The Enigma of A. Samad Ismail

Tan Jing Quee

Part 1 (written in November 1999)

Samad Ismail’s career spans three countries over half a century, the breadth and durability of which is stunning. The scope of his activities covers diverse fields as politics, journalism and literature. If it is politics that forms the core of these activities, then journalism has woven them into one composite unity. He was a political journalist par excellence, the best in the country as many of his colleagues readily concede. His sharp incisive analysis coupled with a strong sense of indignation against injustice forms the bedrock of his thinking and his pervasive influence. He is acknowledged as the ‘godfather’ of the Gerakan 50 in the intense arguments for a socially relevant literature, and as an ardent advocate for the use of Bahasa Melayu as the medium for national unity and reassertion of national pride and dignity. Dr. Rajakumar has described him as the Jean Paul Satre of Malaysian letters, an accolade which some might find difficult to accept, but which does focus in essence on range of Samad’s broad interests and influence as the intellectual guru of the Malayan left.

When I met him at his double-storey detached house at Petaling Jaya with a large open field at the corner of a quiet street leading to a cul de sac, he greeted me from his seat with a cheery and distinctive laugh. He was bandaged at his ankles on both legs, a worsening sore exacerbated by diabetes. He goes to hospital dressing three times weekly, takes an afternoon nap, and receives all manner of visitors, who still come in droves to talk, ask for advice, discuss and seek general consultation. Clearly Pak Samad is now beyond and above strict party political affiliation. A guru to all manner of well-wishers, he talks easily with great animation, interrupted now and then by his infectious laugh. In an essay (in Cheah Boon Kheng, editor and compiler, A. Samad Ismail: Journalism & Politics, Kuala Lumpur: 1987), his late wife and journalist Hamidah binte Haji Hassan wrote a charming piece of life with Pak Samad, in which she likened him to an onion, enveloped by endless layers of surprises. A critic has commented somewhere he was like the Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero of the 1903 English play who was both sought for ‘everywhere’, and ‘damned elusive’. The comparison is however inapt–the Scarlet Pimpernel dedicated his fortune and bravado to saving the aristocrats who had fallen foul of the French Revolution. Pak Samad on the other hand never championed the cause of defending privilege and the aristocracy, being a lifelong republican and socialist.

“The Special Branch described me as the Tan Malaka of Malaya”, Pak Samad laughed, slightly amused but obviously flattered by the comparison with the life and career of the legendary Sumatran revolutionary. But Pak Samad was a Javanese proud of his heritage who had embraced very early on, the cause of freedom for Malaya after Indonesia gained her own independence.

Pak Samad’s public persona has been framed by his three arrests and his reputation as a strident Marxist. The arrests did mark him out as a major first generation Malayan nationalist. But Pak Samad was not a dour and inflexible ideologue. He has a sense of fun, an intellectual curiosity and a multi-racial outlook which defies strict political categorization. He spoke with animation and gusto, and make no apologies for his past political affiliations. Nevertheless he was understandably bitter over what he feels was the persistent persecution of him by his political enemies.

“I have no personal bitterness against my persecutors “, he had said charitably, (but somewhat unconvincingly, I thought). “My constituency is here in Malaysia, no one can harm me. ” By way of emphasis, he showed me a new book for schools, ” Pak Samad, Bapa tiga zaman “, a strange and ironic twist to the career of the impish journalist from Kampong Melayu in Singapore, commenced his career at the beginning of the Pacific war.

Samad Ismail was born in 1924, within the Arab precincts of Geylang in Singapore. His father, a Malay school teacher and later headmaster of Rochore Malay School, was a conservative, unlike Rahim Kajai, the well-known Malay journalist who was the editor of Utusan Melayu when it was founded in the mid thirties, and under whom Samad learnt his ropes and honed his skills. Samad obtained a scholarship for admission to the Special Malay Class in Victoria English School where C V Devan Nair, a close political colleague in the fifties ( who later became the President of the Republic of Singapore, then was forced to resign and subsequently died in exile in Canada). He completed his Senior Cambridge examinations, (as the prestigious and much sought after school certificate was then called), the acme of pre-war local colonial education. On leaving school in 1939, he went straight into the office of Utusan Melayu as a trainee editor, coming under the wings of Rahim Kajai. He had a profound respect for his mentor: “He was a self educated man of great learning. He was a very good writer in Malay, and learnt to read widely in English and Arabic.”

