Sir Hugh Low, GCMG
(10 May 1824 – 18 April 1905)
was a celebrated,
British colonial administrator,
innovator and naturalist.
After a long residence in various colonial roles in Labuan, he became the first successful British administrator in the Malay Peninsula where he made the first trials of Hevea rubber in the region. His methods became models for future administrators. He made the first documented ascent of Mount Kinabalu in 1851. Both Kinabalu’s highest peak as well as the deep gully on the northern side of the mountain are named after him – Low’s Peak, the highest peak of Southeast Asia, on Mount Kinabalu, Borneo and Low’s Gully. Low was born in Upper Clapton, England, the son of a Scottish horticulturist, also named Hugh. At an early age, he acquired botanical expertise working in the family nursery. At 20, his father sent him on a collecting expedition to Southeast Asia. He based himself in Singapore but soon joined James Brooke, the White Rajah, in Sarawak. In the months following he became well enough acquainted with interior of Sarawak to write a definitive book on it on his return home. In 1847, Brooke was appointed Governor of the recently established British colony of Labuan and Consul General of Borneo. He made Low his Colonial Secretary (1848-1850) and William Napier Esq., Lieutenant Governor.
In Labuan, Low acquired administrative experience, fluency in Malay and an enduring reputation as a naturalist, although he often quarrelled with geologist/naturalist James Motley. He was Police Magistrate from 1850 to 1877. It was also from Labuan he made his three visits to Mount Kinabalu, the first in March 1851 and twice with Spenser St. John, the Consul General of Brunei, in 1858. In April 1877, the Colonial Office transferred Hugh Low to become the fourth British Resident of Perak (1877-1889), ‘adviser’ to the Sultan whose advice was binding in all matters except for custom or religion. The first Biritish Resident had been murdered in 1874, precipitating a war that left nearly all high-ranking Malay officials either dead or in exile. History shows that he landed at Telok Kertang on April 19, 1877 and walked to Matang, determined to respect the customs of the people and undo the wrongs that his predecessors had forced upon the local people. At last the British Colonial Office had appointed an outstanding administrator, despite his age (he was 53 on appointment) and his preference for the quiet backwater of Labuan. Coincidentally, his nephew Hugh Clifford (later Sir Hugh Clifford) had just left Perak having been a cadet there for the last four years.
He found Perak in bad shape, undeveloped, bankrupt and with the locals terrified and suspicious of the British intentions. His only way out was to win over the people and manage an economic transformation. He achieved these objectives by sheer hard work, never too busy at his desk to visit all corners of Perak or talk to a Malay, but never making hurried (wrong) decisions. Making use of prominent local leaders at most levels of his administration formal and informal. This included a close business and personal friendship with Kapitan China Chung Keng Kwee who, encouraged by Low, used modern British mining equipment to lead the way for the other miners to adopt these production-improving tools. He also worked closely with Raja Yusof (the Raja Muda) and Raja Idris (later Sultan Idris Murshidul’adzam Shah) to bring about order in the State, pay off the debt of 800,000 Straits Dollars he inherited, and re-establish confidence in the British Resident system. Returning the management of the villages to the Malay Penghulus (Administrative Chiefs) that Birch had taken from them, thus creating stability within the villages and the State. Using the goodwill and trust created by the above measures he managed to abolish debt-slavery by 1883, a practice that the Malay elites had enjoyed for as long as could be remembered. Putting in place ‘land laws’ (in 1879) that created confidence among the tin miners which in turn increased mining productivity and exports, bringing valuable income to the State. The building of roads to allow effective administration of the State and improved movement of tin and other goods.
He has almost single handedly transform Perak into a modern state. He was responsible for laying the foundation for urban planning of Ipoh, Taiping, and Teluk Anson. Many ‘firsts’ attained by Perak was his innovation. Formation of a State Council (first of its kind) in which Malays and Chinese took active part in planning the policy for State development. The first meeting was in December 1877 and it won over the Malay Chiefs who, not surprisingly, had previously been very unhappy with the Resident system. The Council remained a valuable asset until the formation of the Federated Malay States in 1896. In 1885, he established the first railway line in the Malay Peninsula from Taiping to Port Weld (now Kuala Sepetang) for the transportation of tin, replacing the elephant transport used previously, thus speeding up the tin exports. A year earlier in 1884, he connected Perak to Penang and Province Wellesly by a telegraph line (first of its kind) through the jungle. Another notable achievement by Low was the Perak State Museum and Library (first of its kind) build in 1885, originally housed in two rooms of the Taiping Government Building amd with Leonard Wray appointed as curator, soon the museum ran out of space and a new building, still in use today. Apart from his administrative achievements, Low was also involved in the experimental planting and research on commercial tropical crops including rubber, coffee, black pepper, fruits, and tea. Rubber cultivation in Malaysia began with Sir Hugh Low. In 1882, he planted rubber seeds and grew seven trees at the gardens at Kuala Kangsar. Low created a model rubber plantation in Malaya although this is sometimes mis-attributed to Henry Ridley who continued the work after a decade. In 1884, a variety of pomelo, limau bali also known as tambun pomelo, was brought into Malaya from Indonesia by Low.
In 1883, six years before his retirement Hugh Low received a Knighthood, unusual to say the least for normally such accolades only appear after leaving the Colonial Service and shows the respect that his superiors had for him. He eventually retired in 1889 at the age of 65 leaving a credit balance of 1.5 million Straits Dollars; having turned around the fortunes of Perak, provided stability among all the people and change with cooperation, not friction, for the native Malays. His visionary policies and strong partnership with His Royal Highness Sultan Idris Murshidul’adzam Shah contributed to his tenure ushered in the New Golden Age of Perak,
He is often considered the first successful British administrator in the Malay Peninsula, whose methods became models for subsequent British colonial operation in the entire Southeast Asia Region. Several plants, orchids, mammals, and insects species named after his name to commemorate his meaningful works – Rhododendron lowii, Nepenthes lowii, Vatica lowii, Myristica lowiana, Dimorphorchis lowii, Dendrobium lowii, Paphiopedilum lowii, Plocoglottis lowii, Malaxis lowii, Ptilocercus lowii, Sundasciurus lowii, Sarothrocera lowii, Neorina lowii, and Papilio lowi. We at RC.Enterprises honour and pay tribute to the memory and legacy of the great man, almost forgotten. One of our innovative enterprise is named Hugh Low Regeneris and a number of our social impact projects in Perak, Malaysia are named Hugh Low Valley, Hugh Low Hill, Hugh Low Hub, Hugh Low House, Hugh Low Lake, Hugh Low Community, and Hugh Low Precinct.