The present is where we get lost — if we forget our past and have no vision of the future.
— Ayi Kwei Armah
The Political Testament of API1Ahmad Boestamam, Testament Politik API (1946) drafted by Ahmad Boestamam, one of the founders of the Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API, Conscious Youth Movement) in December 1946 embodies a profound commitment to anticolonialism. API was the youth wing of the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM, Malay Nationalist Party of Malaya), a radical left-wing nationalist party established in December 1945 to fight for Malayan independence. API was formed in February 1946 during a rally organised by the PKMM to celebrate Indonesia’s six month independence.
After the Second World War, the British colonial government returned to Malaya and felt the urgent need to release itself from the cumbersome three-fold system of administration which consisted of the Federated Malay States, the Unfederated Malay States, and the Straits Settlements. To effectuate this new change, the British decided to put forward a constitutional scheme that would embody a unified system of administration under a strong central government — a scheme known as the “Malayan Union”.
The Malayan Union, which sought to transfer full power and jurisdiction in all Malay states to the British colonial government, attracted strong opposition from the Malays. As a result, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), a right-wing nationalist organisation was formed by Malay aristocrats in May 1946 to oppose the scheme. It is important to note that the PKMM and API, which at first worked with UMNO to oppose this scheme, decided to withdraw all cooperation as UMNO was only interested in protecting the interests of the aristocrats and the monarchs rather than fighting for the complete independence of Malaya.
To achieve their goal, the PKMM and API proceeded to join hands with various political parties, trade unions, youth organisations, and women’s associations comprising members of all races. API, in particular, played a significant role in carrying out a Malaya-wide campaign to raise consciousness amongst the masses. API unequivocally averred that the attainment of freedom was contingent upon genuine independence which sought to liberate oppressed and colonised people not only politically, but also socially and economically. The Political Testament of API, whose spirit carries immense potential to turn unfreedom on its head and breathe life into freedom, however, has been removed from Malaysia’s national consciousness.
It is worth noting that the historical silences around radical opposition to British colonialism like API’s are also evident in the historical writing about “British Malaya” whose concerns centre around the development and execution of British colonial policy. Anthony Milner has described the way in which the history of “British Malaya” has been written as “colonial” where the British are portrayed as “the principal actors in the period, the initiators of action.”2Anthony Milner, “Colonial Records History: British Malaya” Modern Asian Studies, 21: 4 (1987), 774.
One of the many functions of unfreedom is to limit our imagination. It tells us that another world where we can be free is impossible. To dream of a world where possibilities abound and speak about those possibilities would inevitably attract a barrage of condemnation and ridicule. It can be immobilising and alienating to be punished for having the courage to dream and be told that the act of dreaming of something radically different is futile, purist, unrealistic, and should be abandoned and never be spoken of.
The shaming that often befalls someone who dares to imagine differently is illustrative of what Paulo Freire described as the “fear of freedom”.3Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 36. The fear of freedom, which carries doubts and misgivings, emanates from the oppression inflicted by the oppressor and internalised by the oppressed. Not only does this fear relegate the oppressed to the wretched position assigned by the oppressor, but it also instils in the hearts and minds of the oppressed that the oppressor’s dehumanising way is the only way that should inform the terms of the oppressed’s existence and how they interact with the world they live in.
As a result, we become detached from the very essence of our existence — our dignity as human beings. Dehumanisation becomes something we not only tolerate but believe in. Unfreedom consequently becomes inscribed into our minds; deference to power becomes the norm that is often weaponised against dissenting dreamers. Unfreedom poses a great danger to our humanity. It occludes our ability to tell the difference between crumbs and the whole loaf of bread and understand that the slightly loosened shackles wrapped around our necks are still the same shackles that are preventing us from flying. Unfreedom clouds us from seeing that evil takes many forms and can never be hierarchised; it clouds us from seeing that lesser evilism is an illusion created to obstruct people from working to eradicate evil in all its forms. How did we get here? Why is freedom — which essentially means the absence of all forms of oppression and violence, and that nobody in our society goes hungry, without a home, education, healthcare — viewed with such disdain?
The systematic silencing and erasure of what we were and what the world could have been throughout history plays an enormous role in reinforcing this fear of freedom. How can we possibly know ourselves and our present, and change the miserable conditions we find ourselves in without learning about what came before us and how it defines what we are today? To continue turning our backs on history and insist on its death will inevitably be the death of us. Given this imminence, we cannot afford to treat history as a matter of the past. In emphasising the importance of critically examining one’s existence vis-à-vis history, Antonio Gramsci observed:
The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thy-self’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.4Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 324.