Samad was a fast learner and a prodigious writer, and soon came to the notice of his colleagues. When Japan occupied Malaya and Singapore, Utusan Melayu was converted into Berita Malai, and changed to rumi script to reach a wider audience. The paper was funded by the Japanese, and was distributed free of charge. Samad recalled making daily trips to the Japanese information services centre at Selegie Road for censorship clearance. He soon attracted the attention of the Japanese authorities, who offered him the editorship of the paper when Rahim Kajai passed away. Samad was then a mere strapping youth of 21, but already commanded a sharp pen.

The war years were also a learning experience on the value of freedom and the meaning of life. He saw hardships and cruelties, and quietly read and studied left wing literature and the histories of oppressed peoples. In particular he came into contact with Indonesian nationalists of all political persuasions, joined discussion groups and read voraciously: “I first learnt of concepts like class struggle, socialism during the war from Indonesian émigrés who congregated around Arab Street, Jalan Sultan, in the vicinity of the Sultan Mosque. Malay political life was then located in this area, and Indonesian nationalists were dominant. They were divided into the Alimin and Tan Malaka factions”.

The two leading Indonesian communists had differed on whether the country was ready for revolution against the Dutch in 1926. Samad was naturally drawn into the vortex of the Indonesian struggle against Dutch colonialism. This assumed greater urgency at the end of the Japanese occupation when the Indonesian nationalists resisted the Dutch attempt to re-colonize the East Indies, as it was then called. Sukarno and Hatta, at the urgings of the radical pemuda had proclaimed Independence and the constitution of the Republic of Indonesia. This opened the phase of the war of resistance against the Dutch. Samad was involved in the organization of material and financial support for the Indonesian resistance, including the supply of arms, food and medicines from Singapore. He recalled with obvious pride, and relished his political initiation into the harsh and practical realities of political struggles for Indonesian independence.

Not surprisingly his activities during the war years caught the attention of the British authorities, and he has the distinction of being the only local journalist indicted for sedition, following British return to Malaya. He was however acquitted without his defense being called, at the close of the prosecution case.

He continued throughout to run Utusan Melayu, which had reverted to its original name and jawi script. When agitation against the Malayan Union broke out, Utusan Melayu became the principal vehicle against the Malayan Union and Samad worked with various multi-racial groups in the agitation against British rule. It was during this period that he met and worked with non-Malay radicals to seek independence from British rule in Malaya and Singapore.

His increasing involvement in the cause of Malayan independence brought him into a new phase of his thinking and work in two distinct ways. He became increasingly detached from the immediate concerns of the Indonesian revolution, in particular after Indonesian nationalists returned to their homeland to reconstruct the new social order they had argued and agitated for during their exile in Singapore. At the same time as the cause of Malayan independence loomed larger and spread to all communities and strata, it became obvious and imperative that a new dimension in his political orientation emerged, to focus on the quite different problems of Malayan nationalism. He immersed himself in Marxist texts and concepts in the feverish debates over the course of the Indonesian revolution. The same issues and problems confronted the nationalist movement in Malaya. Samad was drawn to the growing band of bright and well-educated English educated multi-racial radicals rallying around the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), the first multi-racial political formation in the country. He joined the Anti-British League and ultimately the Malayan Communist Party, a courageous act for which he was to pay a heavy price involving two terms of political detentions. But Samad was no mere starry-eyed Marxist ideologue; he was a bon vivant, an incorrigible individualist with an irrepressible wit and charm. He was vociferous, articulate, and sometimes caustic in his barbs. He straddled the English-educated and Malay cultural worlds with ease. He wrote with flair and ease in both languages, perhaps unequalled in the annals of local journalism.

He was detained under the Malayan Emergency regulations. Lee Kuan Yew, then a politically ambitious young lawyer acted as his counsel. They developed an uncomfortable friendship. Following his release Samad joined Lee and his group of political aspirants at the basement of Kuan Yew’s house at Oxley Rise to argue and forge the basis and constitution of a new anti-colonial party to replace the defunct MDU. Lee Kuan Yew would be less than charitable in later years when he accused Samad of masterminding the communist underground to destabilize the island. Samad would have probably laughed, knowing full well that he had severed his party links following the disbandment of the MDU, and the migration of his colleagues overseas. Samad himself would be shunted aside from Utusan Malaya, the paper for which he had built up a core of competent journalists who were to rise to prominence on both sides of the causeway. To the end, he continued to rile over this treatment. This occurred in 1957 when the proprietors of the paper, for political reasons decided to move Utusan Melayu to Kuala Lumpur. Samad was prevailed upon to take a sabbatical in Indonesia, and Said Zahari was appointed to take over Samad’s place as editor of the paper in the new political environment of an emerging Malay leadership in UMNO on its way to wrest control from the British for political independence. Said Zahari would soon find himself involved in a bruising battle with the Malayan authorities after independence, leading to his own detention for well over 17 years in Singapore prisons. It is tempting to speculate what would have happened to Samad had he not been sidelined from Utusan Melayu and sent to Jakarta.

