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Malaya of the 1920’s

Rotary came into being in 1905. Today, it is truly an international service organisation. But how did Rotary first reach our shores? For an answer, we must travel back to the Malaya of the late 1920’s. Back then, “Malaya” was a place on the map but it was not a single country or even a single colony. For a myriad of reasons, Malaya was made up of the Straits Settlements, the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Malay States. A common link however was British control, exercised to a greater or lesser degree.

The 1920’s were a time of great change. High prices for rubber and tin meant Malaya was becoming increasingly prosperous. Much of the civic infrastructure, such as the railway stations, post offices and law courts, were already in place, at least in the bigger towns. At the same time, the influx of migrant workers, mainly from China and India, had transformed Malaya’s demographics.

James Davidson’s Rotary Dream

One day in late 1928, a ship steamed into Penang harbour. Among its passengers were James Wheeler Davidson, 56, his wife, Lillian and their thirteen year-old daughter, Marjory. They were here on a mission. In the early days of Rotary, club extension was an obsession. By the late 1920’s, there were about 2,900 clubs in 50 countries. Rotary had made inroads almost everywhere but one look at an atlas would have shown a vast swathe of terra incognito between Prague in Europe and Shanghai in the Far East where Rotary was represented by only two clubs – Calcutta and Lahore.

James Davidson was Vice-President of Rotary International in 1926/27. In 1921, he formed clubs in Australia and New Zealand, and was now asked to look into the expansion of Rotary into the Middle East and Far East. Davidson embarked on his journey in April 1928. He requested letters of introduction from Rotarians, heads of state and politicians, such as Neville Chamberlain. On arriving at a destination, he went to see the most important civil servants, businessmen and professionals there and talked to them about forming a Rotary club. During his trek through 25 countries, he interviewed 2,200 people and formed 23 clubs, earning him the title, the Marco Polo of Rotary.

After travelling through Turkey, Greece, Eqypt, the Middle East, India, Ceylon and Burma, the Davidsons arrived in Penang. Their visit to Malaya was hardly an orderly procession down the peninsula. From Penang, they travelled to Kuala Lumpur. From Kuala Lumpur, he made return trips to Seremban, Jelebu and Ipoh. The Davidsons then proceeded to Malacca and Singapore. They sailed for Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and later returned to Penang, and from there, to Singapore. He must have also visited Klang at some point. There were further journeys to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Penang, and it was from Penang the Davidsons left Malaya for good, heading for their next port of call, Bangkok.

The seven clubs Davidson helped to organise in Malaya were the clubs in Seremban, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Klang, Singapore, Malacca and Penang. Malaya was indeed a happy hunting ground for Davidson since these clubs represented almost one-third of the total he formed during his entire voyage.

Davidson observed Malaya enjoyed racial harmony but that this could not be taken for granted. “Why not, therefore, some machinery to assist in maintaining this happy status and to promote further goodwill?”, he asked. Why not indeed, and Davidson proceeded with the task at hand.


Seremban’s rise to prominence was due to tin. The Sungai Linggi was the main transport route for the tin trade. Seremban was also the administrative centre for Negeri Sembilan and its railway station was built in 1924.

In March 1929, 26 members of the community met at the Negeri Sembilan Chinese Miners’ Association and agreed “to practice the ideas of Rotary”. The inaugural meeting was held in June, and RI granted the club provisional status on 16 August. On 20 September, James Davidson attended a club meeting. Seremban has the distinction of receiving the country’s first Rotary charter, No.3244, on 4 December 1929.

Kuala Lumpur

Unlike many of the cities Davidson visited where Rotary was unknown, Kuala Lumpur was ready and waiting for him. Davidson noted that “a group of representative men in Kuala Lumpur, a city of 80,000 had decided that their community required some organization free from racial and religious barriers, one which would tend to unite the several races which it seemed were growing farther and farther apart as time passed. Thus with little information as to our procedure and without inspiration from outside, a group had decided on a Rotary club, had in fact actually organized one, and were awaiting my arrival in order to officially start it on its way.”

