The Romans, the British, and the oracle at the Royal Military College

The year 2019 opens a door to many possibilities. Come ten years, where will the nation be? Will we be sunk by gradually returning to the old system? Will our leaders bring us to a better – or bitter – place? Against a background of western imperialism, an ex-student recites a line of Tennyson’s poetry, recalling a college that instills – to this day – its values into the hearts of its students.

Of all the years in Malaysia’s history, this year has been spectacular by any standard, but oracular.

There is a reason for this reference to an oracle.

Instructed by divinity, a human oracle predicts the future.

Up a hill in Sungai Besi

If you get up to the hill in Sungai Besi, there stands the old buildings that housed the Royal Military College.  I was once a student of that august institution. It used to be known as the Federation Military College.

Much of what RMC is – is based on this oracular statement.

After the main entrance to RMC, one comes upon a building simply called the ‘Dining Hall’.  Students entered and exited it through the main entrance.

To the right of those massive doors were inscribed two  sets of prose upon a burnished bronze plate.

The Words of Templer

The first, which is still a statement of hope, is familiar.

These very words were conceived by Field Marshal Sir Gerald Walter Robert Templer, its founder.

Its composition requires little explanation: –

“The Royal Military College has been established

with the objective of preparing the young Malaysians

to take their places

as officers in the Malaysian Armed Forces,

in the higher divisions of the public services

and as leaders in the professional, commercial and industrial life of the country.”

In a historical context, it was written at a time when Britain had planned to return Malaya to its people, for self-rule.

How did Templer get to this sentence?

From the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 17 March 1824, to the Independence Day of 31 August 1957, destiny consumed 133 years.

British colonialism, which was a necessary adjunct to British trading policy, neither started, nor ended, on that day.

Cast your mind’s eye back, if you will, a few centuries.

Western imperialism began long before that.

First came the Portuguese wave.

Then the Dutch.

And then the British.

All this caused a great deal of friction between them.

There were bloody naval confrontations, mid-ocean.

There were battles on land.

It had to stop.  So the opposing sides began to negotiate. It took a long time, and proceeded in fits and starts.

The parties to the Anglo-Dutch treaty (or the London Treaty) were the British and the Dutch.  By this treaty, they tried to bring to an end their constant military confrontations.

The fights, and ensuing negotiations, were over trading rights.

The prizes were two:

The island of Singapore, and the Malay Archipelago.

And so negotiations centred upon who had the right to those two regions.

The Dutch initially asked the British to give them back Singapore.  They soon realised that this would not work. British naval power was not to be messed with.

So the Dutch changed tack. Abandoning their claims for all areas north of the Strait of Malacca and Britain’s Indian colonies, the Dutch asked for control of all areas south of the Strait.  This included the British colony of Bencoolen (Benkulu City) in Sumatra. After some jostling, an agreement was struck.

So the Dutch were left with much of what is (now known as) Indonesia, and the British had India, the archipelago and major parts of East Asia.

The British Raj

By this time, the British ran into problems in China, ruled by the Qing Dynasty.  Shortly afterwards, the two Opium Wars would be fought (1839-1842; and 1856 -60). After the wars, China would make disastrous concessions. 1

India was another story altogether.  Long before that, Britain had established its base in India.  The entry of the East India Company, which marks India’s colonisation, is a tale of betrayal and bloodshed.  It began with Britain’s connivance with Mir Jafar.

Jafar, of Arab descent, asked for British assistance to overthrow the Nawab of Bengal.

Britain obliged. The Nawab was executed.

Having thus gained a foothold in 1757, Britain annexed the subcontinent, state by state.

The end of that exercise saw Queen Victoria installed as the ‘Empress of India,’ not in New Delhi, but at the Kensington Palace.

Britain was determined to hold on to India because Britain considered India to be the key to the rest of Asia. 2Olson, James (1996). Historical Dictionary of the British Empire. Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 478;  ISBN 978-0-313-29366-5. Retrieved 2009-07-22

Why all this historical mumbo jumbo?

