A History of the Malay Left: Part One

loading After the British returned to Malaya in the aftermath of World War II, the Malayan Union was formed. However, the Union was met with much opposition due to its constitutional framework, which allegedly threatened Malay sovereignty over Malaya. The event sparked the first major show of force by Malay nationalism, which eventually resulted in the formation of Federation of Malaya in 1948.

Many Malays opposed to colonialism in the pre-War period were considered communists by the British. Despite the failure of their various agendas, their early contributions were broad and lasting.

Being anti-colonial, the Malay Left was classed either as communists or at least as fellow travellers of the reds.1 The basis for this claim? Undeniably, being leftist or against the status quo was not enough to make one a communist.

So who or what was the Malay Left, really?

The Rise of the Malay Left

For starters, the Malay Left ought to be understood against the backdrop of the heterogeneity of Malay society before the Second World War. By 1941, three separate strands had appeared to challenge those in power.

The first was the Kaum Muda, a group of Middle East-educated scholars with Pan-Islamic sentiments who sought solutions to the social and economic backwardness of Malay-Muslims via Islam. The second was the radical intelligentsia inspired by the Indonesian nationalist movement. Lastly, there were the English-educated professionals and civil servants of the Malay Administrative Service.2

While political consciousness in Malay society developed at a relatively slower pace3, the seeds of Malay radicalism were sown mainly through vernacular education – through the establishment of madrasahs, where ideas of Islamic reformism, nationalism and anti-colonialism were imputed and internalised.

Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy.

The Role of Madrasahs

Unlike the “pondok” systems that confined their lessons to religious matters, madrasahs also taught secular subjects such as history, geography, speech-making and literature. It inculcated interest in worldly affairs, with religious reformist instructions that stimulated students’ interests in political matters coupled with an implicit religious motive – and a readymade leadership. This provided fertile ground for the seeds of radicalism to sprout4; notable Malay Radicals such as Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy and Shamsiah Fakeh received their early education in these schools5.

As one would expect, the teaching staff at these schools were also exposed to reformist ideas and promoted the nationalist political culture that was taking shape. For instance, those employed in Madrasah al-Ihya Sharif in northern Perak had spent time in the Arab world and embraced the ideas of the Kaum Muda. Students were similarly encouraged to promote political awareness in the community through mainstream associations such as the Persaudaraan Sahabat Pena Malaya, which emerged as the “first Malay mass movement in the Peninsula”6, providing a platform to address the socio-economic and political challenges confronting the Malays.

Literature and Mass Media

Ironically, the formation of Sultan Idris Training College (SITC) in 1922 by high-ranking education officer Richard Winstedt also worked in favour of the Left. Unlike Malay College Kuala Kangsar, SITC admitted students from all levels of Malay society with the policy of retaining them in traditional roles as peasants, fishermen, land tillers and manual labourers.

First Durbar (Conference of Rulers) held at the Astana Negara in Kuala Kangsar, Perak in 1897. Distrust of the British and dissatisfaction with British-groomed bureaucratic and aristocratic elites mounted in the Malay Left.

Nevertheless, under O.T Dussek, the principal from its inception to 1936, “every activity that is genuinely cultural and genuinely Malay has flourished in an astonishing manner”7. Dussek’s tenure witnessed the transfer of the Malay Translation Bureau from KL to SITC, with renowned linguist and thinker, Za’aba, as its head. A large amount of revolutionary and reformist literature from the Middle East was then translated and consumed by students and teachers like Abdul Hadi Hassan and Buyong Adil, broadening their horizons with fresh ideational frameworks that formed the rhetoric of the Left.8

In light of increasing education opportunities, the growth of printed mass media further illustrated these radical sentiments.9 Among the most important of these publications was the al-Imam (the Leader),10 a magazine and the main mouthpiece of pioneering Islamic reforms in Malay society.

Upon returning to Malaya, Kaum Muda proponents saw that Malay-Muslim society was lacking in consciousness, particularly regarding social and economic matters. Malay leaders, their failure as role models enhanced by their sense of inferiority as well as their fascination with colonialist culture, became another core reason for resistance. Kaum Muda was predominantly led by Sheikh Mohd Tahir Jalaluddin, Syed Sheikh bin al-Hadi, Haji Abbas bin Mohd Taha and Sheikh Salim al-Kalali, while the al-Imam urged readers to re-evaluate their religious beliefs and practices that might have led them into social and economic backwardness.11

Featuring calls for Muslims to acquire knowledge, and warnings against ignorance and negligence in obtaining knowledge, the magazine became a medium where criticism was aimed at the docility of traditional and conservative Muslim religious scholars, the ulama (Kaum Tua). There was also the al-Ikhwan, where al-Hadi promoted the concept of women’s emancipation.

Disenchantment with British colonialism and the traditional political and religious establishments, and anger over demands being made by immigrant races stirred the Malay Left further into action. Their distrust of the British and dissatisfaction with British-groomed bureaucratic and aristocratic elites mounted; the elites were perceived as colonial puppets and traitors to their own kind, alienated from the masses.12

Here, a stark contrast can be drawn with Indonesia, where Western-educated intellectuals empathised politically and culturally with the masses and even spearheaded anti-colonialist movements, whereas in Malaya, the “large number of Western-educated Malay, most of whom were from feudal well-positioned families, indicated cultural and political indifference”,13 leaving the struggle for independence to be borne by teachers and “small-time” leaders who identified with the rakyat.

There was fear and resentment against the immigrant races agitating for more rights and privileges in the state councils in the early 1930s, and this sparked concerns and vehement reactions in the Malay press, especially Majlis, Saudara and Majalah Guru14. These and the Great Depression, during which many mining and rubber-tapping jobs were lost, provided fertile ground for the rise of the Left.15

Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako) left his job in the Malayan Civil Service and joined Ibrahim Yaakob's cause after finding the deception and social discrimination too bitter to swallow.