The Kuala Lumpur club claimed to have “existed in spirit”, when in the early 1920’s, civic leaders organised the Concord Club, which was also a service club operating along principles similar to those of Rotary. On 20 July 1928, a provisional club of 25 members was born. Local dignitaries, such as Raja Tun Uda and Choo Kia Peng, the tin miner and Federal Councillor, were charter members. Due to an administrative delay, the club only obtained its charter (No.3268) on 15 January 1930.


The third club formed in Malaya was the Rotary Club of Ipoh, first organised on 11 October 1929 and chartered on 18 January 1930 with charter No.3270. Ipoh’s population had not so much grown, as exploded; a cluster of villages in the 1880’s had transformed into the largest town in Perak by 1928, with a population of about 50,000: all due to the Kinta Valley’s “tin rush”.

Apart from British civil servants and businessmen, there were also several prominent Asian charter members, such as Dato’ Panglima Kinta Haji Md Eusoff bin Dato Yusoff (who in 1933 became the first Malay president of the club), CH Labrooy and Leong Sin Nam.

Colonel Cecil Rae followed a unique path in Rotary. He served as club president in 1938/39 but only after acting as District Commissioner from 1931 to 1935, and as the second Vice-President of RI in 1936. He holds the distinction of being the highest ranked RI officer from the clubs within the current boundaries of District 3300. If we go back to the time when District 3300 was a part of the larger District 330, then we must also acknowledge the great achievement of Bhichai Rattakul of the Rotary Club of Dhonburi who was RI President in 2002-03. Due recognition must also be paid to Tan Sri Dato’ James Peter Chin, of the Rotary Club of Petaling Jaya who served as RI director from 1997 to 1999.


Klang’s history dates back 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest habitations in Malaysia. By the early twentieth century, it was an important centre of commerce in Selangor, dealing not only in tin, but also rubber and coffee.

The club, originally called Klang and Coast, was chartered on 8 August 1930 with 43 charter members. Like all other clubs in Malaya, the club was disbanded during the Second World War. A new charter was issued under the name of Klang and Port Swettenham only on 14 September 1961. A third charter, this time under the name of Klang, was issued to the club on 3 August 1972.


Lillian. Davidson’s wife, wrote a series of articles when she returned home which were published in “The Rotarian”. Of Singapore’s harbour, she wrote:

”One seeing is worth a hundred tellings” is a Chinese proverb, but the truth of which no one will deny. But a fleeting glance at the huge array of ships from the ends of the earth which ride at anchor in the great land-locked harbor of Singapore drives home the oft-repeated fact that Singapore … stands indeed at the crossroads of the world.”

Davidson recorded that “on June 6, at an evening meeting at Raffles Hotel, the club was organized with seventy-one charter members and with an attendance at the dinner of sixty-two. In obtaining them, I had probably made, including return visits, two hundred calls on men in their offices.”

The club was chartered on 11 August 1930 with Charter No.3360. Those charter members came from twenty countries and it could claim to be one of the most cosmopolitan clubs in the world.


Malacca was ceded by the Dutch to the British by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. So when Davidson visited the town, it had been in British hands for over a century. Its illustrious history goes back to the days of the Malacca Sultanate, and Malaysians must be happy the old town centres of both Malacca and Penang, with their historic architecture, have recently been added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. The Rotary Club of Malacca was formed on 8 September 1930. Its charter is No.3367.


Penang was a thriving port when Davidson visited it. Its prosperity attracted people from throughout the region, and it was truly a meeting place of different cultures. Penang had also received many celebrity visitors such as Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward. Davidson described the formation of the Rotary club as follows:

“I was fortunate here in that the British Resident Councillor, Hon. Mr EWF Gilman, had previously become a member of the Kuala Lumpur Rotary Club. A strong group of seventy charter members including many desirable Chinese as well as a representation of Malays and Indians, brought Rotary into existence on August 12, 1930 …”

The inaugural dinner of the new club was held at the E&O Hotel. The club obtained its charter on 8 October 1930 and its charter number is 3375. The date the club was first organised is unclear. From Davidson’s account, it was 12 August 1930 whereas the club’s web site says it was exactly one year earlier, 12 August 1929.


