003: Fine Young Calibans

By Farish A. Noor ~ September 20th, 2006. Filed under: TOM_Main, The Other Malaysia.

Fine Young Calibans: Ibrahim Yaakob and the Rise of the Malay Left. (Part 1 of 3)

A cursory overview of Malaysian politics today might give one the mistaken impression that the local political terrain (and Malay politics in particular) is divided between two seemingly irreconcilable camps: that of the Conservative ethno-nationalists on one hand and those of the Islamist tendency on the other. True, there still exists the Democratic Action Party (DAP) which holds on to the dreams of the Socialist International. And we must never forget the leftists of the Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM -People’s Party of Malaysia) and the Parti Sosialis Malaysia, both of which bear their leftist credentials proudly.

But the fact remains that in the wake of the National Emergency of 1948-1960, the secular Left has, to put it mildly, been fighting on the ropes for its survival in this country. During the elections of 1964, the PRM and other Malay Leftist organisations were badly affected thanks to the anti-Communist hysteria that was whipped up during the confrontation with Indonesia. During this time many of the socialist movements and organisations in the country were put under surveillance and control. Branches of the PRM and PBM (Parti Buruh Malaysia) were declared illegal and shut down all over the country.

It was during the elections of 1969 that the Malay-dominated Front Sosialis made up of the PRM and PBM was effectively wiped out and did not win a single seat. The 1969 elections marked the turning point when the Islamists of PAS emerged as the main opponents of UMNO and the political fortunes of the Malay Left began to decline. From then on, Malaysian politics was divided along the lines of three camps: the UMNO-dominated Alliance coalition of conservative-nationalist parties, the Chinese-dominated leftist opposition led by the DAP, and the Islamists of PAS. The PRM, PBM and PSM have never won a seat in Parliament since then.

One is tempted to ask the obvious questions: What would the present be like if the Malay Leftists were not so thoroughly wiped out by both the departing British colonial powers and the newly-installed conservative Malay elite? Would Malaysian (and in particular Malay-Muslim) politics be different today? Would the country have evolved in a different direction altogether and would we be witnessing the discursive shift to the Islamist register in politics that we see around us?

These are obviously questions that cannot be answered satisfactorily by anyone, but there remain traces of Malaysian history that may yet prove useful when trying to answer such queries. For among the many other sides of the Malaysian story that we seldom discuss there happens to be the forgotten legacy of the pioneering Leftist-nationalists of the early twentieth century, led by men like Ibrahim Yaakob.

Fine Young Calibans: Ibrahim Yaakob and the Sultan Idris Training College.

It is perhaps ironic to note that the man who would one day become one of the leaders of the Malay anti-colonial movement was himself a product of British colonial education. Ibrahim Yaakob was a student of the Sultan Idris Training College (SITC), which was set up by the British colonial authorities with the simple aim of creating a class of Malay functionaries and educationists who would help them maintain and manage the lower rungs of the British colonial educational system in Malaya.

Set up in 1922, the Sultan Idris Training College was named after Sultan Idris Shah of Perak who only nine years before was conferred the honour of the GCVO by his British patrons and mentors. While the Malay College of Kuala Kangsar (est. 1905) was formed with the intention of creating a generation of English-educated Malay students of royal, aristocratic or noble background to man the middle and lower echelons of the Malayan Civil Service (MCS), the SITC had its own unique role to play within the logic of the colonial-capitalist state.

The SITC, which was created as a result of the ethnocentrically biased policy proposals of the Assistant Director of Colonial Education R. O. Winstedt, was primarily directed towards the goal of reproducing the Western stereotypes of the pleasant, nimble Malay agriculturist or the rustic Malay schoolteacher who was meant to return to the villages and to teach the Malays skills that were more in keeping with their ‘traditional rural’ lifestyle. To this task, four European, nine Malay and one Filipino instructors had been recruited in order to teach the students teaching methods as well as more ‘traditional’ skills like basket weaving and gardening which were so beloved by the colonial imagination.

The dyadic yet complimentary roles of the MCKK and the SITC corresponds to the divisive nature of the colonial government’s strategy of division and containment of the Malays into clearly demarcated and policed spaces: the urban space of the Malay colonial-bureaucrats and the world of the tradition-bound rural peasantry. The colonial administrators themselves were the ones who were most concerned to ensure that the fragile socio-political hierarchy they had created under colonial rule and through the use of force was maintained indefinitely via the divisive educational system they had introduced. Right up to the eve of Malaya’s independence decades later, colonial functionaries like Winstedt would still be holding onto the hope that British rule in Malaya could be perpetuated if only the threat of the vernacular Malay intelligentsia could be contained and that the English-educated Malay ruling elite could be counted on to help the British stay in the country.

