In the 19th century, King Rama V Chulalongkorn appointed a Penang Chinese, Khaw Sim Bee Na Ranong as the Governor of Phuket.
Sharing King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birth-date on Dec 5 is only one of the small factors that brought me closer to Thailand. Then, as a five-year old kid, it was a total surprise when I found out that my birthday is a red-letter-day in Thailand.
Much later, it was affinity that connected me with Thailand and her people. Although I have been to Thailand numerous times, on each visit, I am still able to have new adventures and make new discoveries.
But, it is Thai History that is my strongest affinity. As a quassi economic-historian, I find Thai history unique to Southeast Asia. It was the only nation to survive the onslaught of western colonialism.
Historically, Malaysia and Thailand have a very long traditional relationship. In the early 15th century, prior to Melaka ascendancy, much of the Malay Peninsula accepted Ayutthaya’s overlordship. In fact, until 1909, the Northern Malay States of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis sent the triennial Bunga Emas (Golden Flower Tree) as a tribute to Bangkok.
This legacy is still visible in modern Malaysia. For example, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman has Siamese (but not Thai) ancestors — so too can most of the Northern Malay royalty.
Today, there are at least 100,000 Thai-Buddhists in Malaysia, mainly, concentrated in states of Perlis, Kedah and Kelantan. Here, in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital), there are fewer than 1,000 Thais. Even with such a small community, there are three Thai-Buddhist temples, with Wat Chetawan as one of the few royal-sponsored temples outside Thailand.
What drives my research into Thai history is the people-to-people relationship between Thailand and Malaysia. For instance, do you know that Phuket’s early development was largely dependent on Penang? In fact, until 1945, Phuket’s elite families sent their best daughters to be married-off in Penang. It was people-to-people’s relationship at its best!
The Phuket-Penang connection is among the least-explored themes of Thai-Malaysian history. You would be surprised to note that in the 19th century, King Rama V Chulalongkorn appointed a Penang Chinese, Khaw Sim Bee Na Ranong (Phraya Ratsadanupradit) as the Monton (Governor) of Phuket.
It was in Thailand that Sim Bee made history. He was a bureaucratic tycoon and an appointed Thai Governor of Kraburi, Trang and later the Monthon of Phuket. His commercial and business skills in Penang were put to good use in Southern Thailand especially in tin-mining and shipping.
In the 1890s, King Rama V Chulalongkorn of Thailand named Sim Bee as Thailand’s most successful provincial governor. Even King Rama VI Vajiravudh counted Sim Bee as a close family friend. Vajiravudh conferred Sim Bee with Thailand’s highest honour, the title Phraya Ratsadanupradit Mahisornpakdi or The Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant.
In Penang, Sim Bee founded the Koe Guan Company Ltd, then one of the biggest shipping companies in British Malaya. He also pioneered the insurance business in Malaya with his Khean Guan Insurance Company. Sim Bee also had business interests in Tongkah Harbour Tin Dredging Co Ltd and Eastern Shipping Co Ltd.
However, Sim Bee’s illustrious political and business career was cut short when he was assassinated in 1913. Known as the Trang Outrage, the tragedy marked the slow decline of the Khaw business empire. In 1922, the Khaws sold their interests in Eastern Shipping Co to the British.
Today, the vestiges of Sim Bee’s legacy remain largely in Penang and Southern Thailand. The busy Jalan (Thanon/Road) Khaw Sim Bee in Penang was named in his honour, while in Trang, there is the Phraya Ratsadanupradit Monument – the only public monument in Thailand to be dedicated to a Chinese businessman.
In retrospect, Malaysians and Thais have a long shared history. Today, if you are in Phuket Town, you would be surprised to find how many Penang elements there are in the island. Similarly in Penang, in Wat Chaiyamangklaram, there among the largest reclining Buddhas in the world. Whether it is food, culture and language, it is hard to deny the Phuket-Penang heritage. Perhaps, Thais and Malaysian are alike in more ways than one!