I’ll tell you why: the idea of British colonisation is not necessarily a negative one.

Who will deny that compared to the French, Portuguese, Dutch, Siamese, Chinese, and latterly the Japanese – all the lands the British colonised were far better administered – and left wholly intact and in a far better condition – by British administrators?

You know why? They had good teachers.

All this makes sense when one discovers that the Romans were the masters of the British Isles.

Wherever they went, British colonialists simply transplanted Roman methods. Certainly they took 400 years to learn it from their own imperial masters, the Romans.  What they did learn, however, they imbibed it well – and then improved upon it.

Roman Invasion of the British Isles

Before Roman invasion, Britain was merely a clump of islands inhabited by warring tribes. They had  no sense of national identity, says a historian,  ‘beyond that of their local tribe’.3Ibid

Gibbon describes the condition – and  invasion – of Britain by a dazzling panoply of words:-

“The only accession which the Roman empire received, during the first century of the Christian era, was the province of Britain. …

The proximity of its situation to the coast of Gaul seemed to invite their arms; the pleasing, though doubtful intelligence, of a pearl fishery, attracted their avarice;46  … 

After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.57

The various tribes of Britons possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union. They took up arms with savage fierceness; they laid them down, or turned them against each other with wild inconstancy; and while they fought singly, they were successively subdued. Neither the fortitude of Caractacus, nor the despair of Boadicea, nor the fanaticism of the Druids, could avert the slavery of their country, or resist the steady progress of the Imperial [Roman] generals …”.

… The western isle might be improved into a valuable possession, and the Britons would wear their chains with the less reluctance, if the prospect and example of freedom were on every side removed from before their eyes.” 6Gibbon, Edward: ‘Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, Chapter 1.

How did Roman invasion affect the British Isles? 

For four centuries, Rome brought unity and order to Britain.  This had been unheard of before. 7

Roman occupation had an enduring effect on the isles: Roman colonisation influenced the people’s language (Latin), their culture, their geography, and their architecture.

Even Britain’s name was Roman.

London, as its capital, was a Roman city.

Roman culture is said to have even affected the way British think.

For centuries afterwards – even after the Norman conquest – the language of the British religion and administration was a Roman one.

After the Roman occupation, recalls a historian,

‘…[E]very ‘Briton’ was aware of [his or her] ‘Britishness’. This defined them as something different from those people who came after them, colouring their national mythology, so that the Welsh could see themselves as the true heirs of Britain, whilst the Scots and Irish were proud of the fact that they had never been conquered by Rome.

Yet perhaps Rome’s most important legacy was not its roads, nor its agriculture, nor its cities, nor even its language, but the bald and simple fact that every generation of British inhabitant that followed them – be they Saxon, Norman, Renaissance English or Victorian – were striving to be Roman. Each was trying to regain the glory of that long-lost age when Britannia was part of a grand civilisation, which shaped the whole of Europe and was one unified island.8Ibid.

Wherever the Romans went, they built efficient systems

As Roman military garrisons spread throughout the Roman Empire, their culture washed over that of the provinces.  There was an active assimilation of Roman values into the local populace – in particular of politics and economy.9Bohec p.9: Bohec, Yann Le (2000). The Imperial Roman Army. Psychology Press.

Wherever the Romans went, they built efficient transport systems, and ports.

They maintained local order.

They modelled local law in accordance with Roman law.

They built courts, schools, universities and hospitals.

Mostly, they left the culture and language of the conquered, relatively untouched.

What Roman system lacked, the British supplied

The British were the first to introduce the concept of nationhood in their provinces.

They had a strong police force to maintain law and order.

They  built hospitals, schools, roads, universities, transport systems and an administration system.

Colonial children were allowed to study in UK’s best universities.

They trained  and set up whole regiments in the armed forces, peopled by locals, gathered from all races.

Much like the Romans.