In Jakarta, he was without any editorial or staff support, specific direction or work schedule, occupying a room in Antara, the Indonesian news agency, to contemplate his career prospects and future. He remained in Jakarta for less than a year, resumed his old contacts there, and made new ones, earning “gaji buta” as he recalled, while waiting for directives from Kuala Lumpur. When no new instructions came, he decided to return to Singapore, met up with his old journalist colleague and Straits Times Managing Editor, Leslie Hoffman, who appointed him with alacrity as Editor of Berita Harian, the rumi version of the Straits Times. Samad would transform the Berita, increased its circulation from 7,000 to 40,000 eventually to become a serious competitor to his old paper Utusan Melayu. Not surprisingly, when news of his deal with the Straits Times emerged, he was summarily dismissed by Utusan, a sad end to a long and close relationship to a paper and organization to which he owed so much and for which he played a major role in shaping its crusading editorial content and perspective. Neither forgave each other for the break, much like an unpleasant divorce, each one going his own way, forever changed by the prior connection and separation.

In 1959, in anticipation of the PAP victory, the Straits Times group decided to move its head office to Kuala Lumpur. Samad followed suit, thus ending his long association with Singapore, its politics and its concerns. In Kuala Lumpur he got involved more directly with the cause of Malay language, literature, and nation building. During the acrimonious debate over Singapore’s entry into Malaysia, Samad was publicly named by Singapore’s Prime Minister in his twelve talks as a major active underground communist operative in the country. However, he survived the severe repressions in Singapore and the early years of Malaysia in the sixties. It would be instructive to understand how he managed to do this. Part of the reason might well be his studied non-involvement in the political process and his role in promoting the development of Malay language and literature in the course of nation building.

In the seventies however a new role beckoned, following the assumption to power of Tun Abdul Razak in the aftermath of the May riots in 1969. In a major effort to seek out new directions for the country’s internal economic restructuring and a less stridently pro-western foreign policy, Tun Razak turned increasingly to fresh voices and new ideas. Pak Samad and his former colleagues in Singapore like Dollah Majid and James Puthucheary were given a new sense of involvement in the formulation of a new policy direction. With this new development, Samad’s influence extended beyond journalism, language and literature. Following the early 1970s buyout of the Straits Times from it British owners, Samad found himself promoted to Managing Editor of the New Straits Times. From this vantage point, he emerged as a major influence in the new economic policy then unveiled as the strategy for national development. This role however was dramatically short-circuited and altered by a complex web of developments following the untimely death of Tun Abdul Razak and the emergence of Tun Hussein Onn as the new Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The new development began innocently enough with the detention in Singapore of Huseein Jahiddin, then Editor of Berita Harian in Singapore, and a former protege of Pak Samad. Hussein incriminated Samad as the evil genius behind a campaign to revive communist influence and to destabilize Singapore and Malaysia. On hindsight, the accusations and the circumstances under which they were carried out were ludicrous and baseless. At the time however, the accusations formed the background and the rationale for the detentions of several major political figures who had been inducted by Tun Razak during his tenure as Prime Minister. Samad, Dollah Majid, Dollah Ahmad and many others were detained in 1976 and held for several years. Hamidah would recall that this was the most difficult period of Samad’s life. Old friends stopped calling, and distanced themselves in the new atmosphere of fear and repression. The motivations and circumstances surrounding these arrests are still a mystery after more than two decades and still rankle in the minds of those whose lives had been so traumatically changed. Pak Samad would become quite philosophical over this event, but even so it is difficult to accept his evaluation on face value. Perhaps the trauma and the memory of this episode had been so profoundly unsettling that he could not come to terms with it, at least in public.

Samad was released in 1981, after five years in detention. From the depths of despair he clawed his way back, unbroken in spirit and regaining his old zest and sense of humor. He went on a Haj. Within a year he was requested to return to the New Straits Times as Editorial Advisor, a more senior position than his previous post as Managing Editor. He was given new accolades and conferred the title of Tan Sri. This turnaround must have been bittersweet as it was obviously an implicit admission that the 1976 events leading to his detention were a tragic and unfortunate error, and an acknowledgement beyond dispute of his life long career as an anti-colonialist.

