Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy’s name is not alien in Malaysian political and intellectual discourse. He was an intellectual from Perak who has spent his whole life in the fight of achieving independence. His family and educational background has molded his worldview in the cause that he was fighting in. The same goes for his political involvement, whereby his long political journey stretched from Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) to Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) and lastly in Parti Islam Se-Malaya (PAS). Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy’s political ideas such as the idea of Malay nationalism, Greater Malaya, and Islam have also shaped the political nature of this nation. Safe to say that, without him, the fight for independence might take a really different course.
Few years after Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy’s return to Malaya, his political career started after he was invited by several leaders of Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) to join them to strengthen their cause. As one of the prominent and highly reputable individuals in Malaya, his presence would boost their credibility in the Malay community. However, there was only a short involvement of him recorded during his time at KMM as it was interrupted after the invasion by the Japanese occupation in World War II.
Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM)
Although his time in KMM only lasted for a few years, it was the moment that significantly affected his journey in Malayan politics throughout his life. The idea of Greater Malaya which was the core of the KMM principle was engraved in his struggle to liberate Malaya from the colonialists as well as to unite all the Malays in the Malay Peninsula. Thus, to achieve these goals, KMM decided to cooperate with the Japanese invasion. They believed the Japanese would promise to give them independence, but it was only their wishful thinking. The Japanese oppressed and made the Malays feared and angered even more. Dr. Burhanuddin was selected as the Advisor of Malay Custom and Culture as an approach for the Japanese to keep a good rapport with the Malays (Abbas, 2019). He used his position to raise up the spirit and nationalist movement among the Malays to fight against the invaders which led to his capture by the Japanese two times. In 1942, the KMM was forced to be dissolved and banned after the Japanese felt threatened by their organization.
Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM)
After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, another nationalist political party was formed as an initiative to demand independence. Dr. Burhanuddin once again was invited and selected as its vice-chairman and later became its second chairman replacing Mokhtaruddin Lasso who decided to leave Malaya in 1946. The PKMM was greatly influenced by the nationalist development in Indonesia as its foundation resembles the Indonesian philosophy of Pancasila. During his time as the PKMM chairman, he advocated a similar principle when he was in KMM. The idea of union between Malaya and Indonesia remained his goal in the effort to gain independence. For example, at the time the British proposed the idea of the Malayan Union, PKMM was among the first political parties to support the idea as it was in line with their idea of unity (inclusion of Singapore into Malayan Union) to include every state in Malaya.
However, after a few considerations were taken, PKMM withdrew its support and joined hands with UMNO to oppose the idea. This happened as it was reported because the proposed administrative system was in line with the idea of PKMM who wished to have full autonomy and sovereignty in Malaya. Nevertheless, the union with UMNO was also short-lived after PKMM decided to pull back due to the differences in ideology. PKMM was seen as more radical and anti-Western while UMNO was seen as more tolerant and pro-Western. In the Annual General Meeting 1946 in Ipoh, PKMM decided to pull out due to the disagreement on the flag proposal and party electoral system. It is recorded that they disapproved of including the ‘keris’ symbol in the flag. The rejection was actually made by Ahmad Boestamam and not Dr. Burhanuddin as he did not attend the meeting (Saili & Karim, 2013). This act was regarded as a challenge to his leadership and his moderate attitude. However, he did not punish other representatives as the withdrawal was assumed official and this indicated the beginning of the conflict between UMNO and PKMM to gain Malay support.
In 1947, PKMM cooperated with other leftist parties like AMCJA to oppose the proposal of the Federation of Malaya 1948 with another alternative called Perlembagaan Rakyat 1947 or People’s Constitution 1947 (Ismail, 2015). Anyhow, the People’s Constitution failed as it was rejected by the British, UMNO, and the Malay royalties which led to the dissolution of the cooperation (Saat et al, 2018). Then, the PKMM and other leftist parties were banned during the 1948 Emergency after they were seen as a threat to the British.
Parti Islam Se-Malaya (PAS)
Next, after PAS lost miserably in the 1955 Election, Dr. Burhanuddin was invited to lead the party and become their third President. The was made to strengthen their standing in Malayan politics as Dr. Burhanuddin was known for his charisma and credibility. Although there were conflicts among the existing leadership on the decision, he managed to silence the critics by leading the party to win many seats in the 1959 Election. During his time in PAS, he still did not give up to pursue his goal of Greater Malaya or Greater Indonesia. He proposed the motion of ‘rupa bangsa’ in Parliament but was rejected even by his own party. Due to this, PAS lost support in the 1964 Election.
