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The Lifes and Times of Haji Othman Abdullah

Haji Othman

By William R. Roff

Department of History, University of Malaya

I first became interested in Haji Othman Abdullah in 1960, when I was engaged on research into Malay social history before the Second World War. The manner of our first meeting, though of no importance in itself, is a nice indication of the way in which the historian can find his history in the oddest and most unlikely corners. It was a Saturday afternoon. I had just got off a bus at the foot of Jalan Templer in Petaling Jaya and begun to walk up the road when I noticed a Malay wedding lunch taking place in one of the gardens nearby. As I passed, someone – a friend whose identity I have now forgotten – recognized me and with characteristic Malay hospitality invited me in. I entered the yard, was introduced around, sat down, had some lunch, and joined in casual conversation with my neighbours. Weddings, like cocktail parties, though pleasant enough social occasions in their way, seldom offer the opportunity for a long and earnest conversation on serious topics, so that I didn’t expect much from this one beyond and hour so’s idle chatter. And then I met Haji Othman.

Haji Othman’s grandfather, Haji Mohd. Taib b. Haji Abdul Samad (d. 1925) was born in Batu Sangkar in the Minangkabau area of West Sumatera round about 1858. Haji M Taib came to Malaya as a young man in 1876, as many others were doing at that time, to seek a living by trading. Not long after arriving, probably around 1880, he married a girl from Malacca, Che Hitam bt Ta’at of Kampong Jambatan Duyong and settled with her in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike many of his Minangkabau compatriots in Kuala Lumpur in the 1880s and ’90s, most of whom were shop and store keepers, Haji M Taib put his money into real estate. Business flourished, and he became one of the richest Malays in Selangor, owning tin mines, plantation land, and large numbers of houses and shop-houses in Malay Street and in the environs of Kuala Lumpur. Haji M Taib had ten children, six boys and four girls. The boys when they grew older, helped their father to look after his business activities and his properties. The girls married and raised families of their own.

Haji M Taib’s eldest surviving son, Abdullah (d. 1945) was born in Ampang Street in 1886, Kuala Lumpur. Haji Abdullah (he made pilgrimage to Mecca in 1900) shared with his brothers the tasks of looking after the family interests, and in 1901 married Che Siti Hawa bt Mohd Yasin, a Malacca girl whose father (like Abdullah’s mother) came from Kampong Jambatan Duyong. They had four children, of whom the first two died in infancy. The third, Othman was born on December 21, 1905 in the family house at No. 27 Jalan Pudu, not far from the building which now houses the Straits Times Press.

Othman’s childhood was as unremarkable as childhoods usually are. In 1913, at the age of eight, he was put to school at the Malay school in Gombak Lane, and studied there for five years under Che Gu’ Mohd. Tambi, passing out of Standard V (which was as far as one could go in those days) in 1918. Othman’s grandfather, Haji Mat Taib, wanted to send him after this to the Victoria Institution to be educated in English, but found that he was just six months over the maximum age at which it is possible for children to proceed from Malay to English school. Accidents like this do much to shape people’s lives. Aged only 13, Othman Abdullah found himself cut off from further education in his own land, and turned instead to an older tradition of learning, Islam. In 1919 he was taken by his uncle Haji Mahiyiddin b. Ibrahim (a Minangkabau who had married Haji Mat Taib’s daughter Rogayah) to Batu Sangkar for a two-month visit, partly as a holiday and partly to collect other members of the family before making the trip to Mecca. Returning to Kuala Lumpur early in 1920, they sailed from Singapore to Jeddah in April or May of that year, in one of the pilgrim ships run by the Blue Funnel line.

Arriving in due course at Mecca, Othman went to live with his father’s cousin (and Haji Mahiyiddin’s brother) Haji Ahmad Puteh b. Ibrahim, one of the many Minangkabau, Acehnese, Javanese, Malays and others from this part of the world (known collectively in Mecca as the Jawah) who had spent a large part of their adult lives living and studying in the holy city. In June 1920, aged not yet fifteen, Othman made his first pilgrimage, and on its completion was married, at his father’s request to Haji Ahmad Puteh’s daughter Hajjah Rabiah, then aged thirteen.

