Man at His Best

6 Notable Malaysians You May Or May Not Know

Authors, economists, nationalists and musician.

BY Jason S Ganesan | Aug 30, 2018 | Culture

1 | Sam Gopal

Before Motörhead rewrote music history, and Hawkwind boldly going where none had gone before, Lemmy Kilmister was a member of a late-1960s Biritsh psychedelic rock band, Sam Gopal. While it may sounds like an appropriation of some sham yogi peddling exoticism, Sam Gopal is in fact named after Sam Gopal, a boy from Penang.

Having played the tabla since age of seven, Gopal was sent to London to study music, but ended up changing it. Five years after his arrival, Gopal formed Sam Gopal’s Dream in 1967. The band was a tabla-based band that perfectly suited to the East-gazing zeitgeist, and ingratiating themselves in all the right circles (sharing bills with Piper-era Pink Floyd and even jamming with Jimi Hendrix), however they didn't last.

But Gopal was damned if he was going to let his tabla skills go to waste. In 1968, he formed a new band, Sam Gopal, with an all-new lineup: Roger D’Elia, Phil Duke, and of course, Lemmy. They released the album Escalator in 1969, before Lemmy departed for Hawkwind.

And then, poof. The world seemingly forgot about Sam Gopal, with their follow up album, Father Mucker, only coming out in 1999. Three decades might seem a long time to put out an album, and it’s tempting to attribute that to Gopal retaining some latent fondness for lepak. But in truth, the Escalator-era Sam Gopal lineup didn’t last long after the album came out, and Gopal had to reform the band yet again with entirely new faces, who were later to be called Cosmosis.

Sam Gopal/ Cosmosis did manage to get into the studio to record an album called Building B, but that momentum was snuffed when Gopal got into a nasty accident while he was riding on his Yamaha. Like a montage sequence in a kungfu movie, Gopal then spent years in Nepal perfecting his tabla-playing, before forming the band Sangit in Berlin, and then cutting a solo album (Largo) in Switzerland.

A further two albums were recorded with former bandmate Clark called Soap Opera and Not for Sale in Berlin, before Gopal started yet another band, Brain Tonic. The big comeback never really happened, but Gopal doesn’t seem to care too much. Neither is he too concerned that Sam Gopal is largely remembered now as a footnote in Lemmy’s illustrious biography. Fair enough, since most would sacrifice their left nut to take his place in rock lore.

2 | KS Jomo

Jomo Kwame Sundaram or better known as KS Jomo came into public prominence outside academic and technocrat circles during the 1998 political scandal—when he introduced the term “competitive sycophancy” into the local lexicon, on national TV, no less—which followed a long trend of not being particularly enamoured of Malaysian clientelism.

Jomo has always been at the edge of local consciousness: we all know who he is, either from his stints at local universities, visiting professorships in Cambridge and Cornell, or sitting on various UN committees, but not necessarily what he’s done.

Fair enough, since that aforementioned résumé deserves several longreads of their own. Where to start anyway? The high-ranking stints in UN DESA, FAO, UNRISD, the Stiglitz Commission, the G24 group? Founder of IDEAs and INSAN, or recipient of international awards for economics? Editor and author of over 100 books, and countless articles?

It seems a shame that we didn’t get together as a country and forcefully make him Prime Minister. But given that the much-derided millennials are generally less steeped in the Cold War fantasies of Baby Boomers, or the nihilism of their Gen X forbears, there is at least the hope that Jomo’s legacy will endure long after the parasitic tendencies of the powers that be who tried to hound him out of the country has been forgotten.

3 | Ahmad Boestamam

Perak is rightly known for producing more feisty nationalists per capita than any other Malaysian state, making it near impossible to pick a favourite son. But Ahmad Boestamam makes as good a case as any.

Born Abdullah Thani Raja Kecil (perhaps not the best name to establish leftie credentials) he changed it to Boestamam, in honour of Subhas Chandra Bose. Boestamam became a journalist after never finishing his law degree. Lucky for him, and lucky for us. Boestamam got to rub shoulders with the intelligentsia of the day, among whom full-scale nationalism—beyond the localised skirmishes that defined anti-colonialism struggle before it—began to flourish.

While working for Majlis, Boestamam joined his editor Ibrahim Yaacob’s legendary Kesatuan Melayu Muda, and quickly rose up the ranks. KMM never boasted a large membership, but was radical enough—and regrettably in hindsight, pro-Japanese enough—to warrant British crackdown. Most of KMM were thrown in jail, and were only freed because of the Japanese invasion.

