Reflecting on Anthony Abell’s 1959 Chinese New Year Message: A Historical Perspective

Sir Anthony Abell was a British colonial officer who served as the Governor of Sarawak. He joined the Colonial Administrative Service back in 1929 and was posted to Nigeria. Then in 1950, Abell was offered the governorship of Sarawak where he was concurrently High Commissioner to Brunei.

He was originally appointed for a three-year term only but his term was extended.

In the end, Abell worked in Sarawak from Apr 4, 1950 till Nov 15, 1959.

When the formation of the Malaysian federation was still in discussion, Abell returned to be a member of the Cobbold Commission.

Here is a little random, unknown fact about the former governor; he was not exactly a foodie.

Peter Mooney, the former Crown Counsel of Sarawak once wrote in his autobiography, “The Governor, Sir Anthony Abell, was a bachelor who had spent his previous service in Africa. He had no great interest in food and the lunches and dinners he gave were adequate but undistinguished. Simple Malay food, clearly chosen as well as prepared by the staff, was served at his private lunches and dinners.”

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In 1959, Abell delivered a Chinese New Year Message which was published in The Sarawak Gazette. Here are some key points of his message:

“May I start this New Year message by wishing all of you peace and prosperity and happiness in the year ahead. This year I am spending Chinese New Year in Sibu where I will be visiting many friends of long standing. I would however like to send a special message to all my kind friends in Kuching who in the normal course of events I would today visit in their homes to meet their families on this great Chinese family occasion.”

The tranquility of Sarawak

“This will be the last Chinese New Year I shall spend among you as Governor. The pleasure I always derive from your unvarying hospitality and kindness is therefore on the occasion touched with sadness. You and I have spent nine peaceful and very happy years together during which time Sarawak was made great material progress. These years have been unmarred by any form of strife and our ancient tradition of tranquility and concord have been maintained and I hope strengthened. I am very thankful for this and I know you and all the other people in Sarawak are proud of our record too.

“It is customary to count our blessing at a season of happiness and goodwill like this because they provide the basis of our confidence in the future but it is also wise at the New Year to do little stocktaking as well and see how we can face better the problems of the coming year.”

The Chinese Contribution

“It is true that 1958 was not a year of great commercial prosperity. By comparison with my early years in Sarawak it was rather lean. This is due to circumstances over which we have little control and we can but hope that the prices of our major exports will hereafter improve. You have in the past often experienced similar fluctuations in our fortunes. For you Chinese have been in Sarawak for many generations and have made a very notable contribution to the prosperity we at present enjoy. One of the most outstanding of your characteristics is your resilience and adaptability. You came here as strangers long ago to a land which was very different to your own. You had little more than the clothes you wore.

You could not speak the language of this country, you knew nothing of its customs but your vigour and adaptability quickly made an essential part of the community and showed how best you could contribute to Sarawak’s progress.

It is interesting to recall that as long ago as 1850 the first sago refinery was opened in Kuching by Chinese. In 1878 the Rajah allocated land to certain Chinese merchants so that they could experiment with the cultivation of pepper. You found gold and exploited it in Bau. You brought rubber from Malaya and in very many ways demonstrated the commercial promise of this country.”

Chinese Qualities

“Your genius for taking the long view in trade and politics is equally required today. We cannot rely for always on the old methods of earning our living. But by exercising those great virtues of industry, initiative and perseverance which everybody so particularly admires in the Chinese. I know Sarawak will develop its economy with that vigourous pioneering spirit which has served us all so well in the past. I imagine such ideas and plans are among your New Year’s resolutions and I am sure your initiative and enterprise will be increasingly followed by your countrymen of other races.”

The Present and the Future

“You know well that when you are on to a good thing, you should stick to it and back it for all you are worth. Sarawak offers you security in a peaceful environment. In this country enterprise and opportunity can flourish, assisted and protected by an honest and an efficient administration. aWe live by the rule of law. There is freedom and justice assured for all without regard to class or race or creed. There are some who lag behind others in education of health, in wisdom or in riches and it is in all our interests to give a helping hand to the weak and the backward until a common high standard of living and education has been achieved. In this the Chinese can make the greatest contribution of all and therefore perhaps the greatest sacrifices. There can be no real happiness or harmony in our Sarawak family if there is a wide disparity of wealth or learning. Ignorance and poverty breed dangerous frustrations which can explode in savage retaliation.”

It has been more than 60 years since Abell delivered this Chinese New Year Message. His message to help those who are weak and stay united still resonates with Sarawakians today, don’t you agree?

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 or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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