Kenelm Hubert Digby, the ‘communist’ who was the Attorney General of Sarawak

One of the most interesting figures that ever graced Sarawak’s service during the reign of the Brooke family was none other than Kenelm Hubert Digby.

He joined as a district officer under Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke in 1934 and returned to England in 1939 at the end of his contract.

Digby returned again to Sarawak as Legal Adviser to the rajah in the spring of 1940.

When the Japanese invaded Sarawak during World War II, Digby was among the civilian internees held at the Batu Lintang camp.

After the war, Digby returned to Sarawak where he resumed the role of Legal Adviser under the Sarawak Civil Service.

From there, he rose to become the Attorney-General as well as the editor of the Sarawak Gazette.

His last post in Sarawak was as a circuit judge which ended in 1951.

Kenelm Hubert Digby and the MI5

So what made Digby ‘a colourful figure’ during his time in Sarawak?

It all started when Digby was still a student at St John’s College, Oxford.

During a debate in the Oxford Union in 1933, Digby proposed the motion “That this House would in no circumstances fight for its King and country.” The motion was passed with 275 votes for and 153 against it.

The ‘Oxford pledge’, as it became known, was controversial at the time, causing friction between older and younger generations, idealisms of pacifism and patriotism. The motion was passed and followed by a nationwide furore.

Thanks to the debate, Digby was a figure of interest for various security intelligence organisations.

In the book MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law by Keith Ewing, Joan Mahoney and Andrew Moretta, it is stated that MI5 ‘had scouts in both the Labour and Communist clubs at Oxford at the time, Digby appearing as a member of both’.

It is reported that his mail was routinely inspected in Singapore while en route to Kuching when he was working in Sarawak.

Digby’s move back to Sarawak in 1940 had also caused MI5 some anxiety.

“This anxiety was fuelled in part by the fact that Digby had joined the secret Communist Party Lawyer’s Group (CPLG),” wrote Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta.

After the war, Digby was still under surveillance even when he was working in the Colonial Office.

When the Sarawak colonial government was re-organising their judiciary system in 1951, it gave them the opportunity to get rid of Digby. The governor did not renew his service in Sarawak, obviously due to his political views.

Years later, Digby published an interesting memoir about his life in Sarawak entitled ‘Lawyer in the Wilderness’ (1980).

He shared some funny encounters he had, and his work life as well as getting caught in Sarawak political scene before and after the war – including getting sued by Anthony Brooke.

Was Digby’s service in Sarawak terminated because he was a suspected communist?

In the last part of his book ‘Lawyer in the Wilderness’ (1980), Digby told his part of the story in terms of his political views.

He stated, “Since the day I had first landed in 1934 , I had been notorious for my somewhat unorthodox views on public questions, but nobody had ever suggested that they unfitted me for the duties which were entrusted to me. The most stupid of the Residents, who ruled my early life, had once asked me seriously whether I was a ‘communist agent’, and the Rajah had on one occasion laughingly inquired whether I was a ‘communist.’

“Sir Charles Arden Clarke once kept the Chief Secretary and myself back from a Supreme Council meeting, and informed me that there was an unfortunate rumour in Sarawak that I was a communist, and that it would be so disagreeable if it should be breathed abroad that the Attorney-General of Sarawak was a ‘red’, that he would be obliged if I would refrain from airing my opinions publicly.”

Digby also revealed that Sir Clarke once called him an hour or two before he gave a talk at St. Thomas Secondary School on ‘The Meaning of Democracy’.

During the phone conversation, the governor reminded Digby to ‘not get too far away from the Government’s line’.

Ultimately, Digby wasn’t a communist, but he was a proud socialist. He believed that everyone should have the freedom to express their own views especially if their personal opinions didn’t affect their jobs.

He added, “… it is rubbish to pretend that judges and other civil servants are wholly at liberty to hold their own views so long as those views do not interfere with their duties. Judges and other civil servants are independent; they are free to form their own opinions and to indulge in discussions with their friends; but they are independent and free only so long as those opinions and discussions conform with the ‘Government line’.”

Even though his Oxford pledge past had haunted and dogged Digby, it’s important to remember how it is this same courage and belief in individual freedom that made him stand out for Vyner Brooke and his vision of empowering Sarawak with a constitution that promoted self-government. If it wasn’t for the Second World War, Sarawak may have seen the fruits of Vyner’s labour in the 1941 Sarawak Constitution which was drafted to realise the Nine Cardinal Principles.

Besides his political views, Digby shared a number of colourful stories in his memoir. Here are some of the tales from Kenelm Hubert Digby’s memoir:

1.When he confessed to pronouncing the bride’s name wrongly when officiating a marriage in Miri

“Towards the end of February 1935, I returned to Miri. Shortly after my arrival there it fell to my lot, in the temporary absence of the District Officer, to perform a civil marriage between two Indians. The prospective husband, with some such name as Govindasamy, was employed as a clerk in Seria by the oil company.

