A History of the Malay Left: Part Two

loading Allied Forces liberated Penang at the end of August 1945. Disarmed Japanese troops march through the crowds to the prison camp.

The Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Singapore allowed the Malay left to thrive, if only for a brief moment. The road to Independence was long and hard, and the left’s communist connection did not improve their lot.

The fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942 saw the release of Ibrahim Yaacob and the resumption of Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM)’s activities.1 For the sake of political expediency, KMM quickly ingratiated itself with the Japanese authorities. This marriage of convenience was also said to stem out of Ibrahim’s intention to play triple agent.2

While the experience boosted the confidence, knowledge and influence of the Malay left, it was not until after the war that they achieved their pinnacle of political success before being demonised on the Malayan political scene.

The Malay Left during the Japanese Occupation

The Japanese policy of giving KMM a free hand during the early days of the Occupation bolstered their social influence among the Malays. For once, the aristocracy and bureaucratic elites fell out of favour; on the other hand, KMM members were bestowed with official roles such as “community leaders”, and were supplied with cars and amenities as community organisers and interpreters.3 Their influence thrived following mass rallies, with large numbers of Malay youths topping the party’s list. The substitution of existing Malay newspapers with Japanese-propagated ones, established under the influence of Ishak Haji Muhammad, further boosted their stand.4

However, fraternising with the enemy was not without any disenchantment. The regime’s brutality5 and refusal to back Malay independence, contradicting their earlier promise to liberate Malaya, disappointed many – including Mustapha Hussain, KMM’s vice-president, who felt that “Japanese victory was in reality, not their victory”.6

Battle of Singapore, February 1942. Victorious Japanese troops march through the city centre.

Lt. J. Blease, RN, of Johnshaven, Montrose, Scotland, inspects surrendered Japanese troops at Penang's seaplane base. He is escorted by surrender liaison officer Lt. Cdr. Nagaki.

The collaboration persisted for the sake of their fellow Malays7 and often, personal gain and safety8 . The marriage was shortlived following the banning of KMM in June 1942, and support evaporated overnight9 , revealing its widening rifts.10 Nevertheless, KMM’s success in instilling semangat perjuangan (“fighting spirit”) among Malay youths during their brief stint enabled the movement to sustain itself under the umbrella of the Giyu Gun or Pembela Tanah Air (Peta), a Malay volunteer army formed in December 1943 and led by Ibrahim himself.

The arrival of the Kesatuan Rakyat Indonesia Semenanjung (KRIS) in June 1945 gave KMM a fighting chance. The former sought to promote Malay-Indonesian patriotism and frame a constitution for an independent Malaya and Indonesia, to be revealed in conjunction with the Indonesian Declaration of Independence in August.

Unfortunately, all was crushed by Japan’s surrender and the proclamation of a republic of Indonesia without Malaya and Borneo.11 The British return crippled the left, and leaders of KRIS and Peta were arrested12 . Doubtful of his future, Ibrahim left for Indonesia, leaving the baton to a new crop of leftists who restructured their strategy towards a new Malaya.13

From KMM to PKMM

The Malayan Spring14 witnessed a new dawn for the Malay left where ideas and activities were reflected unconventionally with prewar restrictions on expression, assembly and association lifted and the Indonesian Revolution in full swing.15 Decolonisation was the trend and the left saw another golden opportunity to revive their struggle towards a Republik Indonesia Raya under the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), led by Mokhtaruddin Lasso, former Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) recruit and Malayan Communist Party (MCP) leader; and renowned scholar and political activist, Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy.

PKMM was not communist16 and far more inclusive than its predecessor, embracing Malays from all social backgrounds and classes, binding them under the spirit of nationalism.17 This new culture took root and while many PKMM members perceived the communists as harbouring un-Islamic elements, they also recognised MCP members such as Abdullah CD, Musa Ahmad and Dahari Ali as influential mass organisers.18

The liberal atmosphere also permitted the revival of new periodicals such as Suara Rakyat, crucial in stirring the sentiments of the Malays. Soon, other pro-PKMM publications such as Kenchana, Plopor and Utusan Melayu under Yusof Ishak became purveyors of radical ideas. Not only were ideas of freedom and unity towards independence articulated, but concepts forbidden during the war such as the role of youths and mass support for Malay rights could be restored.

Javanese revolutionaries fighting for independence.