History, in particular the history of colonialism, is replete with fierce opposition to and denial of freedom. But it is crucial to be reminded that history also constitutes a reservoir of the yearning of the oppressed to break free from the state of unfreedom — a reservoir that has been long buried by the oppressor. To uncover what history entails and critically examine its silences, erasures, and distortions means to consciously resist forgetting and dispel the dehumanising colonial myth that colonised subjects were, as Amílcar Cabral put it, “peoples without history”.5Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapons of Theory,” in Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), 125 Only by doing so can we break down the walls that have long imprisoned our ability to imagine and act.
Independence with blood
The Political Testament of API illustrates one of the manifestations of the yearning of the colonised to liberate themselves from the yoke of oppression — a yearning that has long been silenced. The Testament, which starts and ends with the slogan “Merdeka dengan Darah” (Independence with Blood), pays tribute to the anticolonial movements led by the youth around the world, in particular the anticolonial movement in Indonesia. Citing the Russian Revolution as one of its inspirations, API was committed to achieving unconditional liberation with all its might, even if it meant death. The Testament affirms:
There is not a single nation on this earth that was once colonised that gained genuine, total independence because it was handed to them, but because it was fought for with blood.
Given the immense responsibility carried on its shoulders, API is committed to achieving total liberation of the nation and homeland by any means necessary.6All translations from the text are by the author of this review.
The Testament makes it clear that armed struggle which involves the use of violence is necessary to counter the violence unleashed by colonialism. This aspect of resistance requires closer examination given how contentious the question of violence is today. It dispels the pervasive ruling idea that Malayan independence was achieved solely by peaceful means; rebellion was never part of the national culture, and therefore should be unequivocally condemned. It is important to note that this idea underplays the fact that UMNO — to which API was ideologically opposed — colluded with the British to suppress the left-wing anticolonial movement through the imposition of the so-called Emergency which lasted from 1948 to 1960. As Azmi Arifin highlights in his study of the historiography of Malay nationalism from 1945 to 1957: “Realising that the rightist Malay leaders were not entirely anti-British, the British approached these leaders to seek a deal that would diminish the influence of the leftist movement”.7Azmi Arifin, “Local Historians and the Historiography of Malay Nationalism 1945-57: The British, The United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and the Malay Left” Kaijan Malaysia, 32:1 (2014), 14.
The idea that non-violence has been the only defining feature of the national culture continued to be reinforced by the UMNO ruling elite (and internalised by the people) after independence. The perpetuation of this idea serves two purposes. First, it erases the fact that colonialism and other interlocking systems of oppression — racism, capitalism, feudalism, patriarchy, imperialism — were forms of violence. This erasure is necessary for maintaining these systems and their different manifestations whose implications continue to deny people their full humanisation today. Second, it equates the violence used by the oppressed to liberate themselves from oppression with the violence unleashed by such oppression.
Not only does this false equation mask the enormity of the violence inflicted by the oppressor, but it also serves to delegitimise radical opposition to it. It conceals the fact that the oppression inflicted by the oppressor on the oppressed thrives on asymmetrical power relations. When carried out without intervention, this function further entrenches the state of unfreedom which continues to rob people of their dignity and humanity. Freire’s observation of the question of violence is noteworthy:
Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.
It is important to note that API’s commitment to translating its emancipatory imagination into action became a cause for concern. API’s growing influence amongst the masses posed a serious threat to British colonial rule. To alleviate their fear, the British banned API in July 1947, making it the first organisation to be outlawed in Malaya. API’s leader Boestamam was put on trial for sedition. Tim Harper’s observation concerning colonial repression of resistance in Malaya is worth recalling: “It was API, and not the Chinese left, that provoked the British government into passing legislation to narrow the parameters of political activity”.8Tim Harper, The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1999), 119.
Redistribution of wealth
It is noteworthy that the Testament also avers that total freedom can only be achieved when people are politically, economically, and socially free. It explains the principles upon which the doctrine concerning redistribution of wealth and reorganisation of society ought to be based. To achieve political sovereignty, the text emphasises the urgent need for an independent nation to uphold a democracy that is genuine — a democracy that seeks to embed people’s sovereignty in its heart.
The essence of this democracy, according to the Testament, is that all power emanates from the people who constitute the vast majority of the population. This power is to be exercised solely to ensure that their collective interests are unconditionally safeguarded and upheld:
API seeks to build an independent nation that upholds a democracy that is genuine; a government of the people, by the people, a government that is run by the people’s representatives for the benefit, welfare, and security of the people.
