Social Roots of the Malay Left by Rustam A. Sani (SIRD, 80 pages, 2008)
The copyright page of a book is not usually a source of pathos. But this slim volume is an unhappy exception, as the author is listed as “Rustam A Sani, 1944 – “. The unfortunate story this conceals is that the writer died just a few days after the book came back from the printer. Subsequent editions will, I trust, add the year 2008 for necessary closure.
Rustam had been one of Malaysia’s leading public intellectuals for some time. I used to follow his Utusan Malaysia column in the 1990s before it became a casualty of those heady ‘Mahathir vs Anwar’ days. (Which is not to say that those days are over).
Many of those pieces were later collected in the book Menjelang Reformasi (2004), which critiqued various aspects of the Mahathir administration. His phrase ‘illiberal democracy’ to describe Malaysian governance seems imperishable.
Unlike Hishamuddin Rais (whom we discussed earlier), Rustam’s voice is not slangy or hip. But this doesn’t mean boring, as his measured tone can also include its own style of sarcasm. His background in sociology also gave him an ability to analyse hot-button issues in the wider context of our people, history and environment.
Although touted as a new book, Social Roots of the Malay Left is actually his 1975 Masters thesis. It’s also very specific: You get what the title promises and not much more.
Despite its specificity, this book will make you happy. No, it won’t help you generate wealth, find true love or get a better body. But it will make you see that our history is not nearly as boring as you have been led to believe. And for that alone, gratitude is in order.
They say that history is written by the victors and, whadda ya know, they were right again! Watching the 50th Merdeka countdown last year, you may have thought that our national narrative was a linear and uncomplicated one in which UMNO was simply responsible for everything. Even the party slogan dulu, kini dan selamanya (then, now and forever) is reminiscent of some boyband line that speaks of perpetual, selfless devotion. But like most boyband lyrics, it should be taken with a fair-sized bowl of salt.
Rustam starts off by saying that we should discard the conventional Western definition of ‘Left’. There is no evidence to suggest that the protagonists of this book spent all their time worrying about how best to apply the writings of Marx or Trotsky to the nation.
Instead, ‘Left’ should be understood within the communal politics that characterised our society. The protagonists here, such as the founders of Kesatuan Melayu Muda (the first party to call for independence) were ‘Left’ in the sense that they did not come from the ranks of nobility. They were, instead, teachers and journalists. So this is why the roots of the movement can best be understood in social rather than purely ideological terms.
Some folks were even prepared to take up arms and cooperate with the more radical elements of the Communist Party of Malaya (the nation’s first political party). This is why Malay leftists were seen as a bigger threat than the ‘negotiating table’ style of UMNO, and why many were placed behind bars.
An interesting point raised here is that Malay literature became ‘defeudalised’ within one generation. Fictional stories used to be about kings but by the 1950s they were all about commoners. But in Malay politics, particularly of the ‘Right’, feudal sentiments still persist.
There’s also a thrilling bit of drama here where Rustam disputes an analysis offered by his father Ahmad Boestamam (without revealing the family connection) relating to the continuity between two early parties. It’s not quite Oedipal but it livens things up considerably.
A few sentences appear to have been altered since 1975 – chiefly his characterisation of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) as a descendent of Malay leftist parties. Some hard-core socialists may scoff at this description. But, at the very least, the multiracial nature of PKR points the way to a more inclusive brand of politics.
Which brings us to the question that Rustam has pondered elsewhere: How do we now transform Malay nationalism into Malaysian nationalism?
(Malay Mail, 9 May 2008).