004: The Broken Dream of Malaya-Raya

By Farish A. Noor ~ September 21st, 2006. Filed under: TOM_Main, The Other Malaysia.

The Broken Dream of Malaya-Raya: Ibrahim Yaakob and the Rise of the Malay Left. (Part 2 of 3)

By the 1930s the Malay archipelago was swept by the fervour of anti-colonialism and ethno-nationalism. The world of Southeast Asia was open to developments abroad, and the nationalists of the region turned to India, China, Japan, Burma and Vietnam for inspiration. The heroes of the time were men like the Filipino martyr Jose Rizal, Subhas Chandra Bose, Ho Chi Minh, U Ba Mau and Aung San of Burma (father of the present-day pro-democracy reformer and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi).

The Indonesian nationalists in particular, led by men like Sukarno and Hatta, were at the forefront of the move to oust the colonial powers and reconstruct the political, cultural and social frontiers of Nusantara. To an extent, their Malayan counterparts in the peninsula were likewise influenced by these ideas and in the writings of men like Ibrahim Yaakob, Ishak Haji Mohammad, Ahmad Boestaman and Burhanuddin al-Helmy we encounter numerous references to the Malay world of the past. In time they began to write and speak about the need to re-unite the peoples of the archipelago under the banner of a unitary political entity that was called ’Malaya-Raya’.

The dream of Malaya-Raya or Indonesia-Raya was not merely a nostalgic return to the past: it recognised the traumatic manner in which the Indon-Malay world had been torn apart by treaties and pacts agreed upon by foreign powers that had descended upon the Malay people and their homeland.

The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1826 and the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 had cut off neighbouring Malay kingdoms from each other, dividing Kerajaans, clans, and families alike. The Malay Kingdom of Patani, which was once part of the Malay world and known throughout the archipelago as a famous centre of Islamic learning, was ripped away from the rest of the Malay peninsula by the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. (For its part in this sordid affair the Kingdom of Siam (later Thailand) was to suffer the problem of accommodating a hostile and unwilling Malay-Muslim population within its imperial domain till today.) Likewise the Anglo-Dutch treaty forcibly ripped apart the Malay peninsula and Sumatra, which had been regarded as ’two rooms’ in the same house, separated only by the corridor that was the Melacca straits. Suddenly the Malay peoples found themselves no longer free to travel in their own homeland, thanks to the new political geography that had been imposed on them by foreigners.

What made the nationalists’ dream of Malaya-Raya such a radical one was that it was truly unprecedented. Going beyond vague notions of Pan-Malayanism that had been articulated earlier by the first generation of Malay reformists, Malaya-Raya was a concept entirely new to Malay political discourse in that it grafted together elements of traditional and modern political discourse in a manner previously regarded as inconceivable. The conception of the Malay world, dunia Melayu, upon which it was premised was one that predated the arrival of the Western imperial powers. It recognised none of the artificial geopolitical boundaries drawn by the Western colonial powers that had intruded in the affairs of the archipelago. But the dream of Malaya-Raya also sought to reinvent and recontextualise the Malay world in the framework of a modern state structure, creating a unified, sovereign and independent pan-Malay state that was united by bonds of language, culture, religion and tradition as well as a singular state apparatus.

The two main characteristics of the Malaya-Raya project were (1) its conception of Pan-Malayanism which regarded all the indigenous Indon-Malay peoples as being of the same broad racial and cultural identity, and (2) its willingness to de-racialise the divisions between the different racial groupings (between Malays and non-Malays) by insisting upon a broader conception of Malay culture which encompassed the different cultural groupings of the archipelago. It was this that allowed the Malay radicals to work with both the nationalists and radicals of Indonesia as well as the non-Malay left wing and communist movements in Malaya itself at the time. These features would remain part of the Malay radicals’ political agenda even after the Second World War.

But while the war was still going on and the British colonial troops were languishing under the yoke of their Japanese victors, the Malay radicals who were once under their control were busy trying to dismantle the very same colonial structures that the British had built for nearly a century. The Japanese occupation gave Ibrahim Yaakob and his fellow radicals the opportunity to develop and disseminate their ideas as never before, even though it was obvious that Japanese military rule was as harsh and restrictive as British colonial rule had been.

After being released from detention in February 1942, the Malay radicals found that their fledgling political movement the KMM was banned by the very same Japanese military establishment which claimed that it had come to help them ‘liberate’ themselves. Open discussion of the question of independence and the public display of the Indonesian flag, the Sang Seka Merah-Putih, (which had become the political standard of the Malay radicals as well), were also outlawed. Nonetheless the Malay radicals were courted by the Japanese administration and invited to play a prominent role in the development of Malay civic and para-military organisations which the Japanese hoped to use to help reinforce their rule in Malaya.

