Hishamuddin Haji Yahaya,
31st August 2102
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MERDEKA: Can UMNO’s claim that they fought for the country’s independence stand the test of time?
The veracity of this claim is now shrouded with doubt.
A book in bahasa, entitled Anak Merdeka, written by Haji Salleh Majid and published in 1991, exposed the fallacy of this claim. The author was no politician but an ordinary man who lived to witness the political development of this country evolving from the 1940s to the day of Merdeka.
Early attempts to gain independence
Early attempts to achieve independence were mostly unrecorded. For example, in the early 1940s and before the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Ishak Haji Mohammed (commonly known as Pak Sako), together with an Indonesian delegation, surreptitiously went to Japan soliciting Japanese help to fight for the independence of their respective countries. This was followed by Soekarno meeting Dr Burhanuddin Al-Helmy (right) to plan strategies for both countries’ independence. Though both attempts failed for various reasons, the seeds of independence had been sowed long before the existence of UMNO.
Ishak Haji Mohamad’s secret trip to Japan was risky business, inviting prosecution for treason, punishable by death, but such was the dexterity of this pure nationalist. Though he was in the colonial civil service at that time, his patriotism and love for the country was never sacrificed to the colonial masters he served. In fact it was while in Japan that the name Sako was begotten. The Japanese found it difficult to spell and pronounce his name Ishak, so they called him Isako. Later it became his pen name, Pak Sako.
The independence of Indonesia on 17 August 1945 triggered fire in the hearts of Malays of Indonesian descent. After all, Indonesia was the “motherland”, separated only by the narrow Straits of Malacca. Both were Malay lands; and if one could gain independence, why not the other? Furthermore, an independent Indonesia could provide moral and material help to Malays in the struggle for independence. Thus, begun the dawn of Merdeka.
Formation of PKMM
It was not until early 1946 that Malaya’s first independent movement was formed. It was a political party called Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM). Its founder members were Malays of Indonesian descent, notable among them were Ahmad Boestamam and Musa Ahmad. The party published its first newspaper called Suara Rakayt at Hale Street, Ipoh. The contents were one hundred per cent political. In no time, PKMM opened branches all over the country with its headquarters at 2 Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman) Kuala Lumpur. It did not take long for Pak Sako and Dr Burhanuddin Al-Helmy to join the party.
“Merdeka!” was the greeting of party members whenever they met. It was said in a spirited voice with clenched fist brought to the chest. Anytime and anywhere they met, the greeting was “Merdeka!”
Formation of UMNO
The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was formed in June 1946, six months after the formation of PKMM. It was established with the sole objective of opposing the proposed Malayan Union which relegated the powers of the Malayan Rulers to the British Residents. UMNO was not an independence movement. In fact, it vehemently opposed independence as the leaders were mostly colonial civil servants who had sold their lives and soul to their colonial masters. Not only was UMNO opposed to independence, the word “Merdeka”was taboo to them. UMNO’s greeting was “hidup Melayu!”
Pic: UMNO's formation at Istana Johor, 1946
The other reason UMNO opposed independence was that the Malays were poor and uneducated; left to themselves, Malaya would be a failed state.
The PKMM, on the other hand, thought otherwise. The party wanted independence first; then there would be ample opportunity to educate the Malays as the country was rich in natural resources, and it would not be a failed state. These opposing positions divided the two parties and led to enmity.
PKMM and the labour movement
Enhanced by its committed leaders, the PKMM was a symbol of solidarity. The spirit within party members raged like wildfire. Branches and bureaus were established. Apart from the youth and women’s wings, labour, agriculture and religious bureaus were established. The labour bureau was the most active and most successful political agitator. Through it, the PKMM penetrated the Malayan labour movement, which was very responsive to the former’s presence as the living conditions of the labourers at that time were deplorable. In fact, the presence of the PKMM was welcomed and long awaited.
Incidentally, the Malayan labour movement had affiliated itself with the world labour movement, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), whose headquarters was in Paris, and not with the American-controlled International Labour Organisation (ILO), whose headquarters was in New York. The WFTU was leftist inclined, and with the Malayan labour movement affiliated to it, the PKMM’s penetration into the movement heightened British suspicion of the party.
Between 1946-1948, the labour movement was so active (except in Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah) that intermitternt strikes almost crippled the rubber and tin industries. The port workers of Singapore too joined in the strikes, crippling Malaya’s major port.
