005: Absent Founders

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

Absent Founders: Ibrahim Yaakob and the Rise of the Malay Left. (Part 3 of 3)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the radical nationalists of the Malay Left found themselves in a world turned upside down.

The returning Western colonial powers performed yet another one of their their customary U-turns by working with the very same Japanese forces that were their mortal enemies not so long ago. In Indo-China the French colonial forces actually worked with their Japanese prisoners in their attempt to contain the militant uprising by the Vietnamese nationalists. Likewise the Dutch and British actually sought the assistance of the Japanese to hold back the tide of anti-colonial nationalism in Indonesia. In Malaya the British turned the tables against their communist allies of the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and declared them terrorists and bandits instead. Political and ideological boundaries were shifting almost on an hourly basis, and today’s friend could be tomorrow’s enemy.

Under such turbulent and variable circumstances, Ibrahim Yaakob felt that his best course of action would be to leave Malaya and join his fellow Nusantara counterparts in neighbouring Indonesia. For him the decision to leave Malaya and resettle in Indonesia was not a betrayal of one country for another, for the simple reason that he regarded both as belonging to the same supra-national entity known as Greater-Malaya (Malaya-Raya) anyway. But while Ibrahim Yaakob was afforded relatively more freedom in Sukarno’s Indonesia, the same could not be said for the other radical leftists left behind in Malaya itself.

The rapid changes in Malaya in the wake of the war made it impossible for the Malay radicals to reorganise themselves and re-establish their links with the Malay masses. While they were keen to promote their own ideas and struggles which were opposed to those of the Conservative nationalists, the more radical elements of their political project (such as their tendency to view the politics of the bangsa in non-racialised terms and their sympathy with the principle of dissolving the traditional Malay Sultanate system) alienated them from the ordinary Malay masses who were still inclined to participate in communal politics within the traditional feudal framework of patronage and loyalty which was embodied and defended by the more conservative nationalists. The few members of the Malay aristocracy who were inclined to support the radicals were themselves of equally radical disposition and some of them such as Tengku Mahmud Mahyiddeen were inclined to play down their noble ranks and titles or to renounce them altogether instead of using their traditional power and influence as the Conservative elites had done.

Increasingly out of touch and out of favour with the ordinary Malay masses, the radicals’ attempts to forge instrumental ideological coalitions with the non-Malay Left which transcended the cleavages of race and nationhood were hopelessly out of synch at a time when race relations between the Malays and Chinese were at their lowest ebb. (As the confrontation with the Communists intensified, British intelligence and propaganda services went out of their way to develop the chain of equivalences between Communism and the Chinese community as a whole. This effectively led to the demonisation of the entire Chinese community as potential communist agents and sympathisers, and futher worsened the inter-communal relations between the Malays and the Chinese in the country).

With the lines of communication between the radicals and the masses cut, their leaders in exile or imprisonment and their organisational structure in tatters, the radicals of the PKMM were effectively destroyed. In turn the Conservatives were sweeping into the positions of power that were slowly being opened up by the British who had begun to see the first signs of dusk in a corner of an Empire where once the sun would never set.

The Eclipse of Malaya-Raya and the Emergence of Malaya.

By the year 1948, Ibrahim was no longer a figure in Malayan politics. Having been absent from Malaya since 1945, Ibrahim (like many of the other radicals) was not able to contribute during some of the most critical episodes of its newly-emerging history such as the Malayan Union crisis of 1946 which gave the new Conservative nationalists the window of opportunity that they had been looking for so long. The year 1948 would also see the beginning of yet another dark phase in Malaya’s history: The state of National Emergency would be declared, which would serve as the death-blow to the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), the Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) led by Ahmad Boestaman and the radical Malay Left.

The state of national Emergency was declared on 19 June 1948. It lasted for 12 years and was finally declared over on 31 August 1960. With the declaration of Emergency, the Malay radical groupings were effectively wiped out. API was the first political movement to be banned (in 1947, before the Emergency), and its leader Ahmad Boestaman was placed under arrest in 1948 under the Emergency regulations. The Malayan Communist Part (MCP) was banned in 1948 as well, and its members went into hiding in the rural interior to carry out guerrilla warfare which would continue for years to come.

