Our Other Flag That Never Was

By Farish A. Noor ~ June 18th, 2007. Filed under: TOM_Main.

(NOTE: This article first appeared in Off The Edge, Issue 30, June 2007)

Call it what you will: Jalur Gemilang or otherwise, but our national flag remains a flag – a piece of cloth fluttering in the wind, attached to a stick of some kind.

But then again there are flags and there are flags. In Jogjakarta where I am currently residing, there happens to be a flag that is said to contain more symbolic power and spiritual investment than it betrays: The Kyai Agung Tunggul is said to be the sacred banner of the court of Jogja, and on more than one occasion it was taken out and paraded around the city walls in times of dire crisis. And in 1998, while the cities of Indonesia were set to the torch by mobs of angry demonstrators baying for the head of Suharto, the sacred standard was secretly smuggled out of the court, then taken around the city to protect its inhabitants in the dead of night, albeit while hidden in a car belonging to the palace.

Odd, then, that some flags seem to have more emotive power than others. Odder still that some flags cannot help but bear family resemblances to others too. Our own flag, as most of us will admit in private, though never in public (and certainly not in the presence of unwashed foreigners) bears uncanny resemblances to the stars and stripes of the American flag.

One wonders how and why this came about, when a cursory examination of the other flags in the ASEAN region would allude to a singularly different semiotic register altogether. Note how the flags of Singapore and the Philippines both proudly bear the bold divisions of red and white in them – red for blood, implying sacrifice if not martyrdom; and white for purity – and how both flags obviously owe their inspiration to the Sang Seka Merah-Putih of our neighbours in Indonesia.

Indeed, the Indonesian flag is the epitome of symbolic economy itself: Two horizontal bands of red and white that, while overdetermined and pregnant with meaning, sum up the past, present and future aspirations of the Indonesian nation as a whole. As she flutters the Sang Seka Merah Putih depicts the human drama of an archipelago in movement: blood and sacrifice, purity in thought and deed in constant motion. So why the heck is our flag so embarassingly different?

Well, dear Malaysians, the truth of the matter is that Indonesia’s Sang Seka Merah Putih could have been our national flag but never was. And the story of how our forefathers came to abandon the red and white pennant in favour of the stars and stripes happens to be one of the forgotten narratives of the other Malaysia.

Back in the opening stages of the 20th century, when the fever of nationalism had taken hold of the younger generation of Kaum Muda reformers, Malaysia’s pioneering nationalists like Burhanuddin al-Helmy, Ibrahim Yaakob, Ahmad Boestaman et al were adoring members of the Sukarno fan club. For many a young proto-nationalist then, Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta were the embodiment of the spirit of the new age. Together the two men helped to form and eventually lead the Partai Nasionalis Indonesia (Indonesian Nationalist Party, PNI), and their clarion call for freedom and independence was heard well across the straits of Melaka.

As students studying at the Sultan Idris Training College, the younger generation of Malaysian activists like Ibrahim Yaakob not only read the writings of Sukarno, but also joined the PNI in secret. Other leaders like Burhanuddin al-Helmy travelled to Sumatra to meet with their Indonesian counterparts; nationalists, leftists as well as Islamists, and plans were made on both sides to struggle against both British and Dutch colonial rule simultaneously. Our history books don’t really remind us of these facts, but the reasons for such historical erasures seem obvious as they are commonsensical. Men like Ibrahim Yaakob and Burhanuddin al-Helmy were left-leaning nationalists who did not couch their ideology in the language of race-based ethno-nationalism. They were also among those who were inclined to sympathise with the Malayan Communist Party and were among the first who stated that Malayan citizenship should be extended to all who had been born in Malaya then – which naturally included the descendants of Chinese and Indian migrants.

When Ibrahim Yaakob and Burhanuddin al-Hemly founded the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), it was the first organic Malayan nationalist party and its inspiration came from Sukarno and Hatta’s PNI. And guess which flag they chose as the flag of their party, and for the future independent Malaya they were fighting for? The red and white Sang Seka Merah Putih of course…

Not only was the Sang Seka Merah Putih the flag of the PKMM, it also became the flag of the country’s first Islamic party, the Hizbul Muslimin, that was formed (and banned) in 1948. Variants of the red-and-white theme can be seen in the flags of PAS and UMNO today: The earliest flag of the Malaysian Islamic party had the familiar red and white background, but with a green moon in the middle and the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Muhammad’ in green on both sides. Not to be outdone, the  UMNO flag also bears the same red and white background, but with a yellow disk (representing the royalty and feudal elite who naturally want to be at the center of things) and a badly-drawn green keris of unknown and dubious provenance smack in the middle.

Yet when Malaysia came into being at long last, independence was announced in the midst of a state of Emergency. The Tunku, anglophile and friend of the West that he was, admired the West as much as he hated the leftist Sukarno, whom he regarded as little more than a jumped-up Javanese peasant who spoke bad English and could not distinguish between port and claret. In a move that symbolically ruptured Malasia’s symbolic link to the rest of the region, the architects of the new Malaysia turned to the West for inspiration. Beholden to the loud and garish boasts of a triumphant America that had emerged as victors in the Second World War, we abandoned the Sang Seka Merah Putih and imitated the stars and stripes instead.

Divorced from history and the context from which it arose, the Malaysian flag stands out as an anomaly in the region. We may have the biggest flag hanging on the highest flagpole in the world, but national pride is seldom measured by the yard. What gives a flag its meaning is its patinated history and the stories it bears. Bereft of the flavour of folk legend and collective memory, we dont really know what to do with our national banner – save wave it about as we jump out of airplanes over the pole. And while trekking across the hostile mountain regions of northern Pakistan years ago, I confess to having to hide the tiny Malaysian patch on my rucksack, and protesting time and again to the locals: “No, no, I am not American!”

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