“Remembering the Malay Left” by Fadli Fawzi

“Remembering the Malay Left”
Fadli Fawzi

A tale of three citizens

In October of 2014, in conjunction with state’s re-printing of Lee Kuan Yew’s Battle for Merger (1962) in order to reconfirm its narrative of the PAP triumph over the dark forces of communism, the name ‘Laniaz’ was resurrected by the local Malay paper, Berita Harian.[1] Laniaz (which was Zainal spelled backwards) was used to identify the enigmatic Samad Ismail, first brought into public consciousness by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In a series of radio broadcasts in 1961, he revealed how this renowned anticolonial fighter drifted into the tide of the communist movement. Despite being a founder-member and pro-tem chairman of the People’s Action Party and a respected newspaper editor on both sides of the straits, memory of Samad has been configured to highlight only how pervasive and insidious the communist threat was.

Photo from: http://www.rmaf.org.ph/newrmaf/main/awardees/awardee/profile/157

Samad’s legacy in Singapore thus is put in sharp contrast to Yusof Ishak. While Yusof’s visage has adorned Singapore’s currency for some time now, in the 2014 national day rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced further measures to beatify him. A new mosque is being named after him, the Institute of South East Asian studies is being renamed ‘ISEAS: the Yusof Ishak Institute, and a Yusof Ishak Professorship in Social Sciences will be endowed in the NUS. Despite this sanctification however there is scant elaboration on what Yusof Ishak actually did beyond being the first local head of state of Singapore (Yang di-Pertuan Negara, then President), standing ‘for enduring values that underpin Singapore’s success – meritocracy, multiracialism, modernisation’. In this respect his fate mirrors that of Sukarno in the New Order: that of a symbolic figurehead, but with little of his actual struggle being spelt out.[2]  A substantial account of Yusof’s life and causes would have to bring in his longstanding association with Utusan Melayu, the main vehicle of his struggle and which shot him to prominence. It would highlight the contrasting fates of other figures who worked with him in Utusan, such as Samad Ismail and Said Zahari.

Photo from Pusat Sejarah Rakyat Facebook

Unlike the state narrative, Yusof, Samad and Said can be understood not as polar opposites but as part of a larger movement which sought for freedom and justice in Malaya. This movement of the “Malay left” represents a constellation of ideas, individuals and organizations who stood, in varying degrees, for socialist, democratic and nationalist ideals and in opposition to feudal, colonial and capitalist interests.

Developments before the Japanese Occupation

The development of the Malay left is inextricably linked to the colonial situation. The purpose of the colonial economy was to extract the resources of Malaya for Britain. This brought in large streams of migrant labour from India and China as well as the appropriation of large tracts of land for plantation and mining. The colonialism itself however sowed the seeds of resistance. The colonialists founded the Sultan Idris Teachers Training College to produce Malay civil servants but the College also bred dissenting intellectuals including the early leaders of the Malay nationalist movement Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM).

The Malay left was influenced by yet another force: Indonesian nationalism. While the 1824 Anglo Dutch treaty had severed Indonesia and Malaya according to colonial spheres of influence, such artificial boundaries did not stop the peoples of the two areas from sharing commonalities of language, religion and culture. By the 1920s, mass movements such as the Sarekat Islam were espousing nationalist sentiments. Indonesian critiques of colonialism as a political and economic system would influence the understanding of Malay nationalists in diagnosing the problems of their own society.

As a radical leftwing Party, the KMM was initially clamped down by the colonial authorities. Some KMM leaders, predominantly Ibrahim Ya’acob initially saw the Japanese occupation as providing an opportunity to gain independence. However, they came to realize that the Japanese had not only wanted the resources of Malaya for themselves, they also ceded four northern Malay states to Siam.

Bridging the racial divide: The People’s Constitution

Although victorious, the war had sapped much of the energy of the colonial overlords. In this context, the non-Malays in Malaya started agitating for greater political rights as citizens. The British initially were willing to grant this with the 1946 Malayan Union proposal, which however triggered adverse reaction from the conservative Malays and became the impetus for the formation of the United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO).

