Social Roots of the Malay Left

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Social Roots of the Malay Left

The Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD) is

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Social Roots of the Malay l An Analysis of the Kesatuan Muds

Rustam A. Sani

SIRD Petaling Jays

Social Roots of the Malay Left

© Rustzlm A. Simi ISBN 978-983-3782-44-4

First published in Malaysia in 2008 by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre No 11, Lorong 11 I413, 46200 Pel;aling_]z1ya, Selangor. Email: sird(£strcamyx.cnm

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Perpustakaan N angara Malaysia

Cataloguing-ln-Publiciilioll Data

Rustin A. Sami, 1944Social. roots of the Malay left ° an analysis of the Kesatuan Melayu Muds Rustam A. Sami Bibliography


ISBN 978-983-3782-44-4

1. Kcsatuan Melayu Muda. 2. Opposition (Political science)--Malaysia '--I-Iistoqa 3. Political parties--Malaysia--History 4. Malays--Politics and government--I-Iistory. 5. Malaysia--History. I. Tide. 324.209595

Printed by Violin Press Sdn Bhd, Puchong, Malaysia.







1 2 3 4 5 6

The Nature of the 'Malay Left' Malaya in the 19305: Setting Tor the Roots of Malay Political Development The Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) as the Origin of the Malay Left The Emergence of the Non-Traditional Elites Melayu Raya: The Nation of Intent Conclusion


11 23 37

53 67





About Ike Author





This book has as its origin a dissertation submitted in part fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Kent at Canterbury in April 1975. Although no substantial revision has been done on the original, I have decided to publish it because I have been constantly persuaded to do so over the years in order to make it available to fellow researchers working on the subject. The writing of this dissertation could not have been possible without the help of several people. .l wish to thank my supervisor, R. G. Kershaw, for his guidance and extremely perceptive comments upon drafts of the work. Dennis J. Duricanson was kind enough to

make comments and offer suggestions upon the proposed outline of the dissertation in its initial stages. To some of my former teachers (especially S. Hus if Ali, then of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Malaya and Anthony D. Smith, then of the Department of Sociology, University of Reading and currently of the London School of Economics) much of the materials presented here should appear very familiar indeed, for their lectures and works have


been a great source of inspiration for me in formulating my own thoughts on the subject. The staff of the Public Records Office in London, the libraries of the University of Kent at Canterbury, the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), the Malay Documentation Centre of the Devan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the National Archives, and the National Library of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur have been very kind indeed in attending to my numerous requests. I wish to record my gratitude to all the above persons and institutions, but of course none of them are responsible for the shortcomings of this book for which l am alone responsible.

Rustam A. Sani

Kuala .Lumpur January 2008






All-Malaya Council ofloint Action Kesatuan Mclayu Muda (Young Malays Association) Kesatuan Melayu Singapura (Malay Association of Singapore) Kesatuan Rakyat Indonesia Semenanjung (Union of Peninsular Indonesians) Pembela Tarah Air (Avengers of the Motherland) Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (Malay Nationalist Party of Malaya) Parti Keadilan Rakyat Persatuan Melayu Selangor (Malay Association of Selangor) Partai Rakyat Malaya (Malayan People's Party) or Patti Rakyat Malaysia


Partai Sosialis Rabat Malaysia (Malaysian People's Socialist Party) PUTERA Pus at Tenaga Rakyat (Centre for People's Effort) SITC Sultan Idris Training College UMNO United Malays National Organisation ix


The Nature of the 'Malay Left'

Leftwing ideology

(socialism or communism) has often been

treated as if it were simply a single and unchanging set of ideas derived from the formulations of Marx, Engels and Lenin and handed down unaltered to each generation of leftists, within whatever social background they operate. From this assumption, it follows that all leftists believe in essentially the same political programme. But one has only to look at the development of the Sino~Soviet ideological dispute, for example, to Hnd the evidence against such an assumption. In view of this, caution has to be exercised in dealing with a concept such as the 'Malay Left', lest the ideological aspect of the concept be unduly emphasised-or taken for granted. Operating in

a society that has been described as 'a plural society par excellerzcel the nature of Malay politics (indeed Malaysian politics as a whole) in its various manifestations has been more 'communal than 'ideological>1 In fact, on observing the development of party politics in Malaysia, one cannot help agreeing with Tilnlan who remarked that "non-communal political parties' actually do not exist in West Malaysia".2 Given this background, how could the concept 'Malay Left' be plausible? Does not the term in itself embody the inherent contradictions between the Communal' and