Haji Othman continued to live in Mecca for some five years, studying religion in the time-honoured way in the Mesjid al-Haram from his teacher Haji Abdullah Tembusai, another Minangkabau. And then he began to get a little restless. As he said, “in Mecca one can study religion only; in Cairo, politics as well”. So in 1925, having obtained his father’s permission, he left Mecca for Cairo, to attend the famous school of Azhar Mosque, usually known as the University of Al-Azhar.

When Haji Othman arrived in Cairo, the city had a fair-sized community of Malays and Indonesians, most of them studying at Al-Azhar. Malay students had, of course, been traveling to the Middle East for many years, but it was only after the First World War, and particularly in the early and middle 1920s with the rise in incomes resulting from the boom in rubber prices, that they reached Cairo in numbers. The cost of keeping a student in Cairo at this time was estimated at $500 annually, with traveling expenses on top of this, so that only well-to-do or well-connected families could afford an education of this kind for their sons. The peak years, corresponding to the most intensive pilgrimage years from Malaya, were probably 1924-1927. In 1925, when Haji Othman arrived, no fewer than 27 Malay students took up residence in Cairo, bringing the number to round about eighty, with more than twice as many Indonesians from the Netherlands East Indies.

As early as 1922, the Malay and Indonesian students at Al-Azhar had formed a joint Jam’iyyah al-Khayhiyyah, or Welfare Society, to look after their common interests and to promote friendship and association. Shortly after Haji Othman arrived, this society seems to have taken a new lease of life, giving itself an alternative Malay title, the Persatuan Penuntut2 Semenanjong Tanah Melayu dan Indonesia, and planning the publication of a newspaper or journal designed to draw the peoples of the Malay peninsula and archipelago closer together. Seruan Azhar – the Voice of Azhar – began appearing monthly in October 1925, edited to begin with by Ilias Ya’acob from Indonesia, with Haji Othman Abdullah, who had provided the funds from money supplied by his father in Malaya, as manager. The journal’s first editorial, written by Mahmud Yunus (or Mahmoud El-Jounousy, as he styled himself in those day) appealed to the peoples of Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Malaya to “unite with one heart for progress and prosperity”, and most of the articles in this and subsequent issues dealt with religious and political reform in the Middle East and at home. Many of the students in Cairo felt strongly on these matters, and the relative freedom given to them in the Middle East, away from the repressive colonial and traditional regimes of their homelands, made it possible to discuss them and write about them more easily.

There was a lot to get excited about in the Middle East itself, with the conquest of the Hejaz by the Wahhabi ruler Ibni Saud in 1924, and the subsequent attempts to resurrect the Caliphate and unite the Islamic world. In 1926, a committee formed by the Malay and Indonesian students in Cairo called Al-Difa’ al-Watani (The National Guard) sent a representative to Meca to attend the proposed but abortive Islamic World Congress; and the later conference held in Jerusalem in 1931 was attended by the then president of the Jama’iyyah al-Khayhiyyah, Haji Abu Bakar Asha’ari, now Imam of Kangar.

In October 1927, Seruan Azhar was joined by a second monthly journal, Pilehan Timour, which was a little more openly political than Seruan Azhar. The reason for the founding of Pilehan Timour is not altogether clear, but seems to have been related to an argument within the editorial board of Seruan Azhar which resulted in the resignation of Ilias Ya’acob and several other Indonesians, who broke away to form the new paper, leaving Seruan to the Malays. Seruan Azhar stopped publication in April 1928, and Pilehan Timour a few months later, both for lack of funds.

In the case of Seruan Azhar, the financial difficulties which led to its demise were certainly a result of Haji Othman’s departure from Cairo early in 1928. Towards the end of 1927 Othman had a letter from his father, saying that he had heard that his son was “getting mixed up in politics”, and asking him to return home. Reluctant to go back straight away, Haji Othman wrote and asked his father’s permission to spend a little while first in Europe, which he had not so far visited. Haji Abdullah agreed, and Othman spent the next twelve months or so in Paris, followed by four months in England and a month in Hollad. While in Paris he improved his knowledge of French (which he had already learnt in Egypt) and wrote religious and social reform articles for Seruan Azhar until it stopped publication, and then for a number of periodicals in Indonesia. In England he got to know the Malay students in London, including Tunku Abdul Rahman, then active in the Malay Student’s Society, and Syed Sheh Barakbah (now Lord President of the Federal Court); in Holland he was particularly friendly with Drs. Mohd. Hatta, then president of the Perhimpunan Indonesia, and with other Indonesians later well known in Indonesian nationalist political life.

