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Tengku Ismail and His ‘Tuan British’

Tengku Ismail and His ‘Tuan British’.

By Farish A. Noor.

In a country like Malaysia where politicians and political parties
suffer from a myriad of hang-ups about the past, it is easy to
understand how and why so many political parties claim that they have
been part of the national struggle for independence and development all
the time. Just a few months ago we were treated to yet another open
discursive conflict between the ruling conservative parties and the
Islamic opposition party over the thorny and embarrassing question of
which side was the first to launch the campaign for independence.

In the midst of this hullabaloo and furore, one only hopes that the
politicians themselves would turn to the history books for a while.
There they will come face to face with some painful realities that some
of them may find difficult to stomach. For like it or not, the fact
remains that the political parties and organisations that led the way in
the struggle for independence in Malaya happened to come from the
(secular) Left. Among the first political parties to be formed in the
country (both legally and illegally) were the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu
Malaya (PKMM) and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). These parties had
their origins in other informal activist groups like the Kesatuan Melayu
Muda (KMM) and the various trade unions and workers movements that
sprang up during the 1930s.

The arriviste conservative parties that came on the scene later were not
only much smaller and loosely organised, many of them were in fact led
by the local royalty and aristocratic elite who were themselves very
much beholden to the British colonial government.

The fact that many of the local Malay elite were working hand in glove
with the British should not come as a surprise to us. It must be
remembered that under British rule, the self-serving feudal political
culture of the Malay royalty and aristocracy was allowed to develop and
prosper in many ways. In 1915, for instance, the Majlis Ugama Kelantan
(Kelantan Board of Religious Affairs) was formed in the Sultanate of
Kelantan. It came into being thanks to the initiative of the
conservative Kelantanese elite led by the Majlis Ugama’s president, Haji
Nik Mahmud who wished to gain some control over religious affairs in the
state. But dominated as it was by the Kelantanese elite, the Majlis
Ugama Kelantan soon became a tool for aristocratic patronage and
dominance. It focused its attention mostly on tax and revenue
collection, via zakat contributions.

The Majlis Ugama Kelantan fulfilled some of its traditional duties as
patron and benefactor to Muslim concerns (like building mosques, suraus
and religious schools), but its real aim was the perpetuation and
reproduction of aristocratic power. It built a school for the (male)
children of the Kelantanese elite, based on the model of British
colonial schools. This was so that the children of the elite could later
proceed to British colonial schools and then enter the British colonial
civil service. The dominance of the Majlis Ugama was resented by
ordinary Kelantanese, who began to support the Ulama and the radical
nationalists instead. Similar attempts at institutional reform in the
other Malay kingdoms like Trengganu and Johor only ended up serving the
interests of the ruling elite.

In both British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, the conservative
Islamists and traditionalist elite proved to be useful to the colonial
regimes. It was not only the Malay Sultans and the Indonesian Priyahi
nobles who lent their support to the colonial establishment: the
Islamists of the conservative-traditionalist camp did so as well. The
Nahdatul Ulama of the East Indies, for instance, had gone as far as
proclaiming the Dutch colony as part of Dar’ul Islam, on the grounds
that the welfare of the Indonesian Muslims was catered for and they were
being ministered by (Dutch-approved) Ulama and Penghulus who enforced
the Shariah. While the traditional Malay Ulama of British Malaya never
went as far in their support of the British colonial government, they
did play an active role in trying to curb the critiques that were
increasingly being directed towards the traditional feudal elite by the
radical vernacular Malay press.

In both of these colonies, the forces of conservative and traditional
Islam provided additional bulwarks for the colonial governments against
the growing tide of anti-colonial nationalism that was slowly developing
among the radical vernacular intelligentsia. The Malay and Indonesian
aristocratic elite’s support for the colonial powers were recorded on
many an occasion. In 1939 the various conservative and traditionalist
Malay organisations and movements held their first annual nation-wide
Congress in Kuala Lumpur. The congress was chaired by the conservative
Malay leader Tengku Ismail bin Tengku Muhammad Yasis himself (who was on
the editorial board of the Malay newspaper Majlis). At one point Tengku
Ismail spoke to the assembled audience thus:

‘Pemerintah Inggeris itu adalah seumpama air. Orang2 tidak mengambil
berat akan air kerana dimana2 ada air, tetapi kalau seorang sampai ke
suatu padang pasir, air tidak ada, maka baharulah orang mengerti
bagaimana baiknya, pentingnya dan mustahaknya air. Begitulah pemerintah
Inggeris itu, andai kata kalau dia pergi dari kita, barulah kita rasa
bagaimana baiknya pemerintah Inggeris itu kepada bangsa kita’.

Even by the standards set by the other anglophiles and sycophants of the
conservative camp, Tengku Ismail’s laudatory paean to the virtues of his
colonial masters must have staggered some of the members of the
audience. The radical Malay nationalist Ibrahim Yaakob who was also
present at the gathering as an observer noted that at least a couple of
the leaders of the Malay leftist camp were so staggered by Tengku
Ismail’s shameless toadying that they were reduced to silence for once.

Like their Indonesian counterparts, the conservative Malay elite made up
of aristocrats and members of the royal families such as Tengku Ismail
were quite open about their support of the British colonial government
at the time. The Malay organisations that had sprung up between 1938 and
1939 were all led by conservative members of the traditional ruling
elite who were themselves wary of the growing influence of Communism,
Socialism and Islamic reformism within their midst. Worse still was the
prospect of being abandoned by the British colonial rulers in the event
of war breaking out and Britain being defeated by Japan.

At the 1939 Congress the Persatuan Melayu Selangor (PMS- Selangor Malays
Organisation) led by Tengku Ismail made it clear that they were fully
behind the imperial government of Britain in the event of war breaking
out in the Pacific. When the British colonial government began rounding
up radical Malay activists like Ibrahim Yaakob prior to the Japanese
invasion of Malaya, hardly a word of protest was uttered by the
conservative nationalists. In fact, they expressed their determination
to support the British even stronger: Apart from agreeing to contribute
to the ‘Lady Thomas Patriotic Fund’, the PMS also suggested that a
‘Spitfire fund’ be established to help Britain pay for more fighter
planes in order to help defend the mother-country of the Commonwealth.
The other conservative Malay organisations agreed with this proposal,
but their efforts came to naught as the Japanese blitzkrieg across
Southeast Asia came so fast that the only planes that were airborne in
time were the Japanese Zeros.

The big break for the Malay conservative elite came in the post-war
years when a state of national Emergency was declared in the country
between 1948 to 1960. It was during this time that the PKMM, the Malayan
Communist Party and country’s first Islamic party the Hizbul Muslimin
were effectively wiped out, thus opening the way for the rise of UMNO
and the MCA. Those conservative leaders who rule the roost should always
be reminded of the simple fact that their own position and standing in
the country today is due to a number of variables that were outside
their control. Had the war ended a different way, or had the radical
nationalists been given a chance to defend themselves against the
security apparatus of the British colonial government, Malaysia’s
history might have been more than a bit different than what we know


Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights
activist. He is currently researching the topic of Islamist political
movements in Southeast Asia, and writing a book on the Malaysian Islamic
party, PAS.  ‘The Other Malaysia’ tries to unearth and bring to the fore
aspects of Malaysia’s past and present which have been relegated to the
margins of public discourse and collective memory. It hopes to open our
eyes to the fact that the realities of today are not always fixed,
permanent and irrevocable. There will always be an ‘Other’ Malaysia that
serves as an alternative to the present.

This article appeared on Malaysiakini on 27 May 2000

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Posted by on October 25, 2006 in kemerdekaan