But Boestamam was later able to negate the Japanese associations by establishing the commie-friendly Gerakan Kiri Tanah Air, and then Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya with Mokhtaruddin Lasso. Boestamam headed the youth wing, Angkatan Pemuda Insaf, and was able to steer the direction of PKMM away slightly from Lasso’s hardcore communism, and more towards a broadly socialist vision of an independent Malaya.

The British were bricking it. Nationalist sentiment was largely tolerated when it came from the local proxies they nurtured, but fomenting leftism threatened their intent to keep the colonies market-friendly. It needed to be nipped in the bud. Boestamam API’s testament, which preached egalitarianism as a true measure of democracy, earned him a sedition charge, which required him to pay a hefty fine to avoid prison time.

But Boestamam was imprisoned soon after anyway, when the British cracked down on the more radical elements in the AMCJA-Putera coalition—meaning that he sat out the early years of the Emergency. Boestamam was undeterred, forming Parti Rakyat Malaya soon after his release, which subsequently became part of the Socialist Front in time for the 1959 elections.

He won Setapak, but his term as an MP was cut short when he was accused by Tunku Abdul Rahman of being a pro-Indonesian agitator in the run-up to the formation of Malaysia, and was thrown in jail for a further four years. Thereafter, he lived out the rest of his years churning out didactic novels. Oddly enough, none of those were titled Meet the New Boss.

4 | Shamsiah Fakeh

When Boestamam was made head of API in PKMM, Shamsiah Fakeh was charged with leading the women’s wing, Angkatan Wanita Sedar. The two shared a little more than a common hatred of colonialism, with Boestamam being Shamsiah’s third husband. Interestingly, that marriage fell apart because of Boestamam’s aforementioned sedition charge, for which he chose to pay the fine, instead of toughing it out in jail.

Such is Shamsiah’s divine contempt for half-a*ssery. She is arguably the truest Malaysian embodiment of the Tan Malaka slogan, ‘Merdeka 100%.’ Where social democrat Boestaman was ‘saved’ somewhat by being imprisoned when 1948 rolled around, the choice for Shamsiah was a no-brainer: bear arms. It was time to fight, so Shamsiah headed for the jungles of Pahang to join Abdullah CD’s 10th Regiment of the Malayan National Liberation Army, where she earned the nickname "Ratu Rimba Malaya".

The 10th Regiment was able to pull off some small victories in Pahang, but a lack of arms forced their retreat up north towards Gua Musang on Chin Peng’s orders. The regiment became splintered on the way, with about 200 soldiers under Wahi Annuar—Shamsiah’s husband at the time—being cut off from the rest of the regiment. A small team under Musa Ahmad was sent to Temerloh to find the rest of the regiment, while the rest, including a pregnant Shamsiah, stayed behind in Padang Piol.

It turned out to be fateful, because those who stayed behind came under constant attack from security forces, and were forced to retreat further into the jungle. Being on the run, Shamsiah was convinced to hand over her newborn baby to local villagers so as to ease mobility. Unbeknownst to her, her fellow militants then threw the baby in the river.

With Wahi’s surrender, a lack of personnel and arms, the Briggs Plan, beefed up security forces, infighting within PKM, and morale being generally sh*t, the 10th Regiment had little choice but to cross the border into Betong, before making their way to Narathiwat (where, of course, some remain to this day). It would be enough to break most people. But Shamsiah was not most people. 

She was eventually sent to China with her then husband Ibrahim Mohamad to further their education. They were eventually tasked to do a Malay language broadcast on Radio Peking. Just as things were looking up, Shamsiah and Ibrahim were reassigned to Indonesia by the Malayan National Liberation League in the wake of the formation of Malaysia.

Then Suharto happened. Shamsiah and Ibrahim were arrested by Indonesian authorities, and thrown in jail for over a year. With expulsion from PKM to follow, Shamsiah and Ibrahim had nowhere else to go but to resettle in China, where they worked in a steel factory.

She was only allowed to return to Malaysia in 1994, but not as a hero—turncoat Musa Ahmad had made sure of that, telling the world that Shamsiah had killed her own child on that day in 1949. But Shamsiah lived long enough to have the last word, and will now forever be remembered as a symbol of empowerment, nationalism, feminism and general bada*sery. Musa Ahmad, not so much.