During the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation from 1963 to 1966, he was caught for the allegation of being a spy and traitor to Malaysia. This is due to his view of being Indonesian-friendly and his idea of the union. He was then partially released in 1966 but with some terms and restrictions to not being involved in politics (although until then he still held the Presidency of PAS) until September 1969. However, he was too ill due to the bad treatment that he faced in jail to even participate in politics. He later died in October 1969 (Ismail, 2015).
Dr. Burhanuddin’s major political ideas influenced his movement and also those around him, and this includes Malay nationalism, the idea of Greater Malaya, Islam, and Politics.
Dr. Burhanuddin was a Malay nationalist that believed all Muslims should take part in nationalism. It could be seen through his propagation that the nationalism that should be taken a part of is for independence, humanity, and well-being. Some would argue that Dr. Burhanuddin’s nationalism is strayed away from Islam, but he affirmed that his notion of nationalism is of guidance from Al-Quran. He quotes Surah Hujurat verse 13, ‘O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.’ This shows that Dr. Burhanuddin’s nationalism is only a means and foundation of a Malay state and it is not an objective. He also affirmed that anyone from any racial group who is ready to show indispensable obedience to the land is qualified for Malay patriotism (Omar, 2005).
The idea of greater Malaya has been one of the prominent ideas that Dr. Burhanuddin tried to fight for. As explained before, his dream was almost realized but as the Japanese had surrendered, he did not manage to see the unification of Malaya and Indonesia. Dr. Burhanuddin believes that the Malay world should no longer be segregated and should be unified. He proposed a widened territory of Malaysia to include Indonesia, Phillippine, Singapore, Brunei, Sabah, and Sarawak. He fought for the ideas through several means, for example in his first party Kesatuan Melayu Muda, and when he was a Member of Parliament for Besut. Here it shows how committed Dr. Burhanuddin is to unify the Malay world by using his utmost capacity in fulfilling his dream (Ahmad,2011).
Islam and Politics
Saili & Karim (2013) mentioned that Dr. Burhanuddin was raised in a religious family, and this has shaped his political ideas to be inclined towards Islamic values. Dr. Burhanuddin’s famous quote is that ‘religion cannot be adjusted to politics, but politics has to be in line with the religion’. In his writing in Perjuangan Kita (Our Struggle), he quoted a Quranic verse from Surah Ar-Ra’d, ‘Verily, Allâh does not change the condition of a people until they (first) change their ways and their minds.’ He interpreted this verse to call upon all Malays that they should fight hard to have a brighter future. He further mentioned that Islam and politics can never be separated, the purpose of politics is to serve justice, to differentiate between right and wrong, to lead a new civilization, to strengthen global diplomacy, and to ensure equal rights. This objective does not stray from the religion of Islam and therefore Dr. Burhanuddin has always stayed firm in upholding Islamic values along with his involvement in politics.
Left or Right?
One of the most interesting discussions on Dr. Burhanuddin’s thoughts is whether he is a leftist or a rightist. Most people would call him a leftist as he has joined a more radical party such as Kesatuan Melayu Muda. But there are practices and values that Dr. Burhanuddin does that could be translated as being a ‘conservative’ and a ‘rightist’. He is religious and stays firm in Islamic teaching and values. He also fought on Malay nationalism and patriotism as well as wanting to unify the Malay states through Greater Malaya. He also believes that all races could be identified as Malay as long as they are prepared to show paramount loyalty to Malaya. To discuss this matter further, it has to be viewed from the perspective that being conservative does not necessarily mean one is a rightist. One can be progressive, at the same time still stay true to the cause of religion and nationalism values.
We can see that Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy is a unique figure. Some researchers disputed his ideology whether he is a conservative or progressive, or whether he belonged to the left-wing or right-wing group. In this piece, we have unraveled some of his idea and struggle. We cannot deny his contribution and struggle to liberate Malaya from colonialism despite being on the opposite of mainstream belief. His idea of Malay nationalism and the Greater Malaya indicated how different he is from other figures. Although his idealism was not successfully executed, the value remained and engraved to many people throughout generations who believed in his endeavor. Hence, we leave it to the readers (and audiences) to assess him. However, we believed a thorough analysis and further discussion should be made to discover and dig deeper into this charismatic persona.
Anas Hayyan adalah aktivis mahasiswa yang suka dengan tekanan menonton Netflix ketika dilimpahi dengan komitmen organisasi dan akademik. Juga meminati politik khususnya diplomasi dan dasar-dasar awam.
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