The sun set on the British Empire

At the end of the Second World War, it was time for the British to go.

Yet the British did not leave behind a nation of misfits, cobbled together and cast into the hands of an unruly people. They left behind organic structures peopled by the best sons and daughters Malaya had to offer.

Arguably, like many other premier institutions, by Templer’s Mission Statement, the British had  hoped that Malaya’s leaders would emerge from a familiar source – one they had long prepared:

For one, the  Federation Military College, later re-named Royal Military College.

Against this backdrop, the RMC’s motto appears to be a strange contradiction.  It says:

“Serve to lead”.

It speaks equally of servility and leadership. The contradiction is not difficult to unravel. The British had taught themselves, and their charges, that to lead, one had to first learn to serve.

Melancholic last words

There are a second set of the words at the Main Entrance of RMC’s Dining Hall. These were set in another time.

To strive, to seek…  and never to yield.”

This became a hallowed RMC axiom, one that describes what its students recognise instantly as ‘the RMC spirit’.

Whence cometh this verse?

Lord Tennyson, the poet wrote it in his seminal work, Ulysses.  In the story, Ulysses is a king.  He and his sailors have grown old. They don’t have much left in themselves – but ‘there’s enough left, to go a little farther’.

These last lines were penned by a distraught Tennyson after the death of his closest friend, a fellow poet, Arthur Henry Hallam (1811–1833).10 “

This sorrow is brought forth – and made the more palpable – in a 2013 James Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’.


In the movie, Bond is older. Much of his innate physical powers are gone. Bond’s superior and Head of the British Secret Service is ‘M’.

The secret service is being decimated  by a familiar – but implacable – foe.

The resolute, but now old, ‘M,’ is forced to retire.  A Parliamentary committee demands her attendance, and there she is ridiculed:

‘Am I straying your attention?’ asks a sickening MP.

‘M’ appeals to a last call to action. She quotes the last chapter of Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“We are not now that strength

which in old days

Moved earth and heaven,

that which we are, we are –

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate,

but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

This last line is the one burnished into the hearts of every RMC boy.

Yet these words lose their significance if what came before it, is not seen. The words drip with sorrow.

Do they speak of the peculiar affection the British had for the Malayan people?

What ‘M’ means by those words is explained by the British MI6 community webpage:11What Tennyson in fact says: [12] Tennyson – the key to understanding Skyfall?

“Time will give you a beating,

but hold onto your history and traditions

and they will steel you

against anything that comes at you.“

Malaya was special

The British were not all that good almost everywhere they went.

Yet, to the British, Malaya, it seemed, had been special.

Certainly, Malaya had a better set of British administrators than other countries in the Commonwealth.

Thus, when the British left Malaya, despondent as they were, they left behind them the best – not the worst – of their values –

The rule of law, our very own constitution and its structures: our Judiciary, Parliament, a strong Executive, Civil Service, Armed Forces and traditions that went along with each – which mirror exactly the very best of what that nation gave – to our beloved, fledgling Federation of Malaysia.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends …

One year has gone, and another knocks the door.

And we all do sense the political perils that lurk in the shadows.

Most of us are in the evening of our lives.

This country’s politics – any country’s politics – is too serious a subject to be left solely into the hands of the politicians.

Only just now have we won our freedom back after decades of degeneration, debauchery and corruption.

We must be ever vigilant not to let this hard-worn victory be defeated by bad leaders.

So, here we are, as a nation, once again called upon to rebuild ourselves, and to claim the days of our former glory.

It is now that Tennyson’s lines seem to speak to us personally – and urgently.  The lines say that we must rise – once again – to make one last effort to  leave behind a harmonious, prosperous nation.

One  that is free, full love and equality; in a far better state than our illustrious forefathers left it.

So we all must gird ourselves,

that which we are, we are –

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate,

but strong in will

to strive, to seek…  and not to yield.”

And, in this, who can ask anything less of the Old Puteras of the Royal Military College?

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