But try as they did, the colonial authorities realised that as an instrument of colonial domination and control the system of colonial education was not an entirely reliable one. The fears of the colonial authorities proved to be well founded, for in the end the dyadic system of colonial education did indeed let them down. While the MCKK produced a number of compliant Malay clerks and peons (of royal birth, no less) to man the middle and lower echelons of the colonial bureaucracy, it’s sister-institution the SITC produced a generation of educated and conscientious Malay youths who came to see their plight from a different perspective. From this group of newly conscious Malay youths a handful of radical young Malay journalists, writers, teachers and activists would emerge, who would later become the founding fathers of the Malay radical nationalist movement. Among them was Ibrahim Yaakob, who proved to be more than just a difficult student when he turned away from basket-weaving classes at the SITC. Being denied the opportunity of being taught something really useful, Ibrahim opted for radical student activism instead.

From Basket-weaving to Radical Nationalism.

The Malay youth who would one day prove to be one of the most vocal critics of both the colonial and traditional Malay regimes was born in Temerloh, Pahang in 1911. He was a student at the SITC between 1929-1931.

During his time at the SITC Ibrahim Yaakob became involved in a group of Malay students who had been inspired by the wave of Pan-Malay nationalism which swept across the archipelago from Indonesia. At that time the ‘nationalist bug’ had struck throughout Asia and Southeast Asia, and it had inspired an entire generation of Asian youths whose heroes were men of the time such as Sukarno and Hatta of Indonesia, Ghandi and Bose of India, and Aung San of Burma. Ibrahim Yaakob was certainly not indifferent to these trends. As one of the founders of a student group called the Belia Malaya (’Malayan Youth’), Ibrahim and his colleagues began subscribing to Indonesian periodicals like the Fikiran Rakyat (’People’s Thought’) and they individually joined Sukarno’s Nationalist Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia, PNI) which was based in the neighbouring Netherlands East Indies.

It was also at the SITC that Ibrahim Yaakob met some of the friends and compatriots who would accompany him in the nationalist struggle in the years to follow like Abdul Karim Rashid, Hassan Manan and Isa Mohd. Mahmud. The presence of radical Malay teachers like Zainal Abidin Ahmad (Za’ba) and Harun Aminurrashid further contributed to the radical temper of the SITC. Although their vernacular education was decidedly inferior and wanting in terms of its curriculum (needless to say Malay political and philosophical classics such as the Taj-us Salatin of Buchara al-Jauhari and the Bustan as-Salatin were not taught to them and Western socialist and communist texts were strictly forbidden) their collective experiences at the SITC not only shaped the way they viewed the Malay world at that time, but also determined their choice of solutions for what they came to regard as the Malay problem.

After a somewhat lacklustre start, Ibrahim Yaakob eventually found himself in Kuala Lumpur, the newly-created capital of the British-ruled Federated Malay States. By then the heated climate of the inter-war years was ripe for the emergence of radical thinkers and socio-political movements all over the country. Along with Abdul Rahim Kajai and Othman Kalam, Ibrahim later came to serve as one of the editors of Majlis, a metropolitan newspaper of some prominence based in the capital in the year 1938. In the same year he formed the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) (Malay Youth Union), which was the nucleus of the Malay leftwing-nationalist anti-imperialist movements to come. It would appear that Ibrahim’s ideological and literary acumen had proven more useful than basket-weaving in the end.

Products of an Unstable Education

The fact that many of the graduates of the SITC were at the forefront of the fledgling anti-colonial movement proved that something had clearly gone wrong with the colonial government’s strategy of containment and policing. Radicals like Ibrahim were an unstable phenomenon: they were the indigenous vernacular intelligentsia who clearly were not impressed by the ameliorating claims of colonial-capitalist discourse, but they were not about to return to their villages with their heads bowed in disappointment and disillusionment either.

Rejecting both the paternalistic gestures of the British imperialist power as well as the reactionary and defensive posture of the conservative Malay traditional elite, these emerging radicals occupied the intermediary space between the two spaces that had been allotted to them: the urban colonial administration (entry to which required a familiarity with eurocentric discourses of modernity, colonial-capitalism as well as the English language) and the rural traditional administration (entry to which required the precisely opposite: the return to colonial constructions of nativism, traditionalism and religious conservatism). Ibrahim and his colleagues were not prepared to enter either.

Ibrahim Yaakob was but one of thousands of Malays who were displaced and alienated thanks to the epistemic (as well as political and economic) injury exercised via the ideological reconstruction of the image of the native Other. His personal experience of migration to the metropolis was but one of thousands, which eventually led to the emergence of a previously unknown constituency: the urban-based Malays of the colonial metropolitan centres, who for the first time found themselves freed from the shackles of court and tradition of the Kerajaans and in an environment where they, too, were foreigners.