The PKMM was not banned, but with the arrest of many of its members and the increasingly restrictive measures imposed by the Emergency regulations, it ceased to function effectively in Malaya. The leaders of the party therefore decided to transfer the remaining membership of the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) to Indonesia and this was completed by 1950. Shortly after the move was made the PKMM was officially proscribed by the British in Malaya.

Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy and Ibrahim Yaakob had thus managed to save what little was left of the PKMM by their decision to relocate it to Indonesia. While in Indonesia the PKMM was based at Jogjakarta, under the leadership of Ibrahim Yaakob. The movement was renamed the Kesatuan Malaya Merdeka (Independent Malaya Union) and Ibrahim Yaakob spent much of the years to come helping the Indonesians in their campaign to discredit the newly created Malayan Federation under Tunku Abdul Rahman as a neo-colonial entity.

But despite the constant flow of polemics that was being targetted at the emerging Conservative nationalists of UMNO, the UMNO juggernaut was able to roll forward regardless. The UMNO elites were drawn from Conservative-Nationalist camp and from royal and aristocratic stock (Dato’ Onn Jaafar would be replaced by Tunku Abdul Rahman, himself a prince) and the pattern of Malay feudal politics would once again be set in place, albeit within new trappings and with the Malay aristocrats and nobility assuming the role of the protectors and patrons of the Malays. But this transition could only be achieved via the declaration of Emergency, from which would emerge a Malaya that Ibrahim could scarcely have imagined possible.

On the 31st of August, 1957, under a state of National Emergency, the Federation of Malaya was born. Malaya therefore emergence from a state of Emergency itself, where normal political practice had in fact been suspended. Malaya’s Constitution, Judiciary and Parliament was based on the British model, and its first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj was, appropriately enough, himself a Malay prince painstakingly educated at Cambridge. Tun Ismail became the first Governor of Bank Negara, Tan Siew Sin was made the country’s first Finance Minister and V. T. Sambanthan was made the first Minister for Public Works. The Malayan flag was raised for the first time in Kuala Lumpur and a few hours later in front of Malaya House in Trafalgar Square, London. The national anthem, Negaraku (My Homeland) was also played for the first time. The Federation of Malaya inherited the system of Parliamentary Democracy from Westminster along with a Constitutional Monarch as its head of state, something which the leadership of UMNO in particular were keen to install. The country also inherited a strong and highly-centralised top-heavy Federal government apparatus where certain institutions (such as the Royal Malayan Police Force (RMPF) were stronger than others.

Post-colonial Malaya was in many ways the child of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, was one of the many sons of the philoprogenitive Sultan Abdul Hamid of Kedah (who had fathered forty-five children and ninety-two grand and great-grand children). In his youth the Tunku was given a traditional royal upbringing and he was later sent to Cambridge to further his studies. Harry Miller, in his biography of the Tunku, has noted that the anglophile Tunku was more impressed by the image of Cambridge than anything else (pg. 38) and spent most of his time driving around in his sports car and attending horse races (pg. 41). His academic performance was of a poor standard, and he failed in his first examination to enter the legal profession ‘because he found horse-racing and dancing more interesting than the law’. An anglophile ‘with enough English manners to pass for an English aristocrat’, the Tunku was keen to ensure that Britain would remain close at hand to help secure Malaya’s fragile new political boundaries, and the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement (AMDA) was one of the first agreements he consented to, even before the Malayan Federation was actually given its full independence.

In the economic sphere, the Tunku’s policies were basically a return to the colonial economic policy of the recent past. His main concerns were to ensure that Malaya’s business links with the rest of the world were not severed, and that foreign investment would continue to flow into the country and into Malaya’s coffers once again. The conservative and capitalistic ideology of the Tunku and the rest of UMNO’s elite in the 50s thus ensured that UMNO’s brand of nationalism did not lead to drastic economic reconstruction in post-independence Malaya.

Indeed, the departing British authorities did have a lot to be thankful for: Unlike Indonesia which had nationalised all Dutch assets when it declared its independence, the Conservative government of the Federation of Malaya safeguarded the economic interests and investments of the British even after they had left. Harun Hashim, the representative of the Malayan Commission to London, toured the length and breath of Britain speaking to members of the British Conservative party inviting them to invest in the newly-independent country. The title of his talk was ’Malaya, My Country, My people and its Future’. That the Malayan representatives felt the need to invite more foreign capital into Malaya at the time was seen as somewhat ironic, considering the fact that the level of foreign capital penetration into the country was already high and that most of the major industries (such as rubber and tin) were already in the hands of British monopolies anyway.