Support was immense from the working classes and peasantry, with Malay youths flooding the party’s youth wing, the Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) led by Ahmad Boestamam, and the women’s wing, Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS) by Aishah Ghani and later, Samsiah Fakeh19 . It also increased its influence by capitalising on trade unions via representation in the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) and the Barisan Tani Se-Melaya (Batas). Soon, an ideological confrontation was inevitable with Umno20 , campaigning for a Federation of Malaya21 in lieu of the Malayan Union.

The left saw the Union as a vehicle towards the Melayu-Raya dream. Declaring the monarchy’s irrelevance, PKMM was convinced of a nationwide revolution once all the Malay states were unified under a single entity of an independent Malaya, thus rendering a merger with Indonesia possible. The showdown came in June 1946 when PKMM decided against joining Umno. However, Umno won the day with the British, and the Union was withdrawn22 .

The Beginning of the End

While PKMM still commanded mass support, discord entailed between Burhanuddin and Boestamam, ending in the latter’s resignation in December 194623. This minor setback did not hinder subsequent unity. Dissatisfied with its exclusion from the Working Committee and Consultative Committee in drafting the Federation’s constitution, PKMM formed a coalition of Malay left-wing parties known as Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (Putera) in February 1947.24Joining forces with the non-Malay All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA)25, mass rallies were held, stirring public opposition against the Working Committee’s constitutional proposals.

Their temporal success was highlighted by the drafting of the radical People’s Constitutional Proposals.26 Its failure to garner concessions from the authorities led to mass agitation with a one-day nationwide strike, the Hartal, in October 1947, with businesses coming to a standstill and all places of amusement being closed.27

Nevertheless, the coalition’s increasing demands for democratic reforms and immediate independence provoked the authorities to stigmatise it as a “communist invention”. While most of the Malay left were never communists, but were instead nationalists with radical socialist views, the increasing Cold War paranoia blurred this crucial distinction in favour of the Umno elites. While the left’s public image suffered under British propaganda, the rise in labour strikes, mass demonstrations28 and proliferation of communist propaganda and anti-government activities attributed to the revival of the Trade Union Ordinance which crippled most labour unions. Later, the Malayan Emergency of 1948 dashed the hopes of the leftist movement altogether.

Anti-Indonesian infiltration in 1965 by a group of Malay women.

With one-third of core PKMM, API, AWAS and leftist members incarcerated, many avoided political activities. Given the bleak future and disappointments within, some crossed over to Umno instead, such as Mustapha Hussain who contested against Tunku Abdul Rahman in 195129 , and Aishah Ghani, who became a supreme council member and led their women’s wing. Minorities such as Rashid Maidin and Abdullah CD continued the anti- British struggle in the jungle with the MCP. Demonised as the communist bogeyman, the fragmented left gradually lost their influence as Umno gained traction among the Malays.30


The Partai Rakyat Malaya (PRM) marked the left’s final comeback. Led by Ishak and the released Boestaman, the party advocated a strand of Indonesian socialism which promoted the welfare and interests of the poor. Burhanuddin, in fact, played an instrumental role in its establishment, although given his pro-Islamic views, he later joined the Pan Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP).31 Given the lack of proper outreach to the non-Malays, PRM gained little attention and made few inroads until its coalition with the Labour Party of Malaya.

Unfortunately, all was not to last. A revolt by A.M Azahari, a PRM activist in Brunei, soon implicated the party in militant activities. A massive crackdown followed and Burhanuddin, Boestamam and other party associates endured another round of incarceration that lasted throughout the Indonesian Confrontation. Weakened by the crackdown, the Confrontation terminated their Melayu-Raya dream.32 Continued government suppression and demonization of their “militant communism” soon nailed the coffin shut.

As leftist sentiments continue to provoke subversive communist-inspired impressions, the Malay left still faces various political stigmatisation, although their struggle today is no longer anticolonial but one for social justice. While such a calling is still very much manifested in the Malaysian political scene, whether the Malay left has a chance of making a comeback remains to be seen.

For Part One, please click here.

