined Malay lingo, a hall mark of the Malay literati.The Malay language spoken in the community became increasingly creolised by having veered away from language spoken in Malaysia and Indonesia.
In the absence of the Regiment, the community was thus forced to fend for itself to survive as a separate and identifiable community amidst great odds. If not for the Regiment, the Sri Lankan Malays would have embraced the same fate of identity loss that took place among the nominal Malays of South Africa.
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