Working as a journalist and editor for Majlis in the late 30’s, Ibrahim Yaakob would produce some of his own critical commentaries on the condition of the Malays under colonial rule which would show that he was indeed the inheritor of a critical tradition going back to the Kaum Muda radicals of the 1920s. The critical articles and editorials that Ibrahim wrote in Majlis were largely concerned with the condition of the Malays under colonial rule and the failure of the British to ‘protect’ the interests of the Malays in an increasingly lopsided plural colonial economy.

In 1938 Ibrahim Yaakob helped to form (and lead) the Kesatuan Melayu Muda. The KMM was made up of like-minded young Malay radicals, was ‘vaguely Marxist in ideology’ and ‘reflected both a strong anti-colonial spirit and opposition to ‘bourgeoise-feudalist’ leadership of the traditional elite’. Opposed as they were to both colonial rule as well as the petty despotism of the Malay Sultanates, they called for the creation and return to the Indon-Malay world of precolonial past, the dream of Malaya-Raya, (‘a Greater Malaya’) and a unified anti-colonial struggle which brought together all the peoples of the Indonesian-Malay world and Asia. The members of the KMM engaged in meetings and discussions amongst themselves, comparing the condition of the colonised Malay lands to that of other colonies caught in the throes of anti-colonial struggle. They argued for an end to colonial rule as well as a challenged to the corrupt and enfeebled traditionalist order of the feudal Malay elite. Yet as a fledgling youth grouping without the means to appeal directly and openly to the masses, the KMM’s activities, though ambitious in its scope and radical in temper, were nonetheless comparatively muted in their effect. This proved to be both productive and frustrating for Ibrahim himself.

In the end, the stifling environment of Kuala Lumpur itself would force Ibrahim to take to the road once more. And it was here, on his journey across his homeland, that Ibrahim would come to see the glaring inequalities and injustice of colonial rule laid bare.

The Itinerant Gaze of the Colonial Subject: Ibrahim Yaakob’s Melihat Tanah Air.

After his impromptu expulsion from the editorial board of Majlis thanks to the manoeuvrings of its new conservative editor Tengku Ismail, the Malay radical was forced to take to the road once more. Ibrahim decided to take the opportunity to travel across his homeland in order to assess the political and economic condition of the Malays of all the states, while also engaging in a number of covert underground activities such as negotiating with the Malay rulers while preaching his ideology of radical nationalism to his supporters.

In 1941, with the tentacles of Imperial Japan slowly easing their way southwards between the islands of the Pacific, Ibrahim Yaakob completed the first volume of his work, Melihat Tanah Air (‘Surveying the Homeland’). In it we find for the first time a comprehensive exposition of Ibrahim’s political philosophy and strategy, which served as the basis of his dream of establishing the long-awaited Malaya-Raya.

In Melihat Tanah Air, Ibrahim’s own account of how and why he decided to embark on his tour of the homeland gives us an insight into the way in which he perceived the problem of the Malay people and his emotional response to the Malay condition under colonial rule then:

‘…hak kebangsaan orang Melayu jadi sangat lemah. Orang-orang Melayu menjadi bangsa yang tersingkir di luar bandar tidak ada di daerah perniagaan di tanahairnya sendiri. Hal inilah yang menimbulkan kesedihan hati saya melihat tanahair saya dan bangsa saya yang menjadi bangsa yang ditakluk dikuasai orang asing. Menjadi bangsa yang miskin tenggelam didalam kekayaan tanahairnya sendiri. Tak ubah seperti ayam mati kelaparan di kepuk padi. Perasaan hati inilah yang membawa saya berjalan melihat tanahair menjelajah Malaya yang belum dilakukan oleh orang-orang yang dahulu’.

He ended his travels in Singapore, where with the help of the Japanese funds he would resume his career in journalism. He then intended to commit his thoughts and opinions to writing, but unfortunately only the first volume of his work would see the light of day. The second would be stopped by the British Internal Security services who decided to detain the errant Malay journalist-activist during the opening stages of the Second World War (October 1941), just before the unwelcomed arrival of the Imperial Japanese Army which would bring to a hasty conclusion the penultimate chapter of Britain’s story of Empire.

Melihat Tanah Air was Ibrahim Yaakob’s first serious attempt to understand and describe the economic and political malaise that had come to grip the Malays of his homeland. It offered precisely what the title of the book claimed it to be: a survey from the point of view of a Malay journalist of decidedly radical political complexion. But Melihat Tanah Air was written at a time when Ibrahim’s frustration had to be restrained to avoid attracting the gaze of the colonial censor, and his narrative had to be written with care. The socio-political circumstances surrounding the writing of Melihat Tanah Air also account for its two most outstanding features: (1) Ibrahim’s tendency to disguise his critique of British colonial rule, and (2) his inclination to harbour the belief that the traditional Malay elites were still capable of playing a role in protecting the interests of the Malays.

