“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self-determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action”, said Woodrow Wilson in 1918 (GWPDA, 1997). In the case of Malaya and Indonesia, this would become a normative impetus to how its native intellectuals propagated the principle of national self-determination to its own people. Due to this, the language of nationalism can be seen as a positive force because it helped articulate the anticolonial struggle of Malayans and Indonesians. However, a comparative analysis shows how differently these two nationalisms are based on its leadership and representation in mass politics. Netusha Naidu explores the withstanding tensions between the traditionalism of the ascending ruling class and revolutionary streak of left-leaning groups in formulating national identities reveal the inherent complexities of anticolonial nationalism.
Onn Jaafar and Sukarno: A tale of two leaders
Datuk Onn Jaafar’s profound legacy legitimized the traditionalism that would preserve the interests of Malay ruling class, shaping the dynamics in the Malayan political sphere. His call for a total boycott of Malayan Union and strategy for its effectiveness, strengthened the construction of conservative politics. When he visited the rulers a day before the ceremony and warned their attendance would result in them being “overthrown immediately by the people”, Onn managed to capitulate himself as a representative of the Malay people as he had “severed” the meaning of the royal institution from its colonial context and given them the possibility of serving for the imagination of a postcolonial future (Amoroso, 2014:161-162). He had even appropriated the symbolism of the Left, sanitizing its radicalism so much so, its subtleness was merely sufficient to impress the aspirations of the Malays for independence while still retaining the privileges of the Malay ruling elite. For instance, the merah-putih (red-white) flag which was a powerful reminder of revolutionary Indonesia which was domesticated by Onn and the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) (Amoroso, 2014:194). To reinforce this, Onn “spoke darkly of the upheavals” in Indonesia, negatively representing the violence that transpired (Amoroso, 2014:196).
In contrast, Sukarno was completely obsessed with unifying all anti-colonial forces in the Dutch East Indies. He invoked inclusivity with his ideas of social justice as well as Islamic values that resounded among the diverse ethnic groups in Indonesia. To Sukarno, nationalism was the “common denominator of all anti-imperialist, anti-Western elements”. Unlike Onn who resorted to reinforced loyalty as a prime characteristic of Malay political convictions, Sukarno premised his nationalist ideas in clear opposition to the Dutch imperialists, who were guilty of “turning Indonesia into an area for the exploitation of foreign capital” (Knight and Heazle, 2011:89-90). He constantly toured the Javanese hinterland, “consolidating the mass support that would subsequently maintain him in power for a generation” (Anderson, 1972:124). His constant emphasis on a national revolution and democratic institutions, combined with the Pancasila, shaped the Indonesian worldview based on nationalism, internationalism, unanimity, well-being and a belief in God. In Sukarno’s imagination, the sovereign state of Indonesia was framed in the Javanese concept of power-concentration which would allow him to be the symbolic figurehead of a national collective will, seeking a sense of equality (Kreuzer, 2006:49-50).
Onn’s idea of nationalism was rooted in the conception of the Malay race and its culture so that he could preserve the continuity of the Malay bureaucrats by rearticulating Malay leadership with “historical resonance” (Amoroso, 2014:191). Sukarno, on the other hand, was more committed to a revolutionary restructuring of Indonesian society from the shackles of colonial powers through his inclusive, socialistic ideals. Thus, it is interesting to note how nationalism may be interpreted based on the advancement of a leader’s class interests and ideological roots.
“Postwar politics was mass politics”
In Malaya, the Japanese occupation had disrupted British colonial rule, legitimized a national conception of Malay society and introduced means of social organisation and action to advance this conception. Inevitably, “postwar politics was mass politics” that was “no longer restricted by class” in formerly occupied Malaya (Amoroso, 2014:169-70). Nonetheless, it did not prohibit UMNO’s elitism to strategize with the streaks of ethnocentrism and racism to advance their popularity in mass politics. References to essentialist figures like ‘Si Ah Chong’ and ‘Si Ramasamy’ in printed press “helped make the PKMM’s [Parti Kesatuan Melayu Muda] sporadic efforts at interethnic alliance a priori suspect endeavours”. Intriguingly, proponents of UMNO and political conservatism as expressed by Malay oral tradition, gave success to the transformation of a so-called progressive traditionalism and with the support of the British Military Administration (BMA), they garnered much public appeal (Amoroso, 2014:183). However, it could not be denied that UMNO faced stiff competition from the left-leaning PKMM and the its best bet to cripple their influence was a “mopping-up operation” during the Malayan Emergency which resulted in the crackdown on such movements to counter the communist insurgency (Kua, 2007:13).
Meanwhile in Indonesia, the Japanese political style presented the youth of Java a new mode of political life and action as it revived a certain collective memory of the precolonial past and evoked traditional resonances of a spiritual nature (Anderson, 1972: 32-33). The authority of the nation’s traditional ruling class, pangrèh pradja, was gravely undermined by repressive occupation policy. It was a “sophisticated servant of any well integrated, militarily powerful government but no substitute for one” (Anderson, 1972:108). Instead of conservatism, Indonesia witnessed the emergence of socialist ideology to complement political nationalism of young Javanese students. This would led to Sukarno’s snatch at independence upon Japanese surrender that can be perceived as necessary to prevent the restoration of colonial rule (Liow, 2005:60). As Anthony Reid noted, the fate of the Malay sultans in Eastern Sumatra would not be as fortunate as those in Malaya. Their strong association with Dutch colonialism fell into the zeal of a bloody revolution (Liow, 2005:82). The revolution in September 1945 destroyed Indonesia’s traditional feudal society by exterminating suspected collaborators with the Dutch colonial masters (Liow, 2005:60).
Yet, it would seem apt to ask – why was there a violent revolution overthrowing the Malay ruling class in Indonesia but not in Malaya? The answer could lie in the fact that their colonial experiences were very different. It would seem that Dutch colonialism had proven to be more excessive, brutal and combined with the mobilization of Japanese support, Indonesian revolutionaries had more opportunity to develop civic nationalism. Although similar in Malaya, the hegemonic political discourse and knowledge dissemination of the colonial sympathizing class left little room for dissent and whatever remnants of the Left would be crushed by state apparatuses devised by the BMA.
In instilling nationalistic sentiments in the hearts of people, the fate of the colonial organization of society would be a crucial determinant of how national leaders such as Datuk Onn Jaafar in Malaya and Sukarno in Indonesia conveyed the anticolonial struggle to their own people. Japanese wartime occupation during World War 2 was a defining moment in the modern history of Malaya and Indonesia. It had activated massive politicization of Malays and Indonesians, resulting in a tremendous discourse of nationalism that large groups of people could partake in. However, the path taken by the movements became rather distinct over time and eventually, bore lesser and lesser resemblance to each other as they move towards national self-determination. Hence, this suggests anticolonial nationalism, as a positive force it may be, embodies contingency in its outcome as these nations struggle to reconcile between traditionalism and revolutionary aspirations.
1. Anderson, B. R. O’G. (1972). Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944-1946. London: Cornell University Press.
2. Amoroso, D. J. (2014). Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya. Petaling Jaya and Singapore City: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD) and NUS Press Singapore.
3. GWPDA (1997). 11 February, 1918: President Wilson’s Address to Congress, Analyzing German and Austrian Peace Utterances (12/07/1997) -http://www.gwpda.org/1918/wilpeace.html, date accessed 17/12/2016.
4. Knight, N. and Heazle, M. (2011). Understanding Australia’s Neighbours: An Introduction to East and Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
5. Kreuzer, P. (2006). Violent civic nationalism versus civil ethnic nationalism: Contrasting Indonesia and Malay(si)a. National Identities, 8(1):41-59.
6. Kua, K.S. (2007). May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. Petaling Jaya: Suaram Komunikasi.
7. Liow, J. C. (2005). The Politics of Indonesia-Malaysia Relations: One kin, two nations. New York: Routledge.