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The Jennings' Collection : A Biography Of J A S Jennings
By Lancelot Hereward Cedric Jennings
John Arthur Stuart Jennings was born in 1882 and died at the early age of 54 in 1936. He was born in Singapore and was the eldest son of Frederick Kersey Jennings, a senior officer in the Singapore police force and a notable detective. My grandfather joined the police to settle down after leaving the Merchant Navy at the stern behest of my grandmother-to-be as a condition of their marriage. Resident in Singapore, she said with Scottish bluntness :
“Fred, I’ll no marry you unless you leave the sea!”
And so he did.
All his life, F.K. Jennings was of modest means because he did not take advantage of many corrupt opportunities for wealth open to a police office in the Orient of those days. So he and my grandmother, Mary Stuart, had to bring up and educate their large family entirely in the East, because they could not afford to send their children Home to School, in the middle-class British custom of the time.
These simple colonial beginnings seem to have influenced my father throughout his life. He valued English traditions perhaps more highly even than most native-born Britons and hewed to them throughout his life. It was as if he immersed himself in them, as part of his chosen identity or personal suit of clothes. Malaysian he might be, but he was never anything but British.
He was educated at Raffles School in Singapore, which much later was to form the nucleus of today’s University of Singapore. Afterwards, my father apprenticed himself to Major W.G. St. Clair, long the doyen of journalists in Singapore/Malaya, to learn the craft of journalism as a reporter on the staff of the major’s pioneering early newspaper, The Singapore Free Press.
Thus my father became one of the relatively few Europeans who considered themselves domiciled in Malaya-Singapore, rather than merely being passers-through by posting to the military, Malayan Civil Service or civilian tin-mining, rubber-growing or trading firms. He saw the region as his home, albeit as part of the British Empire and himself as a British-Malayan in those multi-racial colonies. Later in life, in his editorials he would visualize a multi-racial British Malaya, independent within the Empire, loyal to the British traditions which had helped build it.
It was an advanced concept for those days, particularly with its suffrage for Asians. The British traditions stemmed from Sir Francis Light, who had purchased the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786, a century before my father was born, and the later actions of Sir Stamford Raffles, who acquired the island of Singapore for Britain in 1824 form its ruler, the Sultan of Johore. But in considering his future British Malaya, my father insisted on the need for a decentralized federation, in which the Malay states would hold considerable power of their own. He did not want to see total dominance from bureaucrats in the federal capital, Kuala Lumpur, which he continually resisted.
British-based traditions were common to the relatively few English families who had really put down roots in the country, such as the Braddells, for example, with whom my father grew up. Later, when he and Sir Roland Braddell were both prominent, they staged a mock-race to see who could first complete a permanent home in the new Cameron Highlands hill-station. Father won.
Later, during his affluent years in the early part of the 1920's, my father would habitually take his family to spend several months’ “Home Leave” in Britain, thus emulating the British-born Birds of Passage, whose employment contracts usually provided for this. When in London, he could visit the Press Club and the Authors’ Club, of which he was a member. He undoubtedly envisaged his future retirement “at Home” like them, he in the county of Sussex he loved, where his two eldest sons were being educated at the ancient Midhurst Grammar School. This dichotomy is perhaps hard for us to understand today. He wanted to ensure that all his sons were educated in British public schools, thus enjoying the cachet he himself had missed. He seemed to feel deeply the absence of this missing key element in his life, because it set him apart from Britons fortunate enough to be educated at Home.