1 Ibrahim was arrested on December 7, 1941 and admitted to receiving M$18,000 from the Japanese consulate to buy Warta Malaya for the “New Order” propaganda and other sums for “collecting defense instructions” (Cheah 1979).
2 Like betting on three horses, Ibrahim had befriended British Special Branch chief, L. M. Wynne, prior to the war and even volunteered himself to Japanese mining engineer, Ishikawa, as a Japanese agent. Underground contacts were also established with the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) through Sutan Djenian (Cheah 1979).
3 Aljunied, Syed Muhd. Khairudin. Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya. NIU Press, 2015, pp.76-78.
4 Ibid.
5 Many witnessed extreme brutalities against former Malay civil servants, particularly those in uniform who resisted the invasion (Aljunied 2015).
6 Aljunied, Syed Muhd. Khairudin. Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya. NIU Press, 2015, pp.76-77
7 Ibid, pp.80-81. Collaboration was seen as a necessary evil in obtaining resources and special favours. The Malay left acted as petitioners for requests to purchase more rice for villagers and helped many Malays in gaining employment.
8 For instance, KMM membership cards had the effect of safeguarding one’s self from Japanese harassment (Aljunied 2015).
9 KMM was outlawed as part of the Japanese agenda in discouraging local political activities (Cheah 1979). The Japanese also realised that they needed the support of the Malay traditional leadership to obtain the allegiance of Malay society (Aljunied 2015).
10 Mustapha and his clique severed ties with Ibrahim owing to the latter’s autocratic leadership and arrogance (Aljunied 2015).
11 Soenarno, Radin. “Malay Nationalism, 1896-1941”. Journal of Southeast Asian History, vol. 1, no.1, March 1960, p. 21.
12 Most were released after six months. Given the need to regain the support of local Malays to avoid an Indonesian-style revolution, the authorities became lenient (Aljunied 2015).
13 Aljunied, Syed Muhd. Khairudin. Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya. NIU Press, 2015, pp. 99-100.
14 Han, Suyin. An outline of Malayan Chinese Literature. Eastern Horizon, 3,6, June 1964, pp.6- 16.
15 Ibid, pp. 101-103.
16 The MCP did attempt to infiltrate the party through its Malay Affairs Bureau but owing to the dominance of nationalist and Islamic elements within the PKMM, its endeavour did not meet much success and it merely maintained a cordial relationship with PKMM (Abdullah 1985).
17 Members included communists, socialists, religious leaders, elites, and English-educated and Malay-educated Malays respectively (Aljunied 2015).
18 Aljunied, Syed Muhd. Khairudin. Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya. NIU Press, 2015, p.107.
19 PKMM’s membership swelled to more than 10,000 by 1946 and peaked at 54,000 by the end of 1947 (Aljunied 2015).
20 Registered in 1946 itself, the party began as a coalition of small Malay social and welfare organisations enraged by the Malayan Union plans.
21 The Federation plan would safeguard the special rights of the Malays followed by the power of the Sultans, while administering the Malay states within a single entity.
22 The Republican idea mooted by the left did not sit well with the majority of the Malays who were attached to the monarchy or kerajaan (Omar 2015).
23 Boestamam advocated radical actions through “Merdeka dengan Darah”, while Burhanuddin preferred a tactful approach.
24 Led by Ishak, Putera was represented by over 100 Malay associations from the peninsula and Singapore, and 100,000 strong PKMM and API members (Sunday Tribune, 23 February 1947). They were also joined by AWAS, Batas and Gerakan Angkatan Muda (Geram).
25 AMCJA consisted of Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU), a 12-state Women’s Federation in Malaya, Malayan New Democratic Youth League (MNDYL) and Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Ex-Service Comrades’ Association.
26 “The first political attempt to put Malayan party politics on a plane higher than that of rival racial interests, and also as the first attempt to build a political bridge between the domiciled non-Malay communities and the Malay race” (23 September 1947, Straits Times). It advocated equal citizenship rights to all who made Malaya their permanent home and the object of loyalty; and a united Malaya including Singapore and a Council of Races to block any discriminatory legislation based on ethnicity or religion.
27 Abdullah, Firdaus Haji. Radical Malay Politics: Its Origins and Early Development. Pelanduk Publications, 1985, pp. 93-97.
28 Labour opposition did not occur purely based on communist agitation but by genuine economic distress, especially the shortage of rice.
29 Jomo, K.S., ed. Malay Nationalism Before UMNO: The Memoirs of Mustapha Hussain. Translated by Insun Sony Mustapha, Utusan Publications, 2005, p.387.
30 The Alliance swept 51 out of 52 seats in the Federal Legislative Council elections of July 1955. The remaining was won by the PMIP.
31 His ultra-religious stand continued to clash with Boestamam’s ultra-socialist views, leading both men to drift apart once again (Aljunied 2015).
32 Aljunied, Syed Muhd. Khairudin. Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya. NIU Press, 2015, pp. 185-187

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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