Taman Budiman: Memoirs of an Unorthodox Civil Servant July 8, 2018 – Posted in: Book Review – Tags: , ,

We decide to name this project after Taman Budiman: Memoirs of an Unorthodox Civil Servant, a book written by Mubin Sheppard as a tribute to renowned historian and academic in Malaysia. As our appreciation to this luminous figure, we re-published a review of this memoir by Paul H. Kratoska.

Taman Budiman, which the author translates as “A Garden of Kindness,” is a memoir of the experiences of Tan Sri Dato (Tan Sri and Dato are titles awarded by the Malaysian Government) (Haji) Mubin Sheppard in the Malayan Civil Service (MCS), of which he was a member from 1928 until 1964. As he points out, previous memoirs of MCS officials—and they are few in number—were written by men who had served in various specialist positions. Sheppard, however, was allotted “general duties” and writes that this volume is not an autobiography, but “an attempt to describe the life of a Malayan Civil Servant between 1928 and 1956.”

Sheppard lived through extraordinary times in Malaya: political decentralization and production restriction schemes in the 1930s, the Japanese occupation, the Malayan Union, the shaping of political parties, confrontation with Sukarno’s Indonesia, and Malaysian independence. There is much one would hope to learn about the personalities involved in these events, about the process by which decisions were made and policies formed, and about the distribution of power within the system. Readers seeking such information will have to look elsewhere, for Sheppard has held his peace on these matters. In his sole allusion to the Malayan Union, Sheppard writes that he, in common with many MCS officers, both active and retired, “deplored the disastrous mistrust and disruption which resulted” from the scheme, and reports that opposition to the Malayan Union united Malays from all over the country for the first time in their history. He then moves on to a discussion of the operation of the Department of Public Relations, which he headed, and the Malayan Union imbroglio slips out of view.

Similarly, reporting a meeting with General Sir Gerald Templer, who had arrived to take charge of Malaya at the height of the emergency, Sheppard records the strong impression made by the man: “the impact was electrifying.” Templer asked some of the British advisers, including Sheppard, how the “Government machine” could be improved, and Sheppard reports dryly that “none of us scored many marks.” What Templer had in mind is not explained, save for an enigmatic quote: “Any idea that the business of normal civil government and the business of the Emergency are two separate entities must be killed for good and all.” Sheppard, for his part, returned to Negri Sembilan and raised $25,000 for the Seremban Public Library Fund.

Although the reader hungers for more information on these subjects, Sheppard has to a considerable degree kept faith with his stated purposes. The historian deals with affairs of state; the civil servant in Malaya occupied himself with more mundane matters, and Sheppard records a large number of the matters that did concern him. To continue for a few more paragraphs with his account of the period of the emergency, in addition to the library fund he also was involved in a dispute concerning the succession to the position of Mentri Besar (Chief Minister) in Negri Sembilan, the issuing of land titles in resettlement areas, the establishment of a museum in Seremban, and the founding of the Malayan Historical Society. The work of a British official consisted in large measure of reading and responding to a numbing succession of files on diverse topics that appeared in great profusion on his desk, and Sheppard’s book depicts that work effectively. Sheppard himself, who is remembered as a projects rather than a paperwork man, seems to have done better than many of his contemporaries in going beyond the routine of office administration.

Moreover, although many of the matters he discusses are in themselves of little significance, taken collectively they form an interesting and important pattern. The activities of the British in Malaya were administration, business, and sport. In Sheppard’s account there is much of administration and sport, and very little of business. Business does come up—mines and estates and their vicissitudes—but as the affair of businessmen; administration was the affair of administrators, and sport the affair of both. The picture emerges clearly from Sheppard’s book: it is consistent with the content of the files of the colonial administration and seems fairly drawn.

With the coming of independence, Sheppard opted to remain in Malaysia and adopted Malaysian citizenship. He has, since retiring from the MCS, worked with some success to promote interest in traditional arts in Malaysia and also to provide for the welfare of ex-servicemen;these activities, along with an interesting account of his pilgrimage to Mecca as a convert to Islam, form the subject matter of the concluding chapter.

The book is smoothly written, mercifully free of cliches about Malay, Indian, or Chinese character, and likewise free of condescension. It is a book of curiosities, but a man surely has the right to make of his memoirs what he pleases. Sheppard’s, if not written to the prescription of the professional historian, are nonetheless entertaining and, in their way, informative.

Kratoska, P. H. (1981). Taman Budiman: Memoirs of an Unorthodox Civil Servant. By Tan Sri Dato Mubin Sheppard. Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann, 1979. xii, 278 pp. Glossary, Index. $11.95. The Journal of Asian Studies40(4), 851-852.