One of his idols as he was growing up was the British-Indian Rudyard Kipling, poet and writer of the British Empire. Kipling was born in India and became a journalist there, winning his first fame with Indian publication. My father saw himself as both British and Malayan and differentiated himself from the British “box-wallahs” who came and went. As did Kipling in India, he wrote Malayan-based short stories for the old Singapore Free Press, which he later collected and republished in book form as Tales of Malaya under the pen-name “Southern Cross.” These were of the same genre as those better-known works by Sir Frank Swettenham and Sir Hugh Clifford, two early British proconsuls and partisans in Malaya. Fluent in Malay and knowledgeable about Malayan culture, custom and history, Jack Jennings spoke for his country in an authentic understanding and sympathetic way that was different from that of other Britons serving there for only a part of their careers. Few delved deeply into the country in which they spent time, thus gaining only a superficial knowledge of their temporary home. He was also probably more closely involved with native Malayan life because of his father’s links with native society through his job as policeman and his own experience as a crime-reporting newspaperman. He covered the various races of Malay as an important part of his constituency.
As a newspaper editor, he relied on an Asian kitchen-cabinet which included a Chinese doctor, a Tamil lawyer, a hereditary Malay territorial chief and a Eurasian trader. These provided insights into the views of non-Europeans and kept him in touch. He was unusual in that Britons did not generally see themselves as settlers in Malaya, but merely as transients for profit for a limited period, largely divorced from and oblivious to the native reality around them.
As a settled Malayan, he was in his youth a member of the early Singapore Volunteer Rifles, a locally-raised militia regiment. With its contingent, he sailed as a lance-corporal of 19 to attend the coronation of the King-Emperor Edward VII along with a myriad of colonial troops drawn from all over the Empire. They all brought home the 1902 Coronation King’s Medal. Here he met my mother, his first cousin, Rose Winnifred Jennings, in the family Suffolk hometown of Ipswich his father had left years before to join the Merchant Marine. (As they used to say : “He ran away to sea before the mast.”) My father later courted his pretty young cousin by mail and some years later brought her out to Malay to marry him. Later, during World War I, he served in a veterans unit of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force as a sergeant. After the Great War, he helped to the FMSVF, amid what he reported as a general disinterest in soldiering.
Early in his journalistic career, Jack Jennings obtained a major international “scoop.” He learned from rumours in the port of Singapore that a large naval force was lying off Singapore, just out of sight. Hiring a boat, he went out into the roads and so won an exclusive interview with Admiral Rozhestvenski, leader of the large but archaic Russian Baltic Fleet (38 vessels, including seven battleships) which had sailed half way around the world and passed Singapore on the way from Europe to Vladivostok. His story was the first news of the Russians since they left Europe. They arrived off Japan only to be annihilated by the more modern Japanese naval fleet in the decisive Russo-Japanese war. The battle of Tsushima was the first major sea battle since Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, a century before. My father’s notable journalistic coup helped to lay the future steps of his journalistic career.
This achievement not long after he turned 21 brought him relative journalistic fame in Asia and led in turn to editorial appointments on the Rangoon Gazette and the Penang-based Straits Echo. Later still, in 1906, the directors of the small, almost-defunct newspaper, somewhat grandiosely titled The Times of Malaya, offered him its editorship in the raw northern mining camp of Ipoh, now burgeoning on the rich alluvial veins of tin being found in the Kinta Valley of the state of Perak. His primary task was to resuscitate the paper. Over his 36 years as editor, as pioneer Ipoh grew to a town and then city of importance, he developed the newspaper and eventually bought up all its shares to become its sole, proud proprietor.
As the paper prospered in what was seen by its inhabitants as the tin capital of the world, Jack Jennings became first affluent then rich in Malayan dollar terms. As well, he was well-recognized as one of the pillar of Ipoh, Perak and Malayan communities and a spokesman for North Malaya, the state of Perak and Ipoh. As an appointed Unofficial (meaning : not a civil servant), Jennings became a visiting justice to Kinta prisons, then Justice of the Peace for his state of Perak and a member of the Kinta Sanitary Board, then the oddly named non-elected municipal authority for Ipoh. As it happened, I was in Ipoh when in May 1962 it was ceremoniously raised to the status of an elected municipality of the highest rank, with a multi-racial council. My father would have been pleased.
