By the mid-1920s, the spread and popularity of a Hollywood dominated cinema in Malaya, and elsewhere in the Empire, was causing the British considerable concern. The motion picture or cinematograph (as it was then called) was a rapidly growing entertainment and educative phenomenon that transcended barriers of literacy and language in its appeal and was freely accessible to all sections of colonial society. In the words of a contemporary, “it taught the mass of uneducated Asiatics about the white race.” In Malaya, the Government had acted to place controls on the cinema soon after its introduction but by the opening years of the 1920s there was a growing number of travellers and expatriate critics who felt that the authorities had not yet realized the seriousness of the ‘threat’ posed by the cinema and had not acted with enough purpose in imposing safeguards. To emerge as the leading campaigner on the subject was Sir Hesketh Bell, (late Governor of Mauritius) who visited Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies in 1926, on a private tour of the Far East.
REX STEVENSON is First Secretary at the Australian Embassy, Bangkok. He is a former graduate of the Monash University Centre of Southeast Asian Studies. His study ‘British Educational Policy Towards the Malays, 1875–1906’ will be published by Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur, later this year.
* I am grateful to Professor J. D. Legge, History Department, Monash University, for freely making available the Colonial Office (CO) 273 series and other microfilm material held in his Department. I would also like to thank Mr, Ross Cooper, Tutor in History, Monash University, for drawing my attention to contemporary material on cinema in the Pacific and Australia, and Mr. Peter Sales, Doctoral Research Student, La Trobe University, for reading and commenting upon a draft of this article.