Social Roots of the Malay Left

"ideological" nature of politics? Indeed, a student who has chosen to study the phenomenon of the 'Malay Left' must first try to solve the problem of the definition of the phenomenon he wishes to examine. The term 'Malay Left' (or its variants, such as the 'Malay leftwing movements and 'Malay leftwing nationalism') has been

used by various writers to denote certain phenomena in Malay politics. these writers have used the terms rather freely to refer to different groups, organisations or political parties existing at different times-such as the pre-war Kesatuan Melayu Muda3, the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (Malayan Malay Nationalist Party, PKMM) and other post-war Malay political organisations in PUTERA", and even the Partai Rakyat Malaya (PRM) (formed in 1955)5.

In this study, the term 'Malay Left' is used to denote basically the same range of phenomena. In fact, the term is used here not only as a blanket term to cover all the above-mentioned organisations, but further still to assert the notion of a strand in the political development of the Malays in which the above organisations form the landmarks. This notion presupposes a model of the modern political development of the Malays in West Malaysia as having its roots in the social milieu of the 19205 and l930s and progressing along two parallel strands. The major strand (manifested in its fullfledged political form in the United Malays National Organisation [UMNOD has its roots in the traditional power structure which was maintained by the colonial authority through the device known as 'indirect rule'. The other (minor) strand constituted the so-called 'Malay Left' (whose origins form the subject of this study).

Malay political development before World War II The modern political development of the Malays has had a comparatively short history. Considered against the background of anti-colonial struggles in other Southeast Asian countries before World War II, the Malays in Malaya could be considered politically



inert and immature. However, this does not mean that there was a total lack of political consciousness among the Malays then. Beneath the apparently calm surface of the peninsular political scene, one can discern the stirring of strong social currents. For example, between the years 1876 and 1941, no less than 147 Malay newspapers were

published in the Malay States and Straits Settlements. Among these newspapers were Inv Peranakan, Tanjurig Perzgeri, Semi Perak, Iajahan relays, Iafnbangare WarM, and, most important of all, Al-Itnamf' Most interesting is the fact that these newspapers, especially Al-Imam, were used by an emerging intellectual group (mostly educated in West Asia and highly influenced by the Islamic reform movement led by Muhammad Abduh in Egypt) as the media for expanding their "burning desire to renovate Islam in their own society to make it a fit instrument with which to respond to the social and economic challenges posed by alien domination'" The outcome of this Islamic reform movement serves as a clear indication of the nature of the political culture of Malay society then. Such ideas of religious and political innovations would undoubtedly find themselves in direct opposition to the monopoly of political power by the traditional political establishments, i.e. the various state rulers, their aristocracy and their religious establishments. An intense confrontation between the establishment (Kauri Tua) and the innovators (Kaurn Muda) followed. In Kelantan, for example, the reaction of the establishment took the form of the journal Pengasuh, which became the organ of the government and the official religious establishment with the aim of combating the influence of the Kauri Muda. Although reformist ideas made some inroads into certain sectors of Malay rural society, such as the religious teachers, the centre of the movement remained in the urban centres of the Straits

Settlements such as Singapore and Penang, where British rule was more direct and the power of traditional rulers negligible. The leadership of the movement was monopolised by the commercially strong Malay-Arab communities of these centres It is interesting to note that it was within the same urban milieu that the first attempt to form a genuinely Malay political