Haji Othman returned to Malaya at the end of 1929. He had been away from home for ten years, ten years in which both he and Malaya had changed considerably. The decade had seen the first cracks, still barely perceptible, in British colonial rule. The locally-born and long resident Chinese were beginning to press for a share in the political and administrative conduct of affairs. Malay feelings were being aroused by increased recognition of the way in which many of their interests had been shouldered aside by the economic and educational developments of others. Great arguments were taking place concerning the so-called “decentralization” of the Federated Malay States, and the whole system of administration was being called into questions by contending groups within the colonial ruling class itself.

But if this was not the Malaya Haji Othman had left in 1920, he too had altered during the intervening years. He recalls today that on his return many people, particularly those in authority, found him too “modern” in his ideas and ways. Years of mixing with radically-minded social and religious reformists and political activists in Cairo and then in Europe had led Haji Othman to share many of their opinions and beliefs. He felt an urgent concern for their improvement of the social, educational and economic lot of his people, and for the creation of a nationalist ideology among them as a means to this end. More conservative elements in Malay society mistrusted him for what were thought to be his advanced religious reformist views, and he found little encouragement for his political ideals. Even his own father discouraged him from taking a job in the public service or as a teacher believing that he would be more likely to stay out of trouble if he kept close to home.

Ostensibly, therefore, Haji Othman spent the early years after his return doing no more than help look after the family’s business interests in and around Kuala Lumpur. In reality, from late 1931 he was active as a manager and a part-time writer for the Malay bi-weekly newspaper Majlis, which began publication in December that year. The federal capital in the mid-1930s, though scarcely a hot-bed of political nationalism, was a lively centre of Malay intellectual and literary life. Majlis, under the editorship first of Abdul Rahim Kajai and then of Othman Kalam, was providing pertinent pro-Malay comments on a wide range of public issues, and sponsoring a variety of Malay causes.

From mid-1935 onwards there was an active branch in Kuala Lumpur of Sahabat Pena, which in addition to its more literary activites held frequent discussion meetings in the Sultan Suleiman Club, Kampong Baharu, on Malay education and economic progress. Haji Othman found the atmosphere of Kuala Lumpur stimulating, and made many friends among the young intellectuals – Ibrahim b Haji Ya’acob (then a Malay Instructor at the Police Depot), Othman Kalam, Ishak b. Haji Mohammad, Abdullah Thani (Ahmad Boestamam) and others – with whom he would argue the questions of the day and plan for the future.

On June 5, 1938, a group of young Malays, among them Haji Othman, held a public meeting in the Sultan Suleiman Club for the purpose of forming a Malay political association. As the result of a resolution passed with acclamation at that meeting, the Persatuan Melayu Selangor (PMS) was brought into being, its existence is formally confirmed by the Registrar of Societies some weeks later on August 4. The president of the PMS, Tengku Ismail b. Tengku Mohd. Yasin, had recently resigned from the Malayan Civil Service to become one of the very few Malay lawyers in private practice; the vice president, Raja Bon b. Raja Yahya, was a Selangor district chief and a nephew of the late Sultan Suleiman. In addition to the usual officers the PMS had a central committee of eleven with five representative from Kuala Lumpur, five from the state administrative districts, and one from Petaling – Haji Othman. Haji Othman, like the district representatives, later headed a branch organisation set up in Petaling on August 26.

What were the aims and objects of the PMS? In brief they were to make political representations to the government on matters affecting the Malay interests (as interpreted by the association) and in any other way to further Malay concerns. In political complexion, and in terms of the majority of its leadership, the PMS was a fairly conservative organization, largely (though not in all cases) English-educated, tolerably well-off economically, and owning moderately close links with the traditional Malay establishment. It is understandable, therefore, that it should have been primarily concerned with matters of interest mainly to the English-educated, government-official groups in Selangor Malay society.