The following decade were years of further affirmation of his position in the national life of the country. He no longer talked about the socialist project on which he had began his political life and journalist career, except his continuing respect and tribute for numerous of his former colleagues who have given their lives to the cause of freedom and social justice. He clearly belonged to that band of first generation anti-colonial fighters who showed the way. Socialism may no longer be the battle cry in the context of the current national and international development. Even so the vision of a just social order must obviously have been very close to his heart and memory, although he might no longer have seen himself in the forefront of this continuing struggle. Those were now the task and the responsibility of the younger generation to whom the torch of freedom has been transferred. How the coming generations will consolidate and expand this freedom to achieve a more equitable social order is a question they themselves will have to answer and decide on.

Part 2 (Postscript, written January 2009)

Pak Samad died on 4 September 2008. He was 84. The last years had not been easy for him. He officially stepped down and retired from his position as Managing Director of the New Straits Times in 1988. However several years later he was re-appointed as an editorial consultant, at the suggestion of former Minister of Finance Daim Zainuddin. He continued to report for work daily for half a day. Some years later this appointment was abruptly terminated under circumstances which rankled with him. The termination included the withdrawal of use of his official car and secretarial help, which reduced his mobility considerably, including his regular trips to hospital for medical treatment. This abrupt termination was a sore point and ended his long and cordial relationship with the New Straits Times for over four decades. The stream of visitors to his house gradually reduced to a trickle. Foreign visitors and some local dignitaries and old friends still made the occasional visit to relieve his boredom. He had stopped writing for a long time, but had continued to read and kept up with the daily news. After a while even this old habit slowly diminished in purpose and significance. On those occasions when his old friends and former colleagues called, they would find him still as alert as ever. He would sometimes break into singing old tunes and songs in Chinese, which he had learned from his friends in political detention in St John’s Island.

But he had continued to keep much of his past to himself and did not want to open old wounds, speaking kindly and generously of old political enemies that had broken with him, and in a manner of speaking, had caused his 1976 detention, when he was in his 50s. In an interview with the local press some years before his passing, he made the remark that he would take away all his secrets to his grave.

The passing of Samad Ismail leaves some major questions regarding his life and career unanswered. No doubt scholars will continue to probe, argue and debate over these questions so that we may come to a fuller and more rounded understanding of the man who had played such a major part in the early years of the national struggle for independence.

The first of these issues revolve around his political involvement in Singapore in the 1950s. The former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew was his lawyer during his 1951 detention. Following his release he joined Lee in the formation of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in November 1954. During this period Samad’s closest political associate was his former classmate and his fellow political prisoner Devan Nair. Both of them had formed part of the left wing leadership core within the PAP. Samad played a major role in supporting Devan Nair when the latter unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for the constituency of Farrer Park during the 1955 elections under the Rendel Constitution. This friendship continued until Devan Nair’s second political imprisonment in October 1956 together with other leading left wing trade union leaders. Samad had told the story that soon after the arrest the wife of Devan Nair had called at his office to inform him that her husband had instructed her to tell Samad that Devan had decided to break off his relationship with the left wing movement in Singapore. Devan had also said that should Samad attempt to stop him, he would fight Samad as well.

On hindsight this development might well have precipitated his break with the PAP. It was in 1957 that Samad finally took up the long standing offer of Haji Jumaat to join the Singapore UMNO, and Samad’s wife Hamida became the head of UMNO Wanita. This reflected a clear distancing of his relationship with the left and rupture with the PAP of which he had been a founding member. He had been a close political associate of Lee Kuan Yew, and his abrupt severance of links with the PAP brought him strong condemnation from the party.

1957 saw another major development involving Samad’s career. The proprietors of Utusan Melayu led by Yusof Ishak decided to move the Utusan Melayu headquarters to Kuala Lumpur. Yusof Ishak and Samad had been virtually inseparable in working together to bring the paper from its humble origin to be the leading Malayan daily and the leading advocate for national independence. Despite this close personal friendship and working relationship, a decision was made not to move Samad to Kuala Lumpur. Instead Samad was sent on a ‘sabbatical’ as a foreign correspondent of the paper in Jakarta. Samad responded to this imposed exile by joining the Straits Times Group within a year as editor of Berita Harian which was the competitor of Utusan Melayu, with which he had been associated for the previous two decades. Through this maneuver Samad would soon re–emerge as a major and leading journalist in Kuala Lumpur.

