How effective was the leadership provided by prominent individual nationalists in Malaya

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During the pre-war (1939) period, there was only one real nationalist leader: Yaacob Ibrahim. Al-Imam had no clear leader and was known more as a collective group of religious radicals. Pro-British aristocratic movements cannot be considered nationalism, as do other informal Malay groups set up to further the Malay agenda, but without the anti-colonialism and Independence-seeking evident in Yaacob Ibrahim’s initiatives. His ambitious dream of Melayu Raya with peoples from Indonesia and Malaya unified under one state, Malays lifting themselves out of their downtrodden state, were in essence, a product of ethnic nationalism.

In pursuit of his aims, Ibrahim co-founded two organisations: Belia Malaya, during his study at the Sultan Idris Training College for Teachers, and Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM), a few years after he graduated. He was the President for both societies. This essay will focus on the various facets of his co-initiative, the KMM in terms of the actions done towards his goal, the lack of popular support, organisation skills, achievements, and the raising of Malay consciousness.

To determine if Ibrahim was effective as a nationalist leader, his achievements with regard to his aims and the political situation, and Sukarno in Indonesia will be explored in this essay. Ibrahim was effective in raising popular Malay consciousness about his ideals. He wrote a book, Surveying the Homeland, that stressed his antagonism towards colonialism and the Sultan patronage system, and imbued his analysis of Malay cultural and socio-economic change with a Marxist perspective.

Ibrahim tried to convey to the Malays that their “good character” was being “damaged” by the invasion of their material life through foreign language, goods and labour. He called for Malay unity and the advancement of Malay interests, and gave speeches about Malay social degradation around the country. The sharp, analytical style of his speeches “served as a model for debate and discussion in the growing public sphere”, (Milner, 1994) showing that the message of Ibrahim’s speeches was received by the many throughout the country who heard him speak. Read about informal powers of the president

Ibrahim’s KMM did succeed in getting the Malay populace to know more about Kaum Muda (literally meaning Young Group), which attacked traditional religious customs such as the rote memorisation of texts. In this aspect, Ibrahim was successful in getting publicity towards his cause. However, these widespread ideas failed to incite support from those who were in contact with them. His radical ideals suffered from a lack of popular support. The peasant Malays were the most unreceptive to his ideals, as they only looked up to the Sultans and those whom the Sultan favoured – the aristocrats.

The traditional social hierarchy prevailed, where these peasants would blindly obey the Sultans, who in turn obeyed the British. These Kaum Muda anti-British radical ideals of revolution were at odds with the Sultans beliefs and the keeping of the status quo. His attacks on the aristocracy and royal courts further alienated the common Malay man from Ibrahim’s vision, which seemed far away and lofty. The pan-Malayan state did not connect with the Malays, who felt more aligned with their state and Sultan than with the country Malaya.

The concept of a united Malay nation was alien to them, and thus, the concept of an Indonesian-Malayan state further failed to excite feelings of belonging. In response to this, Ibrahim failed to modify his goals to suit the populace, unlike leaders in other countries such as Sukarno in Indonesia, who packaged to the peasants socialist ideals by the name of Marhaeism. Ibrahim was ineffective in gaining popular support because he failed to realise that his ideals would not garner support unless he modified them or packaged them differently.

In his way of garnering support conspicuously absent was the ordinary Malay peasant. Ibrahim was far from him. He prefered to write articles for the vernacular press, which would reach little uneducated Malays, give erudite speeches throughout the country to educated individuals, and court the aristocrats from pro-British associations, like the Persatuan-Persatuan Negeri, who had higher education, rather than the Malay man on the street. Some of the founding members of the KMM were from these aristocratic orgainsations.

Also, most of the members of the KMM in 1938 were vernacular schoolteachers, staff or students of the Kuala Lumpur Technical School, Serdang Agricultural School, and the Sultan Idris Training College, or journalists. Peasants were absent. It was a group obviously not made for them in mind, with regular scholarly discussions held on the problems the Malay race faced. His book, Surveying the Homeland, was not written with the peasant in mind, and served as more of a rallying call for the aristocracy and those with higher education. Ibrahim also suffered from a lack of charisma.

