Who, pray tell, first started the fight for Merdeka?

Raja Petra Kamarudin

Umno is hot and bothered about Ronnie Liu’s claim that Umno is not the real ‘fighters’ for Malaya’s independence that saw the end of British Colonial rule. Actually, Ronnie is right. The fact that Umno (Baru) was registered in 1987 while Merdeka was granted in 1957, 30 years earlier, certainly strengthens Ronnie’s claim.

Okay, maybe the old and now deregistered Umno did contribute slightly in achieving Merdeka. But that Umno is a separate legal entity and it did so very late in the day after many others had already launched the Merdeka struggle — and for all intents and purposes, Umno ‘hijacked’ the struggle for Merdeka and was in fact handed independence by the British on a silver platter.

Why did the British give Umno independence so willingly? Why was Umno nurtured by the British to become the eventual trustees and beneficiaries of Merdeka?

Simple, because the struggle for Merdeka was being sought by left-wing and Islamic groups and the British did not want to see an independent Malaya under the administration of either left-wing or Islamic groups. Better they engineer and steer Merdeka under a ‘British’ Umno than Malaya fall into the hands of left-wing or Islamic groups who were clearly very bitterly opposed to the British and would kick the British out and nationalise British assets in Malaya the instant Malaya gained independence.

In short, the British wanted to protect their vast business interests in Malaya and only a ‘British’ Umno could guarantee them this protection.

It must be remembered, the fight for Merdeka actually started during the Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War (while talk of Merdeka started in the 1930s). Unfortunately, the Americans dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing the War and the Japanese occupation of Malaya to an end a couple of days later. If the Americans had delayed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by just a few days, Malaya would have been declared Merdeka on 17 August 1945 (before even Umno was formed). As fate would have it, on 15 August 1945, the Japanese surrendered, merely two days before Merdeka for Malaya was going to be proclaimed, and it would be 12 years and 16 days before Malaya would see Merdeka.

This historical fact has been documented in Mustapha Hussein’s book, Malay Nationalism Before Umno, The Memoirs of Mustapha Hussein, which was published by Utusan Publications & Distributors Sdn Bhd. (Mustapha Hussein is the cousin of Yusof Ishak, the first President of Singapore). The book, which was originally written in 1976 in Bahasa Malaysia, was translated last year by Insun Sony Mustapha, the author’s daughter, and edited by Prof. Jomo K.S. Outside Malaysia it is being distributed by the Singapore University Press Pte Ltd, the National University Singapore.

In fact, Umno was very ‘cold’ about Merdeka and it was not Umno that spearheaded Bahasa Malaysia to be declared the country’s official and National Language, Islam the country’s official religion, the Rulers to be reduced to Constitutional Monarchies, special privileges for the Malays, an election system, and much more. Just for the record, the early fighters of Merdeka even went so far as to propose equal citizenship rights for all races.

This is revealed in chapter 34 of the book under the heading PUTERA-AMCJA Conference (1947). Excerpts of this chapter are as follows:

By the grace of God, through the PUTERA-AMCJA Conference, I was given a second opportunity to participate in efforts towards drafting Malaya’s Independence Constitution. The first time had been in July 1945, through the Japanese-sponsored Hodosho and KRIS, at a time when Japan was like a dragon in its death throes, struggling against the Allied onslaught. There were two differences. My first effort had been with Dr Burhanuddin, who had served the Japanese Sumatra-Malaya Military Administration in Taiping while I was a farmer. Then, there had been only five Malay States; this time, there were nine.

On 22 December 1946, multi-ethnic, but mainly non-Malay leftist political bodies in Malaya formed a coalition called the All-Malayan Council of Joint Action (AMCJA). Its members comprised:

1. Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) – led by John Thivy,
2. Malayan Democratic Union (MDU) – led by John Eber,
3. New Democratic Youth League (NDYL),
4. Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Ex-Comrades Association (MPAJECA),
5. Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU). (Abdullah C.D. was active in PMFTU, whose members had increased to hundreds of thousands in both Peninsula Malaya and Singapore. This shocked the British, who introduced new rules and regulations requiring PMFTU to be broken into separate unions with leaders from the workers themselves).