5 | Irene Fernandez

There was a picture that went semi-viral in 2014 of former migrant workers holding aloft a banner declaring their gratitude to Irene Fernandez when news of her death from heart failure broke. Slightly over a decade earlier, we were trying to put her in prison for a report on the abuses migrant workers suffer within immigration detention centres.

Her conviction after the seven-year trial was overturned eventually, but that didn’t mean that we had changed our ways; small improvements notwithstanding, Malaysia remains one of the worst destinations for migrant workers, with unspeakable crimes never seeing the light of day.

Primarily because the legal system is structured in such a way as to treat migrant workers like the convenient offal they are perceived to be. But the wheels of the death race-to-the-bottom economy must turn regardless; we need the cheap labour, and sending countries with failed economies need the remittance cash to prop up their GDPs. Fernandez knew that, and in her final few years, warned them to stay away.

But she never gave up; her Tenaganita still goes out of its way to provide shelter and advocate for the rights of the permanent underclass. She couldn’t give up, more like: social justice was her life’s work, abandoning the career safety of a teaching post at just 23 to focus on the forgotten art of community organisation, before moving to advocacy.

Even after the Abuse, Torture and Dehumanised Conditions of Migrant Workers in Detention Centres report that caused her to be branded a traitor—unsurprisingly, since the largest and most inhumane employers of migrant workers are well-connected plantations—Fernandez was undeterred by the threat of jail. Were she sent in, she said, “it will give me an opportunity to write a report on jail conditions and see what changes need to be made.”

Fittingly, it was on a plantation itself that Fernandez was first ‘woke’ as a child. The daughter of a plantation supervisor from India, she was told not to mingle with the children of labourers. She rebelled, of course; not just by not doing what they say, but taking aim at the very system of exploitation that would give rise to such ugly sentiments in the first place, and win international awards and recognition along the way.

‘Twas ever thus. With the exploitative economic model perpetuating through various incarnations, it is perhaps fortunate that Fernandez never got to see the Rohingya boat crisis and the mass graves—both occurring almost exactly a year after her death—or the wall of indifference we erected towards it.

6 | Lloyd Fernando

With Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng representing, and modern presses admirably populating bookstores with Malaysian literature in English, the gap in between often gets overlooked—two generations of writers who never really got the recognition (and sales) that they deserved, being forcefully pushed to the periphery.

Those generations, interestingly, can largely be traced back to a singular source: the University of Malaya Singapore, where Lloyd Fernando read English. Hobnobbing with the first generation of writers in English like Edwin Thumboo, Ee Tiang Hong and Wong Phui Nam, Fernando started his own literary journal called Write in 1957, to pick up where The Cauldron left off.

The Cauldron was fittingly named; it is a reference to the witches’ brew in Macbeth, with the eyes of newt and toes of frog being the various cultures of emerging nations Malaya and Singapore being thrown in together. Also fitting because the fire did burn, and the cauldron did bubble eventually, which changed the face of Malaysian literature in English.

But toil came before trouble. Fernando and his contemporaries were obsessed with a singular topic: a unique voice. Amidst the backdrop of anti-colonial sentiment, Merdeka, and subsequent nation-building, writers who operated in English were wondering whether it was kosher to be writing in English at all, and if so, how.

Academic Rajeev Patke called the initial attempts at “verbal ventriloquism,” because the styles and sensibilities of Malaysian and Singaporean literature in English seemed too heavily borrowed from colonial forbears. Then came what Fernando called “detribalisation anxiety,” where writers in English were worried that their attempts to forge something new beyond traditional racial and linguistic groupings would deem them men out of place at best, pariahs at worst.

Then trouble came: 1969. In an attempt to force unity among Malaysians, a national ethos was considered necessary. On the cultural front, literature was split into ‘national’ and ‘sectional’; English fell into the latter. To some writers, the split was tantamount to ‘us vs them’, and either gave up, picked a side, or packed their bags.

Fernando was called to speak at the 1971 Cultural Congress, and he imagined a path of co-existence, where the English language would aid in, and not detract from unity. A theme repeated somewhat in his two novels, Scorpion Orchid and especially Green is the Colour, where unity is the inescapable endpoint, despite any violence and violations committed upon the body politic.

As almost any student who’s made to read Green is the Colour will tell you, it’s not an easy read; ugly things happen, and the thickness of the metaphor encumbers any forward motion. Perfect candidate then for the Great Malaysian Novel.