He was not known for the style of his speeches but for his “sharp analysis of rational precision” (Milner, 1994) – terms people would hardly use to describe American President Obama’s rhetoric. He lacked Obama’s or any other charismatic speaker’s persuasive power, and thus had problems convincing the Malay peasant, who might not relate to the intentionally learned content in his speeches, to share in his ideals. As compared to Sukarno, who actively used Javanese traditional symbols and stories in speeches to the peasants, Ibrahim did not make a conscious effort to engage the peasantry in his ideals.

Thus, he failed in gaining popular support, and was ineffective as a leader in this aspect. Ibrahim also lacked the organisational skills to expand and maintain a large scale political organisation. The KMM operated in secrecy (Roff, 1994), and this severely limited the options and future of the organisation, as this conferred a lack of credibility onto the organisation, and scared off Malays who would have otherwise joined but were fearful for their own future.

He lacked the know-how to coordinate large efforts to mobilise people to support the KMM. The KMM was meant to be a national organisation, yet in effect, its only office was in Kuala Lumpur. It lacked both the money and skills. Ibrahim failed to set up offices in other states, even though it was vital for the idea of a unified pan-Malayan state. The membership roll of the KMM was never more than a few hundred in the pre-war period. There were also problems of coordination.

He failed to set the proper agenda for the KMM, leading to some confusion over what the aim of the whole organisation was. Some say that their main aim was to “stop the Malays from being exploited by other races” and to “create nationalist feelings” among the Malays by writing exhortatory articles in the vernacular press. (Roff, 1994) They did not think about overthrowing the colonial government. Others thought that it wanted primarily a closer cultural link to Indonesia, and left when it was thought to have strayed into political radicalism.

These were all at odds with Ibrahim’s stated belief in overthrowing the government and setting up a united Indonesia Malaya nation. The beliefs of various members reflected the lack of the proper organisation of the KMM in terms of a common manifesto shared by all members. Ibrahim was ineffective in leading and uniting the members of KMM. The actions of the KMM in pursuit of its goals under the leadership of Ibrahim were also less than satisfactory.

In 1938, the KMM launched an anti-British newspaper and publication propaganda attack on the government’s policies which neglected Malay welfare, and on the Malay aristocrats and bureaucrats, based on the policy of “non-cooperation”, inspired by Indonesia’s PKI. This, however, was more of just empty, exhortatory words published in popular media which failed to translate into any real political action by the members of the KMM. If anything, it served to further alienate the ordinary Malay from the KMM ideals, though widespread publicity was achieved.

Towards the end of 1939, the KMM held its first annual general meeting, meant to gain publicity and support for their ideals. Little aristocratic support was gained. On the whole, the anger towards the colonial powers and traditional elite was vented mostly in private (Roff, 1994) during these closed door discussion sessions about the future of the Malay race. There seemed to have been little political action, such as strikes against the government and political campaigning to the populace.

Ibrahim was deficient in getting the members of the KMM to do larger things. Lastly, the achievements of Ibrahim Yaacob’s initiatives were virtually zero. He failed to make an impact on his target audience, the people whose mindsets of backwardness and state provincialism he sought to change. The prestige of the Malay rulers and the aristocrats were untouched, and it would probably seem to the average Malay peasant, at the end of 1939, that Ibrahim Yaacob was just spouting words of lofty ideals that didn’t concern him in any way at all.

The average Malay peasant would still not have any nuance of a national identity, and was not loyal to Malaya (as a country), nor to the Malay race. Zero concessions were extracted from the British governement. The decentralisation of the government in the late 1930s were not the result of the numerous articles KMM members wrote to the press. This was simply triggered by the Great Depression, and was used for more as a cost-saving measure than to appease nationalist demands. Furthermore, this decentralisation did not advance Ibrahim’s cause.

If anything, it helped the state governments to regain some power and reassert the state’s identity as separate and distinct from the other Federated Malay States. In that sense it can be said that the presence of the KMM did not achieve anything at all, not even to function as a factor of deterrence against the asserting of state identities. Going back to the introduction where we mentioned his aims, at the end of 1939, nothing at all was accomplished in relation to them. It is difficult, however, to expect much out of an organisation which had been founded just barely a year ago.

Hence even though Ibrahim was ineffective in gaining and mobilising support, it is reasonable that nothing much was tried out and was actually accomplished in relation to the KMM’s aims. The actions carried out by the KMM, however lacking in scope, could have had more impact had Ibrahim’s organisational ability been improved. The furtive way in which the KMM operated definitely weakened the impact of its General Meeting and anti-British propaganda attack, as they lost credibility and failed to acquire new members with common ideals.