Social Roots of the Malay Left organisation was made. On May 14, 1926 the Kesatuan Melayu Singapura (Malay Association of Singapore, KMS) was formed under the leadership of Muhammad Eunos bin Abdullah (18781933).9 This organisation was initiated with the aim of defending the rights of the Malays who found themselves a minority and the most deprived lot in an urban economy wholly controlled by

immigrant races and directly ruled by a colonial administration. As we have indicated above, owing to a lack of Malay traditional elite leaders in the cities, the Malay-Muslim community since the mid-nineteenth century had been dominated by its Malay-Arab and Jawi Peranakan members. It is against the latters' "usurpation of leadership role that the formation of the KMS and later its branches must be seen as a reaction".1° But the KMS was not strictly a nationalist movement with the express aim of creating an independent nation for the Malays. It was undoubtedly sensitive to the plight of the Malays in the urban areas where large numbers of them had "degenerated to hired servants of other races",ll but had nevertheless chosen merely to be representatives of the Malays in making their demands for social betterment within the existing colonial framework. It was this role that Muhammad Euros Abdullah carried out successfully as a member of the Singapore Municipal Council. It was basically the same role that some members of the State Councils in the Malay States were engaged in at the time. Some Western-educated members of the Malay aristocracy were nominated as members of these councils, with varying degrees of participation. Among the most vocal of these were Raja (later Sir) Chulan (Perak), Dato' Undang Rembau (Negeri Sembilan) and the Raja Muda of Perak. Besides, in Johor there was Encik (later Dato' Sir) Onn Iaafar who was appointed an unofficial member of the Johor State Council in 1936.12 Like their Singapore counterparts,

these Malay 'representatives' acted merely as 'demand aggregators' of the Malays within the framework of British Colonial rule, even if Dato` Onn was vocal in attacking the disparities between British and Malay officers. Unlike their Singapore counterparts, these r



appointees did not attempt to represent the Malays through the support of a political organisation. It was only in the early 1930s, as a result of the social and economic upheaval caused by the Depression and the challenges from immigrant populations, that there was some interest shown by the Malays to set up expressly political associations to defend and represent Malay interests, as distinct from the existing apolitical and mostly local 'welfare associations. But not much progress was made until the later half of the 1930s, when a number of state-based political organisations were initiated. Between 1937 and 1939, Malay political organisations were established in Pahang, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Province Wellesley." But, like the earlier associations, these organisations cannot be considered to have been driven by nationalism. While they took an interest in political matters, they never constituted a challenge to the existing order and, in this respect, hardly constituted a step forward when compared with the KMS. In fact, in terms of their aims, they hardly diiiered from the 'welfare' organisations.

In terms of leadership, the organisations were almost without exception led by members of the Western-educated aristocratic elite. Wherever such an organisation was formed without the active participation of the members of this group, it seems to have slipped quickly into some sort of 'leadership crisis', as in the case of the Persatuan Melayu Perak. The case of the Persatuan Melayu Pahang could perhaps be taken as the most obvious example of the monopoly of the leadership of such organisations by members of the Malay aristocracy.14 'this aspect of the early political leadership is hardly surprising if one appreciates the 'political culture' of the Malays of the time, which also helps to explain the earlier reaction

of the establishment to the Kauri Muda reformist movement. When the need for the formation of such organisations to defend Malay interests was expressed in the vernacular press of the time (for example, in the newspaper Mavis) there was conspicuous demand for leaders of certain kind: members of the royal families, preferably Western-educated but not part of the colonial administration."


Social Roots of the Malay Left

We see therefore that there already existed among the Malays in the 1930s the felt need for a political leadership to voice their political grievances, but that the legitimate source of such leadership was still the aristocracy. In this respect the Persatuan Melayu Selangor was most fortunate to find such a leader in the person of Tengku Ismail, a lawyer who had then recently retired from the government