The prospective bride, Naoomal, hailed from some unpronounceable village in India. Strange though it may seem this was the first wedding which I had ever attended and I was naturally a little confused and embarrassed.

Influenced, I suppose, by the fact that Seria is obviously a more appropriate name for a girl than Naoomal, I misread the form in front of me by assuming that the names of the parties followed one another horizontally instead of vertically.

Consequently I married the bridegroom to the town in which he lived instead of to his bride. It was as if a registrar in England had said, “I declare you, Horatio Pifflington, and you, Stow-on-the-Wold, man and wife together.”

The mistake was pointed out to me after the ceremony was over. The marriage certificate did not repeat the error and I hope that it has continued to sanctify a union not nearly marred at its birth by a blunder of officialdom.”

2.On becoming a ‘real’ Sarawakian

“Some administrative officers never got tired of pointing out to me that Miri was not ‘the real Sarawak’ and that short visits to Sibuti, Niah, and the Limbang river did not compensate me for the degrading effect of the flesh-pots.

There was a horrible old saying that a man did not become ‘a real Sarawakian’ until he had “had the clap twice and been sick in his soup three times.”

That, of course, was a fantastic exaggeration of the attitude adopted by some of the older officers, but it cannot be disputed that that attitude, to a substantial degree, not only condoned but encouraged hard drinking and other minor vices, and, to some extent, despised the appearance in Sarawak of amenities imported from Europe.

In particular, a bachelor officer was considered to be a little queer if he did not ‘keep’ a native or Chinese mistress, but the critics were honest enough to admit that this omission was more excusable in Miri than in the lonelier out-stations.

A cadet, on his first arrival in Kuching, was interviewed by a doctor, who gave him a lecture on ‘tropical hygiene’ and presented him with a little box labeled “Outfit B,” the contents of which were designed to protect the user against incurring venereal disease.”

3.When Digby’s census in Sarawak didn’t quite add up

“There was the answer which the interpreter gave me on his own initiative, and without interpreting my question, when I attempted to ask a Chinese father, who reported six boys and no girls, what he had done with his daughters: ‘Sold them; I bought one myself, but as I didn’t really want it, I gave it away to a policeman.’

Lastly there was the other Chinese father, who, strangely enough, reported five daughters, and then chased me across ten acres to inform me that since my departure from his house he had lined the girls up and re-counted them and now made the total six.”

Can you imagine telling the officer from Department of Statistics today that you sold your daughter off or you miscalculated how many children you actually had?

4.Digby’s favourite prisoner in Simanggang

“My favourite prisoner was Benito Sosa, a Filipino, who was about half-way through a ten-year sentence, which was a commutation of the death penalty imposed on him for murdering a constabulary sergeant, who had been misconducting himself with Mrs. Benito Sosa, by thrusting the stem of an ordinary tobacco pipe through one of his eyes.

Benito was a skilled musician, who, prior to his misfortune, had played some instrument or other in the Constabulary Band. His official prison appointment was that of green-keeper on the golf-course , but he was seldom to be found on the job when I made my daily round of the gangs.

Faint, melodious sounds from the direction of the Resident’s stables would denote that Benito had once again rigged up a violin from a piece of wood and a few strands of wire, and was now sitting on a box beside the ponies entirely lost in his own musical dreams. He would grin cheerfully when reproached for his inattention to duty, and return temporarily to his greens.”

According to the Sarawak Gazette, Sosa’s sentence was commuted from death sentence to fifteen years’ imprisonment by the Rajah. He was found guilty for the murder of Delfin Arca, his fellow bandsman for the Sarawak Rangers.

5.How life as a civilian internee during the war had changed him

“Internment had by no means been pure loss. We had all of us learnt at least a little for our own good. It would be presumptuous to suggest to what extent others had improved themselves, but it was commonly agreed that three or four hard drinkers had been given a new lease of life.

I myself had learned how to count up to ten in Japanese, and a few Japanese military expressions; how to ‘Use an axe and a changkol; how to grow the easier kind of vegetables; how to play bridge; more chess openings than I had ever known before; a smattering of short hand; how to walk along stony roads in bare feet with a heavy load on my back; that I could perform hard manual labour, three-quarters naked, in the tropical sun, without any covering for the head even at noon; the dispensability of whisky and all other strong drink a few miles from the Equator; and how to walk warily before power and adapt myself to the military mind. I had read every play of Shakespeare’s once and most twice and I had studied many commentaries on them.

Above all, I had learned a great deal more about the behaviour of my fellow-men in adversity. My years of internment immensely improved my opinion of human nature.”

For his service in Sarawak, Digby was awarded the Companions of the Star of Sarawak in 1941.

In 1955, he migrated to New Zealand with his family. Digby passed away on Aug 5, 2001.

Digby’s relationship with his wife Mutal Fielding was the center of Derek Round’s book Barbed Wire Between Us (2002). While Digby was interned in Batu Lintang, Mutal was interned at the Stanley Internment Camp in Hong Kong.

Patricia Hului

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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