Having been the vanguard of Malay nationalism from the pre-war period, the Malay left, together with the feudal elite, initially opposed the Malayan Union as it threatened to erode Malay power.  However, the British preferred the Malay feudal elite over the left to secure their economic interests post-independence. Furthermore, the social revolution in Sumatra in March 1946 by pro-republican forces had decimated the feudal elite in Indonesia. The deaths of their kin across the Straits of Malacca fuelled suspicions of the Sultans in Malaya of mass movements, further distancing them from the Malay Left.[3]

In this situation, the Malay left sought common ground with the non-Malays. Bridging the ethnic gap was not easy, as the situation during and after the war had left lasting ill will between the different ethnic groups. The Malays were also suspicious of demands by the non-Malays for equal political rights as citizens. Despite these difficulties, a coalition was formed to provide an alternative roadmap for an independent Malaya. The People’s Constitution was the fruit of this united front. While recognizing the need to correct the economic inequalities engendered by colonialism, the People’s Constitution gave equal citizenship rights to all who saw Malaya as their homeland.


The British and the Malay rulers however rejected this constitutional proposal. In response, a Hartal or strike was organized to protest the revised proposals which restricted access to citizenship for non Malays, withheld powers in the hands of the British government and maintained the position of the Malay Sultans. Although largely successful, this coalition for a common citizenship would come to a crashing end with the declaration of the Malayan Emergency in June 1948. While the Emergency was purportedly targeted at the predominantly Malayan Communist Party (MCP), a number of labour organizations had been earlier banned and thousands of members and leaders had been detained, among them prominent members of the Malay Left.[4]

The Malay Left in Singapore

At the onset of the declaration of Emergency in Malaya, Singapore was an even more important hub for radical movements and ideas. As a port city, its openness was not as easy to police, and it did not have an entrenched feudal elite. As a hub of printing and publishing, it attracted migrants and refugees from Indonesia who brought revolutionary and republican ideals. It was in this literary ferment which an important voice for Malay nationalism emerged. Utusan Melayu would come to represent the aspiration and struggles of the Malays while giving significant coverage to the struggles of other marginalised groups as well. It would also bring the aforementioned personalities: Yusof Ishak, Said Zahari and Samad Ismail into prominence.

Yusof Ishak as managing director was pivotal in setting up the paper, be it looking for writers and resources or running its day-to-day operations. Samad Ismail had been actively supporting the Indonesian independence movement and had been jailed by the British for his subversive activities. His political connections and nous greatly influenced the editorial policy and enhanced the standing of the paper. By 1957, Malaya had gained independence from the British under the UMNO-led Alliance government. Utusan had plans to shift its headquarters from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in 1959. Samad was shunted off to Jakarta but managed to install himself at a rival newspaper, Berita Harian in KL.[5] Yusof however found himself under pressure to bring Utusan’s editorial policy in line with the ruling party, UMNO. After a particularly bitter encounter, Yusof resigned, sold off his shares in the paper and relocated to Singapore. With Samad and Yusof gone from the paper, it was left to then editor Said Zahari to stand against its takeover by UMNO. When UMNO demanded compliance with their editorial policy, Said launched a strike in 1961. The strike collapsed after Said was barred from returning to Malaya after trying to organize the Singapore branch.

Said Zahari addressing the strikers. Photo from Pusat Sejarah Rakyat Facebook

Stranded in Singapore, Said had the option of joining his good friend Lim Chin Siong in the Barisan Sosialis. However, he chose to join Parti Ra’ayat Singapura (PRS) in 1963. PRS was a branch of Parti Ra’ayat (PR) in Malaysia. PRM along with parties as part of the Socialist front had contested and did well in the 1959 Malayan elections. In Singapore however, the PRS was in decline following the 1959 elections and the PRS candidates lost their deposits.[6] By 1961, the party had deviated from its initial social democratic principles. Said planned to put the party on its original track and give the Malay community in Singapore an alternative to the PAP and UMNO’s Singapore branch (PKMS).