administrative service. Not unlike the other "political" organisation of the time, the PMS spared no effort in reiterating its loyalty to the Sultan of the state-an effort which was obviously not aimed merely at the ruler but also at the people, the potential supporters who would otherwise suspect the organisation. Viewed against these realities, it is hardly surprising that these organisations were mainly state (negeri) based, i.e. the traditional boundaries of the sultans' realm of power. However, efforts were later made by these organisations towards creating some sort of pan-Malayan Malay unity. On 6th August 1939, a preliminary Congress was successfully inaugurated in Kuala Lumpur, under the leadership of Tengku Ismail. Subsequently, during the Christmas holidays of 1940, the official Second Congress was held in Singapore." (At the latter congress were also present representatives of the Malay associations of Kelantan, Sarawak and Brunei). But while these congresses marked a further step towards a pan-Malayan Malay unity, there was not the slightest indication that they also marked a further step towards the political mobilisation of the Malays in opposing colonial rule. This is most obvious in Tengku Ismail's opening speech at the first congress, The British rule could be likened to water; one tends to take it for granted because there is water everywhere, but

should one finds oneself in a desert where there is no water, then one would realise how good, how beneficial, and how indisp enable water is. Such is the British rule, should it leave us, only then would we realise how beneficial the Britain rule is to our race."



By the end of 1940, despite the two congresses, there had been no real progress towards the joining up of the state-based Malay associations into a national organisation. Although the coming

of Japanese rule marked the dawn of a new era in the political consciousness of the Malays, the state-based associations became non-existent as organisations. Nevertheless, the importance of these early organisations as the roots of later developmerits in Malay politics is obvious. Faced with attempts by the British colonial

government to introduce the Malayan Union Constitution after the war, we see that between October 1945 to January 1946 the Malays were busily organising themselves, reviving the old organisations and forming new ones. These efforts led to the Pan-Malayan Malay Congress which was declared on March 1, 1946-and hence the founding of UMNO which was to be the dominant force in the development of subsequent Malay politics"-indeed of Malaysia itself.

He 'Malay Left' as a distinct strand Having sketched the roots of the major strand in the pre~war political development of the Malays, we can now turn to the 'Malay Left' which forms a distinct, if minor, strand in the two~tier model of the political development of the Malays. Analytically, it is not too difficult to demonstrate that there is an element of continuity in the development of this minor strand (with a marked gap in the period 1948-1955, mainly as a result of the Emergency) until the present time. Like the major strand, the minor strand too seems to have its roots in the political and social milieu of the 1930s. From the organisation Kesatuan Melayu Muda (formed in 1938) it is possible to trace the subsequent development of this strand through the post-war organisations in PUTERA, especially the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (1945~l9-48) to the Partai Rakyat Malaya (l955- 1968) and even the Partai Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (formed in 1968 by reconstituting and renaming the Partai Rabat Malaya). The party later reverted to Patti Rakyat


Social Roots of the Malay Left

Malaysia-which subsequently merged with the Parti Keadilan Nasional to form the Patti Keadilan Rakyat (April 4, 1999). Despite these elements of continuity, applying 'Left' to this strand as a whole can be misleading. Although one can discern a marked aiiinity to socialism in the latter organisations (especially the PSRM), socialist ideology is far from being a constant characteristic of all these organisations. It is important to make this point at the outset, to avoid adopting a narrow understanding of the Western notion of the 'Left' and transplanting it to a study of Malay political history The 'Left' as applied to this strand is justifiable only to the extent that these organisations were more tolerant of socialist ideas and influences. The KMM, for example, maintained a liaison with the Malayan Communist Party through

Sutan Djenain 19 and the development of the strand itself marked a progression towards organisations that were more articulate and totally committed to a socialist programme. The danger of such a narrow understanding of the notion 'Left' is most marked when one tries to disentangle the question of the origin of the strand. While most existing studies of the 'Malay Left' are invaluable as sources of historical material, they have suffered analytically on this question. Many historians (for example, Soenarno and, to a lesser extent, Roff)2° have attempted to trace the roots of this strand to the influence of certain Comintern agents from Indonesia and exiled leaders of the Indonesian communist coup (in 1926) in Malaya. But they have not demonstrated the relationship of these events to the founding of Kesatuan Melayu Muda in 1938. Hanrahan is nearer the mark when he remarked that the efforts of the Indonesian communists in Malaya were a total failure." Furthermore, it has not been convincingly shown that there was clear atlinity between the aims and aspirations of the KMM leadership and the aims and aspirations of the leadership of other more attic ulate communist movements in Indonesia, or other parts of Southeast Asia. In addition to employing a narrow understanding of the notion 'Left', I feel that some of this conflation was caused by an