In January 1935, just two years before he died, with the ultimate honour he was made an officer of the prestigious Order of the British Empire (OBE) by King George V, recognizing his many public and charitable services in Malaya. He shared membership in the Order with another senior journalist in Malaya in the 1930's, J.H.M. Robson, editor and proprietor of the pioneer Malay Mail in Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital, who held the higher CBE.
Jennings seems to have pursued an almost never-ending series of public causes with his campaigning use of editorials in The Times of Malaya. These included victory in a notable fight with uncaring and bureaucratic local authority so as to permit poor Chinese squatters to remain tax-free on Crown land in the depths of the Great Depression. He campaigned to restore the sea-girt coastal Dindings area to the state of Perak, raised more than $100,000 for flood relief, pressed for stronger anti-malarial and tuberculosis measures and argued for the nomination of his city, Ipoh, as the state capital of Perak. (Ironically, this last measure was implemented only by the Japanese during their military occupation of Malaya during World War II.) Other diverse interests included encouraging the study of Malaya’s little-known aboriginal peoples, hydro-electric development of the Cameron Highlands in the central mountain range of Malaya (consummated only after World War II), as well as the opening of a hill-station in the Cameron Highlands, where he built the first permanent European home, Rose Cottage, named for his wife. Not parochial, he contributed support to the Arts and Crafts Society of Kelantan, a north-eastern Malayan state notable for its craftsmens’ work in cloth and silver. He was a friend of the neighbouring Sultans of Perak and Pahang and long served as unofficial counsel to the pre-eminent Sultan of Perak, honorary Major General Iskander Shah. As a child, I played with Iskander’s son Idris, who in the 1960's followed his father as Sultan of Perak, when I was to meet him again.
In the post-World War I boom, Malaya’s tin and rubber industries fuelled economic expansion and with its roots in the tin-fields, the Ipoh newspaper flourished with them. By the mid-1920's, Jennings was ready to expand his small up-country newspaper. Encouraged by funding of $(M)500,000 from his enthusiastic bank, he built a large new office building and printery in downtown Ipoh and equipped it with new machinery for a paper that sought to enlarge its reach. His two eldest sons, Eric and Harold, joined him from their British public school to learn their craft as journalists and serve with him on his paper in the 1930's.
The Great Depression was relatively late in hitting the Malaysian economy, buoyed up as it was by sturdy tin and the growing demand for rubber for automobile tires. But eventually the waves of the economic storm lapped up to and over Malaya and this reined in the hoped-for growth of The Times of Malaya. In due course, first came increasing bank pressure for total repayment of his demand loan. Then new and energetic management at the Singapore-based Straits Times newspaper group planned a network of local Malayan dailies under its ownership and management. As part of the plan, they offered to buy Jennings’ paper from him. When he proudly refused, Jennings’ bank took control of his paper to discharge half of the debt which yet remained unpaid. Then they in turn sold The Times of Malaya to the Singapore group to more than recoup the balance of his bank debt.
The new owners asked Jennings to remain on in Ipoh as an honoured editor-in-chief emeritus for continuity and for his prestige. But his pride again made him refuse, after his long career as an independent. He was left virtually penniless, save for Midhurst, the large mansion he had built in Ipoh in the 1920's (in which I was born). It was virtually unsaleable in those cash-poor days at the bottom of the Depression. He was only able to keep the mansion out of the bank’s hands because it was in his wife’s ownership a provision he had earlier made to war off losing it if he ever faced the costs of a major libel suit. All his life, he was plagued by fears of the possibility of inadvertent libel and he dwelt on this, feelingly, in an interview not long before his death.
The then High Commissioner for Malaya and Governor of the Straits Settlements colonies, Sir Shenton Thomas, was seeking to negotiate somewhat of a sinecure post for Jennings in London-as Agent-General for Malaya, based at Malaya House in Trafalgar Square. But Jennings died in December 1936, before this could be finally arranged, along with a probable knighthood. In other acts of charitable generosity, the Governor ordered Jennings’ mansion purchased as a government residence for the large sum, in those parlous times, of 5,000 pounds sterling. This enabled Jennings’ widow and youngest son Cedric to return to England in 1937 and take up life there with the third son, Nigel, already at a public school in Britain. The Malayan government also arranged for Cedric to be entered at Christ’s Hospital, the old English charity public school. So I received a free education, somewhat as a testament to my father’s many public and charitable works.