Four months later, on 22 February 1947, left-wing Malay parties formed their own coalition during a meeting at the MNP Head Office in Kuala Lumpur. It was called Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (PUTERA) or the Centre for People’s Power. Led by Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako), the member parties were:

1. Malay Nationalist Party, MNP as its nucleus – led by Dr Burhanuddin,
2. Angkatan Pemuda Insaf, API (Generation of Aware Youth) – led by Ahmad Boestamam,
3. Angkatan Wanita Sedar, AWAS (Generation of Conscious Women) – led by Shamsiah Fakeh,
4. Gerakan Angkatan Muda, GERAM (Young Generation Movement) – led by Aziz Ishak and A. Samad Ismail,
5. Barisan Tani Se Malaya, BATAS (Pan-Malayan Farmers/Peasants Front) – led by Musa Ahmad,
6. Majlis Agama Tertinggi SeMalaya, MATA (Pan-Malayan Supreme Religious Council).

While travelling all over North Malaya with Dr Burhanuddin, we had discussed, at great length, the forthcoming PUTERA-AMCJA Conference, consisting of left-wing Malay and non-Malay political parties, to promote our demand for Independence from the British through constitutional means. Most post-war non-Malay unions and political parties were left-leaning.

MNP was the only Malay political party which, even as early as 1946, had realised that Independence could not be achieved unless the demand was unanimously made by the three major communities in Malaya – the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians.

UMNO, led by Datuk Onn bin Jaafar, had yet to fathom this reality, and continued to function as if it was still in pre-war Malaya. In 1951, six years after the war ended, an UMNO-led delegation went to London to demand more Malayan Civil Service officers, more Malay police officers, especially above the rank of Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), and improvements in Malay education and other issues. Yet not one mention of Merdeka (Independence) was made. Ironically, it was also in 1951 that Datuk Onn began to realise that the co-operation of non-Malays was vital for obtaining Independence.

As mentioned earlier, Ishak Haji Muhammad had been earlier sent by Dr Burhanuddin to Kuala Lumpur to meet AMCJA representative Gerald de Cruz to initiate arrangements for PUTERA and AMCJA to work hand in hand in our struggle against the British. The resulting draft, The People’s Constitutional Proposals for Malaya, was the document Ishak Haji Muhammad had handed to Dr Burhanuddin and me at the end of our two-day Balik Pulau visit. Ishak said, “This is all I managed to achieve. If something is unsatisfactory, please bring it up at the forthcoming PUTERA-AMCJA meeting.” We promised to go over the draft on our way back to Kuala Lumpur. Ishak left before we could even invite him to a meal. Dr Burhanuddin commented, “Ishak is like that. He is a man of few words.” I suspected a slight tension between Dr Burhanuddin and Ishak then; they could hardly bring themselves to talk to each other.

I was willing to play the role of the mediator. However, there were four things that kept the two connected: the struggle, the party, the Malay race and the nation. Nothing could keep the two men apart with these four elements present.

The clauses proposed by AMCJA and MDU were for:

1. Malaya and Singapore to be united.
2. A popularly elected Federal Consultative Council.
3. Equal citizenship rights to be accorded to all those who considered Malaya their permanent home and the object of their undivided loyalty.
4. The Malay sultans to become constitutional monarchs. The British would no longer have the right to interfere or advise the Malay sultans. The popularly elected Federal Consultative Council would be exclusively responsible for all such advice.
5. Islam and Malay customs would be fully controlled by the Malay people through a special council, not by the sultans.
6. Special privileges for the advancement of Malays in all fields.

Having read the draft, I was certain that if the leftist Malay parties accepted the draft in toto, the parties would lose credibility, influence and support. However, in the draft’s preamble I saw a loophole in the words ‘the Nine Malay States’. I drew Dr Burhanuddin’s attention to the word ‘Malay’. If we ‘used’ this loophole wisely, the Malays would gain substantially.