Having already tried to work with the British as well as the Malay royalty and aristocracy, Ibrahim Yaakob found it easy to co-operate with the Japanese out of political necessity. The KMM had, in fact, already been assisting the Japanese covertly even before the actual invasion itself in 1941. (For their part, the KMM had co-operated with the Japanese even before the occupation by the Japanese Army. Prior to the Japanese landing, the KMM had used prostitutes and bartenders to extract information from members of the British expatriate community, used pribumi settlers to help monitor the movement of British troops in the rural interior and locate their camps, formed an ‘intelligence branch’ to compile information that was later fed to the Japanese prior to their landing. This information was fed to the Japanese intelligence services working under the Fujiwara Kikan (Fujiwara Office) which supervised intelligence-gathering from Malaya and Thailand.)

It was through the assistance of the KMM that the Japanese military intelligence (under Major Fujiwara) managed to smuggle a group of Acehnese militant nationalists from Selangor to Sumatra, in order that they may begin covert anti-Dutch operations in Aceh and the rest of Sumatra prior to the Japanese invasion. Ibrahim himself had also agreed to help the Japanese by purchasing the Malay newspaper Warta Malaya (with the help of Japanese funds) in August 1941 in order to launch a sustained anti-British campaign in the Malay press.

After the Japanese had consolidated their hold on the Malay peninsula, Ibrahim and the other ex-leaders of the KMM such as Ahmad Boestaman were invited to join and lead the Japanese-sponsored native militias and armed forces, the Giyugun and Giyutai. As the commander of the Malayan Giyugun, Ibrahim deliberately chose to refer to it as PETA, hoping to strengthen its ties with its (stronger) Indonesian counterpart. Meanwhile other radicals like Ishak Haji Mohammad returned to their careers in journalism when given the opportunity. Together the Malay radicals worked to promote a sense of common pan-Malayan identity amongst all their followers and supporters in all the movements and institutions that they found themselves working in.

Betrayed by the Japanese

However, it soon became obvious to radicals like Ibrahim that the piecemeal efforts by the Japanese to accommodate their demands were cosmetic at best. Despite Ibrahim’s constant reference to the Giyugun as ‘PETA’, it was obvious that the Malayan defence units were in no way comparable to their Indonesian counterparts, either in terms of size or ability.

Furthermore, the Japanese Military authorities themselves had made it quite clear that the Malayan civil and para-military organisations were meant to play only a supporting role behind the Japanese military administration, and that the Malays themselves were not to be given any real chances to prove themselves or work towards their political independence. The different treatment given to the Burmese, Indian and Indonesian military units made it painfully obvious to them that the Malay civil and para-military bodies had no real power or influence at all. Thus while serving in these organisations, the radicals covertly tried to further their political goals despite the pressure from the Japanese Military authorities to conform to the official pro-Japanese line that they had established. (In his work ‘Sedjarah Dan Perdjuangan di Malaya’ (1948), Ibrahim described how he and the KMM activists managed to set up ‘socialist cells’ and co-operative communes within the militarised state structure. One such co-operative venture was the ‘Malay Farm’ of Geylang, where the ‘Kesatuan Melayu Muda memperaktijkan Sosialisme dan mengadakan peladjar2an kepada orang muda sebagai kader Sosialist, meskipun perkataan Sosialist tidak pernah disebut2nja tetapi praktijnja di Malay Farm Geylang itu adalah Sosialist’).

Despite the constant monitoring of their activities, the Malay radicals tried to promote the interests and goals of the radical Malay nationalists during the period of occupation: They continually spoke of the need for the Indon-Malay peoples to unite together and they tried to negotiate with the Japanese authorities in Japan itself for the unification of the Malay Peninsula with the rest of Indonesia, and for their eventual independence. When such overt means of negotiation did not bear fruit, Ibrahim and his colleagues were also prepared to resort to more covert methods as well, a reminder of his earlier days in the political underground.

In July 1945, under the watchful eye of the Japanese military command, the Malay radicals were given the chance to form the Kesatuan Rakyat Indonesia Semenanjung, KERIS (Union of Indonesian and Peninsula Malay peoples) under the leadership of Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy. But KERIS never managed to get very far in its activities, due in part to the decline in fortunes for the Japanese army.

By 1944 the strained Japanese High Command was already contemplating the prospect of granting independence to Indonesia. The Malay nationalists were keen to see that independence was granted to the Malay peoples of the peninsula as well. In July 1945 KERIS was formed and during a brief meeting in Taiping, Perak, the leaders of the Indonesian nationalist movement Sukarno and Hatta met with the leaders of the Malay radicals, Ibrahim Yaakob and Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy. However, the defeat of the Japanese ensured that the members of KERIS were not able to put their plans into action. Indonesia declared its independence unilaterally on August 17, and the Malays of the peninsula were left with no choice but to continue their struggle while also supporting the newly-independent republic of Indonesia against Dutch and British aggression. This short-lived project was the closest that the Malay radicals ever got to establishing their cherished dream of reunification and independence for the entire Indon-Malay peoples.

