It has been a
wish of mine for several years already to write on that important person of
Kedah history, His Highness Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah Ibni Al- Marhum
Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Mukarram Shah, the 26th ruler of Kedah Darul-Aman.
However, work and the demands of family have spared me with little time to
collate the little information that I have about him. As such it was a pleasant
opportunity when the Firm that I work with decides to let everybody off on
August 30th. Being a Monday and a day before the 47th Independence Day, that
means I have 4 days off from work. And if I can plan my time such that I give
ample focus on my second son who is taking his PMR examination in October and
quickly attend to some family backlogs, I might just squeeze enough time for
this web page.
My interest in the Sultan has nothing to do with Kedah history. I am not an
Historian and my knowledge of Malaysian and Kedah history is at best
rudimentary. I am drawn more by his charisma and the many wonderful tales that
are bandied from mouth to mouth about him being a Wali (or saint). A visitor to
Alor Star may find many an Indian barber shop or a Chinese grocery adorning the
wall with a potrait of the Sultan in full regalia. It is supposed to confer
good luck. It is my main intention in this write-up to focus on the private
life of the Sultan and in particular that part which will shed some light on
his spiritual proclivities. However, information on this is very scant and I
would have to resort to some conjectures.
While I would like to steer away from history, a little of it is quite
inevitable since the Sultan's long reign of 61 years was a defining point
- that of the transfer of suzerainty froommm Siam to the British and the
gradual shift from a Monarchy system to one of Constitutional Monarch. It will
aso provide a nice back drop to what I intend to do.
The story of the Sultan takes us back to the closing years of the 19th century.
Kedah was already a vassal state of Siam and the British had a foothold on
Penang and parts of the adjacent mainland. As such, when the young (he was 19)
Sultan took over the reign at the death of his brother Zainul Rashid in 1882,
he was in the unenviable position of having to deal with two foreign powers,
each with designs of it's own.
The ascension was
confirmed by King Chulalongkorn, as Overlord on January 21st, 1882. The Sultan
enjoyed very cordial relationship with the King and one is tempted to believe
that there was a deeper personal friendship between the two. Be that as it may,
one is quickly reminded of the harsh reality of international politics -
something the Sultan would soon discover.
In 1895 the King decorated the Sultan with the Order of the White Elephant
First Class and bestowed the title Chao Phya Saiburi and later the additional
title of Phya Riddisongkran Bhakti. He also sent two of the Sultan's sons to
Europe for education. Tunku Yusuf in fact served the King upon return and Tunku
Badlishah made a brief stay in Siam after graduating in economics in
Good relations were maintained between the two states with Kedah sending the
"Bunga Emas dan Perak" triennially to the Siamese Court in Bangkok as
a token of Siam's suzerainty. Till his death in 1910, King Chulalongkorn
extended great affection and held the Sultan in high esteem.
On record the Sultan made four visits to Siam - in 1890, 1892, 1895 and 1903.
King Chulalongkorn, on the other hand, visited Kedah in 1874, 1890, 1896 and
According to the collection of letters of the Sultan, King Chulalongkorn made
one visit to Kedah in 1890.
" On Friday,
9th of March, 1890 at about 9 pm, the Sultan left the Istana Kota Setar for
Pulau Langkawi . On Saturday, the 10th of March at 10 am the Siamese King
arrived at Kuah. At 1 pm the Sultan, the Siamese King's Representative in
Kedah, Tunku Bahadur, Tunku Mahmud and Wan Muhammad Saman (the Prime Minister)
met the Siamese King on his boat. In the afternoon, the Siamese King and
consort travelled to Dondong (Kuah) on a buffalo cart to hunt. The King managed
to capture seven mousedeers. On Sunday, the 11th of March at 10 am, the Siamese
King proceeded to Burau and Telaga Tujuh, returning at 9 pm. On Monday, the
12th of March, in the evening the Sultan left Langkawi for Kedah in a
ship and reached Kota Setar at 7 am the following day. On the same day the King
of Siam reached the Istana Anak Bukit and was welcomed with a 21 gun salute and
the raising of the Siamese flag. When the King later proceeded to Kota Setar,
he was welcomed with the Nobat...."