Coldstore and Beyond

In the meantime, the British sought to consolidate its interests in the region against an increasingly assertive Indonesia where the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) was growing in stature and influence. Singapore proved a difficulty as it was too “leftwing” to be absorbed into Malaya, but left on its own would be vulnerable to Indonesian influence. When a revolt erupted in Brunei in 1962, Barisan Sosialis, as an anticolonial party, issued a statement of moral support, which it did in principle for nationalist uprisings which were sweeping Asia and Africa. This was seized by the PAP government, and in collaboration with fellow Internal Security Council members Britain and the Federation government, became the justification to launch Operation Coldstore which detained not just the Barisan leaders but other prominent left figures. Said who was arrested in Operation Coldstore would spend 17 long years without trial.

Said Zahari with other prominent left wing leaders Lim Chin Siong and Ahmad Boestamam. Photo from Pusat Sejarah Rakyat Facebook

Following Coldstore, Singapore would enter Malaysia but it would leave under highly acrimonious circumstances in August 1965. In September 1965, the senior leadership of the PKI was implicated in an ill-conceived ‘coup’ against the Indonesian army. A certain General Suharto emerged unscathed and led a countercoup in which hundreds of thousands were eventually implicated, murdered and imprisoned.[7] With the elimination of the PKI, Suharto ushered in a New Order in Indonesia. These developments dealt a serious blow to the fortunes of the Malay Left.

The widespread political repression meant that spaces for democratic engagement became increasingly constricted in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Despite the increasingly unfavourable conditions, opposition to these authoritarian regimes have eventually met with various degrees of success. In Indonesia, Suharto’s regime did not survive the Asian financial crisis. In Malaysia, the Barisan Nasional only managed to cling on to power, losing the popular vote in the 2013 elections. Unhappiness over immigration policies and cost of living suggest physical and economic limits to a once successful formula in Singapore.

Significance of the Malay Left

In retrospect, the dominant narrative on Yusof Ishak and Samad Ismail artificially dichotomizes their struggle. Both were welded in common struggle for a time through Utusan Melayu. Despite Samad having left Utusan, Yusof still kept faith with his protégé Said Zahari to continue as editor.

However, the three citizens came to different ends. Yusof’s positioning in the Malay left ended with his becoming the ceremonial head of state. Samad faded out of Singapore politics after 1959, moving his activities to Malaysia.  He became embroiled in the factional politics of UMNO and was imprisoned without trial for five years (1976-1981) by Prime Minister Hussein Onn. He was however subsequently conferred the title of Tan Sri by Mahathir Mohamad and remained the most respected journalist in the country. Said Zahari was imprisoned without trial for 17 years by Lee Kuan Yew, and wrote two volumes of his memoirs: Dark Clouds at Dawn: A political memoir (2001) followed by The Long Nightmare: My seventeen years as a political detainee (2007). He was the first political detainee to write about his experience and continues to speak out against the Internal Security Act as well as the wrongful incarceration of himself and other political detainees.    Nevertheless, their contributions should be examined as part of the larger anticolonial struggle of the Malay left. The question is the significance of this struggle today.

The most crucial significance is in the imagination of a certain kind of cultural ideal. The image of the hero in Malay society has been criticized as embodying elitist feudal or capitalist values.[8] Periods of collective struggle for independence and justice are crucial in infusing the collective imagination with more progressive ideals. During the ferment of the Indonesian revolution, the language of the national revolution seeped into the people’s consciousness by embedding themselves as household words.[9] Usman Awang, a famous poet of that generation declared in his poem “kurang ajar” that “a nation will not be great without the attribute of kurang ajar”. Although traditionally frowned upon as disrespectful, kurang ajar refers to the spirit of rebellion against unjust authority vital to the progress of a nation. Usman’s was not a lone voice but part of the period which fostered an artistic movement which was socially conscious and sought to give voice to the marginalised and dispossessed in society. In their irreverent anti authoritarianism, their dogged determination against impossible odds and their capacity for sacrifice, such icons of the left fill the lacuna for democratic ideals in contrast to elitist aspirations.