Declared a Public Enemy

On Ibrahim’s own account he had, by then, become too dangerous for the Japanese as well. By the end of the war, Japan was forced to surrender Malaya back to the British, but on the condition that the colony that was returned to her former colonial masters would be a domesticated one as well. Ibrahim and his colleagues had been deemed unacceptable by both the departing and returning colonial powers, and like Subhas Chandra Bose and U Ba Mau to whom he likened himself, he too was forced to leave Malaya on August 20, 1945, just before the British would return to repossess his homeland once more.

Caught up by the internal politics of the Malay nationalist groups at the wrong place and at the wrong time, on his own account Ibrahim had missed his opportunity to leave Malaya with Sukarno and Hatta who had been flown back to Indonesia just in time to proclaim her independence on August 17, 1945. By the time he materialised in Indonesia, the British were back in power in Malaya and the radical Malay nationalists had regrouped under the banner of the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya, PKMM (Malay Nationalist Party of Malaya), under the leadership of Mokhtaruddin Lasso and Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy.

Despite this monumental setback, the dream of reuniting the Indon-Malay peoples of Malaya-Raya was yet to be consigned to the footnotes of history. But this dream was soon to be challenged by far more reactionary and conservative powers that would drown out the appeals and protests of the radical intelligentsia.

Ibrahim Yaakob’s exile and the gradual eclipse of Malaya-Raya.

At the end of the Second World War, the Indon-Malay world was in a state of pandemonium. The return of the Western powers to Southeast Asia did not lead to an immediate return to the status quo ante, but instead witnessed the shambolic redrawing of boundaries and frontiers which turned friends and allies against each other and brought together warring sides that were previously engaged in an all-out contest for world domination. There were forces all around that strove to reunite and reorder the Indon-Malay world, but each had its own opinion of how that world ought to look like.

If such radical interpretations were required to reconfigure the world anew, there was hardly a shortage of radical thinkers to produce them. In 1946, Ishak Haji Mohammad wrote his book ‘Bersatulah-Sekarang’ (Unite Now!), where he vociferously argued for the immediate reunification of Malaya and Indonesia. Two years later, in 1948, a book entitled ‘Sedjarah Dan Perdjuangan Di Malaya’ (The History and Struggle of Malaya) appeared in Indonesia. Its author was known simply as I. K Agastja, but a cursory glance at the list of biographical details in the introduction immediately made it clear to all who the mysterious author was: Ibrahim Yaakob.

By 1948 Ibrahim was living in exile in Indonesia, under the name Iskandar Kamel. The Malay journalist-turned-anticolonial activist had already identified himself as a ‘nasionalis progressive’ (as opposed to the other camp of conservative ‘nasionalis feudalist’). The Indonesian editors of the Sedjarah would also describe him as an Indonesian (in the broadest sense of the term, meaning an true native of the Indon-Malay archipelago) and claim that in his nasionalis veins flowed the blood of a Bugis. This transformation in him was partly a result of his ‘adoption’ by the left-wing nationalists of Indonesia as well as the outcome of his own political maturity and disillusionment with developments in Malaya then.

Once again, Ibrahim would put his frustration into words and turned to his pen, but this time his writings would be lent an even more radical character by the changing geo-political circumstances in the Indon-Malay world which would pit the student of the SITC not only against the British colonial powers but also against a gamut of new foes and adversaries. Having left Malaya Ibrahim now found himself in a world that would soon be seen to be torn between what Bung Karno (Sukarno) would call the ‘Old-Foes’ (Older, Imperialist Forces) and the ‘New-Foes’ (New, emerging Forces) of the Third World.

But the transformation of Ibrahim Yaakob to I.K Agastja and the Malay activist to the nasionalis progressive was not merely a nominal metamorphosis: In the Sedjarah we find Ibrahim at his most critical and incisive, where the gentler style of the past gives way to sharper and more explicit condemnation of the machinations of the British colonial powers. The journalistic style of his earlier works such as Melihat Tanah Air (1941) has given way to a more systematic analytic approach and betrays a deeper understanding of the problems facing the Indon-Malay peoples of the archipelago then as well as the dynamics of domination and exploitation which had come to characterise the pattern and form of colonial Malaya from the turn of the century onwards.