Now began the long years of widowhood for Rose Jennings and a life without a father for the younger sons Nigel and Cedric. Their elders, Eric and Harold, had remained as journalists in Malaya, Eric with The Straits Times and Harold with The Malay Mail. Here too, began the transmission of the legend of Jack Jennings, which would so colour my life and persona in the years ahead.
Though I never lost sight of the legends during those first years in Canada, I had to focus simply on survival in a new country. But then my thoughts turned back to the lost family fortunes and the mythology of Jack Jennings. I conceived the idea of writing a sort of biography of my father, interwoven with the history of Malaya and I produced a credible but idealized and unrealistic outline of the work. Among other motives, I wanted to show that colonialism in Malaya had not been all bad-as an implicit defence of my family and father. I tentatively and sarcastically titled it Portrait of a Colonial Oppressor. Gathering together a small fund, I set out for Malaya to research the family history in the first of two visits. To finance this effort, I also sought commissions to write articles on little-known modern Malaya for Canadian publications, thus adding to my slender stock of money. Basing myself in Ipoh, I came to meet many Asian friends and admirers of my father as I revisited the family shrine, as it were. I was warmly welcomed by those who remembered my father and I dutifully erected a modest tombstone of Ipoh granite on my father’s hitherto unmarked and overgrown grace where it lay forgotten in Ipoh’s Connolly Road cemetery. My Asian friends appreciated this filial piety.
Driven by my family obsession, I made common cause with elderly and wealthy Chinese friends of my father I met, who wanted once more to have a media voice from Ipoh, Perak and North Malaya as a balance to Malay hegemony in the newly-independent country. Bankrolled by seed money from a wealthy Canadian friend who had accompanied me on my first trip to Malaysia, I set up a company named in symbolism after the mythical bird in the family crest Jack Jennings had adopted, Phoenix Communications Limited, to publish a new daily newspaper, The Times of Malaysia, to service North Malaysia from Ipoh. In effect, my purpose was to re-erect the Jennings tradition with what I clearly saw as a revival of his paper.
At one level, the concept was rational enough and described in my prospectus in a professional and businesslike way. There was a media vacuum left in North Malaysia by the heavily Singaporean focus of the morning, evening, Sunday newspapers and magazines of the wealthy Straits Times group, which dominated English-language publishing in Malaysia at the time. The competition faced by my idealized product would be severe. And my plan hinged upon being able to buy a mothballed newspaper composing room and rotary printing press, relict of a dead daily Chinese-owned newspaper, The Singapore Tiger Standard. I endlessly negotiated with the ostensible owners, two sons of the billionaire Tiger Balm patent-medicine king, Aw Boon Haw, but was never able to come to terms. I only discovered why much later a right of first refusal had long been held all along by The Straits Times, the firm in which my brother Eric was now a senior editorial executive, to prevent competition easily opening up.
In the end, the project had to be abandoned, foundering upon the stumbling-block of failure to buy equipment and so be able to make a quick start-up. In some deep sorrow and disillusionment, I had to give up the revival and I returned to Canada via Britain. Drained for the moment of my entrepreneurship and the drive to restore the family fortunes, I returned to what I knew-Canadian business paper publishing. With others, I founded a new electrical business newspaper, which gave satisfaction in its professionalism, but not in its financial rewards. For the moment, I had to forgo and file my obsessive dreams of rebuilding family fortunes.
However, in my year’s sojourn in Malaysia, I had found time to research the validity of the long-told Jennings family mythology. I had talked to older people who knew and worked with my father in his business and his various public causes. I had read deeply into back numbers of the old Times of Malaya (I particularly studied my father’s crusading editorials). From this search, I gleaned a portrait of Jack Jennings the man, as an admirable and courageous idealist, imbued with serving the public weal.