There has been considerable controversy over the twists and turns of this episode. The unresolved question that has been posed is who was responsible for arranging to remove Samad out of Singapore to Jakarta in 1957. Samad himself had been reticent in disclosing the full details of this episode, contributing to the mystery. A popular belief is that his removal to Indonesia resulted from pressure from the UMNO leadership, possibly Tengku Abdul Rahman, apprehensive of Samad’s presence in Kuala Lumpur during the early months of Malayan independence when the Tengku’s position was not totally unassailable. However, Lily Rahim, the niece of former President of Republic of Singapore Yusof Ishak no less, has suggested if not explicitly stated that it was not the Tengku who refused Samad’s transfer to Kuala Lumpur in 1957. She quoted A.C. Simmons, then the Chairman of the board of directors of the Straits Times Group as saying that Samad’s removal was due to pressure from a high up “Singapore Source”. (Lily Zubaidah Rahim, “Daring to challenge the status quo: the lateral vision of Malay nationalists from Singapura, 1940s-1960s, CRNLE Journal, Centre for Research in New Literatures in English, 2007) Was the removal of Samad out of Singapore effected to ensure that he would not be a major factor in influencing political thinking in the crucial months leading to the 1959 general elections in Singapore?

Whether this suggestion has merit is still debatable. This perception finds some support in the bizarre “revelation” of the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his famous 12 radio talks in 1961 during which he referred to one Laniaz (code name for Samad’s alleged MCP party name Zainal read backwards) as the most important communist operative in the country. At that time Samad had been already safely ensconced in the higher echelon of Malayan journalist world. In any case, when the Labour Front government under Lim Yew Hock initiated the arrest of the newly-elected left wing Central Executive Committee members of the PAP following the party elections in August 1957, Samad Ismail was not included among those who were detained. This indicated that the British and the Labour Front government had clearly accepted the fact that he was no longer a political threat.

The next unresolved question concerning Samad’s career relates to the circumstances and background of his third detention in 1976. The suddenness of this event and the fallout was highly controversial at the time, although it is now generally accepted that Samad and those who were arrested with him were largely victims of a high level political struggle for power following the sudden demise of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak. The surprising elevation of Hussein Onn as successor to Razak had triggered off a struggle for succession to the UMNO leadership. Samad remained in political detention for five years for his alleged connection with the Malayan communist party, a “sin” he for which he paid a price in his earlier political detention in Singapore. He was released from detention in 1981 when Mahathir Mohammed became Prime Minister of Malaysia.

This 1976 arrest has been clearly acknowledged as wholly unjustified even though there has been no official admission to this effect. Samad was restored to his old status and influence undiminished following his release. Even so, what remains unclear are the circumstances under which Samad Ismail’s third detention was carried out. There has been various theories and suggestions regarding the motives of the various political heavyweights in Malaysia in Singapore which could have been responsible for the sudden removal of Samad Ismail, and the almost immediate conferment of the title of Pejuang Sastera (literally champion) on his release. Another interesting facet of his 1976 arrest is its possible link with his past political connection and activities in Singapore.

Samad Ismail was the pre-eminent Malay journalist for more than six decades since he first joined Utusan Melayu as a cub reporter. He wrote hundreds if not thousands of essays, articles and political commentaries throughout his career. He also authored numerous short stories and in the 1960s began to write a series of novels depicting Malayan life and struggles in the rural areas and the cities. Many of this short stories and novels have established him as a major literary figure in the Malay literary world. Yet, surprisingly he has written little by way of autobiography except a short memo of his early years in Singapore entitled Memoir: A. Samad Ismail di Singapura (Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 1993). This memoir gives a fascinating account of his early life in Kampung Melayu in Singapore, and his years with the newspaper when Utusan Melayu was located in Cecil Street in Singapore. Apart from this, the account throws little light on his political evolution and thinking. He did not write a similar memoir of his much longer years in Kuala Lumpur from 1959 until the end of his life. The other major source concerning Samad’s life and career is A. Samad Ismail: Journalism and Politics, compiled and edited by Cheah Boon Kheng ( Kuala Lumpur, 1987). It is difficult to understand why there are hardly any major biographical works on such an individual who must surely be widely recognized as a towering and multi-faceted figure in Singapore and then Malaysia for more than half a century.

Tan Jing Quee is a lawyer. He was a former President of the University of Malaya Socialist Club. Jing Quee co-edited with Jomo K. S. Comet in the Sky, a volume of essays commemorating Lim Chin Siong. A former political detainee, Jing Quee has recently co-edited with Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew Our Thoughts Are Free, a collection of poetry composed by former political detainees in Singapore. (Jul 2009)