(Used by permission)
by Fahmi Reza
ON Oct 20,1947,the whole of Malaya and Singapore bore witness to the first political action that involved the united action of people of all races – the Malaya–wide hartal.
The hartal, a general strike and the halting of economic activity, was effectively used in the Indian struggle for independence. It was used for the first time in Malaya by the left–wing coalition, Putera–AMCJA as a weapon against British colonialism.
Putera–AMCJA was a united front comprising two major political forces in Malaya: the Pusat Tenaga Ra’ayat (Centre for People’s Power) and the All–Malaya Council of Joint Action.
The AMCJA was a federation of political parties, labour unions, women’s associations and youth organisations that was inaugurated on Dec 22, 1946 in Kuala Lumpur.
The main organisations in the AMCJA was the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), Pan–Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU),12–State Women’s Federation in Malaya, Malayan New Democratic Youth League (MNDYL) and the Malayan People’s Anti–Japanese Ex–Service Comrades’ Association.
Although dominated by left–leaning parties,the AMCJA was led by a prominent Straits–born capitalist,Tan Cheng Lock.
Putera was a coalition inaugurated on Feb 22,1947,consisting of Malay left–wing parties such as Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (Api), Angkatan Wanita Sedar (Awas), Barisan Tani Se–Malaya (Batas), Gerakan Angkatan Muda (Geram), Lembaga Persatuan Melayu Johor, and other smaller organisations.
Putera was led by Ishak Haji Muhammad, a journalist and nationalist who was also one of the founders of Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) in 1938.
Putera–AMCJA succeeded in bringing together all the political parties in Malaya except the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in a popular people’s front to protest the Federation Constitution that was formulated by the British to replace the Malayan Union.
The coalition argued that the Federation Constitution was undemocratic because it was formulated in secret consultations between the colonial government and the Malay aristocracy,and sidelined the opinions and wishes of the Malayan people who sought democracy and self–governance.
For Putera–AMCJA, the British action of consulting only one party was part of a divisive “divide and rule” tactic. It held mass demonstrations throughout Malaya to protest.
At each gathering, attended by thousands from all races, Putera–AMCJA leaders such as Tan Cheng Lock,Ishak Haji Muhammad, John Thivy, Philip Hoalim Sr, Dr Burhanuddin Helmy, Gerald de Cruz, Ahmad Boestamam, K. Ganapathy and Shamsiah Fakeh explained the importance of people from all races uniting to fight the Federation Constitution and to back Putera–AMCJA’s struggles.
The coalition also held mass meetings throughout Malaya to gain endorsements for resolutions opposing the Federation Constitution. Hundreds of telegrams and protest letters were sent to the British government. But the British did not pay heed to any of this.
The People’s Constitution
Putera–AMCJA realised they needed a stronger and more progressive programme to win mass support. From May 1947,it began drafting an alternative constitution to challenge the Federation Constitution.
On Aug 10, 1947, the People’s Constitution was completed, taking into consideration the opinions and aspirations of the different factions within the Putera–AMCJA pact. It was a comprehensive document that covered provisions for a democratic system of government, towards establishing a new nationality and an independent nation–state.
The Straits Times dubbed the People’s Constitution as “the first political attempt to put Malayan party politics on a plane higher than that of rival racial interests, and also as the first attempt to build a political bridge between the domiciled non–Malay communities and the Malay race”.
On Sept 21, 1947, the People’s Constitution was presented for the first time to more than 20,000 people who had gathered at Farrer Park, Singapore. Subsequently, Putera–AMCJA began a national campaign to explain the contents of the People’s Constitution to Malayans.
Meetings, mass gatherings, and demonstrations were held in various places to get the people’s support.
The constitution was published in four languages and disseminated throughout the states. Copies were also sent to the Malayan Union Government, the British Prime Minister and the Colonial Office in London.
Yet once more, the British refused to pay attention to Putera–AMCJA or to hold discussions. The colonial government also rejected all proposals in the People’s Constitution.
On Oct 6, 1947, Putera–AMCJA released a “Hartal Manifesto”. It called upon all those who regarded Malaya as their home to observe Oct 20, 1947 as a Day of Protest against the Revised Constitutional Proposals,by staging a Malaya–wide hartal on that day.
“October 20 has been selected as the Day of Protest because it is on that day that the British Parliament is scheduled to begin its autumn session, during which it is reported that a debate on the constitutional issue in Malaya will take place.
“On October 20, therefore, between the hours of six a.m. and midnight, all those who regard Malaya as their real home and who support the People’s Constitution issued by Putera–AMCJA, are asked not to carry out their usual occupations, but to remain indoors throughout the day and night.
“You are asked for one day to cease work in order to demonstrate to government that you reject the Revised Constitutional Proposals, and in order to carry our struggle for acceptance of the People’s Constitution one step further.
“October 20 is the day on which the people of Malaya will be called upon to stage the greatest political demonstration that this country has ever seen.”
The campaign to promote the hartal began on Oct 7. Its aim was to ensure the hartal’s success and to prove to the British that the masses were behind the hartal.
Full hartal instructions were issued on how it should be observed, and “12 Hartal Slogans” that pinpointed the reasons for the hartal were sent to the media, all the parties within Putera–AMCJA, and to the 30 Putera–AMCJA centres throughout Malaya to be translated and disseminated to the people so that they fully understood the hartal’s aim as a political act.
Committees were set up in each state to align and plan activities for the hartal. Propaganda corps were established to tour the towns, districts and kampung to put up posters and banners,as well as give out leaflets explaining the hartal and the People’s Constitution.
Thus, on Oct 20, 1947, beginning from 6am,the whole of Malaya underwent the hartal. Merchants shut their shops, labourers stopped going to the mines, factories, shipyards, and rubber plantations, farmers did not work their lands, fishing folk stayed ashore, housewives did not go to the markets, and the youth stayed away from amusement parks. Only colonial government offices, European stores and several other shops operated as usual.
It was estimated that the British colonial government suffered £4 million in losses from the nationwide strike that day.
According to the Putera–AMCJA, the hartal was also “a unique method of political education. It brought the constitutional issue into every home in the country, and confronted every man, woman and child with this issue. Even in the Government English schools, children in the fourth and fifth standards questioned their teachers about the hartal, asked about its nature and why the government was opposed to it”.
Even though the hartal was a complete success in its execution, it failed to change British constitutional policy in Malaya. The British rejected the People’s Constitution and stayed committed to their agreement with the Malay aristocracy and defended their Federation Constitution.
On Feb 1, 1948, the Federation of Malaya was inaugurated to replace the Malayan Union.
Then, to crush Putera–AMCJA’s continued protests against the new Federation of Malaya, the British declared a state of Emergency throughout Malaya in June 1948.
Thousands of Putera–AMCJA leaders and members were arrested. Most were locked up in detention camps for several years while others were banished.
Most of the organisations affiliated to Putera–AMCJA were banned or dissolved. This was the turning point ad marked the beginning of the end of the constitutional independence struggle of the left in Malaya.
Fahmi Reza is the director of Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka, a short documentary film that chronicles the events that culminated in the Malayawide hartal day of protest against British colonial rule on Oct 20, 1947.