Official involved in rebuilding of Sabah dies at 80
Published on: Friday, April 15, 1994

The London Times (15.4.1994) - JOHN MACARTNEY was one of the last links between the Chartered Company administration of North Borneo, in an era redolent of early mercantile activity in the East Indies, and the creation of modern Malaysia. His thirty-year career began in the romantically archaic and benevolent paternalism of the company administration of the prewar years, when the price of rubber was the main consideration. He was to see this ethos shattered by the Japanese onslaught and, after a period of internment, participated in the postwar rebuilding process which involved the establishment, first, of a Crown Colony and then led to the emergence of Sabah as a state within the Malaysian federation in 1963. 

John Hance Macartney was born in Walthamstow, east London, and educated at Sir George Monoux Grammar School and St Peter’s Hall, Oxford. In 1936 he joined the small cadre of British North Borneo Chartered Company administrators and learnt the skills of district work in the West Coast Residency of North Borneo. In his leisure hours he became secretary of the Jesselton Turf Club whose delightfully informal meetings were a feature of social life in the prewar years and did much to contribute to harmonious relations between the many races of the territory. 

This idyllic existence under the benevolent administration of the British North Borneo Company was rudely ended in January 1942 when the Japanese landed at Jesselton and began taking over the whole territory. The company ordered its officials to stay at their posts, reasoning. that they might help to provide some measure of protection for the local populace by calming fears and giving advice in a situation of general turmoil. There was no possibility of resisting the invaders since there were no troops and the small North Borneo Constabulary was equipped only for internal security and anti-piracy duties. 

Macartney therefore stayed on as district officer, Tenom, until May 1942, when he was ordered to report for internment. Shipped to Sarawak with his fellow officers, he alleviated the boredom of the next three years by learning Chinese. As internee camp quartermaster he was known for the skill with which he managed to persuade the Japanese quartermaster to provide extra victuals to eke out the unsavoury camp fodder.

After the Japanese surrender Macartney returned to North Borneo following a period of recuperation in England. The first major task was rebuilding after the devastation caused by Japanese air attacks – and, in their turn, by the Allied ones. The British North Borneo Company felt quite unable to shoulder the burden of this, or of engineering a return to the prewar status quo and, in 1946, surrendered its charter. The territory became the Crown Colony of North Borneo. 

Macartney became Commissioner of Labour and Immigration, a job in which his recently learnt Chinese stood him in good stead. He modernised obsolete prewar labour legislation and took action against rogue employers who tried to abuse the laws. 

As Secretary for Local Government from 1960 he set on foot an ambitious programme for the achievement of universal primary education, which was achieved not long after he left. He also instituted local government elections, a major step forward for a territory which was soon to achieve independence, which it did as the state of Sabah, within the Malaysian federation, in 1963. Macartney’s final post, held in the newly independent state, was that of chairman of the Public Service Commission. 

Returning to Britain in 1966, he became bursar and lecturer in oriental studies at Grey College, Durham. In final retirement, he settled down in Durham, but he kept in touch with South-East Asia, sometimes conducting tours of selected groups of travellers there. 

He is survived by his wife Pam, a former medical officer in Malaya, and by their son and daughter. 

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