Mustapha Hussain: Malay Nationalism Before UMNO

“I cried along with them as memories of my bitter and gruelling experiences came flooding back,” he recalls. “Involved in World War II as a Malay Fifth Columnist leader; detained in several Police lock-ups and prisons; taunted and jeered by Malays who saw me hawking food on the roadside; humiliated by people who slammed their doors in my face; asked to leave my rented cubicle in the middle of the night and even labelled as the Malay who ‘brought’ the Japanese into Malaya.”


Raja Petra Kamarudin


This abridged and edited translation of Mustapha Hussain’s memoirs will appear two decades after his passing. This would not have been possible if not for the initial translation effort by his devoted daughter, Insun Sony.

I have edited this translation very heavily, partly to reduce redundancies, and also to make clearer some historical and cultural references that may not be immediately obvious to many English language readers. Clarissa Koh kindly checked this edited translation. If not for Insun’s initiative and Clarissa’s voluntary efforts, this translation would not have been prepared for publication.

Jomo K. S.
University of Malaya

Kuala Lumpur
October 2003


Mustapha Hussain’s memoirs present an interesting insight into a sharp, sensitive mind who turned to ethno-nationalism and later struggled for moral integrity, justice and recognition.

Perak-born Mustapha, a cousin of the first President of Singapore, Yusof Ishak, was an armchair, pipe-smoking, leftwing intellectual who taught at the Serdang Agricultural College before the war, but who fell on hard times after the war.

He loved to ride a fast motorcycle. He was an avid reader and a member of the (British) Left Book Club. He might have gone through life as a happy-go-lucky fellow if he had not been discriminated against in the colonial civil service by white Europeans.

Life for him would have remained idyllic, being almost the equal of an Englishman, teaching, reading and doing research, and ‘dressing and behaving like a white man’ on pay-days. But racial discrimination made him a bitter diehard Malay nationalist. Nationalist anger consumed his soul.

He owed his English education to his father, a land surveyor. His socialism he attributed to a few European teachers and to books by Gandhi, Nehru, Edgar Snow and other leftwing writers.

He married Mariah binti Haji Abdul Hamid (formerly Dorothy Aida Fenner) in 1934. She was only 14, he 25. Once the children came, he was anxious to further his (academic) career, but the lack of job promotions unsettled him.

He joined other young disillusioned Malay College graduates like Ishak Haji Muhammad and Ibrahim Yaacob, all angry young men like him imbued with nationalist ideals, to form the Young Malay Union (Kesatuan Melayu Muda) in 1938. He became its vice-president.

“KMM was founded by a group of radical left nationalists in their twenties. Influenced by world history in general, and political events in Turkey in particular, they desired a political body similar to the Young Turks,” he recalls.  “One bone of contention was (the) British policy of allowing tens of thousands of ‘others’ into Malaya.”

But he little realized what trouble the KMM would get him into. For, without consulting him or the other KMM leaders, its president Ibrahim Yaacob had contacted the Japanese through their Consul-General in Singapore, Ken Tsurumi. For large sums of money, Ibrahim committed KMM members to serve as espionage agents and guides to assist an invading Japanese army in Malaya.

The Japanese Army attacked Kota Bharu in December 1941. British military intelligence belatedly intercepted a Japanese radio broadcast which announced that a Malay fifth column organization KAME (meaning ‘tortoise’ in Japanese) would assist the invading Japanese Army.

The name sounded too similar to the KMM. Without wasting any time, the British police rounded up over 100 KMM leaders and members in all parts of the country, including Ibrahim Yaacob and Ishak Haji Muhammad, who were detained and sent to Changi Jail in Singapore.

Mustapha, however, was in the Kuala Lumpur Hospital for treatment of a nervous disorder. Unaware that there was a warrant of arrest for him, he had discharged himself, gone back to the Agricultural College to collect his belongings, and left with his family for his father’s village in Matang, Perak, to recuperate. Three days later, the war began.

After the fall of Taiping, Japanese troops, accompanied by KMM members, entered his village looking for him. They asked him to come with them. “I was ‘invited’ to attend a crucial meeting in Taiping, after which I would be sent back to Matang (but this turned out to be false),” says Mustapha.

“How could I say no. I remember a Malay adage: jika tiada senapang, lebih baik beri jalan lapang, or ‘if one has no guns, it is best to give way.’ I tried to explain my legs were weak from a nervous disorder but a Japanese officer snapped, ‘Never mind! Four Japanese soldiers can carry you on a chair!’”

