Lest we forget
By MARTIN VENGADESAN
The period right after the war, when the fires of patriotism were burning bright, was one of the most vibrant, exciting times in this nation’s history. Yet, it remains overshadowed and ignored by most people, especially those of the younger generation.
A new filmmaker aims to change that by documenting the memories of men who actually lived through those challenging years.
OUR nation’s independence was declared 50 years ago this week when our much-loved first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman shouted “Merdeka” seven times at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur.
But Merdeka is not about a single moment that we can admire from a distance, no matter how iconic and inspirational that moment was.
The struggle for independence was a highly complicated process welding together many disparate elements that led to the creation of a modern Malaysia few would have envisaged half a century ago.
While some elements of the struggle – the Japanese Occupation during World War II and the insurgency of the Communist Party of Malaya, for example – are known to most Malaysians, many tales have slipped under the radar.
It was a time of shifting alliances that saw many great leaders fight for their own vision of independence at a time nobody could have foreseen what Malaysia would be, recalls former Malaysian Trade Union Congress vice-president K. George.
“Ultimately it was to be Tunku’s vision that shaped Malaya’s early path, but there were many capable and visionary leaders and even more courageous ‘ordinary’ Malaysians who devoted their whole lives to fighting for independence. That must not be forgotten.”
One young man is working to ensure at least some of these people and their visions aren’t forgotten.
Filmmaker Fahmi Reza may not even have hit 30 yet but he is fascinated by the unpredictable, dangerous period that preceded our nation’s independence. Despite not formally studying history, he has always devoured books that detail the struggles of our forefathers.
“I feel that to understand the present, you have to study the past. I am particularly interested in the history of the Malaysian progressive movement because it was very vibrant, yet it does not have much of an influence on current generations. And that’s a great pity.”
The freelance graphic designer has gone through a great deal of trouble to put together a documentary about events that occurred in the period after the Japanese surrendered on Aug 15, 1945, and before the Emergency that was declared by the British on June 18, 1948, in their effort to fight the Communist threat.
Fahmi’s passion for history stood him in good stead because making this documentary involved lots of travelling and research just to speak to a group of octogenarians about events and organisations that existed in the distant past.
When I catch up with him at KL’s latest hip arts spot, the Central Market Annexe, he sits me down to earnestly share his vision of Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka, the documentary he’s almost finished making with a grant he received from Komas (Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat). (See 'Funding new voices' left.)
He feels that most people would now be aware of the events of the 1950s when Umno’s first president, Onn Jaafar, left the party to create the multi-racial Independence of Malaya Party, and how Tunku took over the leadership of Umno, forged an alliance with, first, the MCA and then MIC.
From that, the Alliance Party emerged and went on to win the crucial 1955 general elections that gave it the authority to negotiate terms of independence with the British.
“But not much attention is paid to the late 1940s, which was a fascinating, exciting time in our nation’s history that laid the groundwork for the independence that arrived 10 years later.
“It was a period of intense political activity, in the vacuum after the Japanese surrender, which led to independence being declared in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam. The British rushed back to try and regain their pre-war position, but leaders in Malaya and Singapore built a united front that threatened them.”
It was an impressive show of unity, indeed. Putera-AMJCA (Pusat Tenaga Rakyat-All Malayan Council of Joint Action) was an alliance of Malay nationalist groups influenced by Indonesian political firebrand Sukarno, front parties of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), trade unions and even the fledgling MIC and future MCA leader Tun Tan Cheng Lock.
The documentary focuses on the aspirations of that period, which peaked with the publication of a People’s Constitution drafted by Putera-AMJCA and a general strike called on Oct 20, 1947.
These two moments “showed the British that the people of Malaya and Singapore could be united in their desire for independence. It was a really exciting time,” enthuses Fahmi.
“Looking back at the proposed constitution for a secular, multi-racial nation, I’m surprised at how progressive the thinking was.”
For instance, Fahmi says it pushed for equal citizenship rights for all who considered Malaya their permanent home, regardless of race or place of birth. Another example of progressive thinking for those times was the provision for a Council of Races comprising two representatives of every race, including minorities, to ensure laws did not discriminate.
Given that 60 years have passed since all these events, a vast majority of the people involved have died. Still, Fahmi managed to interview a number of veterans from organisations that belonged to the Putera-AMJCA coalition.
He tapped the memories of significant people like Lim Kean Chye, founder member of the Malayan Democratic Union; Hashim Said, head of an Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) division; Majid Salleh, a labour leader who led the Johor State Federation of Trade Unions and who was also a member of Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM); and Zainuddin Andika and Yahya Nassim, both also PKMM members.
Lim and Yahya, by the way, are both 88 while the others are not much younger – and they’re all sharp as tacks!
Parties like the PKMM contained Malay intellectuals, often journalists or teachers, who resented the paternalistic attitude of the British. They were caught up in the global fever for self-government that erupted after World War II showed colonies that it was possible for an Asian power to, if not defeat then at the very least, threaten white rule.
“It was hard to find them, to talk to them and gain their trust. Many are very cautious and don’t like to talk about that time because it brings up unhappy memories and dashed hopes. Still, while it’s true that after many years people are vague about details, I felt it was very important that we talked to people who were actually there.”
Fahmi supplemented his interviews with documents from the National Archives and looked up newspapers of the time, like the Straits Echo, Malay Tribune, Utusan and Straits Times. And he “got my friends to help me out on a voluntary basis for one or two re-enactment scenes that I shot”.
Ironically, the very efficiency of the general strike of 1947 signalled the beginning of the end of this exciting period in Malayan history.
“The Emergency changed everything, and there is the argument that it was just as much about curtailing the growth of the unions and Malay nationalists as it was about fighting the Communist threat,” says Fahmi.
“Thousands were arrested, many Malay nationalists, like API leader Ahmad Boestamam and PKMM founder Ishak Haji Muhammad, were jailed. Many organisations were banned and dissolved and even trade union leaders took to the jungles to fight the British.”
Fahmi is not oblivious to the fact that revisiting the past can often re-open old wounds but he hopes to steer clear of the controversy that could bedevil such a project.
“I think controversy arises because of people’s views of the violent struggle between the CPM and the British colonial government, during which there were atrocities on both sides. And, as is often the case in such situations, it was the civilian population that suffered the most hardships.
“This movie, however, doesn’t deal with that phase at all. This movie is about the political history of the members of Putera-AMJCA and the non-violent struggle of progressive forces in the country.”
In our 50th year of independence, we should take the trouble to learn about such non-violent forces, for such knowledge could help us deal with conflicts, perhaps even at a global level, that are bound to arise in this new century.
Khamis, Ogos 30, 2007
Lest we forget