At this stage of his political development, Ibrahim still held the belief that the Malay rulers could serve as the protectors of the Malay community and their interests, provided their powers were not compromised in any way by the advent of colonial intervention. It was this naive and wishful belief that accounts for his comparatively positive observations of the state of affairs in the Unfederated Malay States of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu, where he felt that Malay customs and mores were still upheld with respect. He was particularly impressed by the state of affairs in Trengganu, where he concluded that ‘kuasa Sultan Trengganu lebih besar daripada kuasa semua Raja-Raja Melayu berkenaan dengan hal pentadbiran negeri masing-masing’ and it was on the figure of Tengku Omar of the court of Trengganu that Ibrahim pinned his hopes for the revival of the Malay Sultanate of Riau-Lingga.

Although Ibrahim did include some criticism of the administration of some of these states, such as Kedah where he observed the tendency to create a top-heavy religious bureaucracy and also the comparative decline in the number of Malay youths (particularly girls) being sent to school, Ibrahim’s survey failed to penetrate any deeper into the internal politics of the Unfederated Malay States then.

The potential critical edge of Melihat Tanah Air was therefore blunted by Ibrahim’s own tendency towards self-censorship as well his hopes that the Malay rulers would, in the end, save the day for their Malay subjects. The true merit of the work, however, lies in his critique of the economic and political condition of the Malay masses which invariably implicated the British colonial authorities as well as the Malay ruling classes. As far as the effects of rapid capital exploitation by the British and their politics of divide and rule were concerned, Ibrahim was acutely aware of the deleterious effects on the Malay masses in particular:

‘Sesungguhnya akibat membuka Negeri Melayu ini telah mendatangkan berbagai kesan yang membawa bencana kepada kehidupan Bangsa Melayu, oleh sebab desakan modal dan buruh daripada luar itu. Jadinya bagi umat Melayu negerinya meskipun dibuka akan tetapi oleh beberapa sebab yang tertentu tidaklah dapat mereka merasai nikmat tanahairnya sendiri. Diantara sebab-sebabnya ialah (1) Orang Melayu tidak mengerti cara-cara pentadbiran modal, (2) Orang Melayu tidak faham akan muslihat-muslihat yang datang dari luar, ialah oleh sebab mereka telah lebih lima ratus tahun ditindih di bawah kezaliman Kerajaan Raja-Raja dengan perperangan sama mereka sendiri’.

Here we find the nucleus of Ibrahim’s radical thought, the full potential of which would soon flower as he grew increasingly disillusioned with the British and Malay rulers who he once regarded as protectors of his nation. But with his arrest and detention by the British security forces in 1941, the first phase of Ibrahim Yaakob’s political career had come to an end. The nomadic colonial subject was brought to a temporary standstill, his work was confiscated and none of his undercover plans and negotiations with the Malay rulers would come into fruition.

Despite these setbacks, Ibrahim’s travels across the land had not been in vain. Having seen and experienced at close hand the desperate plight of the ordinary Malay workers and peasantry, he had come to the conclusion that the solution to the abysmal condition of the Malays under British colonial rule had one radical solution: the expulsion of the Western colonial powers from the region and the creation of Malaya Raya (Greater Malaya), an idea which he would carry to the people himself in the years to come:

‘Pada masa yang akhir-akhir ini iaitu lepas daripada lima ratus tahun lamanya mereka (orang Melayu) menghadapi peperangan suadara hingga Semenanjung Tanah Melayu ini terbagi kepada beberapa puak yang bernegeri dan berlawanan diantaranya sendiri, maka pada masa ini mulailah datang cita-cita hendak bersekutu semula. Bukanlah sahaja di antara umat-umat Melayu dua juta di Tanah Melayu ini, tetapi dengan umat (rumpun) Melayu di Indonesia seramai enam puluh lima juta itu. Mereka ingin hendak bersatu berkerjasama menggerakkan ikatan kebangsaan bersama menuju Indonesia Raya. Tetapi hari ini hanyalah satu perasaan sahaja baru dan sebahagian ramai dari pihak kaum pertuanan atau darah Raja-Raja yang masih memegang teguh dengan perasaan lamanya sangatlah menentang perasaan-perasaan baru hendak mempersatukan uman (rumpun) Melayu semuanya itu’.

By the next time he found himself free again, Ibrahim’s world was well and truly shattered beyond recognition. The Japanese Army’s blitzkrieg across Malaya had shown that the orang putih was not invincible after all, and that the bayonet was the ultimate equaliser as it did not recognise distinctions of race and culture. With the remnants of the humiliated western armies marched off to sweat under the Japanese yoke and the Malay rulers humbled before their subjects, Ibrahim and the Malay radicals found themselves at last in a world that would grant the radical Malay intelligentsia the freedom to dream aloud.

Leave a Reply