The Early Radicals

The formation of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) signalled the beginning of organised efforts to propagate radical sentiments among the Malays.16 Established in 1938, KMM was geared towards the early termination of British rule and the realisation of Melayu-Raya (the greater Malay state) encompassing British Malaya and Indonesia.17 The emergence of Partai Nasional Indonesia led by Sukarno in 1927 equipped KMM with brewing inspiration for their radical stance.

Giving strong support for the anti-British struggle without pledging any loyalty to the sultans, the background of the KMM’s founding members is particularly noteworthy: the majority of them were journalists and college graduates with peasant backgrounds who had been exposed to the reformist ideas of nationalist movements in Turkey, the Middle East and Indonesia.

A crucial factor behind their pro-Indonesian stance was the fact that many of them were educated in SITC and exposed to the concept of “Nusantara”18. Its founder Ibrahim Yaakob himself was a graduate of SITC before he embarked on his journalistic career. Co-founders like Hasan Manan, Karim Rashid and Isa Mohammad were first-generation migrants from Indonesia.

Disillusionment with the British administration was another push factor. Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako) for instance, left his job in the Malayan Civil Service and joined Ibrahim’s cause after finding the deception and social discrimination too bitter to swallow19. Undeniably, KMM’s leadership consisted of self-made men, and the party’s inception witnessed an ideological spread among “low-class subjects” and like-minded members of the intelligentsia such as teachers and journalists.20

KMM was in no way communist. Their leftist stance however led them to associate themselves with other anti-British elements – even the Japanese. In fact, Ibrahim established secret ties with Japanese agents in Singapore even prior to the Occupation, which enabled him to buy Warta Malaya to intensify anti-British campaigns.21 The party was also secretly affiliated to the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), and these collaborations soon alarmed the authorities22.

Having established branches throughout the peninsula and after holding two Malay Congresses between 1939 and 1940, KMM’s leaders were arrested and imprisoned under the Defence Regulations of 1940,23 which crippled their activities until the Japanese invasion in 1941.

Nonetheless, it was only after the war that the Malay Left managed to gain a significant
foothold in Malayan politics.

Part Two of “The History of the Malay Left” will be in the September issue of Penang Monthly.

For Part Two, please click here.

1 Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya’, Syed Muhd. Khairudin Aljunied, NIU Press, 2015, p.12. See also ‘Social Roots of the Malay Left’, Rustam A. Sani, SIRD, 2008, p.7-9
2 ‘The Origins of Malay Nationalism’, William R. Roff, Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 1974, p. 248
3 ‘The Erosion of Ideological Hegomony and Royal Power and the Rise of Post-war Malay Nationalism’, 1945-46, Cheah Boon Kheng, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol.19, No.1 (March 1988), pp.1-26
4 ‘Radical Malay Politics: Its Origins and Early Development’, Firdaus Haji Abdullah, Pelanduk Publications, 1985, pp. 13-17
5 ‘Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya’, Syed Muhd. Khairudin Aljunied, NIU Press, 2015, p.37-38
6 Radical Malay Politics: Its Origins and Early Development’, Firdaus Haji Abdullah, Pelanduk Publications, 1985, p.63
7 ‘The Origins of Malay Nationalism’, William R. Roff, Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 1974, p.143
8 ‘Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya’, Syed Muhd. Khairudin Aljunied, NIU Press, 2015, p.33-34
9 No fewer than 197 Malay and Arabic periodicals were published in the Malay States and Straits Settlements between 1876 and 1941 (Abdullah, 1985).
10 ‘The Origins of Malay Nationalism’, William R. Roff, Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 1974, p.143
11 ‘Malay Anti-Colonialism in British Malaya: A Reappraisal of Independence Fighters of Peninsular Malaysia’, Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Journal of Asian and African Studies, 2007, 42(5), pp.371- 398
12 ‘Radical Malay Politics: Its Origins and Early Development’, Firdaus Haji Abdullah, Pelanduk Publications, 1985, p.7
13 Ibid, pp.6-87
14 ‘Malay Nationalism, 1896-1941’, Radin Soenarno, Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 1, No.1, March 1960), pp. 1-28
15 ‘Memoir Rashid Maidin: Daripada Perjuangan Bersenjata kepada Perdamaian’, Rashid Maidin, SIRD, 2005, p.6-7
16 Prior to which, radical ideas were commonly expressed individually through available literary vehicles.
17 The terms “Melayu-Raya” and “Indonesia-Raya” were used interchangeably to indicate the aspiration for an enlarged nation incorporating the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra and other
Indonesian islands (Cheah 1979)
18 ‘The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941-45: Ibrahim Yaacob and the Struggle for Indonesia Raya, Cheah Boon Kheng, Indonesia, No.28, Oct 1979, pp.84-120
19 ‘Malay Nationalism, 1896-1941’, Radin Soenarno, Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 1, No.1, March 1960), pp. 1-28
20 Ibid, pp.18-19
21 ‘Radical Malay Politics: Its Origins and Early Development’, Firdaus Haji Abdullah, Pelanduk Publications, 1985, pp.65-67
22 Sutan Djenain for instance, was an active member of the MCP and liaison officer between the MCP and KMM. He was imprisoned together with Ibrahim, Ishak and Ahmad Boestamam in 1940.
23 ‘Malay Nationalism, 1896-1941’, Radin Soenarno, Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. 1, No.1, March 1960), p. 19

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.
Mohd Izzuddin Ramli is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.



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