undue reliance on the writings of Ibrahim Yaacob published in the mid 1950s22 on the question of KMM's ideological orientations. By that time, Ibrahim Yaacob had closely affiliated himself with leftwing ideology and was living under the Sukarno regime in Indonesia. It is not unlikely that he was keen to indicate such a source of his leftwing ideological orientation. Useful though these works are in understanding the Kl\/IM era, much more weight I

think should be given to his earlier writing during the KMM era

itself." The purpose of this study I suggest that an institutional/ideological approach to the KMM as a political organisation may not prove to be so useful in an analysis of the origins of the Malay Left. A more fruitful approach would be to analyse the social roots of the organisation. This involves viewing the organisation as a manifestation of the political modernisation of the Malays-for evidence seems to suggest that the leadership of the KMM can be seen as the function of the political participation of an emerging non-traditional elite. This, together with the fact that the KMM was a nationalist movement, can be utilised fruitfully to explain the strong element of pan-Indonesianism that seems not only to characterise the KMM, but also other later organisations within the strand such as the PKMM. This study will therefore attempt to examine the social background of the first 'Malay Left' organisation, the KMM. Rather than take the KMM's affinity for socialism as a defining characteristic, I will focus on how social processes behind the emergence of the KMM leadership influenced their differences with leadership of the other, and major, strand of Malay politics. In order to do this, it is necessary that we first examine the social setting of Malaya between the two world wars.


Social Roots of the Malay Left Notes l


Vasil, R. K. Politics in Plural Society (1971), p. 1. Titman, R. O., in a review of Vasil's book in joarnai of Asian Studies 32, no. I (Nov. 1972), p- 212.

of. Rolf. W. R. Origiris of Malay Nationalism (1967), p. 235 and Soeuarno, "Malay Nationalism 1896-1941", in Ioarnal of Southeast Asian History (ISEAS) l , no. 1 (March 1960), pp. 1-23. 4 of. Yeo Kim Wah, "Anti-Federation Movement in Malaya; ISEAS 4, no. 1 (March 1973), p. 34. 5 of. Vasil (1971). op. cit., p. 167. 6 For a further account of these publications, see Roft, W' R., Bibliography of Malay and Arab Periodicals (1972). if Steinberg, D. I. (ed.), In: Search of Soia'heast A5ia (1972), p. 325. s Roof (1967) op. cit. 9 Li Chuan Sir, Ikhfisar Sejarah Kesasastraan Melaya Bare 1830-1945 (1972), p. 55. 10 Rofli W. R., "Persatuaii Melayu Selangor: An Early Malay Political 3




Association", ISEAH 9 (March 1968). Silcock, T. H. and Uugku A. Aziz, "Nationalism in Malaya; in Holland, W L (ed.), Asian Nationalism and the West (1953), p. 285. For a fuller account of Dato' Oxln's career, see Anwar Abdullah, Data' Orzri (1971). Roof, W R. (1968) op. oiL

RoE, ibid. A number of articles asserting the need for such a person to lead the Malays can be found in Mavis during the mid 19305. is Li Chuan Sir (1972) op. cit., p. 60. 17 Quotation from Amat Johan Moa if, Sejaralm Nasiorialisma Maplfalirldo (1960), p. 175, (my translation).

14 15


For a part cipant's account and a full list of organisations that took part in

the inaugural meeting of UMNO, see Yurts I-Iamidi, Sejarah Peqgerakaa 19

Polilik Malaya Semerzanjaag (1969). See further Ibrahim Yakkob, Sekffar Malaya Merdeka (Djakarta, I957), p.

25. But according to Roft (1967), "The part played by him (Sutan Djenaian) in the affairs of the KMM is extremely shadowy. . (p. $.35n.). zo Soenarno (1960) op. cit. and Roll (1967) op. cit.

See further Hanrahan, G. Z., The Communist Struggle free Malaya (1954), p. 6. as Among the works in this category are Ibrahim Yaacob (1957) op. cit. and 21