Celebrating Malaysia Independence Day through the John Fairbairn Collection

The Museum of Policing in Devon and Cornwall holds a wealth of material on the history of policing in the South West, but it also has links to further afield. The John Fairbairn Collection (PA/3/17/15) is a prime example of this. The collection comprises of thirty-one photographs concerning Fairbairn and his long policing career in South East Asia.

Many readers may be familiar with Fairbairn’s father, William Ewart Fairbairn, who was a British Royal Marine and police officer. He’s most famous for developing hand-to-hand combat methods for the Shanghai Police during the interwar years, as well as for the allied special forced during the Second World War. However, his son John Fairbairn is less well known.

John Fairbairn served for six years in the civil section and Special Constabulary of the Shanghai Police, and subsequently joined the Indian Police. In 1947, he became Assistant Superintendent for the Singapore Police, and was later promoted to Deputy Assistant Superintendent in 1953. Not long after, Fairbairn was deployed to North Borneo (later Sabah from 1963) in 1955/56. After ten years of working in the State, he retired as Chief of the Special Branch of the Police in Sabah on 31 May 1965, and moved back to Britain with his wife.

The 31st of August is the National Day of Independence for Malaysia, which commemorates the independence of the Federation of Malaya from British colonial rule in 1957. The day is also known as Merdeka Day (Freedom Day). This year marks Malaysia’s 64th year of independence from Britain, and the day is celebrated across the country. To mark the anniversary, the Museum is sharing the thirty-one photographs which make up the John Fairbairn Collection, which can be found below. As the collection shows, numerous parties took place to celebrate the country’s independence. Indeed, many of the photographs depict some of the first Merdeka Malaysia formal celebrations!

The photographs were all taken by Fairbairn’s wife, Mrs Fairbairn. As is often the case when researching women in history, very little is known about Mrs Fairbairn. Given the number of photographs she took, which span the entire period that Mrs Fairbairn and her husband were in South East Asia, it is likely that she wanted to capture her husband’s career and time spent in the region. The Museum has Mrs Fairbairn to thank for taking these snapshots, which provide an insight into Malaysia’s independence. And yet, it must be acknowledged that these photographs were taken by a white Western woman.

The Museum recently shared the digitised images that make up the John Fairbairn collection with the National Library of Singapore. The collection now forms part of the National Library’s Singapore and Southeast Asia collection, and emphasises the value in forging partnerships across the world! Our Archivist received a letter of thanks from the library which can be found below.

As John Fairbairn never worked for Devon and Cornwall Police, it’s a mystery as to how the Museum came to house the collection. It’s possible that Fairbairn either retired in the South West, did a training course here, or a descendant of his retired in the region. If anyone has any information on this, please do get in touch!

The large number of photographs which make up the collection have been organised in the image carousel below thematically. The initial images feature Fairbairn at work, followed by his attendance at events and parties, photographs of Malayan people, the celebrations for National Independence Day, and the letter of thanks from the National Library of Singapore. Unfortunately, very little information is known about individual photographs. If you have any information about a photo, or the collection, please contact Miranda Stevens at mirandastevens@dcpolicingmuseum.co.uk.

Here is a PDF link to the letter of thanks from The National Library Board Singapore

Words by Lisa Berry-Waite