But the KMM could have had a reason for behaving clandestinely, as the core members did not want to be arrested by the secret police. This would have a negative impact for the whole cause, and was what happened after the period examined in this essay. Yet, the shadow which the KMM was shrouded in did soften the impact of the actions of the KMM though we cannot blame Ibrahim’s inefficiency as a leader for that. His weakness as an ineffective nationalist leader was exposed as even members of the same group had conflicting ideas on what the core ideals of KMM were.

This was of grave importance as it affected how the members treated the KMM. Those who did not think the KMM wanted to overthrow the colonial government would simply withdraw their support from the more radical activities organised by Ibrahim. A lack of unity in the KMM would cause problems in the pursuit of Ibrahim’s radical and ambitious goals. This problem could have been averted with the publishing of a manifesto, but Ibrahim did not do this, and thus, confusion resulted. This impacted the resilience and impact of the group.

Consider that the Indonesia Raya goals of Yaacob Ibrahim were too ambitious, that Ibrahim did not do enough to ensure that this goal would be a realistic one. There was little planning and political coordination between the movements from both Malaya and Indonesia (Cheah, 2003), and it would have no chance of success anyway even if the British were to leave any time, as the Sultans would then continue to rule over the various states. The little mass support for the KMM meant that it could not overpower the police in restoring rule to the monarchy, and establishing their ideal Indonesia-Malaya state.

Ibrahim Yaacob was ineffective as a nationalist leader in providing a feasible and realistic alternative to British rule. This is also linked to his lack of organisational abilities, as had he had better abilities he would have had tied up with organisations like the PKI. The situation where Ibrahim was caught in, with the Malay populace not receptive to his ideas due to the traditional social structure of obedience to the Sultan could have meant that Ibrahim was stuck in the wrong time to carry out his (right) actions: The time was not right then, for him to strike.

Had he executed the same plan after the Japanese Occupation, with the position of the British, the Sultan and identity of the state severely weakened, it is probable that he could have been more effective and amassed a greater support easily. In the pre-war period, it was almost impossible for his ideas to break ground and amass popular Malay peasant support due to the very fact that the Sultan was seen as very much in charge, and supported the British and the aristocrats whose positions Ibrahim was seeking to weaken.

However, it is not fair to blame the social hierarchy for the lack of popular support for Ibrahim’s goals, as he could have improved on his effectiveness in gaining popular support after realising that his ideas did not appeal to the common Malay man, evident in the fact that Ibrahim did not press for the removal of the mornachy or traditional aristocracy as he realised that the Malay people were “not yet ready to get rid of these institutions, and therefore sought instead to accommodate them [the traditional aristocracy] in their political schemes” (Cheah, 2003).

The KMM, with this knowledge, still continued to push for radical ideas the peasant was hostile to, and did not do enough to court the Malay peasantry. This showed a lack of adaptability, proof of Ibrahim’s ineffectiveness as a nationalist leader looking for support.

To draw comparison of Ibrahim to Sukarno, even though Sukarno was advantaged in that there was widespread Malay resentment against the Dutch colonial powers in Indonesia, and in Malaya where the Malays were generally acquiescent to the status quo, like Sukarno, Ibrahim could have come up with similar peasant shows of wayang kulit (or similar traditions) to introduce to them pan-Malayan and other concepts.

The fact remains that Ibrahim simply refused to involve the common Malay man in his efforts to expunge the British from Malaya, preferring to antagonise the British with propagandistic efforts instead, with very little popular support. This seeming apathy and lack of action towards his lack of popular support that meant that the British would not be easily coerced to give up Malaya proved to be an ineffective way of trying to achieve progress for the Malays and the pan-Malaya ideal.

After balancing the difficulties that Ibrahim Yaacob faced as a radical nationalist leader, with Ibrahim’s leadership style in comparison to Sukarno from Indonesia, in conclusion, he was ineffective as a nationalist leader as he failed to adapt to the situation where the Malay man was unreceptive to his ideas, in providing real alternatives to the British rule, and in his organisational skills, leading to the real failure of his nationalist initiative, the KMM in attaining his goals in the face of the unfavourable political situation.

Comments: Good. A consistently relevant answer which focuses well on Ibrahim Yacoob’s weaknesses. You might want to say rather more about his socialism. And whether he was able to get this across? Also more on Indonesia-Raya – to what extent was his nationalism derivative (ie influenced by Indonesia nationalism)

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