A one-of-a-kind publishing project in Malaya had also provided further research. I undertook to publish a book to celebrate Ipoh’s elevation to the status of a municipality. This, titled Ipoh : The Town that Tin Built, caused me to delve further into the city’s history with local historians. This also threw further light on my father’s role in the development of the city.
In parenthesis, I may remark that perhaps it was probably just as well that The Times of Malaysia project did not flourish. Even then there were signs that Malaysia’s supposedly democratic and parliamentary government would view the issue of media control quite differently than its Western counterparts. Malays in an out of government fear that total journalistic frankness on the Western model could breach Malaysia’s fragile racial peace. (This view was somewhat justified by later bloody post-election riots.) After I left Malaysia, government control of media became stronger and tighter. Broadcast media were already in government ownership, as well as editorial control. Subsequently, both the Singapore and Malaysian governments acquired and partitioned the dominant and central Straits Times group and operated its products under strict editorial guidance. With my Western training and my admiration for Jack Jennings’ editorial independence and courage, such reins and harness on a newly-born Times of Malaysia would have proved intolerable to me as a matter of principle. Perhaps I was lucky to avoid this fate down the road, when the British tradition of a free press was severely modified in the later years after Merdeka (Malaysian independence) in 1957. It would have been very hard to bear.
I also learned from my research that my mother’s tales of treachery and deceit by bankers in taking The Times of Malaya from my father were hardly accurate, but rather, were fondly overblown. They could be realistically reduced to a normal business reaction to the climate of the Great Depression, as occurred in so many cases of business bankruptcy, seeking to realize assets to at least partly settle debts. My father had not in fact been singled out, but he merely met the fate of those many others who optimistically over-expanded on the edge of the precipice of world-wide and all-encompassing depression.
Bereft of those long-told tales of a wronged father, I was forced to fall back on the reality of a gallant but (with hindsight) imprudent father, caught in the stifling web of world-wide economic collapse. What remained was a portrait of a man of a certain nobility, ruined by large events he could never have surmounted. Not less admirable, but more realistic, my further research now gave substance to this new (and more accurate) vision of my father.
As this visions took firmer shape, it became apparent that I had since my childhood been living with a very distorted (and cosmeticized) vision from my mother, who sought to salve her own grief with it in the unwelcome penury which followed the Malayan riches and social position she had enjoyed at my father’s side, as a prominent member of Malayan society, for a quarter of a century. The image she had fondly passed on was faulty, inaccurate and predictably partisan, though sincere. It was eagerly and easily grasped and assimilated by a young boy, growing to manhood under its attractive, romantic yet somber shadow.
My further trip to Malaysia five years later sustained and enhanced the new and more correct image and from those days until now, I have gradually been able to erase most of the fault-lines in the tales of my father, without honouring him any the less for his public zeal and high ideals. The warm image of a dedicated, public-spirited and courageous man remained, stripped of its tales of wrong and dearth. I began to come to terms in peace with the search for the truth about my father, which resulted in somewhat lifting a heavy burden from my shoulders. Today I can look back to him across the 60 years with pride, but without the searing regret and grief which coloured my early years and on into manhood, then and later feeling deeply wronged myself. This was replaced by pride and a determination to emulate him in more-or-less practical terms.
Over the years, I have now become much more comfortable with my pride in and admiration of Jack Jennings, sustained by the knowledge that he had done his best for his beloved country and only failed, as Theodore Roosevelt once put it, “while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” The quotation still seems apt.
The picture shows J A S Jennings, when he was in the Singapore Volunteer Rifles. Today these volunteers are remembered by the Malayan Volunteers Group.
To read more about Jack Jennings, click here.
To read more about the Times of Malaya via a series of links, click here.
To read more about Frederick Kersey Jennings, click here.