As expected, the British operative policy of divide and rule was immediately put into action. While pretending to acknowledge the labourers’ plight, the PKMM was declared illegal and its leaders incarcerated.
The organised strikes did not ease with the banning of the PKMM. Day by day, British economic interests were in jeopardy. The rubber and tin industries, the mainstay of the British economy, faced imminent paralysis. By this time the colonial government had sent a loud and clear message to Whitehall. By this time, Whitehall realised that the independence of India and Indonesia had given impetus to Malaya to free itself from the shackles of colonial rule. This aspiration could no longer be contained and sooner or later Malaya had to be given its independence.
Independence on a silver platter
The British had learnt that independence achieved through war not only resulted in the loss of life and property, but left a grudge within the beneficiary state, resulting in the nationalisation of the colonialists’ assets. This meant the British could lose everything. So the only option was for a negotiated independence. The question then was who would be the British protege so that their assets would be fully protected and the expatriates could hold on to their jobs a little longer.
Pic: Tunku Abdul Rahman signing the independence agreement in London, 1956
With PKMM banned and its leaders incarcerated, the only organised movement that dominated the political scene then was UMNO, which was seen as a safe bet. Firstly, most of their leaders were British educated and had embraced British culture and values ever since their high school days in Britain or at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar. Secondly, they were mostly the sons of the Malay rulers and chieftains who had been close to the British. These people had regarded the British as their icons and mentors and viewed them as their savoir.
UMNO, the opportunist
UMNO was quick to seize the opportunity. With its adversary, the PKMM banned and driven into oblivion, UMNO took over where the PKMM had left off. From an anti-Malayan Union organi-sation, it suddenly assumed the role of a force fighting for independence. The British were very comfortable with UMNO’s new role, and negotiations for independence took off.
The negotiations that followed were mainly technical and focussed on two major issues: to prepare the country’s constitution and to agree on the date of the declaration of independence. A body was formed, headed by Lord Reid, to look into a constitution and the date of independence was agreed as 31 August 1957. For political exigency, UMNO would have to forge an alliance with the ethnic Chinese and Indian political parties, and hence “Perikatan” (Alliance) was formed.
Pending full independence, Malaya was ruled by the Federal Legislative Council consisting of appointed members representing the various races and professions. With independence granted on a silver platter, the British were successful in retaining the entire system and had their assets protected. For UMNO and the Alliance, the declaration of independence was a jubilant moment as it was achieved without shedding a drop of blood.
Declaration of independence
On 31 August 1957, Malaya was re-reborn. As the clock struck midnight, the Union Jack was lowered and the new Malayan flag was hoisted in front of the clock tower opposite the Selangor Padang. The shouts of “Merdeka!” — no less than seven times — reverberated and resounded in the air. The shouts were led by Tuanku Abdul Rahman, who stood on a rostrum surrounded by his Cabinet Ministers, some of whom, I observed, were obviously drunk.
The official declaration of independence was held at Stadium Merdeka the next morning, attended by all the Malay Rulers, the British High Commissioner and the representatives of the Queen (Duke of Gloucester). I was there with my father and sibling “representing” Temerloh, Pahang.
Thus, Malaya was born as an independent state, a member of the British Commonwealth and member of the United Nations. It was the culmination of a long and difficult struggle, an achievement won not by the educated class, but by labourers, port workers and others — the downtrodden — whose existence we hardly knew.
They were the real fighters of Merdeka, whose actions created a landscape for independence. Those were the people who laboured endlessly to enrich the colonial masters in return for a pittance and who now lay in the graves unknown and forgotten.
They were Malays, Indians, Chinese and others and they were certainly not UMNO members. They were the unsung heroes who sacrificed their lives and freedom for future generations, but who only found their own freedom in the silence of their graves. It is those people who deserve to be commemorated on 31 August every year and not “the patriots” who hoisted the jalur gemilang on the roofs of mansions at the prestigious addresses of Kuala Lumpur or those who flew the jalur gemilang on the roofs of their flashy cars.
To the real patriots and the fighters of independence, we offer them our unreserved salute. As for UMNO, we only have this to say: “Lembu punya susu, sapi dapat nama.”
* The writer, a lawyer, is former MP for Temerloh, Pahang, and the former managing director of Harakah. This article appeared on Aliran monthly.