Malay journalism before the war

This text is extracted by Ooi Kee Beng from an article titled “Malay Journalism in Malaya”, written by Zainal-Abidin B. Ahmad and published in the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol XIX 1941, pp.244–250. It provides a simple history of Malay journalism, and the condition it was in just before the Second World War came to Malaya.

Zainal-Abidin B. Ahmad (1895–1973) a.k.a Za’ba was a writer and teacher. A native of Negeri Sembilan, he was the first Malay to pass the Senior Cambridge test in 1915. After lecturing at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1942–1951, he returned to Malaya to teach at University of Malaya until 1959.

Syed Sheikh al-Hady (1867–1934) was an influential reformist concerned with religious education.

THE HISTORY OF Malay journalism in Malaya goes back only to a little over 60 years ago. As far as can be ascertained at present, the first Malay newspaper ever to be published in the country was called the Jawi Peranakan (The Moslem Local-Born) started in Singapore about the year 1877.

I am lucky to have come by a precious old copy of this paper through an editor friend. It is No. 38 of the first volume bearing the date 15th October 1877. From this copy which unfortunately has lost pages 3-6, it is clear that the paper, at least in its earlier days, was an 8-page affair, each page of a foolscap size, and published every Monday. It was a lithograph production, and although judged by our present standard it can only be described as poor work, yet in those early days it must have been regarded as a God-send. It is certainly a creditable pioneering effort. It lived for no less than 17 years.

True to its name, at least as the number before us shows, this paper seems to have been strongly influenced by Arabic journalistic terms and methods. It uses adad instead of bilangan for number and qimut ul-akhbar instead of harga langganan for subscription rates. And so on and so forth. At the top, underneath the title, there are a couple of verses advertising the paper:

“The flower-pots of Jawi Peranakan are in trim;
Giving out scents which fill towns and cities;
The bees and beetles come in large numbers
From distant districts, over hills and dales.
The flowers blow in variegated colours—
Buds, opened and unopened, in perfect form;
Come, enjoy these gifts of songs and tidings,
By Jove, they will solace your sorrows!”

About contemporary with the Jawi Peranakan, though they all came out later by a few years, there were the Nujum ul-Fajar (Morning Stars), the Jajahan Melayu (Malay Territories), and the Seri Perak (Light of Perak) — all in the same style of production and get-up as their first prototype. But none of them continued publication for long.

However, the spirit of journalism gradually grew in vigour and strength from this time, and the papers brought out became more and more energetic in reproducing foreign news and publishing articles of general interest. They began calling upon the Malays to bestir themselves and to take their due share in the activities of modern life. The Chahaya Pulau Pinang of Penang (started in 1900), the Taman Pengetahuan of Singapore (1904), the Al-Iman of Singapore (1906), the Nuracha of Singapore (1911) were all Malay journalistic ventures which followed each other in quick succession—some only to survive for a few months, others for a few years, while one or two for a longer period, but all instinct with the urge of new interest and new ambition.

“Practically throughout the period of the last Great War and for a couple of years aft er it, these papers had their war too, with one or other of these literary battles raging furiously off and on.”

A new current of ideas was slowly coming into the literary life of the Malays, and first found expression in the form of journalism. It drew its inspiration for the most part from the Arabic press of Egypt and to a less extent from the local English press as well. Beginning from Chahaya Pulau Pinang all these papers were published in print Jawi script, as against the old process of lithography.

The contents of these older Malay journals often afford much pleasure and entertainment. The earlier papers, apart from giving regular news items, local and foreign, were more given to correspondence and discussions on the niceties of the Malay language and on various questions on Malay customs and religion. They also showed a more consistent tendency to publish articles of local or general interest and useful excerpts from foreign papers to add to the readers’ stock of general knowledge.

But during the second decade of the present century, the correspondence columns of the Malay papers then in existence were generally full of controversies and wars of words—from lively discussions on points of language and idiom, on the correct way of writing Malay poetry, and on the interpretation of certain obscure passages in some Malay religious books, to hot attacks and counter attacks on the question of whether or not savings bank interest is riba (usury according to Mohammedan Laws), and on the doctrines of the Ahmadiyyah sect in India.

Practically throughout the period of the last Great War and for a couple of years aft er it, these papers had their war too, with one or other of these literary battles raging furiously off and on. In the case of the religious questions, each side cited authorities from sacred literature and from the writings of the early imams and expounders of the faith. If the articles thus written were collected and published in book form, they would make absorbingly interesting reading, at once amusing and instructive.

The papers which chiefly contained these were the old Utusan Melayu (not the present paper of the same name) and the Lembaga Melayu, both of Singapore and both now defunct, having gone out of publication since 1922 and 1931 respectively. In the absence of records and old files the existence of which anywhere is very much doubted, it is not likely that any trace of these writings will survive.


The oldest Malay newspaper now in publication is the Saudara of Penang which was started in September 1928. It was originally a bi-weekly, then a tri-weekly, and now has for some years changed again into a bi-weekly. In the hands of its original founder and editor, Syed Sheikh al-Hady, whose death in 1934 was universally lamented, it was a powerful and uncompromising critic of Malay life and a strong advocate of social and religious reformation for Moslems. It also had a companion monthly periodical called the Al Ikhwan which similarly breathed the fiery spirit of the social reformer. The Sahabat, also of Penang was started only in February last year and is a tri-weekly. Since a few months ago it has also had a monthly published in association with it called the Siasat.


From Penang there were also several weekly and monthly magazines published one aft er another besides the Al-Ikhwan already mentioned. The best known among these were Malaya (weekly), Semangat Islam (monthly), Persahabatan (monthly), and Suara Malaysia (weekly), the last being one of the few attempts to publish a Malay periodical in Romanised Malay in this country. Th en there was the monthly Majallah Cherita, also of Penang—a story magazine modelled on the various story magazines in the English language but with the stories mostly concerning Malay life and written by Malays. But all these are now dead and gone, their place being taken up by new ones from other parts of the country, though none seems to hold any better prospect of success than its predecessors. During the last 15 years Malay newspapers and magazines have been springing up like mushrooms all over the country. But few have prospered or found a permanent place in the stream of Malay journalistic life. Nevertheless, compared with what it was 60 years ago, the present spate of Malay journalistic ventures certainly speaks volumes of the progress in the development of Malay journalism in Malaya.

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