LUMPURThe winners usually get to write the history books, at least
until the next generation has an opportunity for revisionism. In Southeast Asia
the losers in the independence-era struggles for power have been mostly
forgotten. They have died, or long retired from the political fray. Extended
periods in prison removed losers from the public eye and censorship kept their
views out of circulation.
Winners have become "founding fathers"
and the details of how they got there often forgotten. In the eyes of
dissidents, the grip that that has been kept on what can be published locally,
and the self-censorship of foreign media in countries from which they draw
revenues, has added to the one-dimensional view of the region's post-1945
So it comes as something of a jolt to be
reminded of the name Said Zahari. Forty years ago, this Singaporean Malay was
among the most prominent names in Singapore and Malaysia.
A nationalist and a journalist who became
editor of Utusan Melayu, the most influential Malay paper in both countries, he
might have been expected to be one of the beneficiaries of the overthrow of
colonial rule. Instead in 1963, the day after being appointed president of the
Singapore People's Party, he was arrested under the Internal Security Act and
spent the next 17 years in jail without ever being charged.
Though released in 1979, only now has Mr.
Zahari, a Singaporean citizen resident in Malaysia, been in a position to give
to a local audience an account of his life as journalist, politician and
political prisoner. "Dark Clouds at Dawn: A Political Memoir" has been released
here in Malay, English and Chinese editions That it has been published in
Malaysia and is obtainable in Singapore is testament, Mr. Zahari believes, to a
more liberal spirit gathering momentum in the region. It may also be the
beginning of a re-examination of post-1945 history and its heroes.
Mr. Zahari is counted a hero by many on
at least two counts. In 1961 he lead a strike by Utusan Melayu journalists in
Malaya against the paper's takeover by the United Malays National Organization,
then as now the governing party in Malaysia.
For Mr. Zahari's strike efforts, he was
expelled to Singapore. But that did him little good. He was one of many arrested
in 1963 when Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party government, in cahoots with
the British who were about cede sovereignty, detained the leaders of the main
opposition party and other leftists and nationalists opposed to the creation of
Malaysia. The opposition never recovered from this onslaught.
Unlike others, Mr. Zahari never chose the
relatively easy way out of jail by confessing to being a communist. He stuck it
out in jail. Mr. Zahari now quotes British official archives that make no
suggestion that he was a communist or advocated violence.
Mr. Zahari was a fervent anti-colonialist
in tune with the nationalism and state socialism of President Sukarno of
Indonesia or President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. He was at odds with
conservative pro-Western leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman. To
Mr. Zahari, the retiring colonial power was keen to see such leaders as
successors who would make the region safe for Anglo-American interests.
Mr. Zahari makes the case that the threat
of communism in Singapore and Malaysia, though real, was exaggerated. The
British played up the Chinese origins of Malayan communism, as well as its
godless nature, to tame Malay nationalism. Singapore used the communist tag for
years to justify jailing all kinds of critics, including Catholic activists.
Despite his treatment, Mr. Zahari, now
73, is neither bitter nor pessimistic. He does not think that the states created
by the end of colonialism will break up. He believes that the multiethnic
politics espoused by many in preindependence Malaya and Singapore is regaining
ground. He also expects that past events will be re-examined by professional
Let's hope that future accounts rely not
just on the memoirs of the committed players, whether Mr. Zahari's slim volume
or the much-quoted tomes of the man who jailed him, Lee Kuan Yew.