Thailand and Malaysia: A Shared History

Khaw Sim Bee Na Ranong

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!

10 responses to “Thailand and Malaysia: A Shared History

  1. Hi Kitjar, I am humbled by your knowledge. You seem to know so much and you make me nervous of factual errors in my blog.

    I really enjoy this blog. I have a friend “Montree” of Chinese FuZhou descent from Trang whose family own tracks and tracks of rubber plantations. He told me that Penang, Phuket and Trang are like sister cities. The former PM Chuan Leepai has an uncle in Penang.

    Anyway thanks for calling me today.

  2. Thanks for another snippet of history Kitjar. I’m enjoying these storys very much and it is a great pleasure to have more pieces added to my growing knowledge of Thailand and the interconnections with other countries in the area.

    Look forward to reading more and will have to dig up some reading material. I’m not busy enough! 🙂

  3. Khun Kitjar,

    Sawasdee krab. I was in Yala more than 10 years ago and an elderly makcik told me that his son was working in “Bukit”. When I told her I did not know where “Bukit” was, she thought I was joking as the place was very famous all over the world with tourists. When it dawned on me, I corrected her by saying “Oh! that’s Phuket!” to which she in turn corrected me “No son, you are pronouncing it wrongly just like most Malaysians wrongly pronounce Satun, Kolok, and Bannang Sata – they are Setul, Golok, and Bendang Setar”.

    Just like other pakciks and makciks that I met in Yala, this makcik who hailed from Kedah, calls herself a “Moslem Thai”. When asked if that meant “Malay”, she reluctantly nodded but told me that “Thai Muselim” is a more proper term.

    – Thongchai.

  4. Khaw Cheng Lyke na Ranong

    Khaw Sim Bee’s grand nephew Tan Sri
    Thitinant Na Ranong(Thai Ambassador to
    Malaysia during Tunku’s era) was one of
    the founder of Chetawan Thai Buddhist
    Temple in Petaling Jaya during the 50″s.
    You can visit the temple everyday from
    6.00 AM to 8.00PM for chanting,prayers
    and to learn meditation from the monks.
    Astrologer Khun Boon Nam at your service
    from 9.00AM to 6.00pm call 0123679541

    New Straits Times today 29th March 2007
    features Wat Chetawan Thai Buddhist

  5. Sanchai Tandavanitj

    Dear Khun Kitjar,

    Koe Guan Company was Established by Khaw Soo Cheang during his era,not by Khaw sim Bee(Khaw Soo Cheang’s 6th son.)
    And was look after by Khaw Sim Khim,the 4th son and follow by Khaw Joo Tok.(Khaw sim Khim”s Son)
    Please check,many people was confused.I don’t know who was the first one who started.

    But Khaw Sim Bee was the one of Khaw Soo Cheang descendents who established “The koa Guan Kong Lun Trust”in 1909 together with Khaw Sim Kong,Khaw Sim Teck,Khaw Joo GHee,Khaw Joo Tock,ect.

  6. There is also a monument to him (Phraya Rassada) atop Khao Rang in Phuket Town.

  7. Chan Hock Kin

    I have some interesting pictures of Khaw Soo Cheang,Sim Bee & his family.

    Do anyone interested?.Thanks.Chan Hock Kin 460704075295

  8. Chan Hock Kin

    Apologise to Chan Hock Kin.

  9. Hi, my grandmother ( Molly Ong )used to grow up in Asdang house in Penang, which was later turned into Hotel Metropole. I was informed I am a decedent of Khaw Sim Bee or Khaw Soo Chiang. I would like to understand the connection from Asdang house to Khaw Sim Bee or Khaw Eoo Chiang. I am trying to trace my roots back to Thailand, can someone please help me ?

    Thank you.

  10. winston chu

    my great grandfather in law is khaw joo tok.

    i like to know more about the history