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  • Izzuddin Ramli

A History of the Malay Left: Part Two

The Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Singapore allowed the Malay left to thrive, if only for a brief moment. The road to Independence was long and hard, and the left’s communist connection did not improve their lot.

By Koay Su Lyn, Izzuddin Ramli

Allied Forces liberated Penang at the end of August 1945. Disarmed Japanese troops march through the crowds to the prison camp.
Allied Forces liberated Penang at the end of August 1945. Disarmed Japanese troops march through the crowds to the prison camp.

The fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942 saw the release of Ibrahim Yaacob and the resumption of Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM)’s activities.1 For the sake of political expediency, KMM quickly ingratiated itself with the Japanese authorities. This marriage of convenience was also said to stem out of Ibrahim’s intention to play triple agent.

While the experience boosted the confidence, knowledge and influence of the Malay left, it was not until after the war that they achieved their pinnacle of political success before being demonised on the Malayan political scene.

The Malay Left during the Japanese Occupation

The Japanese policy of giving KMM a free hand during the early days of the Occupation bolstered their social influence among the Malays. For once, the aristocracy and bureaucratic elites fell out of favour; on the other hand, KMM members were bestowed with official roles such as “community leaders”, and were supplied with cars and amenities as community organisers and interpreters. Their influence thrived following mass rallies, with large numbers of Malay youths topping the party’s list. The substitution of existing Malay newspapers with Japanese-propagated ones, established under the influence of Ishak Haji Muhammad, further boosted their stand.

However, fraternising with the enemy was not without any disenchantment. The regime’s brutality and refusal to back Malay independence, contradicting their earlier promise to liberate Malaya, disappointed many – including Mustapha Hussain, KMM’s vice-president, who felt that “Japanese victory was in reality, not their victory”.

Battle of Singapore, February 1942.
Battle of Singapore, February 1942. Victorious Japanese troops march through the city centre. Photo by Penang Monthly.

Lt. J. Blease, RN, of Johnshaven, Montrose, Scotland, inspects surrendered Japanese troops at Penang's seaplane base. He is escorted by surrender liaison officer Lt. Cdr. Nagaki.
Lt. J. Blease, RN, of Johnshaven, Montrose, Scotland, inspects surrendered Japanese troops at Penang's seaplane base. He is escorted by surrender liaison officer Lt. Cdr. Nagaki. Photo by Penang Monthly.

The collaboration persisted for the sake of their fellow Malays and often, personal gain and safety. The marriage was shortlived following the banning of KMM in June 1942, and support evaporated overnight, revealing its widening rifts. Nevertheless, KMM’s success in instilling semangat perjuangan (“fighting spirit”) among Malay youths during their brief stint enabled the movement to sustain itself under the umbrella of the Giyu Gun or Pembela Tanah Air (Peta), a Malay volunteer army formed in December 1943 and led by Ibrahim himself.

The arrival of the Kesatuan Rakyat Indonesia Semenanjung (KRIS) in June 1945 gave KMM a fighting chance. The former sought to promote Malay-Indonesian patriotism and frame a constitution for an independent Malaya and Indonesia, to be revealed in conjunction with the Indonesian Declaration of Independence in August.

Unfortunately, all was crushed by Japan’s surrender and the proclamation of a republic of Indonesia without Malaya and Borneo. The British return crippled the left, and leaders of KRIS and Peta were arrested. Doubtful of his future, Ibrahim left for Indonesia, leaving the baton to a new crop of leftists who restructured their strategy towards a new Malaya.

From KMM to PKMM

The Malayan Spring witnessed a new dawn for the Malay left where ideas and activities were reflected unconventionally with prewar restrictions on expression, assembly and association lifted and the Indonesian Revolution in full swing. Decolonisation was the trend and the left saw another golden opportunity to revive their struggle towards a Republik Indonesia Raya under the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), led by Mokhtaruddin Lasso, former Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) recruit and Malayan Communist Party (MCP) leader; and renowned scholar and political activist, Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy.

PKMM was not communist and far more inclusive than its predecessor, embracing Malays from all social backgrounds and classes, binding them under the spirit of nationalism. This new culture took root and while many PKMM members perceived the communists as harbouring un-Islamic elements, they also recognised MCP members such as Abdullah CD, Musa Ahmad and Dahari Ali as influential mass organisers.