Usman Awang. Photo from Pusat Sejarah Rakyat Facebook

Without the memory of such democratic ideals, the struggle for a more just and free society seems built on a cultural palimpsest rather than generations of sacrifice. It enables present day autocrats to hide behind notions of culture to defend authoritarian systems of government, most famously in the debates concerning “Asian values”.

Another imagination stymied with the blotting out of the Malay left from social memory is the cognizance of Singapore as an integral rather than a separate part of the region. Perhaps because the anticolonial fighters took advantage of differing colonial jurisdictions to evade capture, the history of the left necessarily transcends current nation-state borders and thus ‘national’ histories. Furthermore in their struggle against their own ethnic elites, the Malay Left sought alliances with other races in their endeavors. Such collaborations prove incongruent with the accusations of ‘cultural chauvinism’ often levied against the Chinese educated left. This lack of imagination of a shared regional history and struggle merely reinforce the different ethnicities to view other ethnicities as the “other” and contributes to the “geopolitics of insecurity”[10] which continues to shape policies today.

Lastly, as inheritors of the colonial state, the ruling party inherited the colonial governmentality which managed the populace according to ethnic silos. This can be seen in the current ideology of ‘multiculturalism’. The suppression of the Malay Left also meant that the de facto opposition to these policies were framed by right wing Malay nationalists which also framed the problems of Malay under development in a racialized framework. This would have been in contrast with parties on the left which tend to analyse problems of inequality in broader terms of the political economy rather than in more parochial racialised terms. Issues of Malay under-development in various fields such as employment and education need to be discussed and advocated from a national rather than ethnic self-help framework which presupposes ahistorical and immutable cultural traits. Today the tropes that dominate the imagination continue to be those which emanated either from the colonial ideologies regarding the lazy native, or nativist utopianism with feudal or religious undertones. To remember the struggle of the Malay Left is to confront insecurities from within and inequalities from without which undergird such tropes.

Such a struggle is emblematic of the type of struggle of colonial peoples which start from stirrings of nationalist sentiments and morphing to a universal struggle for freedom and justice. While it was ethnic pride which provided the initial impetus, the democratic struggle which flowered on the ashes of their sacrifice would bloom for all the peoples of Malaya. As Said Zahari continues to remind us, this is a struggle which most certainly remains unfinished.

Image from www.thenutgraph.com
Fadli Fawzi is an associate tutor at the Singapore Institute of Management. He is also doing his Juris Doctor at the Singapore Management University.

[1] Berita Harian 12th October 2014 “A Samad Ismail @Laniaz dihanyutkan Komunis”

[3] Greg Poulgrain, (2014) “The Genesis of Konfrantasi” Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia 1945-1965” Strategic Information and Research Development Centre Malaysia pg 58-59

[4] Syed Husin Ali (2012) “Syed Husin Ali: Memoris of a Political Struggle” Strategic Information and Research Development Centre Malaysia Pg 103

[5] Lily Zubaidah Rahim “Winning and Losing Malay Support: PAP-Malay Community Relations, 1950s and 1960s” in Barr, Michael D. and Trocki Carl A. (eds) (2008) “Paths not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post War Singapore” NUS Press Singapore

[6] Said Zahari (2001) “Dark Clouds at Dawn: A Political Memoir” INSAN and Fong Chong Pik (2008) “Fong Chong Pik: The Memoirs of a Malayan Communist Party Revolutionary” Strategic Information and Research Development Centre. Malaysia

[7] Roosa, John (2006) “Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement & Suharto’s Coup D’Etat in Indonesia” The University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, WIsconsin

[8] Shaharuddin b. Maaruf (1984) “Concept of a Hero in Malay Society” Eastern Universities Press

[9] Lane, Max (2008) “Unfinished Nation: Indonesia Before and After Suharto” Talisman Publishing Private Ltd pg 23

[10] Lily Zubaidah Rahim (2009) “Singapore in the Malay World: Building and Breaching Regional Bridges” Routledge