Thus, Mustapha’s forced collaboration with the Japanese began. Once he realized that he had no alternative, he began to cooperate. He used his influence with the Japanese to help family, friends, and any Malay in trouble, including captured Malay soldiers who had fought on the British side. This was what he did all along the way down to Singapore where the Japanese troops took him.

Mustapha’s candid memoirs confirm why memory of the war in multi-racial Malaya is so ethnically divisive and sensitive. Recalling Malay wartime roles and experiences tries to play down what he calls ‘collaboration’, conscious of the Japanese atrocities and massacres of the Chinese community or the role of anti-Japanese Chinese guerrillas.

Even before his death in 1987, his memories had been badly scarred by his deep sense of anguish, disillusionment, shame and betrayal brought on by the nightmare of ‘collaboration’.

With no reconciliation between him and Ibrahim Yaacob when the latter returned to Malaysia for a brief visit before his death in Jakarta in 1979, Mustapha did not forget or forgive the ‘wrongs’ done to him and others.

Mustapha, Ishak Haji Muhammad and others accused Ibrahim of not only abdicating his leadership and abandoning his supporters, but also of betraying their struggle in Indonesia for his own self-interest. In Mustapha’s memoirs, he appears as a Machiavellian manipulator, a grasping, corrupt, self-seeking, egocentric personality.

In exile in Indonesia, he became a supporter of President Sukarno, got involved in Indonesian politics, and later amassed a great fortune as a banker. When he died in 1979, he was honoured by Indonesia with burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery in Kalibata.

During the period of Indonesia’s konfrontasi against Malaysia, the UMNO newspaper Malaya Merdeka, of March 1963, described him as a “Malay coward and traitor who managed to fool many Indonesian leaders.”

Unlike Ibrahim who escaped to Indonesia, Mustapha was arrested and detained twice by the British authorities on charges of collaboration with the Japanese. He was only released after petitions were made to the British authorities by former members of the Malay Regiment, whose lives he had saved from the Japanese.

Because of the trauma he went through at the end of the war, Mustapha suffered a nervous breakdown. He endured poverty and ostracism. He was not re-employed into the civil service. To fend for himself and his family, he worked as a farmer, a fruit seller, a noodles hawker, a printer and an insurance agent.

His struggles to defend himself and clear his name engaged much of the rest of his life. Before his death, he was conferred a state award by the Sultan of Perak and received some monetary compensation in lieu of his pension from the Government, due to the intervention of a former Federal Minister.

A heavy tinge of bitterness, therefore, colours much of his memoirs.

Politically isolated as leftwing, Mustapha and his KMM compatriots were initially opposed to UMNO, but when all political channels were closed with the outbreak of the communist insurgency in 1948, many of them joined UMNO.

In what seems like a remarkable political comeback in 1951, his name resurfaced in the crisis-ridden UMNO General Assembly after Datuk Onn Jaafar had resigned as president on the grounds of the party’s refusal to open its doors to non-Malays.

Mustapha’s standing was so strong that he was nominated to stand against Tunku Abdul Rahman and Datuk (later Tun) Abdul Razak for the posts of UMNO president and deputy president respectively. But he lost to both these rivals by one vote each time.

These were contests he entered to please his old leftwing compatriots who were keen to capture UMNO. His energies were almost spent. Even had he won, Mustapha would not have lasted long in his post, given his state of health.

These memoirs make enthralling reading and were dutifully compiled and completed by his daughter Insun after his death on 15 January 1987. Throughout the memoirs, Mustapha’s voice cries out incessantly for justice and for recognition as a Malay nationalist.

In 1974, he had narrated his political struggles to a predominantly student audience at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, then in Kuala Lumpur. The encounter was an emotional experience for both Mustapha and the audience.

“I cried along with them as memories of my bitter and gruelling experiences came flooding back,” he recalls. “Involved in World War II as a Malay Fifth Columnist leader; detained in several Police lock-ups and prisons; taunted and jeered by Malays who saw me hawking food on the roadside; humiliated by people who slammed their doors in my face; asked to leave my rented cubicle in the middle of the night and even labelled as the Malay who ‘brought’ the Japanese into Malaya.”

“I left them with a tremendous sense of mental and emotional fulfilment. I had sown in these educated young souls the urge to struggle for justice.”

In writing these memoirs, Mustapha was clearly able to release and assuage the cries of his own tormented soul for justice and recognition.

Cheah Boon Kheng

Translated by Insun Mustapha
Edited by Jomo K. S.

Publisher: Utusan Publications & Distributors Sdn Bhd
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Foreign Distributor: Singapore University Press Pte Ltd