Even though the Rotary Club of Taiping was not formed during Davidson’s tour, it deserves to be included in this account, being the next oldest club in Malaya and the only other club formed before the Second World War. Again, tin was the catalyst for its growth; the first railway in the country from Taiping to Port Weld, was built principally to transport tin ore. Taiping was the state capital from 1876 until 1937. The Taiping club was originally chartered on 10 June 1936. After the war, it was revived on 6 October 1953 and re-admitted into Rotary on 2 March 1954.

Malayans’ Unique Classifications

James Davidson persuaded RI to change the classification system to allow for the unique circumstances he found in multi-racial societies such as Malaya’s. The rules were quite strict then: just one member per classification. Davidson explains the problem:

“I found the Rotarians of Malaya very much interested in obtaining an alteration in our classification system along unique lines to which I had never before given thought. Feeling that the mission of their club should be the development of friendship among various racial groups, they desired to take in members not alone on a basis of difference in vocation but on a difference in race as well. Thus they had as members a Chinese, an Indian, and a European barrister, each one a specialist in the law of his own people. I found myself in sympathy with this interpretation of our classification rules.”

There was also a case of the Malay and Chinese doctors both of whom belonged to the Singapore Rotary club. Davidson also encountered some unusual classifications, such as that of a “Malay Chief”.

A Dream Made Real

Philanthropy is as old as the hills but Rotary showed the new way forward – public service carried out in an organised and collective way. The introduction of Rotary to Malaya brought about subtle social changes: There were unseen but real barriers between the rulers and the ruled in British Malaya, and even among the local communities, racial tension had begun to brew. The introduction of Rotary, with its philosophy of goodwill towards all, would have begun to make a modest difference. Davidson left Malaya “believing that Rotary was firmly established” in our land. One might even say it was a dream made real.

Rotary International District 3300 had in fact undergone a series of changes since its inception after the formation and establishment of the first Rotary Club – the Rotary Club of Seremban in 1929. Rotary International designated the area comprising Siam (now Thailand) and the Straits Settlements (then Penang, Malacca and Singapore) as “Provincial District B”. In the intervening years Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Klang and Coast, Singapore, Malacca and Penang were formed.

In 1935, Rotary International re-designated the district as “District 80” and with that the President of the Rotary Club of Bangkok, His Royal Highness Prince Purachatra of Thailand was appointed as the first District Governor. The District was then extended to include what was then known as French Indo-China which comprised Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

A year later in 1936, with the inclusion of Borneo, District 80 was extended to include Sarawak and North Borneo (later known as Sabah) and Brunei. Sarawak and Sabah subsequently became part of Malaysia upon that country’s independence in 1957.

The Japanese Occupation between 1942 and 1946 saw the suspension by Rotary International of all clubs in this District. Rotary International then reinstated them after a resolution in 1946 following an application by all clubs concerned. “Klang and Coast”, however, did not apply for reinstatement and as a result joined the fold only in 1961.

In 1948, the district was again re-designated as “District 46” and subsequently in 1961, as “District 330” .

Following the independence of Malaya in 1957 many more clubs were formed in the countries to the north of the peninsular. In 1981, Rotary International established District 335, which was to include Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The whole of Malaysia (which now included the new Borneo States of Sabah and Sarawak), Singapore and Brunei all remained in District 330.

“District 3300” came into being in 1992; and with its emergence, all clubs south of the state of Negeri Sembilan, namely Melaka (Malacca) and Johor as well as the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, together with Singapore and Brunei, were grouped into the new District 3310.

This history is extracted and edited by Greg Barlow

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