WHEN EVERYTHING STOPPED
Remembering A Time of Progressive Civil Action, The Hartal of 1947
by Fahmi Fadzil
Sixty years ago this month, Malaya saw one of the most astonishing feats of civil disobedience – a Malaya-wide hartal. It was organised by a coalition of progressive elements (PUTERA-AMCJA) in the then politically sleepy Malayan society, and was designed to act as a clarion call to Malayans to reject the Federation Constitution as proposed by the British Colonial administration. These progressive nationalists believed that the proposal was created without having first referred to the majority of Malayans, and therefore was seen to favor certain (political and business) interests over others. They countered it with their own People's Constitution (a deftly crafted document, no less).
In case we weren't so familiar with what this act of civil disobedience is (this being a country where a party of five is considered an illegal public gathering), a hartal refers to a complete work stoppage, or a general strike, as a mark of public discord with their government. For the duration of the hartal, no businesses, public transportation, or any other form of economic activity would operate. Some of the most public proponents of this non-violent act of civil disobedience was Mahatma Gandhi, who used it to great effect in the Indian struggle for independence from the British Crown.
So, on 20th October 1947, Malayans of all walks of life (barring the few factions who were seen to be colluding with the British) participated in the hartal by not participating in economic life. Pasars were empty. Goods laid quietly on ships or on the docks at the ports. Trains, buses, becas did not move.
Still the British played "dunno". They had learned from the Indian experience to not let their now biggest dollar earner slip away, especially since WWII nearly emptied out the British coffers.
Only a year later, in 1948, in order to "confront the communist insurgency" in Malaya, the Emergency was declared. All manner of draconian laws were put into place to stifle the growing popularity of the progressives. Various parties were banned, their members arrested and silenced. Malayans fought the law... and the law won.
Less than 10 years later, Independence was given ("on a golden platter", some who were silenced have commented) by the British to Malaya.
Fast forward to 2007.
A cursory glimpse at the most recent editions of high school history textbooks show a complete lack of acknowledgment for this period in the national struggle for independence from the British. Not only is the episode left largely unprocessed (What does it mean to have almost the entire Malayan population saying "No" to the Federation Constitution? Who were the people saying "Yes"? Who stood to gain from this?), it appears best that it is forgotten altogether. History should be written by the victors.
Or should it?
Not any more. After 50 years of independence, perhaps it is time to look back at the graves of our past, at the buried Malaya that could have been. More importantly, let us consider the actions of those who have erected these graves of our national conscience and memory, and let us unearth these stories and re-tell them for the sake of the present. Why were these memories buried? Who stood (and continues) to gain from a constant climate of national forgetting? What is so wrong with remembering our past?
Presently, a young filmmaker has tried to bring the past back, to see if we can figure some of these stories out for ourselves. Last 14th September, Fahmi Reza screened his short documentary, 'Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka', about the struggles of the political left for an independent Malaya. You can learn more about the documentary, where it will be shown next, as well as about the hartal of 1947 itself from his blog http://10tahun.blogspot.com.
Sumber: Majalah KLue, Isu 108, Okt 2007