As regards economic sovereignty, the Testament states that the responsibility lies with the state to implement economic programmes aimed at redistributing the nation’s wealth to the masses. These economic programmes ought to be designed to lift the people out of poverty and enhance their living standards. They should incorporate the right to free education, the right to mother tongue education, the right to freedom of association, the right to free healthcare, the right to decent and safe housing, and agrarian reform.
The Testament emphasises the need for reorganisation of society to resolve the antagonisms between the capitalist classes and the proletariat, plus the marhaeans. “Marhaen” was the term used by Soekarno in 1924 to refer to farmers who owned and worked on small farms but were destitute. This reorganisation requires the abolition of classes whose function is to enable the upper classes to subjugate, exploit, and impoverish people of the lower classes. In stressing that only by eliminating classes can society be liberated socially, the Testament states:
The unequal economic system that is currently in place creates two classes, the capitalist class and the Marhaen (proletariat). These two classes are in conflict due to the irreconcilability of their different interests — where the former oppresses and exploits the latter. API believes that in order to obtain social justice, the class conflict must be eliminated.
Radical change vs. reform
To achieve total liberation, the Testament unequivocally opts for a radical overthrow of the systems of oppression built, controlled, and run by the capitalist ruling classes instead of reform. It emphasises that only by overthrowing these oppressive systems can meaningful change be brought about in totality and without delay. In short, it vows to never compromise with the oppressor. This method requires that the masses be conscientised and organised to utilise their labour to realise their goal.
Reform, on the other hand, relies solely on compromise and air liur (empty words devoid of meaningful action) — in other words, performativity. The Testament avers that opting for reform as a method also puts people in a position to beg for what is rightfully theirs: the first method requires struggle, labour, property, and blood; the second method rests solely on empty words.
Reform, the Testament warns, would inevitably hamper the total change that is desperately needed to put an end to all systems of oppression that fortify the state of unfreedom. It understands with immense clarity that the oppressor’s house that was never built to accommodate the oppressed needs to be demolished and replaced, not repaired.
API’s decolonial and anticolonial vision
By centering class antagonisms and their irreconcilability, the Testament makes explicit how the class system creates the division that empowers the upper classes to continually subject the lower classes to subjugation, domination, and exploitation. After laying bare the cause of the mass suffering, the Testament emphasises that it is the masses’ responsibility to resist and put an end to the systems of oppression that are responsible for their suffering. To achieve this, the Testament calls for the abolition of classes which necessitates a revolutionary struggle organised and led solely by the might of the people, followed by a total reorganisation of society through redistribution of wealth.
API’s commitment to mass organisation was evident in its ballooning membership which grew from 2,560 members in the year it was established to between 10,000 and 15,000 members in mid-1947. It is noteworthy that API was also instrumental in organising the masses to participate in the Malaya-wide hartal (general strike) in October 1947 which the Indian Daily Mail described as “the greatest country-wide political strike in the history of Malaya”.9Indian Daily Mail, 14 November 1947 The strike was carried out to protest the British colonial government’s decision to reject the 1947 People’s Constitution. API had notably undertaken the crucial task of elevating critical consciousness amongst the masses — consciousness that had moved and empowered them to act collectively to reclaim their sovereignty and be in charge of their own destiny.
What makes the text a vital instrument of liberation and a rarity is its incorporation of what Freire described as “dialogics” — the word that embodies reflection and action; the word that is capable of transforming reality, awakening critical consciousness, and moving people to act. The radicalism and clarity of the terms and principles which inform API’s struggle for the full humanisation of the oppressed and colonised echo Frantz Fanon’s observation concerning the importance of building national consciousness — the kind that seeks to uphold humanism:
The living expression of the nation is the moving consciousness of the whole of the people; it is the coherent, enlightened action of men and women. The collective building up of a destiny is the assumption of responsibility on the historical scale.10Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 204.
API’s undivided commitment to freedom, reflected both in its revolutionary decolonial and anticolonial theory and praxis, ought not to be forgotten. It is worth remembering that the silencing of this part of history is not fortuitous. It is deliberately and systematically perpetuated to prevent the awakening of critical consciousness — meant to propel people to act to restore their lost humanity — while leaving the various systems of oppression unchallenged. In light of this, the Political Testament of API undoubtedly serves as an important frame of reference for reminding us that to imagine another world and act to achieve it is not only possible but also imperative.
Fadiah Nadwa Fikri is a PhD candidate at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, studying resistance to British colonialism in Malaya. Her research interests include decolonisation, transnational solidarity, and Third World feminisms.