Dato’ Onn Jaafar – the man who defined “Malay”


I have been re-reading “Reflections of Pre-independence Malaya” by Dato’ Mohamed Abid (Pelanduk Publications). It is a book telling the author’s personal experiences with Dato’ Onn Jaafar, the founder of Persatuan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu (UMNO – United Malays National Organisation) and reproducing many of Dato’ Onn’s pre-independence speeches.

Here is the man who, according to his nephew, Professor Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, gave the definition of “Melayu” in the Federation of Malaya Agreement 1948. The same definition is then adopted in our Federation Constitution (article 160) which stands till to date. Here is also the man who requested the good Professor to draw up the UMNO logo. That logo was apparently adopted at a meeting attended by, among others, Dato’ PanglimaBukit Gantang, Dato’ Zainal Abidin Abas, Colonel Musa, who was also known as Pak Lomak, who was the originator of the Malay ghazal. That logo too stands as UMNO logo till to date.

Perhaps Dato’ Onn’s humility and his tireless fight for freedom and independence could be gleaned from the advice that he gave the author when the latter was a teenager. He said the “Malays should never “sembah” anyone except God.” And when somebody from a higher social order meets with somebody from a lower social order, the latter should not be ignored.

He did not only say that but he actually practised what he said. In 1927, Dato’ Onn was told to leave Johor by HRH the Sultan for criticising the Sultan. As a result he spent almost 9 years in exile. On this, Dato’ Onn said:

“I opposed my own Ruler because his actions towards his subjects, and as a result, I was dismissed from government service. Later, because of my subsequent opposition to the Ruler for his injustice towards his subjects, I was once again removed from my government and was banished from the State of Johor…. Are such actions the actions of one chasing after wealth and grandeur for himself?”

In 1936, he was recalled to Johor by HRH Sultan Ibrahim. He did come back. However, after the war, when he was the Chief Minister of Johor and the drive for independence was taking shape, HRH the Sultan gave him an ultimatum. He was told to choose whether to remain as the CM or accept the post of UMNO President.

Dato’ Onn resigned as CM of Johor and took the position of UMNO President. He then moved to Kuala Lumpur, living in a single story house at Stonor Drive. Even though he was appointed to a post which was equivalent to the current Home Minister by the British Government and the country was in the middle of an emergency, he did not have any police protection. He said “even if you have many bodyguards, when it is time to go, you will go!”

He was clear in his direction. His understanding and appreciation of the duties and responsibilities that came with his position as a leader would put many  leaders and civil servants to shame. On the UMNO Presidency, which he held from the formation of UMNO in May 1946, he said:

“The post of President of UMNO is not one that I desire, it is one entrusted to me by the representatives. I do not wish for this or that. I was willing to shoulder the responsibility because I was aware of my responsibility, as long as the Malay people and the members of UMNO placed their trust in me.”

Again, Dato’ Onn practised what he said. In 1950, when accusations were made that he was not doing enough for the party and the Malays, he willingly resigned from the post. The post of UMNO Presidency, to him, is not one which is to be cavorted and held on, especially when one is not wanted. He said:

“Had I known that there were some from amongst the UMNO members and the Malay people, who did not have faith in me, it would have been appropriate for me to resign, in order that the post be held by one more qualified and skilled…”

After resigning, he went back to Johor. However, appeals were made for him to retract his resignation. Thousands of UMNO members marched to his house. Finally, on 27.8.1950, he was once again elected as the President of UMNO.

Clearest in his mind was the concept of fiduciary duties owed by the people in power. And the duties, in his mind, are owed to the people of the nation as a whole, and not to any particular race or people. To him a Minister is subject always to the law. And he or she must discharge his responsibilities solely for the benefit of the country and the people. He said: