The Halus (Subtle) Way Datuk Onn Aborted the Malayan Union


M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com
18th Nov 2015

In an earlier commentary I gave high marks to our leaders for their enlightened ways and sophisticated strategies in the pursuit of our independence. Malaysia could have easily gone in a very different direction following the Japanese defeat. It could have just as quickly been turned into a permanent British Dominion.

The man responsible for sparing the country that terrible fate was Datuk Onn Jaafar. He was a former senior civil servant, a significant and rare achievement for a native. Had he been a Hang Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan and the British, there would be no limit to the height of his personal achievement within the colonial civil service. He could have been the first native Governor-General of the Dominion of Malaya.

Instead, in the tradition of Jebat, Onn saw the grave injustice perpetrated upon Malays by the colonialists in cahoots with our sultans. They had sold out our country, repeating what their brother Sultan of Johor did with Singapore 127 years earlier.

The pathetic aspect to the Malayan Union Treaty, like the earlier ceding of Singapore to the British, was how easy it was to make those Malay sultans capitulate. Sir Harold MacMichael, the British point man, needed only a few months to secure the agreement. There was not even a whimper of protest from the sultans.

Some, like the Johor Sultan, enthusiastically signed the treaty within a day or two, and were proud of that fact! The few who had flashes of courage quickly backed down under threat of being replaced or prosecuted for presumed collaboration with the Japanese during the war.

It turned out that those Malay sultans – Allah’s representatives on earth – also menurut arahan (follow direction), as per the mantra of the civil service, not from Allah but from Sir Harold.

Thanks to Datuk Onn, the Union treaty was rescinded. He took on the mighty British and prevailed, with no help from his sultans. Onn did it without being biadap (treasonous) to the sultans or resorting to armed insurrections.

It is ironic that Onn would be instrumental in this endeavor. Earlier the Sultan of Johor had banished Onn for daring to criticize him. If Onn had been consumed with settling old scores and at the same time endear himself to the British, he would have let the treaty be, and those Malay sultans would today be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu.

Onn’s accomplishment was even more remarkable considering that by the time he mounted the challenge, Malayan Union was already a fait accompli. The sultans had already signed the treaty, ceding all their authorities to the British. Essentially Malayan Union made what was hitherto “indirect” British rule into a direct one, with no pretense to the contrary.

The open but peaceful opposition to the Malayan Union (and also indirectly, the Malay sultans) was truly a transformational cultural phenomenon. It was a genuine mass movement made even more remarkable considering the speed with which it was planned, organized and executed. Consider that up until a few months before the event there was not a single national Malay organization; there were plenty of little ones each with its own parochial agenda. Onn changed all that with UMNO.

The other remarkable aspect was that up until that time it was the accepted wisdom that Malays were an apathetic lot, not in the least interested in politics; hence the British overreaching attempt at railroading the treaty. Onn changed that too. Today, Malays are obsessed with politics to the detriment of everything else. Who says we cannot change Malays? Onn did it successfully, and in a matter of years, not decades or generations.

Before Datuk Onn, the Malay nationalist movement was slow to develop because of our separate political identities in the various states. Some of the “Federated” states felt that they were better off with British “protection.” The “un-Federated” states meanwhile felt very proud of their “independence,” even though that was more illusory than real.

Even among the “un-Federated” states there were significant variations. Johor’s sultan was an unabashed Anglophile; his Kelantan counterpart was notorious for his insularity. Their subjects in turn followed the patterns set by their sultans.

Even as late as the 1950s and 60s Malays still lacked a sense of common national identity, with Kelantan Malays considering themselves separate from those in Johore. Even government jobs and quarters were restricted to “anak Johore” (the children of Johore) or “anak Selangor.”

Thanks to Onn, the formation of UMNO was the first time Malays began to have a sense of national consciousness, at least politically. It would be a few more decades before that sentiment would truly be felt by the masses, and then spread beyond politics.

One undisputed but not widely acknowledged fact to the successful opposition against the Malayan Union was that Malay sultans were of no help. They were in fact very much part of the problem with their earlier capitulation through British flattery. The pathetic part was that the sultans’ price for their agreement was so ridiculously cheap: a modest stipend and the knightship of some ancient English order. Regardless whether it was the sultans’ collective stupidity or British perfidy, the result was the same.

The surprise was that there was minimal republican or anti-sultan sentiment expressed during all those mass protests against the Malayan Union despite the obvious sellouts by the rulers. On the contrary, the Malay masses reacted in exactly the reverse and counter-intuitive fashion; they expressed their unreserved affection and loyalty to their sultans.

This display was no more dramatically demonstrated than on that one day in Kota Baru, Kelantan, where all the sultans were gathered for the formal installation of the first British Governor-General. The rakyats packed the palace grounds such that the sultans could not leave to attend the ceremony.

On the surface it was a show of massive public loyalty; on the subtle side, it was nothing more than the mass kidnapping of the sultans by their subjects. The Malay masses had in effect “CB’ed” (confined to barracks) their sultans.

I doubt whether those sultans received the subtle message that day. That would require some degree of subtlety, intelligence and sophistication for which they had not demonstrated thus far. The British on the other hand heard the message loud and clear, and the Malayan Union treaty was rescinded.

Had it not been for the rakyats intervening, Malay sultans today would have been all titles and tanjak (ceremonial headgear symbolizing the sultan’s power) but little else.

So when former Prime Minister Mahathir lamented that he could not change Malays, and by implication we cannot be changed, I bring forth this dramatic example of our remarkable transformation in response to the Malayan Union threat.

An enterprising soul, Fahmi Reza, has collected all the file pictures and cartoons of the anti-Malayan Union protests into his award-winning documentary, “Sepuloh Tahum Sebulum Merdeka” (“Ten Years Before Merdeka”). It is truly inspiring to see those Malays, young and old, male and female, in sarongs and in suits marching calmly and peacefully in the streets. Their only uniting feature was the defiance and resolve that shone bright on their faces.

Fahmi Reza has done a remarkable public service in producing this documentary. To his credit, he has also made it freely available on the ‘Net.

Much has been written about the aborted Malayan Union, both from the perspective of the natives as well as the colonials. I have yet however, to see anyone portray those mass rallies against the treaty as expressions of our rebellion against the sultans. That was a measure of Onn’s subtlety and sophistication.

Onn was attuned to the halus ways of our culture and used that to bring out the best in us. He united us towards a shared and noble objective – to kill off the existential threat posed by the Malayan Union Treaty.

In contrast, today Malaysia is cursed with a leader who revels in the crass aspects of Malay culture, in particular our propensity to berlagak (conspicuous consumption). Najib’s jetting around in his luxurious jets and his wife’s Bollywood gaudy tastes are expressions of this ugly and destructive trait. His underlings only too willingly ape him with gusto; monkey see,monkey do. Onn united the rakyats; Najib polarizes Malays, as well as Malaysians.

Onn’s legacy is a free Malaysia; Najib’s will be a Malaysia that is corrupt, divided, and mired in debt.

Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

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