As I had mentioned, as soon as we arrived in Kuala Lumpur from North Malaya, we looked for lawyer John Thivy at his High Street office. He was MIC’s Secretary-General, while Budd Singh was President; both were socialists. Thivy, being from a notable Kuala Kangsar family, fully understood Malay customs and aspirations. He confided in us that the Indian community shared a common fear with the Malays – that of being drowned by the Chinese. He therefore promised to support all proposals beneficial to the ‘safety’ of the Malays and Indians. I believe Thivy left MIC when it leaned to the right; I am told he is now in Fiji.

The PUTERA-AMCJA Conference began with a speech by Ishak as Chairman. We had to tread carefully; no undesirable elements should come into play lest an ugly impasse rear its head. Nothing untoward must happen to jeopardise our efforts to gain the nation’s Independence. We had to be of one heart; bickering would only contribute to prolonged British rule. Even the normally vocal and aggressive Ahmad Boestamam was extraordinarily impassive. Everyone adopted a passive attitude, a patient disposition, a tolerant demeanour, a peaceful mind and a united stance. Everyone wanted an end to British rule. Everyone craved to live in a free Malaya. Chairman Ishak was extremely careful in choosing his words and ministering his responsibilities. The only one who spoke more shrilly than the rest was Conference Secretary Gerald de Cruz, who was known for his humour and jest. All the six items were endorsed with ease. I noticed that the representatives from the NDYL, MPAJECA and PMFTU hardly uttered a word, just like Sir Cheng Lock Tan.

On behalf of PUTERA, I proposed four more clauses to strengthen our rights, referring to the magic phrase ‘the Nine Malay States’ already in the preamble as proof of PUTERA’s absolute right to claim them:

a. Malay to be Malaya’s national and official language,
b. Malaya’s defence and foreign policies be handled by the Malayan and British Governments with equal responsibility,
c. Melayu (Malay) as the nationality of the people of Malaya,
d. The National Flag would have a red band above a white one.

Clauses (a) and (b) were quickly endorsed with the support of NDYL, MPAJECA and PMFTU representatives who abhorred colonialism. But clause (c) raised the conference room’s temperature. The same degree of unrest was experienced each time the Malays demanded a 60-40 quota in the running of the administration and in employment. Sir Cheng Lock Tan vehemently opposed demand (c) while the three young men looked calm enough. I stood up to voice my disappointment at the opposition, drawing their attention to one question. How would hundreds of thousands of Malays – supporters of MNP, API and AWAS in the kampungs – react, should PUTERA announce that ‘Malayan’ and not ‘Melayu’ would be the term used to describe the people’s nationality? They would probably charge at us like bulls provoked by a red cape. Leftist Malay parties would be ruined, much to the glee of the British and right-wing Malay parties.

The ten principles we discussed came to be known as the Ten People’s Principles, to represent all communities. Since The People’s Constitutional Proposals for Malaya was endorsed and announced to the nation, the PUTERA-AMCJA partnership was reinforced because the masses, not the administrators and the elite, were strongly behind us. The final copy of The People’s Constitutional Proposals for Malaya was sent to the British Government as the voice of the different communities living in Malaya who clamoured for Independence. The people’s response to the constitution was proof of their spirit. But the British appeared unconcerned, refusing to hold discussions with us, or even to read the constitution, as if nothing urgent was happening. We had to think of our next constitutional move. As a result, the hartal (the idea may have been MIC’s as the hartal was a popular weapon among Indian freedom fighters) of October 1947 was organised and received widespread support from the people. Shops and business houses shut their doors. Kuala Lumpur looked deserted.

The PUTERA-AMCJA effort was my third attempt to gain Independence. I had failed in all three but I continued to work towards loosening the colonial grip on Malaya and freeing Malaya from British fetters. With that uppermost in my mind, I decided to continue fighting for the cause with Dr Burhanuddin. As that required my staying on in Kuala Lumpur, I felt that it was time I brought my family (whom I had left for months in Matang) to join me in Kuala Lumpur.