The liberal atmosphere also permitted the revival of new periodicals such as Suara Rakyat, crucial in stirring the sentiments of the Malays. Soon, other pro-PKMM publications such as Kenchana, Plopor and Utusan Melayu under Yusof Ishak became purveyors of radical ideas. Not only were ideas of freedom and unity towards independence articulated, but concepts forbidden during the war such as the role of youths and mass support for Malay rights could be restored.

Javanese revolutionaries fighting for independence.
Javanese revolutionaries fighting for independence. Photo by Penang Monthly.

Support was immense from the working classes and peasantry, with Malay youths flooding the party’s youth wing, the Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) led by Ahmad Boestamam, and the women’s wing, Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS) by Aishah Ghani and later, Samsiah Fakeh. It also increased its influence by capitalising on trade unions via representation in the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) and the Barisan Tani Se-Melaya (Batas). Soon, an ideological confrontation was inevitable with Umno, campaigning for a Federation of Malaya in lieu of the Malayan Union.

The left saw the Union as a vehicle towards the Melayu-Raya dream. Declaring the monarchy’s irrelevance, PKMM was convinced of a nationwide revolution once all the Malay states were unified under a single entity of an independent Malaya, thus rendering a merger with Indonesia possible. The showdown came in June 1946 when PKMM decided against joining Umno. However, Umno won the day with the British, and the Union was withdrawn.

The Beginning of the End

While PKMM still commanded mass support, discord entailed between Burhanuddin and Boestamam, ending in the latter’s resignation in December 1946. This minor setback did not hinder subsequent unity. Dissatisfied with its exclusion from the Working Committee and Consultative Committee in drafting the Federation’s constitution, PKMM formed a coalition of Malay left-wing parties known as Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (Putera) in February 1947. Joining forces with the non-Malay All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA), mass rallies were held, stirring public opposition against the Working Committee’s constitutional proposals.

Their temporal success was highlighted by the drafting of the radical People’s Constitutional Proposals. Its failure to garner concessions from the authorities led to mass agitation with a one-day nationwide strike, the Hartal, in October 1947, with businesses coming to a standstill and all places of amusement being closed.

Nevertheless, the coalition’s increasing demands for democratic reforms and immediate independence provoked the authorities to stigmatise it as a “communist invention”. While most of the Malay left were never communists, but were instead nationalists with radical socialist views, the increasing Cold War paranoia blurred this crucial distinction in favour of the Umno elites. While the left’s public image suffered under British propaganda, the rise in labour strikes, mass demonstrations and proliferation of communist propaganda and anti-government activities attributed to the revival of the Trade Union Ordinance which crippled most labour unions. Later, the Malayan Emergency of 1948 dashed the hopes of the leftist movement altogether.

With one-third of core PKMM, API, AWAS and leftist members incarcerated, many avoided political activities. Given the bleak future and disappointments within, some crossed over to Umno instead, such as Mustapha Hussain who contested against Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1951, and Aishah Ghani, who became a supreme council member and led their women’s wing. Minorities such as Rashid Maidin and Abdullah CD continued the anti- British struggle in the jungle with the MCP. Demonised as the communist bogeyman, the fragmented left gradually lost their influence as Umno gained traction among the Malays.


The Partai Rakyat Malaya (PRM) marked the left’s final comeback. Led by Ishak and the released Boestaman, the party advocated a strand of Indonesian socialism which promoted the welfare and interests of the poor. Burhanuddin, in fact, played an instrumental role in its establishment, although given his pro-Islamic views, he later joined the Pan Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP). Given the lack of proper outreach to the non-Malays, PRM gained little attention and made few inroads until its coalition with the Labour Party of Malaya.

Unfortunately, all was not to last. A revolt by A.M Azahari, a PRM activist in Brunei, soon implicated the party in militant activities. A massive crackdown followed and Burhanuddin, Boestamam and other party associates endured another round of incarceration that lasted throughout the Indonesian Confrontation. Weakened by the crackdown, the Confrontation terminated their Melayu-Raya dream.32 Continued government suppression and demonization of their “militant communism” soon nailed the coffin shut.

As leftist sentiments continue to provoke subversive communist-inspired impressions, the Malay left still faces various political stigmatisation, although their struggle today is no longer anticolonial but one for social justice. While such a calling is still very much manifested in the Malaysian political scene, whether the Malay left has a chance of making a comeback remains to be seen.

*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, September 2017.


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