The earlier naïve appeals to the British colonial government to protect the interests of the Malays are replaced by systematic accounts of how and why the British have managed to secure a grip on the economic and political infrastructure of Malaya through their betrayal of the Malays instead. Such instances of betrayal have been documented even in his earlier Melihat Tanah Air, where Ibrahim condemns the British for their propensity to label the Malays as lazy and backward according to their racist stereotypes of ‘native’ races. This observation, which would be echoed by many postcolonial social scientists (such as S. H. Alatas) who have argued that the economic and developmental policies of the British were in fact instrumental in the construction of the myth of the lazy Malay and thus intrinsic to the process of marginalising the Malays from the economic, social and political arena of Malaya, makes another appearances in Ibrahim’s later polemic:

‘Bagi mendesak kepada ekonomi orang Melayu dan melawan tuntutan2 orang Melayu supaya Inggeris menaungi akan keselamatan ekonomi Melayu itu, pihak Inggeris sendiri tidak sahadja membawa modal dan tenaga orang dari luar, tetapi telah mendjalankan da’ajah kepada dunia jang mengenai Malaya dan orang Melayu dikatakan-nja ‘orang Melayu malas, orang ‘tidak apa’’dan lain2nja. Makin kuat tuntutan politik dan ekonomi orang Melayu; makin kuat pula propaganda Inggeris, hingga di-tjapkan orang Melayu malas, tidak layak bekerdja, belum masak (matang) untuk memerintah diri, dan lain2-nja. Kaum2 saudagar Inggeris memandang rendah dan hina kepada orang2 Melayu dan setjara tidak langsung menolak menerima Melayu-Indonesia bekerdja kepada fabrik2 atau perusahaan-nja, ketjuali sebagai ketjil’… ‘Dasar ekonomi Inggeris terhadap Malaya ternjata memeras setjara tidak langsung kepada orang Melayu dan orang Melayu hanja di-bukakan djalan membuat serikat2 desa, dan dibiarkan dengan perusahan kuno jang djauh dari madju tetapi makin hilang dan mati’.

But Ibrahim does not look at the economic and political condition of the Malays as if they were existing in a cultural and political vacuum. In the Sedjarah, he locates his analysis in the context of a plural economy that has been constructed artificially by a foreign imperial power and where cleavages of race, class and national interests are clearly visible.

The net effect of this imperial policy of divide and rule is, as Ibrahim correctly points out, the construction of a political hierarchy in a cosmopolitan colonial context where the interests and welfare of the British colonial-capitalist class is held paramount and the rights of the non-white colonial subjects (be they the native Malays themselves or the migrant communities) are systematically compromised or played off against each other. In the long run, it was the ordinary natives who suffered most under this system of selective protection of political and economic rights:

‘Maka dengan perbuatan2 Inggeris mendjalankan dasar ekonomi jang tjurang terhadap orang Melayu, dengan sendiri-nja eknonomi Melayu mendjadi terlalu lemah; dan keadaan jang njata sekarang kekuatan ekonomi di-Malaya di-pegang oleh pemodal2 Inggeris, dengan sebahagian ketjil di-pegang oleh pemodal2 ketjil China dan India, mereka mendjadi agent Capitalist besar buat membongkar kekayaan Malaya. Hal-hal ini memang diatur oleh Inggeris untuk kepentingan politik ekonomi pendjadjahannja: iaitu orang Melayu pura-pura dipertahankan (di-naungi) hak politik-nja sebagai anak negeri tetapi di-lemahkan di-dalam ekonomi-nja, dan orang asing jang di-datangkan di-Malaya di-tolak akan tuntutan politik-nja, tetapi di-bebaskan di-dalam ekonomi, jang mana pada hakekat-nja Inggeris telah merampas Malaya dan hak bangsa Melayu dengan segala rupa tipu muslihat-nja jang sangat litjak dan litjin’.

Gone were the days when Ibrahim’s critique of British colonialism in Malaya was tempered by his concern for upsetting the mores and sensibilities of the colonial censor. In Sedjarah Dan Perdjuangan, not only are the British colonial authorities condemned for their unjust practices and intervention in Malay affairs, but so are the non-Malay petty capitalists as well as the traditional Malay Kerajaan and aristocratic elites for their complicity in the politics of divide and rule.

But Ibrahim’s critical polemics were being drowned by the growing tide of conservative power in Malaya, and the decline in the fortunes of the Malay left. A few months after they took part in the First Pan-Malayan Malay Congress in March 1946, a dispute over the colour and pattern of the flag for the United Malay Nationalist Organisation (UMNO) served as the pretext for a walk-out that would take the Malay radicals of the PKMM out of the mainstream of Malayan politics and eventually rob them of their chances for political victory once and for all.

The decision to walk out of the Pan-Malayan Malay Congress would later prove to be a fateful one. For it was from that point onwards that the fate of the Malay Left was sealed, and in the decades to come the torch of Malayan nationalism would be usurped by another political force that had only begun to rouse itself: UMNO.

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