The Times of London reported the birth of Malaya with a resonant chord of approval. In particular it pointed out the impeccable credentials of its conservative Malay leaders, who, unlike the troublesome radicals of the Left, had showed that they were of a decidedly more moderate and accommodating temper. It reassured its readers that:

‘Malayan nationalism had not been born out of conflict and there was not a single Malayan Minister who had ever spent a day in prison for sedition’.(The Times, August 31, 1957.)

Under the government of the Malay conservatives, the dream of Malaya-Raya finally come to an end.

In Indonesia Ibrahim Yaakob found himself alone and powerless. His own fragile political organisation was soon swept up by the tide of events in Indonesia where the first experiment with liberal democracy had come to its untimely end by the late 1950s. In time President Sukarno whom Ibrahim and the Malay nationalists had once admired so began to show his true colours by declaring the need for ’guided democracy’ and the concentration of power at the centre. Sukarno’s own ambitious nature manifested itself in time when he elevated himself to the position of President for life with the somewhat grandiose title of Pemimpin Besar Revolusi Doktor Engineer Haji Ahmad Sukarno. One by one, the men who had risen up with Sukarno like Hatta and Sutan Syahrir were eliminated and removed through the now-familiar mechanism of show trials, ‘disappearances’ or sent into exile.

In the midst of these upheavals, the different political factions in Indonesia had little time or concern for Ibrahim Yaakob and his band of Malayan nationalists who wanted to struggle for the reunification of Malaya and Indonesia. When the Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the Indonesian nationalists went on the offensive. Goaded by Indonesian Communist leader Dupa Nusantara Aidit and the ideologues of the PKI, Sukarno’s government finally declared a state of open confrontation against Malaysia, which became known as the Konfrontasi.

During the period of confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia (1963-65), Ibrahim Yaakob aided the Indonesian effort as a propagandist for the Indonesian cause, calling for the reunification of Malaya with the rest of Indonesia. But by then it was already clear to all that Sukarno’s dream of a Greater-Malaya was in fact nothing more than a desire for Indonesian hegemony in the region.

Ironically, Indonesia’s open declaration of hostilities against Malaysia did not help the Malayan radical nationalists and Leftists, but only made their situation even worse: In 1963, soon after the outbreak of the Konfrontasi between Malaya and Indonesia, the Alliance government began yet another massive round up of politicians and activists among the opposition. Among those arrested and detained were Ahmad Boestaman (president of PRM), Ishak Haji Muhammad (president of PBM), Abdul Aziz Ishak (head of GERAM), Kampo Radjo, Tan Kai Hee, Tan Hock Hin, Dr. Rajakumar, Hasnul Hadi, Tajuddin Kahar and hundreds of others. Ahmad Boestaman was arrested in February 1963 and accused of supporting the failed Azahari revolt of 1962 in Brunei and working with Indonesia to bring about the destruction of the Malaysian Federation project. He went down in history as the first Malaysian MP to be detained under the ISA. Dr. Burhanuddin al-Hemly was the second MP to be detained under the ISA (in 1965). Many of the others were accused of being pro-Indonesian and Communist sympathisers as well. (The crackdown on the opposition parties in Malaysia continued even after Malaysia and Indonesia had agreed to a cease-fire on 23 January 1964.)

In Indonesia Ibrahim Yaakob further developed his polemic against the politics of Neo-colonialism which he saw taking root and being put in place by the departing colonial powers all around the region and in his neighbouring homeland in particular. He warned of the coming phase of neo-colonial rule where Britain might attempt to retain and strengthen its hold on Malaya through the creation of a universal Malayan citizenship and the promotion of a ‘Europeanised’ culture in Malaya which would lead to a ‘semi european state’ as final bastion of neo-colonial rule in the Third World. His criticism would continue to take on an increasingly polemical and bitter style, with the finger of accusation being pointed not only to the British colonial presence but also to those whom he regarded as their cronies: the migrant capitalist and labour classes, the forces of western capital which refused to relinquish its grip, the indigenous feudalist and conservative go-betweens and that new breed of collaborators to the colonial enterprise: the newly emerging western-educated Conservative Nationalists led by the likes of the aristocrat Dato’ Onn Jaafar (who in 1953 was rewarded for his services to the British Empire by being made honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.)