It asked the government to reserve for Malays the posts of Registrar and Assistant Registrar of the High Court, and to employ Malay MAS and MCS officers more frequently in federal and state secretariats rather than simply in district and rural administration as was the usual practice. It criticized existing land policy, which made it impossible for Malays holding reservation land to use their land as an economic asset on open market. During the visit of the McLean Commission on higher education in Malaya, which took place in October 1938, the PMS opposed the establishment of a university on the ground that this would confer an unfair advantage on those communities which already had the readiest access to secondary education in English. With all its criticisms of government policy however, the PMS was invariably moderate and co-operative in tone, and careful to express loyalty to the British as well as to the traditional Malay ruling class.

This stance contrasted with that taken by another Malay political association formed in Kuala Lumpur in early 1938, to some extent in reaction to the creation of the PMS. The Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) was led by Ibrahim b. Haji Ya’acob, a young Malay schoolteacher turned journalist, who described the leadership of the PMS and similar state Malay associations as “the bourgeois-feudalist aristocratic and [English-] educated groups”. Though the KMM appears to have applied for and obtained the seal of associational respectability, exemption from registration under the Societies Ordinance, its structure was much simpler than that of the PMS and its mode of activity tended to be cloaked in secrecy, or at least in a discreet haze of small meetings held in private houses or in Bukit Bintang cabaret. It had, however the usual list of officers, among whom Haji Othman Abdullah was treasurer.

Most of its members were young teachers or students from Serdang Agricultural School, the Kuala Lumpur Technical School, or S.I.T.C They possessed, it now seems clear, a wide range of political views, and indeed in some cases had no ”political” views at all, seeing in the KMM a means for cultural renaissance on the basis for closer links with Indonesia. One thing at least, however, they all had in common: an abiding if frustrated hatred of colonialism in all its manifestations, from that of foreign capitalism to the petty irrigations brought about by the assumptions of innate superiority shown by many was necessary for Malay social and economic progress, wrote articles for the vernacular press, and, in a few cases, began to plot actively for the overthrow of the colonial government. The undisputed leader in this last activity was Ibrahim b. Haji Ya’acob, who was in touch with both the Malayan Communist Party and the Japanese in the months immediately before the outbreak of war in the Pacific, and was supplied with money by the Japanese for the purchase of the daily Warta Malaya, with which to conduct anti-British propaganda. Some months before this happened, however, Haji Othman had left KMM, as he says today for two reasons: because he felt it was being betrayed by Ibrahim into violent political radicalism, and because he was unsatisfied, as treasurer, with the conduct of its financial affairs.

Shortly before the Japanese landed in Malaya in December 1941, the British security police rounded up the leadership of the KMM and jailed them in Singapore. Haji Othman, because of his previous connection with the party, was of course suspect. Persuading authorities that this connection no longer existed was made easier by the fact that he had for some time past been a dispatch rider (with his own motor cycle) for the Local Defence Volunteers.

With the arrival of the Japanese, Haji Othman, like many other Malayans, found himself in an awkward position. He had been, and in a sense still was, manager of Majlis, a newspaper which the Japanese regarded as having been pro-British, and which have been forced to stop publication shortly after the British surrender. Most of the editorial staff has left Kuala Lumpur. Haji Othman himself was uncertain what attitude the Japanese would take towards him, but eventually he plucked up courage, went to see the local military commander, and asked for permission to resume publication. Somewhat to his surprise, permission was granted, subject to the condition that the name of the paper, with its colonialist associations, be changed. Thus it was that Perubahan Bahru appeared, published under Haji Othman’s direction until Abdul Rahim Kajai took over the editorship at the end of 1942.

After the war, Haji Othman spent some time trying to piece together the remnants of the family business (his father had died in 1945) and then retired to live quietly with his wife and children. For him political life was over, just as for most of his fellows it had barely begun. He became a member of UMNO, but held no office. Today he lives in a tiny suburban house in Petaling Jaya, surrounded by his family, his friends and his memories. His early and active life spanned some of the most difficult and formative years of awakening Malay nationalism, and his contribution to its growth was by no means a negligible one. Now he has handed over to others and seldom talks about the past – except, of course, when he meets someone like met at a wedding.

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