The Diary also mentioned the visit of the King to Istana Kota Setar and to the
Royal Mausoleum at Langgar using a horse drawn carriage. The King offered to
restore the tomb of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Mukarram Shah. From Kedah, the King
proceeded to Penang and other Malay Kingdoms on the west and east cost
including Pattani and Singgora.
From his ascension to the throne in 1882 till 1905, the Sultan was pretty well
left alone and Siam did not interfere in the internal administration of the
State. However in 1905 the State underwent a financial crisis and was forced to
ask Siam for a $2,500,000 loan. The loan was extended with the proviso that a
Financial Advisor from the court of Siam be accepted and a State Council be
created to assist the Sultan in the administration of all public affairs. This
resulted in the promulgation of a new constitution on July 29th, 1905. In the
ensuing years the administration of the state was effectively ran by the State
Council which was headed first by the Sultan's younger brother, the Regent
Tunku Abdul Aziz (1905-1907), and then by another brother, Tunku Mahmud
(1907-1914), and followed by his sons Tunku Ibrahim (1914-1934) and Tunku
Badlishah (1937-1943). The formation of the State Council meant the curbing of
the Sultan's power.
In 1909, in a strategic
move to safeguard Siam's independence of foreign super powers (Britain and France),
King Chulalongkorn signed the Anglo- Siam Treaty which transferred Siam's right
of suzerainty over the four northern Malay states- Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and
Terengganu- to Britain. This was done without a hint of consent of the
Malay rulers and must have hurt the Sultan deeply when he lamented that "
I can forgive the Buyer but I cannot forgive the Seller".
THE PRIVATE MAN
A rare glimpse into the Sultan's personal life was recounted by Datuk James F. Augustine in his book "Bygone Kedah" :
Although he was a recluse in the evening of his life, Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah (1882-1943) knew what was going on and never lost an iota of his dignity.
He was first and foremost a man of prayer. Anyone who happened to pass by the Istana Kampung Bahru of a morning would see him stroll in the vicinity of the Istana or ride in his ricsha which was drawn by a Malay attendant. He sometimes walked ahead of the ricsha with the puller and the vehicle behind him. All the while he fingered his prayer beads ("tasbeh") in prayer.
His Private Secretary for many years, the late Encik Mohammed Zain Ariffin, an oxenian, at times spoke of how the Sultan dressed for dinner. It was prepared by a Chinese cook named Ah Phum. The Sultan ate sparingly and in solitary state. At billiards he excelled and played almost daily in his private billiard room.
Except when he went to the mosque for Friday prayers or for a drive in his Victoria which in course of time gave way to his canary coloured Rolls Royce, he seldom appeared in public.
On Hari Raya it was customary for members of the ruling house and Senior Government Officers to pay their respects to him at the Istana Kampung Bahru. Visitors were ushered up to the drawing room upstairs where they sat in rows facing the chair prepared for the Sultan. Cigars were handed out and perfume sprinkled on handkerchiefs while the assembly waited for the Sultan.
When he entered the room everybody stood up and bowed. Hardly a word were spoken on such occasions. After a short time the Sultan would rise and retire. In the evening of his birthday a garden party was usually held in the grounds of the Istana. The Sultan would grace the function with his presence and stroll about with yellow umbrella held over him.
This insignia of royalty gave rise to an incident when the Kedah Gymkhana Club held its first meet in Alor Star. Sultan Iskandar of Perak was strolling on the lawn with his royal umbrella borne over him when Sultan Abdul Hamid unexpectedly appeared. He had come down from the royal box to walk about and his umbrella-bearer held his umbrella over him. Sultan Iskandar promptly ordered his umbrella-bearer to fold up his umbrella. It was a striking example of courtesy and protocol.