By the time he completed the Sedjarah, Ibrahim had reached the point of maturity in his critical and polemical capabilities. At a time when the Malay masses were still largely locked in a feudal mind-set which made them cling to their rulers and the British as their protectors and patrons, Ibrahim was one of the few Malay radicals who had come to realise that they were not only traitors to the Malay people, but that they were in fact the enemy. In the Sedjarah, he would describe the age of Colonial-Capitalism as the darkest period of the history of the Indon-Malay peoples. In his account of the conduct of the British in Malaya, he would sum it up thus:

‘Bagi bangsa Malaysia (Indonesia), dan seluruh bangsa2 di-Asia Tenggara, Djaman Modal menguasai dunia adalah merupakan suatu djaman penuh dengan kepahitan, kemelaratan dan kehinaan; djaman jang menenggelamkan Kemerdekaan Bangsa kedalam Lautan Pendjadjahan iaitu didjadjah oleh kaum modal dari Eropah Barat. Atau dengan lain perkataan, ‘Djaman Modal’ adalah ‘Djaman Kehinaan’ bagi seluruh bangsa Malaysia (Indonesia-Melayu) jang wajib tidak dapat di-lupakan oleh kita seluruhnja. Oleh jang demikian, dalam menuruskan perdjuangan untuk merebut kembali akan kemerdekaan bangsa dan nusa bagi seluruh bangsa kita di Asia Tenggara wadjiblah (kita) menolak system kaum modal jang telah memeras, menghina dan menghilangkan kemerdekaan seluruh bangsa-nusa di-Asia tenggara. Dari kerana itu jang paling penting dalam perdjuanagan merebut kemerdekaan kembali ini, ialah menghapuskan system jang lama dan mendatangkan system jang baru jang sesuai dan lajak bagi kehidupan ekonomi , kepentingan politik, kehendak pergaulan masjarakat, dan kebutuhan dalam mempertahankan hak kemerdekaan bangsa dan nusa seluruhnja. …Kita tidak mahu didjadjah, dan tidak pula mahu mendjadjah’.

Ibrahim would conclude his account in his Sedjarah by returning to the beginning: that Malaya was always part of a broader geo-cultural entity known as the Indon-Malay archipelago, Nusantara, Malaya Raya (Greater Malaya) and that there was where her future lies as well. This was the grand political project that he had once discussed with Sukarno and Hatta when they met in Malaya and it was this great idea that sustained his efforts during his years in exile.

But Ibrahim was no longer in Malaya to put these plans into action. The teacher-turned-journalist-turned political activist was in now living abroad, and daily the political boundaries that were being drawn between postwar Malaya and Indonesia were tearing the two countries further apart and taking him further away from the land of his birth.

Exile and Absence: Ibrahim Yaakob as one of the forgotten founders of the Malayan Project.

Ibrahim Yaakob would spend the rest of his days in exile in Indonesia, leading the tattered remnants of what was left of the PKMM after its leadership felt that no more could be done in Malaya. He eventually died in obscurity, and after his passing the memory of his life and work has been kept alive only by a handful of close friends and compatriots. The history books of Malaysia today have hardly anything to say about him, save that he was one of those Malay nationalists who worked with the Japanese during the war and help to light the flame of nationalism in colonial Malaya some time ago in the now-forgotten past.

Ahmad Boestaman, Ishak Mohammad and Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy who remained in Malaya would try to keep up their struggle in their own respective ways. Ahmad Boestaman remained in the world of Leftist Malay politics äs the leader of the PRM. Dr. Burhanuddin would eventually rise to become the leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and it was during his presidency (1956-1969) that the Islamic party developed its most progressive, systematic and coherent critique of neo-colonialism from an Islamist perspective. After his release from detention under the ISA, Dr. Burhanuddin died due to medical complications that arose during his incarceration.

With the demise of the radical Malay Left, the geopolitical boundaries of the Malayan (later Malaysian) Federation would remain fixed where it was: along the very same lines drawn not by the Indon-Malays themselves but by the Western colonial powers centuries before. Today, Malaysia and Indonesia remain largely separated according to the political boundaries that were drawn up by the two colonial powers- Britain and Holland- which signed the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824. The Malay world of Nusantara remains torn apart thanks to the realpolitik of ethno-nationalism. Thus was how the laborious and painful birth of Malaya was achieved: in the wake of the demise of its absent founders.

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